Just after I posted yesterday's blog the phone in our room rang. It was the front desk saying they didn't recognize the website/agency we'd used to book the room and we'd need to charge it again separately... at 10:00pm. So though I was still okay, poor Jim was woken back up and then couldn't get back to sleep (couldn't turn his brain off) and ended up writing emails to the agency and looking into how to dispute charges and everything else for another hour. So while we liked the hotel overall, we were a little disappointed with the late call. Could they not have said something earlier when we stopped by the front desk? The good news is that we heard back from the agency today and it sounds like there was a staff change at the hotel or something and it's being resolved. Since our card was charged twice it seems that they'll use the second room charge for when we stay there again when we're back to Cuzco on Thursday.
Jim and I woke up early again so we could catch our train on Peru Rail. Unfortunately, I woke us up about half an hour earlier than we needed, even with extra fluff time, because I misread our train tickets. I thought the departure time was 7:55 and we needed to be at the station half an hour before that... no no, 7:55 is when we needed to be at the station, 8:25 was train time. So I woke us up at 5:30am so we could check out/get breakfast/find a cab to the station (which is 30 mins away from Cuzco)... just so we could go sit in the station for over an hour before we needed to be there. Hahaha. Oh well, better that way than late I suppose.
Peru Rail certainly takes pride in their company. They are the only rail company that will take you from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, but their monopoly on the market hasn't depleted their level of service. The entire experience with them was flawless. They have a great website that is easy to use and I was able to book our tickets from home before we left with no problems. The station was as clean as a train station can get and rather nice, the staff was helpful and friendly, and the train was on time.
The train ride itself was a lot of fun for me. It is about a four hour ride from start to finish. We were on the Vistadome, which is the midrange train, for the ride there. (We'll be taking the Expedition, the cheaper train, on the way back.) It was a nice, clean train... I daresay much nicer than the inside of an airplane. The seats were plush and there were windows on the sides of the roof of the Vistadome (hence the name) so you can see the tops of the mountains on the ride. They announced points of interest and sites in both Spanish and English as we went along and played soft, pleasant Peruvian flute music for the duration of the trip. They even served a snack midway through the trip... quinoa (local to Peru) with diced carrots and zuchinni, small Peruvian potatoes in the yummy green sauce I have yet to learn the name of with Andean cheese, and small sweet unidentified little shortbread-esque cookies. It was served in the most adorable little blue and yellow basket to top it off.
The views from the train were spectacular. The mountains at first felt a lot like Colorado complete with cactus (minus the pine trees), but as we descended more toward Aguas Calientes it feels more like a temperate rain forest. There were several villages along the way with farms for vegetables (I saw a carrot harvest), cows, pigs, goats, and sheep. Jim, of course, fell in love with the border collie he saw overlooking its flock of sheep. Many of the buildings were made with a simple mud/straw brick and thatched roofs.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes around half past noon. Our hotel, Machu Picchu Green Nature, sent someone to guide us to the hotel from the station... which was impressive, seeing as I had just e-mailed them the night before with our arrival time. It was a short walk to the hotel, but I'm glad he was there so that we could find it more expediently... the rain, as promised, had started. It wasn't a heavy rain, though, and it let up shortly after we arrived. The hotel is nice enough for a mid-range place... a step above a plain hostel, but not super nice like some of the crazy expensive places one could stay around here. There are some rooms in Aguas Calientes that can run $600US+ per night, and then there's the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (which is the only hotel right by the Machu Picchu site, half an hour drive from Aguas Calientes) which starts at a mere $980US per night. Our room is $92US per night... much more reasonable. :) The desk clerk was friendly and gave us a map of the area and some nice advice on the town and its layout.
While there were rain showers off and on throughout the afternoon, they were never too heavy nor did they last for long. I would say there was more time without rain than with rain for sure, and it was rather pleasant anyway. It was a nice temperature; we were both hiking in short sleeves for most of the afternoon. You can tell by my poofy hair that it is super humid, though. :)
When reading some of the travel reviews of hotels online, many people complained that Aguas Calientes was nothing special, that you wouldn't want to be 'stuck' here for more than one night, etc. I beg to differ... those people must be people who hate nature and have no imaginations at all. It's such a beautiful little mountain town up here, with rivers, riverwalks, waterfalls, and tons of vegetation. We had a nice lunch at Inkaterra and then set out to explore the area.
We ended up taking a little hike up to a "botanical garden" area about half an hour away (and on the way, in part, to Machu Picchu). The buses heading to MP passed us several times, as they run frequently. The "botanical garden" is more like a trail on the side of the mountain that happens to have labeled plants along the way. When we got there a gentleman asked us for 10 soles each, which we assumed must be the admission... but then he proceeded to guide us the whole way through, so we're wondering now if that was for a tour and something got lost in translation. He was so sweet to try to speak to us in English. There are over 200 species of orchids here (though smaller/different than you're used to seeing in the store) and not all were flowering, so most of the tour consisted of the guide pointing to a plant, saying "here, the orchid, the flower, take a picture?", walking two more feet, pointing to another plant, saying, "here, the orchid, the flower, take a picture"... and again... you get the point. In the end it was probably a good thing he guided us though; he pointed out some very, very tiny orchids that we would have missed if left to ourselves. I have the feeling we would have gotten much more out of it if we understood Spanish (the guy seemed to really know and love his plants), but that's okay.
On our way back the clouds lifted away from the top of the nearby mountain and we caught a glimpse of part of Machu Picchu from afar. It made me that much more excited for tomorrow. Aguas Calientes is in a valley by the river, whereas Machu Picchu is at the top of a mountain. It's quite the climb to get up there; the buses go through a series of switchbacks. We could see them going up and down from where we were.
By the time we got back to Aguas Calientes, I was absolutely exhausted. We'd actually done quite a bit of hiking. We had just enough energy to change, go get dinner (nothing to write home about that time, unfortunately, we tried a Peruvian take on Mexican food... not so great), buy water for tomorrow (we'll be filling up our camel baks with bottled water), and head back to the hotel.
I'm using the last of my energy to write this (better when it's fresh) and soon it's time to go to sleep so that we can wake up even earlier... we are hoping to catch the sunrise at Machu Picchu. We need to get ready and eat breakfast (the hotels here start serving breakfast at 4:30am since many people go early) and walk to the bus for the 5:30am bus departure to the ruins, which open at 6am. Today's sunset wasn't anything spectacular so we may not spend the *whole* day up there after that... but we're staying until we don't feel like it any more. :)