Machu Picchu by Train

It’s bucket list stuff. For some people it’s on the life list. For us, it sat on the baby bucket list, that rather selfish collection of  stuff we wanted to try and tick off before we became three. Except that last bit all happened a bit swifter than we anticipated.

The majority of folks who talk in lofty tones about visiting Machu Picchu do so in conversations peppered with references to technical clothing. The four day trek seems almost a rite of passage for of gap year students. They’re the ones wearing woven Peruvian ponchos over their zip off trousers and saving up the photos from their i-devices to share on instagram later(#wow).

Yet, there is another way to get there. It’s one that works well if you’ve got a gammy knee, you’re a bit short of time, or you discover that at the time of travelling you’ll be around 11 weeks up the duff and not sure how your body will respond to the altitude. (The walk will take you up to Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4,215 m above sea level- the CDC recommends that pregnant women probably should keep under 3,658 m. Luckily Machu Picchu itself is much lower, at 2,430 m).

As it turns out there are trains which run from Cusco to Agua Calientes, the spa town closest to the ruins. From there it’s a pretty seamless transition to a bus which will drive you to the entrance of the Incan ruins. And then, you’ve made it. And what’s left, is the domain of awe and wonder.

You can go for complete luxury and catch the Hiram Bingham Orient Express up there and back. You’ll get lunch and dinner and absolute opulence. What it costs will probably bring a tear to most people’s eyes.

Or you can do what we did; splurge on a hotel in the Sacred Valley and catch the (still-much-more-luxurious-than-trekking-and-camping) Vistadome trains up and down. Most packages will include train and coach tickets, entrance to Machu Picchu, a private guide and a buffet lunch. You can choose to stay overnight at the five star lodge in Machu Picchu, but really, it’s fine as a day trip (though a long one).

Here’s how we rolled

The motivation to spend some time in the Sacred Valley as well as Cusco was two fold. For one, we’d been assured it was beautiful and peaceful- exactly what we were looking for after some hectic days in Lima and Buenos Aires.

And secondly, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are both lower than Cusco, so a night or two down there will give your body some time to adjust to the altitude. Everything people had told me was right; you just won’t know how much your body will be affected until you get there. For me, even down in the Sacred Valley I was still more tired than usual and had a much more muted appetite. Later on up in Cusco I still found myself short of breath, sporting a head ache and feeling a bit… fuzzy.

The Tambo del Inka is a fairly darn luxurious Starwood property in the town of Urumbama.

Image courtesy of

From the heated indoor swimming pool, overlooking green valleys and the burble of the river that the town was named after, to the open jet master fires in the lobby and endless free herbal tea, it’s as relaxing  a haven as you could imagine. The bath tubs are deep. The beds are king sized. And if you’re just too spent to sit at the restaurant and have a sensible dinner, they have a room service menu full of comforting offerings (which means they’ll bring chicken soup and strawberry ice cream right to your door). Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for more potato and guinea pig.

Here’s another grand thing about the Tambo del Inka; it’s also the only hotel in Urubamba with a private train station to Machu Picchu. This means instead of waking at 5.30 to have a transfer to Ollantaytambo to board the Vistadome, you can stroll for five minutes from the front door of the hotel, and be the very first people to get on the waiting train.

The Vistadome is designed with an excess of windows and a glass ceiling, so there’s plenty of chances to enjoy the view of  the winding river and wide green valleys on the way (the trip takes about an hour and a half).

Unlike the Hiram Bingham, here there isn’t a gourmet meal (and there’s no silver service on this train). About half way through the trip you’ll be delivered  airplane style snack box to keep you going until you reach Agua Calients (Left to right; cheese and salad roll, fruit salad, orange juice).

Once you’re off the train, the bus trip to the ruins takes 20 minutes. Then it’s time to meet your local guide, hand over your passport and entry tickets to start exploring one of the seven wonders of the world.

I’ll spare you a torrent of adjectives. It is astoundingly beautiful. But here’s some practical advice; wear sensible shoes. By sensible, I mean walking/trekking shoes or sneakers with a good grip. There are lots of stairs and narrow paths to negotiate. Bring a decent camera. Bring a rain coat as well as sunscreen. The weather can be unpredictable.

And if your package includes lunch at the on site buffet restaurant, go early. Particularly if you want to get hold of some of the best bits of the whole roasted suckling pig.

It’s a generous spread, of international and Peruvian dishes, highlights being the corn salads, lightly spiced chickpea, chicken and tomato stew and poached local trout fillets. Beyond 1 pm the room starts to heave with larger tour groups, making your relaxing lunch break, anything but.

At the end of the afternoon the bus and train will take you back to the hotel, exactly the same way you came up- except on the way home the train stewards will probably put on a highly entertaining local fashion show for you with novelty masks to boot (yes, really).

Take it from me, there are few things nicer than arriving back from a full day of sensory overload and knowing that a hot bath and a cold drink are just a five minute walk from the train station.

I had worried that by skipping out on the trek to Machu Picchu I would feel like I’d only half done the experience- like I was cheating. But do you know what? I don’t actually care. Sometimes it’s about the journey. And occasionally, when the site itself is just that stupendous, getting to see it is the only thing that matters.

Nitty gritty details

The Peru Rail website can be difficult to negotiate to buy tickets to Machu Picchu. For this excursion we used the in house travel agency at Tambo del Inka, Tikariy to coordinate the excursion about seven weeks prior to leaving and it couldn’t have been easier.

We also had the hotel organise a transfer from Cusco airport straight to the Sacred Valley, and then the day afterwards they took us back up to Cusco.

Cost: It was US $750 for the two of us for the day, including train tickets from the hotel, coach tickets, entry to Machu Picchu, a private guide and buffet lunch. Not cheap, but a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

Tambo del Inka
Avenida Ferrocarril S/N, Sacred Valley, Urubamba, Cusco, Peru

51 (84) 581 777

Travel Agency at Tambo del Inka

  1. The first time I went to Machu Picchu I was about 12 years old, early 1980s. We were on an organised tour of South America. I believe MP had been closed to tourists in the preceding months or years, but had reopened not that long beforehand, so it wasn’t really busy. There was a hotel at the top, where we stayed, but it was much more basic than what is there now.

    I think what I remember most is the thrill of being allowed to go wandering on my own, and taking photos (as I’d really gotten into photography by then and had my first SLR camera). There were butterflies and there was sunshine and it was all very affecting.

    I went back a couple of years ago, with Pete, and worried about how it would compare. You know when you have a magical experience, sometimes it can never live up when you go back?

    But it was still wonderful.

    We stayed in a lovely hotel at the bottom, quite posh actually, with the accommodation split amongst lots of small low rise buildings spread out in lush gardens buzzing with hummingbirds.

    We didn’t do the trek to get there either, I have arthritis, and I’m very scared of heights (there were some areas even on the site that scared me and I had to find different routes around). But we don’t feel we missed out by not doing the trek. As you say, it’s about focusing on what you can do and on the wonder if what you do see.

    Even with many many more people, I still found it an amazing place to visit. That buffet restaurant was crazy though, no?

  2. Thank you for letting me dream on a dreary Monday morning, wonderful… although I will not hide that I had a pretty rude awakening when I read the price for a day trip up…

  3. Oh, I am familiar with that bucket list.. Ours includes carnival in Brazil, but I can’t see it happening. Reading this post brings so many memories of our own trip to Machu Pichu – our culinary experiences were pretty dire compared to yours, but it was the bloody pan pipes that sent me nutty. The same CD of pop classics, recreated with pan pipes on loop. Gaargh.

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