This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Aguas Calientes: Everyone Goes, No One Wants To

Editor's Note: The town Aguas Calientes is called Machu Picchu by the locals and is probably the more politically correct name to use. For this blog I am going to stick with Aguas Calientes so that readers will not confuse the town and the ruins of the same name.

On the Doorstep of Machu Picchu

Train station
Let's face it, no wants to be in Aguas Calientes. Yet everyone comes here. We have to if we want to go to Machu Picchu (or leave for those who come via the Inca Trail). The train station is here. The buses and trail up to the world famous Inca ruins are here too. Being the gateway to Machu  Picchu means that tourism abounds. For a small town there are so many hotels, tourist restaurants and stalls and stores selling an innumerable amount of souvenirs.

Aguas Calientes might just have the most handicrafts per capita in the world
Most people will come and go as quickly as possible. But unless on a whirlwind Peru tour, everyone has to sleep at least one night in Aguas Calientes. Mika and I stay three nights because we are too exhausted from our visit to Machu Picchu and need the extra twenty-four hours to recover. This is about twenty-four hours too long. The additional time does, however, give us the opportunity to find small patches of non-touristy Aguas Calientes.

Basically, the town is divided by a river. On one side is the main plaza, the market, most of the tourist restaurants and hotels, an ATM and the uninspiring hot springs from which the town got its name. Aguas Calientes = Hot Waters. The other side of the river has the train station, an outdoor tourist souvenir market and of course a healthy amount of hotels. Also, this side of the river has more homes and services for local residents.
A mother's day event at a school
Dining Nightmares

If I have learned anything from Chef Ramsey it's that it is better for a restaurant to be good at just one thing than to be bad at a lot of things. The restaurants in Aguas Calientes obviously do not watch his show, Kitchen Nightmares. All around the main plaza and up the hill to the hot springs is one tourist restaurant after another offering the same, overpriced, over-itemized menus hoping to please everyone while actually pleasing no one while trying to rake in as much tourist money as possible. These restaurants also sneak in a service charge not mentioned on the menus or by the wheeling and dealing waiters. This is definitely not a place where they are concerned about repeat customers.

To say competition is fierce would be putting it lightly. Pause for 10 seconds in front of a place and menu prices drop dramatically. Free drinks are thrown in as further enticement. Only a few places have more than two tables full. Many are barren.

On our first night it is really impossible to decide where to eat. I am not kidding, they are all the same. We finally select a place with a too-good-to-be-true pizza and pisco sour deal. The pizza is bad enough that Mika feels obligated to explain to them standard wood burning pizza oven operation. Even with the menu price drop this is still one of our most expensive meals in Peru and one of the worst.

The next evening after returning from Machu Picchu we are very disheartened by our dinner options and the thought at having to eat at one of these tourist nightmares is unsettling. After some waffling a nice waiter at a tourist place points us in the direction of the town's market hidden away in an alley just a few meters from the plaza. The market is an oasis of normalcy - like finding a Subway restaurant buried behind the $7 hot dog stands in the Magic Kingdom. A meal here with soup and drink is 7 soles (US $2.5); a blender full of juice 4 soles; breakfast 5; coffee just 1 little sol. Now these prices are still a bit higher than other markets in the country, but keep in mind that everything has to be brought to Aguas Calientes by train. In the market we even find real, honest-to-goodness Peruvian people eating next to us.

Breakfast at our travelers' oasis
So after the one tourist restaurant pizza mishap, we eat all remaining meals at the market except for one lunch at a restaurant for locals that we find on the other side of town a block from the soccer field. By the way, this establishment is the only place in town that has every table occupied with diners.

Fraternizing with the locals at the main plaza:

Click here to read about our exquisite visit to Machu Picchu

Click here to read about the cheap way to get to Aguas Calientes and some Machu Picchu basics

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