Getting to Machu Picchu
There are various ways to reach Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. You can take the Inca Trail or the Salcantay route, ride the train from Ollantaytambo (90 minutes) or Cusco (2.5 hours), or take the Inca Jungle Trail or bus journey through Santa Teresa.
Once in Aguas Calientes, there are frequent bus shuttles to Machu Picchu, though some choose the two-hour forest hike that cuts across the road’s switchbacks. There was a government plan some years back to build a Swiss-style tram, but that was, thankfully, rejected after much controversy. Once inside Machu Picchu, the only way to get around is by foot.
During the 1990s, a company named HeliCusco operated huge Russian helicopter trips to Machu Picchu, blowing many of Aguas Calientes’s sheet-metal roofs off in the process. Thankfully, helicopters have been banned inside the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, and condors are slowly returning to the area. We saw one cruising in the air underneath the ruins: Watch for fingerlike feathers at the ends of the wings, whitish upper wings, and a white neck.
Two major events have completely recast train service to Machu Picchu. The first was the floods in January 2010, which took out large areas of the train track between Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley, and Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu.
Until the tracks are repaired, trains will depart from Piscacucho, about an hour downstream from Ollantaytambo. After the repairs, normal service is expected to be restored to Ollantaytambo, from which all trains to Machu Picchu typically depart.
The second major event is the breakup of the long-time PeruRail monopoly. Only time will tell whether the entry of two new train companies will result in lower prices and better service. Before booking train service to Machu Picchu, or asking your hotel to book trains for you, we recommend checking the websites of all three companies.
The first new Machu Picchu train service is the Machu Picchu Train, owned by Andean Railways (Av. El Sol 576, Cusco, across from the Coricancha, tel. 084/22-1199, www.machupicchutrain.com). This company is importing a series of fancy coaches and will be price competitive with PeruRail. Once tracks are repaired, the Machu Picchu Train will leave Ollantaytambo at 7:20 a.m. and 12:36 p.m. and arrive in Aguas Calientes 90 minutes later. The train returns from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo at 10:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Prices vary according to time but are approximately US$75 one-way.
The second new service is Inca Rail (Av. El Sol 611, Cusco, tel. 084/23-3030, www.incarail.com), which offers three daily departures from Ollantaytambo at 6:40 a.m., 11:35 a.m., and 4:36 p.m. and three daily departures from Aguas Calientes at 8:30 a.m., 2:02 p.m., and 7 p.m. The trains have an executive class (US$50 one-way) and a first class (US$75 one-way).
The traditional option is PeruRail (Av. Pachacútec, Cusco, tel. 084/22-8722, www.perurail.com), which offers three train services from Ollantaytambo and Poroy, near Cusco, to Aguas Calientes: the Backpacker (US$96 round-trip, US$48 one-way), the Vistadome (US$120 round-trip, US$60 one-way), and the luxury Hiram Bingham service (US$588 round-trip US$334 one-way). The Backpacker train is nearly as comfortable as the Vistadome, with large, soft seats and plenty of leg room. Food for sale includes sandwiches (US$4) and candy bars (US$2). The perks of the Vistadome include large viewing windows in the ceilings, shows put on by train attendants (including fashion walks to promote alpaca clothing), luxurious seats, lights snacks and beverages, and live Andean music.
The Hiram Bingham service is in a whole different league. A full brunch is served on the ride from Poroy (15 minutes outside Cusco) to Machu Picchu, where guests are treated to a deluxe ruins tour and a full tea at the Sanctuary Lodge. On the ride home, pre-dinner pisco sours are served in the elegant dark wood bar, accompanied by a live band and dancing. A gourmet four-course dinner follows at your private table, accompanied by a selection of wines. Afterwards, there is live music and dancing for those with energy. Hands down, this is the most luxurious train service in Latin America. If it feels like the Orient Express, it is—PeruRail has been operated by Orient-Express Ltd. since the late 1990s.
All trains now depart from Ollantaytambo except the Hiram Bingham service. The Hiram Bingham luxury train avoids the famous (or infamous) switchbacks out of Cusco by leaving from the Poroy station, which is a 15-minute drive from Cusco. It departs at 9 a.m. and arrives in Aguas Calientes at 12:30 p.m. On the return, the train departs Aguas Calientes at 6 p.m. and gets to Poroy at 9:25 p.m.
The Cusco–Machu Picchu train crosses high, desolate plains before descending to meet the Urubamba Valley. Once past Ollantaytambo, the rail enters a gorge that grows narrower and deeper as it continues its descent. Look for occasional glimpses of snow-covered Verónica (5,750 meters) to the right. At Km 88 there is a modern bridge built on Inca foundations. As the vegetation and the air grow thicker, the train descends into what the Peruvians call the ceja de selva, or the eyebrow of the jungle, and the Río Urubamba starts crashing over house-sized boulders. The train continues until reaching the ramshackle town of Aguas Calientes.
Bus Journey from Santa Teresa
The elaborate bus ride to Machu Picchu via Santa Teresa is hardly worth it unless you are really counting your pennies. From the Terminal de Santiago in Cusco, take a bus to Santa María (six hours, US$3). From Santa María, it is a two-hour bus ride to Santa Teresa.
From there, shared taxis called colectivos will take you across the river to Oroya, where you can take a 5:30 p.m. train to Aguas Calientes (US$8), or where you can walk three hours to the town.
No matter what, if you choose this route, you will need to spend the night in Aguas Calientes, which may put another dent in your pocket.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition