Travelling to Machu Picchu, you aren’t really given that many choices. The Inca Trail is obviously the favourite of choices, but as only 200 people, including the guides and porters, are allowed on the trail each day, places can be booked up almost a year in advance. This leaves only the options of bus and train, and given the choice, I would choose a train ride to Machu Picchu any day of the week. This decision would not only be made on the current safety issues of many public buses in Peru, but for me, the train ride, starting in Cusco, has to be one of the most scenic in the whole of Latin America.
You are given three classes of train to choose from, with more or less all tour operators offering Machu Picchu packages with any of these classes. The most popular, and also the cheapest, is the backpacker train, at around $65 for the return journey. This leaves Cusco at 6:30am, returning from Machu Picchu at 4pm. Journey times for all trains takes approximately 4 hours. This was the train my girlfriend and I were supposed to catch, but a ticket mix-up by our tour operator meant we were upgraded to Vistadome class for free. It’s nice when mistakes are in your favour, but unfortunately it seems on average that this only happens once in a lifetime!
The only problem I can envisage about using the backpacker train is that although it only arrives 30 minutes after the Vistadome train, there is a big difference in the number of people already at Machu Picchu, which if you are picky, could put a slight downer on your enjoyment. The Vistadome train leaves 30 minutes before the backpacker train, at 6am. The other option of travelling by train is to travel in luxury in the Hiram Bingham class, which leaves much later at 8:20am. As this was completely out of our budget, I don’t know much about this service.
My first impressions of the Vistadome train were very positive, although I did notice one little white lie that many of the tour companies seem to tell you. When you see stated that this class of train has extra ceiling windows compared to the backpacker class, enhancing the views you can see, this is not necessarily true. The extra windows are slightly on the tiny side, and during the first leg of the journey from Cusco, these extra windows were all steamed up, allowing very little to be seen, other than ‘I love you’ messages in Spanish, written in the moisture. Obviously it’s nice to know there is a lot of love on the Vistadome, but it really didn’t do much for enhancing our viewing pleasure. On the journey back to Cusco it gets dark about halfway through, so again, they proved pretty useless.
On the positive side, though, the Vistadome class was smart and sophisticated, and looked as though it was brand-new. Even better was that the punctuality of the train that would put more or less every train service in England to shame. We left bang on time, and punctuality was perfect at each station all the way to Machu Picchu.
It takes about an hour to finally leave Cusco, as you scale the might of the surrounding hills via a series of switchback turns, which gives you amazing views across the whole of Cusco city. Once out of Cusco, you follow the Urumbamba Valley and River all the way to Machu Picchu through the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Along the way you get to take in a variety of different landscapes. One minute you can be watching local farmers with their mules ploughing their dust-ridden inhospitable fields, the next you can be raising your eyes to the snow-capped Andean Mountains that look close enough to touch. After passing numerous adobe brick villages, all which seem to be centred around a football pitch (the most important part of Peruvian life!), you closely follow the foaming and frothing Urumbamba River for the last part of the journey, which, against the backdrop of the Andean Mountains, is absolutely beautiful.
Each carriage on the train is staffed by a porter and two crew members to help with your every need. Just after leaving Cusco, you are given a well-needed hot drink (that really doesn’t do that much to the freezing temperatures experienced!) and breakfast. Upon the return leg, you are also well fed and watered. The food was very similar to that of an airplane, and if you are like me and like the variety of small food samples that you receive, then you can’t complain at all. As I wasn’t expecting to be fed at all, it all came as a pleasant surprise.
I only had one complaint on the outward journey to Machu Picchu, and I am sure I am not the only person to have noticed this. During this part of the journey, a selection of panpipe music was played through the airwaves to sooth and relax you for the long 4-hour journey. Under normal circumstances, this would have been perfect. I mean, riding through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, listening to traditional panpipe music and watching numerous snow-capped peaks appear and disappear is was life is supposed to be about. Unfortunately, Perurail decided to ruin this heavenly moment by not choosing to play traditional panpipe music. Instead, they decided to play a selection of Celine Dion's greatest hits in panpipe version. I am sure that if you are a fan of Celine Dion, then this situation would be better than seeing the singing maestro in person! For me, though, 4 hours of straight Celine Dion songs was almost too much to handle.
Once arriving into Mach Picchu Pueblo (or Aguas Calientes, as it is sometimes known), it is just a short walk to the Rio Urumbamba Bridge, where you catch a bus to the fabulous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. The buses cost $4.50 each way, but costs are normally included in the price of the tour if going through a tour operator.
On the return journey, the train was more of a disco party than a train ride. First, the porter dressed up in traditional Andean clothing, complete with knitted mask, and paraded up and down the carriage performing a number of traditional dances. I actually felt sorry for him, as although he put in a fine performance, he did look a little uncomfortable and embarrassed with what he was doing.
Following this, the two crew members, one male and one female, put on a fashion show of clothes available for public purchase, many made from the fine wool of the alpaca. I don’t know if it was seeing flashes of naked skin, or the hardcore dance anthems being played, but by the end of the fashion show, everyone was clapping and cheering along to every turn and hip movement made by the posing supermodel wannabees. They must have put on a good show, as I think they sold virtually all of the clothes they were modelling to eager tourists wanting an alpaca jumper, or wrap-a-round to show off to their friends back home.
Throughout the train ride there are many excellent photographic moments, and as the train is travelling slowly, there is ample opportunity to catch that perfect moment. For me the best views were returning back to Cusco in the evening with the whole city lit up in a gold glow, a colour that the Incas were famous for. Best photos are on the left-hand side of the train going to Machu Picchu, and the right-hand side coming back to Cusco.
If you are expecting a nice, warm ride, then I am afraid you are going to be disappointed, as there is no heating on board the train. It is especially cold first thing in the morning, and my choice of flip-flops and shorts at one point led me to believe there was the possibility of losing some toes! Although I was more than happy with my decision later in the day, when I was met with the subtropical temperatures of Machu Picchu, I would seriously recommend wearing a number of layers of clothing so you can strip off accordingly. Maybe this is just common knowledge to everyone but me!
The cost to ride the Vistadome class can vary considerably, especially if going through tour operators, who can add on large percentages that go straight into their own pockets. I would recommend buying your tickets directly from Perurail at Cusco train station. This way a return trip to Machu Picchu costs $100. I was reliably informed that if you book your tickets 2 days or less in advance, you can save 50% on the cost of the tickets, but this doesn’t make any sense to me. Therefore, I would recommend visiting the Peru-Rail website at www.perurail.co.pe. Any specific questions, feel free to email me.