But for the grace of Machu Picchu discoverer Hiram Bingham, Aguas Calientes would be just another remote, forgotten crossroads. But Bingham’s discovery in 1911, and the tourist boom decades later, forever changed the community. At just 2,050 meters (6,724 feet) above sea level, Aguas Calientes will seem downright balmy if you've just arrived from Cusco. There are but two major streets—Avenida Pachacutec leads uphill
from the Plaza de Armas, and Avenida Imperio de los Incas isn't a street at all, but the railroad tracks; there's no vehicular traffic on the former except the buses that ferry tourists to the ruins. You'll have little sense of Aguas Calientes if you do the standard day trip from Cusco. But the cloud-forest town pulses to a very lively tourist beat with hotels, restaurants, hot springs, and a surprising amount of activity, even after the last afternoon train has returned to Cusco. It also provides a great opportunity to wander around the high jungle, particularly welcome if you aren’t going to make it to the Amazon. Although you won’t see wildlife other than several species of hummingbirds, the flora (especially the many varieties of orchids) are worth taking a wander to see. You can find information about the easy and relatively flat walk to Mandor Waterfalls or the more intense hike up Putucusi Mountain at the local iPerú office. Stay two nights in town if you can so you can be on the first bus to Machu Picchu, take as long as you like touring the ruins, and then relax and enjoy a hot shower after tramping around.