Guinea Pig Christmas Dinner, Hot Gushing Waters, Peruvian Train and Bus: Aguas Calientes

It’s one of those towns you end up in because of something else, and although it is a real town, I couldn’t help but get an artifical vibe from the murky gushing river settlement known to the world as Aquas Calientes.

Those with a knowledge of Spanish will of course be aware that Aguas Calientes simply means hot waters. This title perhaps a little deceiving given it’s rainforest mountainous location and the fact that on my only ever visit there I was welcomed by a thunderstorm, one of colder torrents rather than the hotter rainfall advertised in the town’s very title.

None of this will ever remove the sparkle of Aguas Calientes, this unknown gem in Peru. Unknown to the world perhaps, but known to everyone who has ever been to Machu Picchu. After a treacherous, exciting, adventurous four day trek (the world famous Inca Trail), I arrived at Machu Picchu. A place of mystery and sadness in its own architectural expertise. So incredible I wrote a mammoth 102 page book on hiking the Inca Trail!

And from Machu Picchu (Old Mountain, as it translates these days, but as it was never known to the Incas – nobody actually knows the real name of Machu Picchu which the Incas called it by) when you look down deep into the valleys, you see a small settlement. That settlement is of course, Aguas Calientes.

It was always to be the final destination for the Inca Trail, as from there you can get a train all the way to Cuzco. In fact some people even call this place “Machu Picchu Pueblo” (translates as Old Mountain town). I find that wrong and would always call this place Aguas Calientes.

After four days of hiking, I got a bus from Machu Picchu down the zig zag hills to the town known as Aguas Calientes. I would have actaully walked it to be honest as I wasn’t knackered yet, but the ticket included a free bus trip so I’m never one to refuse a freebie. Besides, it speeded things up and allowed me to see the town and phone my family, on what was Christmas Day.

So there I arrived after the four day trek, alone. Some of the others had already left Machu Picchu, some of the others were still in Machu Picchu, but the leaders of our Inca Trail had invited us for Christmas Dinner at Chaski Restaurant in Aguas Calientes at 2pm, Christmas Day. So I arrived in Aguas Calientes just after 1 pm, Christmas Day.

There was torrential rain, and glorious gushing brown rivers. Certainly the most unreal Christmas Day I have ever experienced. On this special day in my calendar, I had already had my Christmas Present of seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. Now it was time to relax, explore this small town and enjoy a Christmas dinner and drinks.

The town was drenched in rain. Most importantly it was a safe town – it didn’t feel dangerous, and I didn’t exactly hide my wallet or passport around town. Other parts of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador are very dodgy for bag slashers, pickpockets and theft. Here, I even withdrew money without checking over my shoulder.

And the reason for that is of course that the 2,000 permanent inhabitants of Aguas Calientes rely on tourism. It actually should make for a fairly prosperous town in the middle of all the Peruvian poverty.

The town is of course false, and only there because of Machu Picchu. You can draw obvious similarities with it and the following fake places that I’ve experienced on Noel Gallagher’s corridor of life (The Masterplan, 1995, if you will): [photos of the other places included]

Franz Josef Township, only there because of Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand

Uyuni, appears to be only there as an access point to that there salt plain, these days at least…

Puerto Iguazu, almost a custom built town just because there happens to be a waterfall within 20 kilometres

None of this really matters as we see the goodness of Aguas Calientes first hand, and on Christmas Day. I even went to Church – popped in for a Christmas Prayer. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what church it actually was. It was Christmas Day and this became important.

The Church, and above the interior. I went in for a wee prayer and rested there for a while. It was moving, not many people inside.

A Christmas tree made from plastic green bottles.

Some other random shots from the town centre of Aguas. The area by the river was particularly inspiring to walk around. As usual I took over 100 photos in this one town, so cannot put them all on this post!

I had time to phone my family too and wish Merry Christmas.

In the torrential rain, this phone box became the venue for that. It cost a few Soles, coins accepted and the line was superb. I have no idea what time it was there when I phoned them but was nice to be in touch on Christmas Day.

Then it was a case of buying postcards and stamps and posting them from the postbox in town. Plus I bought a sew on patch for my green growing Northern Ireland fleece. It said Machu Picchu, Peru on it. Could have been a country in itself that.

My Christmas Dinner in the year 2010. Rather than a turkey roast, I went to roasted Guinea Pig (whole) with cheese, rice and salad.

The guinea pig’s head. One of the odder meals I’ve ever consumed.

And by 2 pm was time to eat and enjoy a Christmas Dinner with a difference. Guinea Pig is popular in Peru, so to quote some fucking idiot “when in Rome…” I had two choices of either roasted or stewed Cui (Peruvian/Spanish/Kechuan word for Guinea Pig), so being Christmas and still wearing my Santa Hat and feeling all festive I went for roasted. I had just ordered a latte coffee with milk and Sonja from the Inca Trail came and joined me.

