Aguas Calientes sits below Machu Picchu and is the last train stop before the sacred Inca city. The small town lies in a deep valley enclosed by mountains and forests. With restaurants, thermal baths, hiking trails and a market, Aguas Calientes is more than just a gateway to the ancient ruins. It is worth spending a day or two here before going onto Machu Picchu.
The town has two main streets and is easily explored on foot, though you may need to get used to the thin air at this altitude first. Go to the main square to see the life-size statue of the Inca Emperor Pachacuti, a powerful leader credited with expanding the empire. Buy locally made bags, rugs, jewelry and other handicrafts at the market near the train station. Learn about the rediscovery of Machu Picchu at the Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballón. There are also more than 200 stone, ceramic, bone and metal Inca artifacts on display. See dozens of butterfly species at the Butterfly House.
If you are feeling fit, take the trail up to Putucusi, the jagged rock formation opposite Machu Picchu. The route starts just outside Aguas Calientes and ancient stone steps and ladders lead partway up to the summit. A much shorter and less strenuous hike is to the Mandor Gardens, an orchid-filled natural reserve that also has a waterfall.
On your return, soak your sore muscles in the thermal baths, a 15-minute walk out of town. Aguas Calientes is named after these hot sulfurous springs that emerge from the rocky ground. For lunch or dinner, try some baked guinea pig, called “cuy,” stuffed hot peppers and other traditional foods at one of the restaurants. The town also has many pizzerias.
Aguas Calientes has plenty of accommodation types including budget hostels, midrange hotels and upscale options. Cut off from roads, the town is a car-free zone. Most travelers arrive by train from Cusco, a journey that can take up to 4 hours.