Once you’ve decided to go to Machu Picchu and bought your permit (do this at least several months in advance, as they sell out!), you just need to figure out how to get there! First, you need to get to Cusco, as all of the transportation options to Machu Picchu start from there. Fortunately, getting to Cusco is easy and cheap – if you are starting from Lima, you can fly in about an hour for less than $75, or there are many overnight buses that take about 18 hours (Peru Hop is one well known option).
While the incredible UNESCO world heritage Inca ruins of Machu Picchu are in the middle of nowhere, there is a tourist town nearby called Aguas Calientes, which is where you’ll be going first. You’ll stay at least one night there, and then take a day trip to Machu Picchu itself. To get to Aguas Calientes, you’ll need to either hike the inca trail or take a train, since there are no roads that go all the way there. If you decide to take a train to Machu Picchu, you’ll have several ticketing options available to you. We tried out a couple. Here’s our take on what you should buy!
WARNING: make sure you buy your train tickets and Machu Picchu entrance permit well in advance! We bought ours about 4 months before our trip. The tickets sell out, and you could be left with no way to get to Machu Picchu! While you’re buying your Machu Picchu tickets, you’ll have the option to purchase passes for hiking Machu Picchu mountain, which we highly recommend, as it provides amazing views of the Machu Picchu ruins (it’s a tough hike though!).
Which Machu Picchu train company to choose: Peru Rail or Inca Rail?
There are two companies running trains to Machu Picchu, Inca Rail and Peru Rail. They’re very, very similar. They both offer similar classes of service, on similar schedules, at similar prices. Note that between January and April, you’ll only have access to “bimodal” service, which means that the first leg of your journey, to the town of Ollantaytambo, will be by bus. You can choose bimodal service during other parts of the year, too, but we wouldn’t recommend it; the bus is more like a jouncing, bouncing van careening along, and your stop at Ollantaytambo is much too short to be able to explore the town at all.
Pick the train that best suits your schedule out of the two companies. We’d recommend arriving at Aguas Calientes in the late afternoon or early evening the night before your trip to Machu Picchu. (There’s not much to do in Aguas Calientes, and it’s quite expensive compared to Cusco or even Lima). We would recommend a return journey in the late afternoon after your visit to Machu Picchu. If you go up to Machu Picchu in the early morning, when it’s cool and less crowded, you’ll probably be back by early afternoon (especially since there are neither bathrooms nor food permitted inside of Machu Picchu), and the train ride is much more enjoyable by light of day! The sun sets around 6 PM year round.
We took Inca Rail, so we’ll go into a little more detail about our experience with that company!
“Voyager” Class, Bimodal – the cheapest option
We purchased Voyager Class bimodal tickets. Since we were traveling in April, there was no train directly from Cusco, and we had to take the bimodal route. Voyager class is the cheapest available on Inca Rail, but it’s still relatively pricey! We paid about $70 USD each per leg of the journey, or $140 USD each round trip.
The quality of service in this class was totally fine! We arrived at the office about twenty minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave (we were later than the thirty-minute recommended early check-in due to an unexpected hospital visit). The check-in process was quick and easy, and there was free coffee, tea, and surprisingly-tasty cookies available. People were sitting around tables eating their breakfast snacks.
Groups were called to the mini-buses, given a free water bottle, and herded aboard. The buses were basically just glorified vans, very cramped with nowhere to store your luggage except for on your lap. (Note: both train companies have a stated maximum weight for luggage, but ours was never weighed. Presumably it might be if you’re toting a large suitcase; we just had our backpacks). There were working seat-belts, which was somewhat surprising, but the two-hour bus ride was rather harrowing nonetheless.
When we got off the bus, we were brought to another Inca Rail waiting area, also with tables and seats, but sadly with no coffee in sight, only herbal teas and coca leaves. After about twenty minutes, we were brought to our train.
Our train car was all right. Again, there was nowhere to store luggage, but we were able to cram our backpacks behind a seat. At certain times of day, the Voyager includes free lunch. At other times, it does not. Our ticket was for 9:10 AM and lunch was included. The unfortunate side of this was that the car was arranged around dining tables, which meant we spent the ride face-to-face with another couple, who were making out intensely for most of the ride. C’est la vie.
