5 Best things to do in Aguas Calientes, Peru

06 August 2012

You're so close to Machu Picchu you can feel the energy of the mystic highland. But one nights' rest and 6 km uphill separate you from reaching the peak of your Peru trip. With two nights in Aguas Calientes, Peru sandwiching your visit to Machu Picchu, there's plenty to do to pass the time, enjoy the incredible serene mountain views, and ease the anxiousness of getting to the lost city. Read on for my top five things to do in Aguas Calientes, Peru.

First things first, check into your hotel. Our group stayed at Hotel Pachakuteq, a sizeable hotel with an early morning breakfast, comfortable rooms, and a prime location. The only downside was the lack of hot waterquite ironic considering its home of Aguas Calientes.

1 | Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon 
In preparation to Machu Picchu, our group headed on to the museum, which explains the architecture and construction of the well-known ruins. Marco sold most of the group on the museum by mentioning the massive display of Incan weapons. The entry fees the business hours vary from season to season, and locals mentioned admission is likely to increase year after year, as you might expect. Following the pleasant, air-conditioned museum came a solid hamstring workout: the mini-mountain trek of Putucusi. The hike is a bit intense, we learned from our brave counterparts. (Kelly and I stayed behind.) They walked west along the railway tracks until they hit a set of stairs. From there, the journey was well-marked and nicely matted down from regular visitors. They passed many other tourists along the way, though some retreated once they reached a ladder. But the most courageous of our group continued on and returned back to the hotel about three hours later with beautiful photos of the backside of Machu Picchu. Okay, we were a little jealous, but the hilarity of our afternoon trumped any awesome hike; read on.

3 | Relax with lunch (and massages)
Naturally, Kelly and I chose to take the less active route to exploring Aguas Calientes, and grabbed some Mexican food with a side of Jenga. We kept spotting Jenga pieces towered high on restaurant tabletops. It's a great idea, really. Since most food in Peru is prepared from scratch at the time it's ordered, meals take considerably longer than they do in the U.S. With a one-hour wait time, Jenga is the perfect way to distract from a growling stomach.

Aguas Calientes isn't known for it's cuisine. It's a tourist city far from the sea, so expect lots of meats and starches (two of my favorites) and inflated prices. Remember to ask about prices ("Cuanto cuesta?") so you don't end up with unexpected charges on your bill. Consider asking about service charges or tax ("No servicio, No tax.") before being seated, too. Some restaurants may add 10 percent or more to your bill; avoid this by asking in advance. We forgot to ask beforehand at one location, but they were kind enough to remove it when we questioned the total.

We worked up an appetite and devoured our cheese flautas and braised beef tacos. Have I been to a country yet where I'm not impressed with the cheese? No, absolutely not. Cheese is the greatest food on Earth, a gift to us all (except maybe not to those that are lactose intolerant).

Now, I'm not going to lie. My Spanish isn't the best, but I proudly reserved separate massages at 3 p.m. for Kelly and me, and I did it speaking only Spanish. She got off the phone with her parents and we headed uphill to get our massages. The ladies greeted us at the door and asked us to follow them upstairs into a massage room. We stood at the back of the room, against the wall, as one of the ladies closed the curtain. In front of us laid two massage beds, side by side. Kelly and I exchanged confused glances. One of the women faced us with instructions.

"OK. No ropas," she said. She clasped her hands at her front and waited. I looked at Kelly. "We have to take off all of our clothes, she said."

Kelly's face communicated all of her thoughts: all of them? All eyes on us, the women waited for us to disrobe. So, we did as we were asked and undressed. Meanwhile, we couldn't help but laugh uncontrollably, out of naked discomfort, and apologize to the ladies for the prime view of our bare butts. This trip to Peru just got a little more personal.

Kelly and I climbed on the parallel beds and covered our backsides with small, green towels (see above). Little did we know, the towels wouldn't matter. As soon as they were on, they were off! Buck naked, we laid face down on the tables. In no time, we got the most hands-on butt, back and leg massages we could have ever imagined, waving all modesty out the door. At the end of the hour, it ended up being a much better story than massage. But for only $25, I have to say, my backside has never felt better.

Peruvian massages are offered all over Aguas Calientes at varying prices and quality, and guides tend to promote them heavily. They're very low cost and often a necessity for travelers not used to the many hill climbs throughout the area. Although I can't promise your massage will be as comical--or as focused on your glutes--I do encourage you to experience a true Peruvian massage. A little booty-kneading and those glutes will be back in business. Ask your hotel receptionist for a recommendation, or hike the hills of the city until you meet a massage therapist's studio you're comfortable working with. There are plenty!

5 | Las termas
We've all heard about the hot springs at Aguas Calientes, in fact it's how the city was named. They sound so peaceful and relaxing, until you catch up with a local and they tell you otherwise. Being a common tourist attraction, the hot springs are often overcrowded with guests and can become filthy quite quickly. If you can put those details aside (we couldn't), trek uphill through the city to the baths and in exchange for $5, soak until your heart's content. They even rent towels, if needed.

6 | Dine into the night at The Tree House
Similar to other non-Western countries, Peruvian dinners are enjoyed late into the night, well after your tummy grumbling has subsided from your lack of attention. Marco reserved a large table for us at Tree House, a must-see in Aguas Calientes. It's a beautiful, urban-designed restaurant listed in just about every Peru guidebook, and for good reason. More costly than most meals in Peru, The Tree House taunts traditional Peruvian food fused with flavors of Italian, Asian, American and South American dishes. The presentation is immaculate and the flavors are hard to beat. Order up a bottle of wine (or two) and find comfort in the delectable dishes The Tree House offers. The deliciousness is matched only by its ambiance: a restaurant nestled in the trees of Peru, the natural wooden fixtures and overwhelming greenery, remixed indie pop (think: Miike Snow) accompanied by the rhythmic sound of a cocktail shaker keeping the night alive, and the panoramic windows creating an open feel as you dine late into the night.

Before the crack of dawn--feeling anxious--we trailed one another to the bus station for the final climb to Machu Picchu for one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.

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