Day 7 — The 4:03p Vistadome to Aguas Calientes

Thursday — April 9

Vidal was already at Hostal Sauce when we showed up after lunch. We still had plenty of time before we had to be at the train station, so we relaxed in the lobby for a while, bringing Vidal up to speed on what we’d been doing while he was taking care of business in Cusco over the past day and a half.

The proprietor’s collection of chullos add color to the lobby of Hostal Sauce.

Around 3:00p, we collected the carry-on bags we were taking with us to Machu Picchu and walked the short distance to the train station. We were thrilled to see a modern, two-car train with big picture windows waiting for passengers. Our bubble was quickly burst — this was the earlier Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes, the town that services Machu Picchu.

Although it departed nearly empty, Perú Rail wouldn’t switch us to the earlier train.

If you don’t count hiking to Machu Picchu as an option, there’s only one way to get there, and that is by train. There are no roads, no flights, no boats — nothing; Perú Rail is the only game in town. (Another company is trying to get authorization to operate trains, but so far, even though the train cars are in place and ready to go, the permits have been tied up in a morass of red tape. I wonder who’s behind that bit of bureaucracy?!?)

There are two categories of train service for tourists — the backpacker and the Vistadome. There’s also the luxurious Hiram Bingham train operated by Orient Express, but the ticket prices are so ridiculously expensive that we didn’t consider it. Once we’d determined that the Vistadome service was the way to go for us, the next decision we had to make was to pick our departure station — Cusco or Ollantaytambo. The ride from Cusco is approximately 4 hours long; partially because of a series of sharp switchbacks that enable the train to negotiate a steep grade coming out of town. Fun perhaps, but when I found out that the ride from Ollantaytambo is about 1½ hours long, the decision was a no-brainer.

Our train pulled into Ollantaytambo Station around 3:30p. The only difference from the earlier train was the smaller windows. Though the cars were obviously older, they were clean and well-maintained. At shortly after 4:03p, train 205 was rolling down the tracks, following the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes. The two cars were filled to the gills with people and luggage (the latter stacked in front of one of the two doors of the train car; no wonder Perú Rail urges passengers to limit their baggage). Mui took some video en route to our destination, but the failing light, combined with the movement of the train, was reason enough to put my camera away after just a couple of clicks of the shutter.

The 4-day trek on the Inca Trail starts once you cross this bridge.

About 30 minutes into the train ride, the attendants came through with an airline-style cart and served a boxed snack with a choice of beverages. As we munched on our snacks, we passed the time making tentative plans for our days at Machu Picchu. Before we knew it, our train was pulling into the station in Aguas Calientes (hot waters — in reference to the hot springs in the area).

The town, which some know by the name of Machu Picchu Pueblo, is not much to speak of. It sprung up for one purpose, and one purpose only — to service the thousands upon thousands of tourists who flock here to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu. Most visitors make the trip in a day, returning to Ollantaytambo or Cusco on the evening trains, or they stay one night … OK, maybe two nights. Our plans called for us to be here four nights (I can hear the collective gasps of the people who’ve been here before us). Our long stay was one of the reasons why we had decided to splurge and stay at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel; the other reason was that this trip was planned as a special birthday celebration.

Upon disembarking the train, we were greeted by staff from the Inkaterra. They collected our bags and led the way to the hotel — about a 10-minute walk through the artisan market, across the bridge, and up a paved path. As soon as we crossed the bridge into the property, it was like we were in a different world — lush green tropical vegetation and colorful orchids; birds chirping in the canopy; sound of soothing water flowing in narrow canals; white-washed casitas (small houses) peeking through the foliage; lanterns on meandering pathways giving off just enough light to see our way. Just beautiful.

Entering the building that houses the front desk, we were welcomed by charming smiles, warm washcloths, and glasses of iced tea. The young woman who took care of checking us in gave us the news that we’d been upgraded to a junior suite — a wonderful surprise. With the paperwork completed, we bid Vidal goodnight and followed our escort to #16 — home away from home for the next four days.

Map of the property.

#16 is a junior suite.

We fell in love with our room as soon as our escort unlocked the heavy wood door and we stepped inside — white washed walls and crisp linens and pillows on the bed; wrought iron headboards and colorful blankets; comfy chairs facing a fireplace waiting to be lit; dark-wood armoire to hold our clothes; pristine en suite facilities with a huge walk-in shower; cotton robes and recycled tire slippers; bathroom amenities, including a small bottle of citronella splash to ward off the inevitable mosquitoes; private courtyard accessible through two French-doors flanking the fireplace; welcome note propped up against a bowl of mixed nuts. Can I say that it was all quite delightful; and so much more than the photographs on the website had prepared me for.

Crisp white linens and colorful blankets and pillows — simple elegance.

A private oasis.

The recyled tire slippers are part of Inkaterra’s eco-conscious efforts.

By the time we were settled into our room, it was time for dinner — early by Latin standards, but we were famished. As we walked out of the room, we turned on the electric heater to break the damp chill. We didn’t get far. The sound of water that we’d attributed to the trickling streams on the property was actually a full-fledged shower. Grabbing the umbrella that was hanging near the door, we headed to the lobby building where we were told we’d find the dining room.

There was no one else in the dining room. We checked in with the maitre d’ so that he could confirm our names against his list (breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate) and were immediately taken to a two-top along the glass-wall overlooking the river below — not that anything was visible in the inky darkness of night.

Every item on the menu looked good, making it difficult to choose an entrada (appetizer) and a plato principale (main course). Not that I need an excuse to order soup, but the chilly nighttime air made it easy for me to start with the soup of the day — cream of corn, in this instance. I followed that with pasta served with oven roasted pomodoro tomatoes simmered in olive oil, garlic, and spices. Mui ordered the purple corn ravioli (filled with dried trout and Urubamba cheese) served in a yellow pepper and almond cream emulsion to start, and finished with the grilled Andean trout fillet served with toasted garlic and chestnut pureé. The food was delicious and we would have been quite satisfied to leave it at that. The small portions, however, left us with enough room to order a dessert each — homemade ice cream with hot fudge sauce for me and a fudge brownie sundae in a delightfully messy presentation for Mui.

Mui can’t help but giggle at the delightfully messy presentation of his brownie sundae.

Our plan for a nighttime stroll was shelved in light of the rain that was continuing to fall. After a slight detour to make reservations for some of the activities offered by the Inkaterra, we returned to our room for an early night in anticipation of our long-awaited visit to the Lost City of the Incas.

Next Up: Day 8 — In the Clouds at Machu Picchu

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