Lunch was served in a brown paper bag. It consisted of a chicken wrap, an apple, a locally-made fruit-and-nut bar, and two surprisingly tasty chocolates. Vegetarian wraps were also available upon request. After lunch, coffee and other beverages were served, which was nice!
The view from the train was okay. The 360° car isn’t that much more expensive (it’s around $100 each way), but we wouldn’t recommend it. Although the mountains are nice, they’re nothing compared with what you will soon see at Machu Picchu itself. Plus, the windows in the Voyager car were quite large, and we didn’t feel that our view was impeded in any way!
First Class – we tried it, and it’s not worth it
The first class ticket on Inca Rail is significantly more expensive, at around $210 each way, or $420 total. Definitely not something we would ordinarily spring for, but… free upgrade!
That’s right, as we walked into the Aguas Calientes train station to get our train back to Cusco, we heard our names called over a loudspeaker. Panicked that we had mixed up the time and were about to miss our train, we ran over… only to learn that we were being upgraded to first class! Hooray!
Okay, so first class was definitely fancier than Voyager class, but not worth the $150-each-way price differential. We had booked a 6:00 PM train (which turned out to be a mistake, because we were ready to leave Aguas Calientes hours earlier, and the entire ride back was in pitch darkness). In first class, we were told, this meant that there would be cocktail and dinner service.
We boarded the train and saw essentially the exact same set-up as our Voyager class car, only a little bigger and fancier. There was a luggage rack on this car, which was nice. The chairs were still set up around dining tables. We were lucky to have a table for two, but other people were still sitting across from random couples that they didn’t know, even in the first class carriage.
We were given hot towelettes to wipe our hands, and then served our welcome cocktail, a small pisco sour. It was tasty! Next was dinner. Of course, we hadn’t known that we would be on first class, so we had just eaten, and we were quite full. We didn’t end up eating again, but the food looked good. Not like mind-blowing, I’ll-drop-150-extra-dollars-for-a-ticket-just-to-eat-this good, but fine! First course was a smoked fish dish. Second course was alpaca lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian meat dish. Unknown if vegetarian options were available upon request. Wine was served with each, and fruit juice afterwards. Dessert, which we did eat, was chocolate mousse – it basically tasted like supermarket chocolate mousse, but in a fancy little glass cup.
Bear in mind that all of this food was served as the train was ricocheting about on its tracks. This is not a nice, smooth, city-to-city train. This is a train through the jungles and mountains and general rural areas of Peru. So, basically, don’t choose the red wine.
After dinner, a bar car opened up with, apparently, cocktails and coffee and a man playing a guitar and singing. About three people from our car went over there and apparently got drunk and all sang “Despacito” together. We, on the other hand, went to sleep.
Since it was April, even first class had to take the bimodal route. But surely, we thought, we would have a nicer bus! WRONG! We were on the same exact type of mini-bus! Still nowhere to even put the luggage!
So, would we recommend first class? ABSOLUTELY not. What you get, essentially, is semi-fancy (not actually fancy, just fancily-presented) food and drink. Save your money on the train ticket, and get your meal at a restaurant where you’ll be able to enjoy it without being bumped and jostled!
Our recommendations for Machu Picchu trains
-Ride on the cheapest class available. The perks of the 360 / Vistadome or the first class really aren’t worth it.
-Don’t get a bimodal ticket if you can help it, but you won’t have a choice between January and April.
-Try to arrive in Aguas Calientes around 5-6 PM, and leave the following day around 3 PM. This will give you plenty of time to visit Machu Picchu in the morning, even to climb one of the mountains. Sitting around Aguas Calientes is not worth your time, in our opinion (although this is slightly controversial), and the daylight train ride is much more pleasant!
-Bring small, flexible luggage, knowing that it might be sitting right on your lap or under your feet for significant portions of the journey.
ALSO: Machu Picchu is amazing, but don’t forget about the other sites in the jungle nearby! There’s the sacred valley, with more incan ruins, the mountain and ruins of Huayna Picchu, and many jungle treks.
Have you taken the train to Machu Picchu? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!
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Lima, Peru Food Guide (for vegetarians and everyone else!)
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