The train service between Cusco  and Machu Picchu  is being transformed by two events, so Peru visitors should check for the latest train information online. First, severe floods in the Sacred Valley  in January 2010 destroyed miles of railroad track to Machu Picchu. While the track was being repaired, trains to Machu Picchu were departing only from Piscacucho, a village downstream from Ollantaytambo  and at the end of the Sacred Valley.
The second, and very welcome, event is the breakup of the PeruRail monopoly and the emergence of two new train companies: Inca Rail and Machu Picchu Train. Hopefully, new competition will reduce prices and increase train availability to Machu Picchu.
These trains are the only nonstrenuous way to reach Machu Picchu, and a highly interesting way to reach Lake Titicaca  as well. A major problem with trains from Cusco, especially during high season, is availability. The easiest way to get tickets is through a hotel or a travel agent. Otherwise visitors should make reservations online. The third, and least desirable option, is to head down to the Cusco train station, a process that, especially during high season, can take an hour or two.
PeruRail still operates trains from Cusco, but most Machu Picchu travelers now depart farther down the line at Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From Ollantaytambo the train enters the narrow Urubamba gorge, which offers spectacular views of snowcapped Verónica peak (5,710 meters or 18,865 feet) on the right (eastern) side of the train as the landscape transforms into the lush and humid ceja de selva, or “eyebrow of the jungle.” By the time the train reaches Aguas Calientes , the ramshackle town closest to Machu Picchu , travelers have descended from the dry high plains to mountainous cloud forest.
ENAFER, the former state-owned railroad company, was privatized in the mid-1990s and has been operated since 1999 by PeruRail (www.perurail.com ), a division of Orient-Express Hotels.
PeruRail offers many train services to Machu Picchu: the Backpacker (US$48 one-way, leaves Poroy 7:42 a.m., leaves Aguas Calientes 4:43 p.m.), the Vistadome (US$71 one-way, leaves Poroy 6:53 a.m., leaves Aguas Calientes 3:20 p.m.), and the luxury Hiram Bingham service (US$334 one-way to Machu Picchu, US$307 one-way from Machu Picchu, leaves Poroy 9:05 a.m., leaves Aguas Calientes 5:50 p.m.). These trains can also be caught from Ollantaytambo.
The other services depart only from Ollantaytambo. These include the Backpacker Cerrojo (varies in price US$31–43 one-way depending on the departure time, six departures daily), the Valley Especial (US$43 one-way earlier train, leaves Ollantaytambo 5:10 a.m. and leaves Aguas Calientes 8:53 a.m., US$60 later train, leaves Ollantaytambo at 8 a.m. and leaves Aguas Calientes 5:27 p.m.), and the Vistadome Valley (varies in price US$43–60 one-way depending on the departure time, five departures daily).
For trains to Puno, the PeruRail deluxe Andean Explorer (US$220 one-way)—departs on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (and Saturday April–October) from Wanchaq Station (Av. El Sol s/n, tel. 084/23-3592) at 8 a.m. and arrives at 6 p.m. in Puno. This spectacular, nine-hour trip winds through the vast altiplano past snowcapped mountains.
Inca Rail (Av. El Sol 611, tel. 084/23-3030, www.incarail.com ) offers three daily departures from Ollantaytambo (6:40 a.m., 11:35 a.m., and 4:36 p.m.) and three daily departures from Aguas Calientes (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 Machu Picchu Train, owned by Andean Railways (Av. El Sol 576, across from the Coricancha, tel. 084/22-1199, www.machupicchutrain.com ) is importing a series of fancy coaches in a bid to shake up Machu Picchu train service. We like this outfit for a couple of reasons.
First, Andean Railways battled PeruRail for years in a David-vs.-Goliath battle that ended in the collapse of PeruRail’s monopoly. Second, one of the owners of Andean Railways is Nicholas Asheshov, a British journalist and entrepreneur who has lived in Peru for four decades.
Nick knows Peru better than anyone and has also played an important role, along with adventurers Gary Ziegler, Hugh Thompson, and others, in unearthing recent important archaeological ruins in Peru’s high Andes. Nick runs the new train service from his adobe electronic home on the grounds of the Libertador Tambo del Inca Hotel in Urubamba.
For the moment, the Machu Picchu Train leaves Ollantaytambo at 7:20 a.m. and 12:36 p.m. and arrives 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.