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.