The others soon followed. Katie, Dave, Sheryl, Stan, Juan Carlos and Jose…By that time the rain was still bucketing out of the heavens, or as Tim Wheeler would have you know “the rain is lashin down”, from a garden shed in deepest Downpatrick to a custom built settlement with gushing brown rivers, it was the weather that almost inspired the mood.

My “Christmas Cui” had been in the oven for 30 minutes and was now ready. The others got the beers flowing and suddenly a different Christmas experience was occurring. There was no Father Christmas, there were no presents, there was no turkey and there was no snow. But my feast arrived and I was hungry for it.

My Guinea Pig Christmas Dinner. Moy Bien. It comes whole on the plate, to which Katie beside me, found less than appetising…so good I posted the photo twice.

A lady came in selling packs featuring the group photo we had took on the first day of the Inca Trail. It was by the Inca Trail starting point sign and patriotically I displayed my country’s flag for the photo. It looked good so I bought it, for 15 Peruvian Soles. That’s about $5 US Dollars I believe. There’s the photo, which I also got signed and dated to prove I “survived” the Inca Trail. At Christmas it was special.

Many people feel tired and dirty after the Inca Trail, and I felt it a bit by this point. So nearby in Aguas Calientes there is a Hot Springs place – not natural but for a price of just 10 Peruvian Soles – $3 US Dollars you can get hot in the water. Surprisingly nobody else from the group was up for it, and after settling my bill and posting my postcards, I was off all on my own on Christmas Day for a dip in hot water. I hadn’t showered in 4 days.

The walk up to the Hot Springs took me past the river, up a hill and was as picturesque as your Christmas Day could possibly get. Given that the mysterious magic of Machu Picchu was just round the corner added that extra special festive flavour to a leisurely dander till a swimming pool.

Which, as you can see is exactly what it was – a few heated outdoor pools, in the disguise of hot springs, and actually not entirely clean, nor even that hot. Still I needed it.

It was busy but I stayed in for 45 minutes or so in two different pools before heading back to Chaski Restaurant. By that time, I had been offered countless “Happy Hour Drinks” in the numerous pubs down the hill, including one called Big Brother Bar.

By now the others were up for the hot springs, obviously took them a bit longer to get back down till earth in this here Aguas Calientes. At any rate, I’d had my fix of Aguas, done a quick 15 minutes of internet across the road in a wee cafe. In there I simply checked a few flight and bus options for the trip up north to Quito. I had already decided to elbow Lima in the face, hardly was I eager to visit the capital city of Peru, nor was I enthused to the point of elation by the often loved city of Cuzso. Both became merely a dot on my globe, as I had already seen the real capital city of Peru. Let’s be honest Machu Picchu is worthy in itself of being the capital, and perhaps only to me – it’s worthy of being a separate country.

If San Marino (pictured above from my 2009 visit) nestled high in Italian mountains is a separate country, Machu Picchu for all it’s history and mystic can justify itself as another land altogether.

After that a jaunt up the road led me to my 5 Soles Christmas Day drink in Big Brother Bar. I chose a Peru Libre, which is made mostly from rum. I believe it to be a Peruvian equivalent of a Cuba Libre.

It went down well as I sniffed the last of that magical scent from the Machu Picchu area.

Some of the others had wanted to meet me in Big Brother Bar but couldn’t find it. Hardly a surprise given that it doesn’t even bear it’s own name above the bar, and only is mentioned on a small flier I got. 

It was a nice Christmas coincidence to find them all drinking in the next bar, Chayna Bar. They had some beer left over so I donated 4 Soles and grabbed a glass of Cusquena.

A couple of night time shots of the pretty streets of Aguas Calientes after it turned dark. Christmas Day was going on forever and I couldn’t quite believe what I had bunged into one day. But we were all booked on a 7.24 pm train out of the murky waters of Aguas Calientes on route to Ollantaytambo (the town where it all began…)

However there was still 2 more problems to address before I could find a bed for the night. Firstly, my train ticket was for the day after, it had Boxing Day’s date printed on it, but the same time as tonight’s train. So I decided to walk alone to the train station, up a hill and through a still open market, I managed to get past the first ticket check no problem, the guy obviously didn’t check the date on my ticket.

Aguas Calientes station was packed. On Christmas Day. There was probably no space on the train, so I’d have to chance my arm to get on board. I had the added advantage that it was Christmas Night and people (even strict Peruvian security guards) would be more lenient.

I’m not sure why there was confusion over the tickets, most of the others had a ticket for 25th December, mine said 26th on it, as did Shie’s ticket (one of the Taiwanese ladies on the tour) and another Inca Trail comrade was Milka whose company had even forgot to print her a train ticket. After seeing Machu Picchu, nobody seemed bothered and I actually enjoyed having to use my brain and charm to get onto the train, which I knew I’d be fine.

