Getting to and around Machu Picchu

A blue train traveling through the small town of Agua Calientes.

A train ride is the easiest way to reach the small town of Agua Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. Photo © Eduardo Zárate, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

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 from near Cusco (2.5 hours), take the Inca Jungle Trail, or take the bus through Santa Teresa. 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. Once inside Machu Picchu, the only way to get around is by foot.

Taking the Train to Aguas Calientes

Following the devastations of the floods in January 2010, normal train services from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes have been restored.

The breakup of the long-time PeruRail monopoly has so far failed to bring down prices, and there is no escaping that the train is expensive by backpacker standards. Expect to pay US$50 one-way (US$100 return). Before booking train service to Machu Picchu or asking your hotel to book trains for you, check 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). This company has imported a series of fancy coaches and is price competitive with PeruRail. The Machu Picchu Train leaves Ollantaytambo at 7:20am and 12:36pm and arrives in Aguas Calientes 90 minutes later. The train returns from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo at 10:30am and 4:15pm. Prices vary according to time but are approximately US$75 one-way.

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.The second new service is Inca Rail (Av. El Sol 611, Cusco, tel. 084/23-3030, which offers three daily departures from Ollantaytambo at 6:40am, 11:35am, and 4:36pm, as well as three daily departures from Aguas Calientes at 8:30am, 2:02pm, and 7pm. The trains have an executive class (US$50 oneway) and a first class (US$75 one-way).

The traditional option is PeruRail (Av. Pachacútec, Cusco, tel. 084/22-8722), 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 9am and arrives in Aguas Calientes at 12:30pm. On the return, the train departs Aguas Calientes at 6pm and gets to Poroy at 9:25pm.

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 kilometer 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 (eyebrow of the jungle), and the Río Urubamba starts crashing over house-sized boulders. The train continues until reaching 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 5:30pm 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.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Machu Picchu.

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  1. jesper christoffersen says:

    We travelled Peru for a month and the guidebook was very useful. Lots of info.
    A great travel friend.

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      That’s great to hear, Jesper! If you purchased the guidebook from an online retailer, please consider leaving a review for the author.

  2. Howard Angel says:

    Ben, your book is great. Having my Aussie Son TREVOR ANGEL on Facebook show all the pics as in your book in his 2 year 130k motorbike trip USA onwards, today in France, maybe home to see his Dad next Year. So sorry to read your fine acknowledgement to Carolina on her passing after those pics. Chin up and keep up the good work.
    Howard Angel
    PERTH West Australia Jan 2015

    Look up Trevors Facebook and scroll back to the start. He is doing well.. Thanks Ben.

  3. tanya says:

    My guide doesn’t have a way for us to get back to Cusco after leaving MP. And the trains are rather expensive. How does one get to MP to Ollyatambo? Any buses or shuttles you recommend or is a taxi fairly cheap? I know that there are ample buses from O-town to Cusco.

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Tanya,

      Unless you care to do the bus route described above, trains or trekking are the only options.