I arose at 0600 and enjoyed some pancakes and fresh-baked bread with a cup of tea: not a breakfast I would ever make or order off a menu, but I appreciated the gratis meal.
I hailed a cab and settled on 15 soles (~$5) for the 30-minute trip to the Poroy train station. Winding through the hills of the Cusco vicinity, I was reminded of my trips to Delhi and Cairo: once you leave the city outskirts, poverty (at least in terms of living conditions) abounds.
The journey took a bit longer than I expected, but we arrived at the station about 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure. I picked up my tickets and approached the train, not knowing what to expect. PeruRail is a state-run rail service that offers service between Cusco/Poroy and Aguas Calientes, right at the foot of Machu Picchu. Three trains run between Poroy and Aguas Calientes each day: the Backpacker train (Economy Class, $49 o/w), the VistaDome train (Business Class, $71 o/w), and the Hiram Bingham (First Class, $289 o/w – Bingham was the American scientist who “discovered” Machu Picchu).
I am sure the Bingham train is great, but I booked the Backpacker train for the outbound and the VistaDome for the return. ~$300 is rather steep for a three-hour train ride, no?
Onboard the Backpacker train, the seats were arranged 2-2 with seats facing each other (similar to compartment seating on a European rail line), meaning I had to share legroom with the passenger across from me. I sat next to a Japanese student who spoke very little English and across from a young Spanish couple.
We departed on time and almost immediately the two cabin attendants onboard wheeled a snack and beverage cart down the aisles with drinks, candy, and sandwiches for sale. I had some snacks and a water bottle in my bag so I declined to purchase anything. The journey was scenic and reminded me of little bit of my drive through parts of western United States.
The train stopped at Ollanta station before finally arriving at Aguas Calientes. As I stepped off the train, I noticed a large crowd with signs (just like baggage claim at any major airport) and was surprised to see my name on one of them. I was impressed that the Pirwa hostel sent someone down to pick me up, especially because I had no idea where to find it.
The woman who checked me in at the hostel was very friendly and explained to me where I could buy my entrance tickets to Machu Picchu, my bus tickets, and find some good food. When booking my accommodations the weekend before the trip, I decided to lavish myself with a $20 private room in Aguas Calientes, just in case I had not been able to sleep in the Cusco dormitory. The room was small, but it had a double bed and clean bathroom with hot water. Perfectly sufficient for my needs.
After packing my small hiking bag with water, snacks, sunglasses, and an umbrella, I left with a list of things to do. First, I purchased my bus tickets to Machu Picchu for the following day. 14 USD r/t., though it turns out I only needed a o/w ticket (more details in the Day 4 report). Next, I purchased my entrance tickets to Machu Picchu for ~$20 thanks to my ISIC card; it would have been over $40 without it. By this time, my stomach was growling so my next task was to find lunch. I was craving Mexican food and there were plenty of Mexican restaurants to choose from.
I walked down the train tracks for a bit and selected a little one where I could order a “fiesta platter” for only a few dollars more than ordering a single item. Food prices are at U.S. levels in Aguas Calientes. The town is a tourist mecca and who can blame the business owners for wanting to make a little money?
During lunch, I had the “pleasure” of being serenaded by a street band. Let’s just say they needed some practice. After performing they walked through the restaurant with a bowl collecting money. When in Rome... I threw in a few cents.
$15 later, my stomach was filled and I was ready for my hike up Putucusi. Putucusi or “Happy Mountain” seems to be overlooked by most people, but it provides breathtaking views of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley from its summit. It really is never a good idea to hike alone, but I did not have much of a choice.
Back at the hostel, the lady at the front desk had tried to sketch out something that looked like a ladder when I mentioned Putucusi. I soon discovered what she was talking about. I’ll let the pictures do the talking:
I sweat easily and about a half hour into the hike I was drenched with sweat. I continued my swift assent though, and neared the top about 40 minutes later. There, I ran into a couple from Toronto who was climbing the mountain much more slowly. We chatted for a bit and I continued up the mountain, soon reaching the summit. The views were breathtaking. After taking an assortment of photos, I just sat down and marveled at the majestic beauty surrounding me. The Canadian couple reached the top as did a Danish group of guys, a large Spanish entourage of girls, and an Egyptian-American named Shereef from Philadelphia. The lady from Toronto was very friendly and picked up our conversation right where we left it a few hundred feet below.
Turns out the Canadians were staying at the same hostel I was, so we decided to hike down the mountain together and have dinner together in town. I chatted with Shereef for a bit about restaurants in Philadelphia and he invited me to climb Machu Picchu with him early the following morning (rather than taking the bus) so we could be among the first in the park and insure tickets to climb Hyanu Picchu, one of the mountains on the Machu Picchu grounds. I agreed. Why not?, I thought. How often do I get to go hiking at 0400 in the mountains of Peru?
The sun was beginning to set as we began our climb down. The trip down was a lot easier than the trip up and we made it back to Aguas Calientes in less than an hour. My new friends selected a French restaurant for dinner that was very satisfactory. A three-course meal was about $20 and I had a large salad (more like a bowl of fresh raw vegetables), trout, and fresh fruit for dessert. Healthy and filling.
I made plans to meet have dinner with the Canadians again the following evening after our train ride back to Cusco and bid them goodnight. I thought about exploring Aguas Calientes a bit more, but with a 0330 wake-up call only six hours away, it was time for bed.