I got to the train entrance and there was another ticket check. Elegant blue attired train conductors wore blue Santa hats and raised a smile when they saw my red Santa hat, and let me on immediately. However my seat for the following night was booked on Christmas night by a Canadian lady and so no sooner had I sat down than I got up again.

I was asked to leave the train because they noticed my ticket was for the wrong day. Luckily my Spanish was good enough for them to understand it wasn’t my mistake and they sent me to the ticket office and then to Coach B, where my Inca Trail colleagues were sat and they got me a seat, without further ado.

And I sat down and relaxed. It was nice to be leaving Machu Picchu on Christmas Day and with only good things to say about the excellent staff at Peru Rail, who could easily have made me spend Christmas Day in Aguas Calientes.

More surprises and happiness were in store. As I sipped my water and looked through my photos and planned my trip onwards, a waiter arrived with well priced local beer, so I bought a bottle. As did Stan, my tent mate from the first night. From the Netherlands.

Christmas Pudding.

Then we were treated to free food and a drink. The food was grissini sticks and Christmas Cake, wrapped up. That in essence was the only Christmas present I was to open in 2010. And the cup of tea went down well as I chatted to Dave and Sheryl sat opposite.

The train took a wee while and was fairly slow which was a nice time to reflect. We exited the train at Ollantaytambo without an onward ticket for the supposed bus we would get to Cuzco. Nobody, myself included seemed worried in the slightest that we may not in fact find our bus in the darkening deep Peru skylight.

It had been one hell of a day and it was a case of finding our bus from Ollantaytambo back to Cuzco, the nearest big city to Machu Picchu.

It didn’t take long to find, and neither Mirka or myself were actually booked on the bus, but we bunged our way in. Everyone seemed to find a seat as I drifted into iPod land (my iPod still having some battery despite not being charged in 5 days).

I don’t remember much about arrival back in Cuzco, but I got my bag off the bus, said farewell to my Inca Trail mates and checked into the Pariwana Hostel in Cuzco (I hadn’t even booked it – and it was Christmas Night). I had stayed there the night before the Inca Trail and had left my backpack there in a locker, but had forgotten to book in for two nights after the tour Luckily they had a bed in a cosy dorm. After a well needed shower and a quick sit down, I joined the hostel crew in the bar to party. It was just before midnight when I got my Christmas Night Cusquena beer and enjoyed mingling while the DJ pumped out great tunes. Merry Christmas Everyone. From Winaywayna to Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo to Cuzco, it had been a crazy crazy day…

On a day which seemed to last forever (felt like a week), I bunged the following in:

– 3 or 4 Inca settlements (Winaywayna, Intipunku, Intipata, Machu Picchu)

– a 6 km hike (Winaywayna to Machu Picchu)

– exploring Aguas Calientes

– 2 bus journeys

– 1 train journey

– Phone call all the way from Peru to Northern Ireland from a coinbox to wish Happy Christmas to family

– Christmas breakfast in a campsite in the mountains

– Christmas dinner in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes

– Christmas drinks in 3 different bars in Aguas Calientes

– Christmas cake on a train

– Christmas party at night in the nearby city of Cuzco

(those amongst other things)

Pueblo/Town – Aguas Calientes

Population – 2,000

Restaurants and Bars – Over 40

Favourite Food – Roasted Guinea Pig with potatoes, rice and vegetables

Bars Visited – Chaski Restaurant, Big Brother Bar, Chayna Bar, Bar on The Train to Ollantaytambo, Pariwana Hostel Bar

Favourite Drink – Cuzquena (Cuzco’s own beer)

Favourite Cocktail – Peru Libre (Double Peruvian Rum and Coke)

Strange Currencies – Peruvian Soles

Transport Used – Bus (to arrive from Machu Picchu), Train (to leave on Peru Rail to Ollantaytambo), Bus (from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco)

Key Song:

ASH – FOLK SONG (“walking through this changing season, sorrow spreads it’s wings. we can’t keep a hold on time, just receive what it will bring”):

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2 thoughts on “Guinea Pig Christmas Dinner, Hot Gushing Waters, Peruvian Train and Bus: Aguas Calientes

  • This brings a huge smile to my face! Brings up a lot of great memories of my time hiking the Inca Trail and exploring Machu Picchu. However, since I was with a group of 15 people, and we decided to spend more time that morning to explore Machu Picchu, my time in Aguas Calientes was limited to just 2 hours for lunch at Hot Springs Restaurant & Pizzeria before we had to take the train back to Ollantaytambo. Looks like I missed out on some great exploring opportunities in this small town!
    Ray recently posted…Eating Ceviche – A Peruvian DelicacyMy Profile

  • Hi Ray, thanks for the comment. Yes a bit of a long winded title on this post – should have shortened it to “Backpacking in Peru: Post Machu Picchu”! Safe travels. Jonny

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