We had just completed the first part of our Peruvian journey, one that took us through the culinary capital of Lima, the rich rainforests of the Amazon, and the scenic sites of the Sacred Valley. Finally, we are well on our way to our destination: Machu Picchu.
Peru is so much more than the ancient Incan citadel but, it is almost always the highlight of any trip to this amazingly diverse and surprisingly organized country. I use the word “surprisingly” because this is still a developing country and many towns outside of the big cities have no access to electricity or running water. Several roads are still unpaved. Yet, the tourism sector is run like a first world, well-oiled machine.
More stunning destinations:
Planes, trains, buses, and cars were spotless, and all of them run on time, on the dot. Public restrooms are clean. The properties we stayed in had so much local history and character, and many of them were built to high and exacting standards. Almost everyone working in the tourism sector wear smart and spotless uniforms. And Peruvians, unlike citizens of many other developing nations, are proud of their heritage. I believe this mindset ensures a virtuous circle of positive thoughts, words, and actions. This is how tourism and, indeed, patriotism, should truly be. Every nation should learn from Peru.
Now, speaking of trains running on time, there are only two ways to reach the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo. The first is a three- to four-day trek along the Inca Trail, and the second is a three-hour train ride. We love our daily showers, so going for the second option was an easy decision to make.
Formerly known as Aguas Calientes, this whole town located at the foot of the citadel’s mountain, was built to service the burgeoning tourism population. Everything needed to run this place is still transported by train. There is a helipad reserved for emergencies, and this was only used when a flash flood washed out most of the train tracks. One has a choice of two train companies: IncaRail and PeruRail. The former is owned by a local Peruvian company while the latter is run by Belmond, which is formerly (and more popularly) known as the Orient-Express. The company is now under the luxury goods behemoth LVMH as wealthy consumers have now shifted from just buying luxury goods to spending on opulent “experiential travel.” Both train companies have four categories of train journeys. For the sake of simplicity, I classify them here as First, Business, Premium Economy, and Economy.
Ticket to ride
We went for PeruRail as they had a better timetable, and we also wanted to experience two of their services: Sacred Valley (Business) and Vistadome (Premium Economy). Initially, we were tempted to splurge on the famous Hiram Bingham (First Class). But, given that it was around three times the cost of Sacred Valley, we decided to go for the more practical option.
It was such a treat! We nearly had this gorgeous train all to ourselves as we were just nine out of 33 passengers en-route from Urubamba to Machu Picchu Pueblo. We were blown away by the 1920s elegance of the Dining Car where we enjoyed our gourmet lunch served on exquisite china, crystal, and silver. We got to view the stunning landscapes of the Sacred Valley at the Observation Bar Car with its huge wrap-around windows. We had all the attendants to ourselves and when we asked them to compare Sacred Valley and the Hiram Bingham, they candidly admitted that passenger capacity, facilities, and fixtures, and even the meals are exactly the same. The main difference is that Hiram Bingham offers an open bar, and live musicians. While the free-flow of drinks is a nice perk, trust me, you would not want to climb Machu Picchu while drunk!
After disembarking at the station, we were quite keen to hike up the citadel straight away in order to make the most of our one-night stay. So we walked a few meters to the bus stop where we boarded one of the 50-person shuttle buses. These depart every 15 minutes and run between 10 to 12 hours a day. Tickets must be purchased in advance as there are only 22 of these coaches that service over 5,000 visitors a day! Every visitor will have to take this bus up as no private vehicles are allowed on that one single road. For those who refuse to mix with the plebs, they can consider chartering their own private coach at a considerable cost. This scenic, albeit harrowing ride, going up several narrow switchbacks, took us up to the ancient citadel in just 25 minutes.
After spending the night in Machu Picchu Pueblo, we chose to ride the Vistadome train on the trip back to Cusco by way of Ollantaytambo. It was full—144 passengers in all—compared to just 33 passengers on the Sacred Valley train. Thankfully, we were seated in comfortable cabins which featured domed roofs and panoramic wrap-around windows. This made up for the fact that this train didn’t have an Observation Bar Car. The meal plan was simple, and could be further improved, and drinks cost extra. But the staff was attentive and they even held a fashion show on board featuring their latest alpaca clothing designs. The price difference between Vistadome and the Sacred Valley could have been much more, which showed that either the former is priced too high or the latter is priced too low. (We think it’s the second one.) This journey on the Vistadome lasted 1.5 hours as we disembarked in Ollantaytambo instead of Poroy/Cusco as the train tracks for the summer season were not open yet. Hence it was a good call to book the much nicer train on the way to Machu Picchu as this incoming ride is twice as long.
Needless to say, our visit to the Machu Picchu citadel was simply spectacular. It exceeded all our expectations! Although, I have to admit that prior to this trip, I kept my expectations low, mentally preparing myself for the inevitable hordes of tourists. But, thanks to the super organized Peru Tourism Bureau, they’ve now implemented staggered entry tickets. However, the most important reason why our visit was such a success was because of our private guide, Irving. His love and passion for Machu Picchu and his Andean heritage brought the whole fascinating Incan history to life. A guide can make or break the experience, so always choose wisely. And, for me, a private guide to a major site such as Machu Picchu, is a must.
Things to consider
1. Purchase all of your train, bus, and citadel entrance tickets in advance. Bear in mind that there is now a staggered entry policy at Machu Picchu, so you need to time your train and bus arrivals to coincide with this.
2. Budget permitting, book the nicer train for the incoming ride into Machu Picchu Pueblo town as this will be the longer of the two train journeys.
3. Pack only what you need for the overnight trip. The train has a strict luggage policy of 5 kilogram per person. Leave the rest of your luggage with your transfer driver in Sacred Valley who will bring them to your next stop, which is usually Cusco.
4. Book your overnight stays in advance. There are several lodges to choose from, depending on your budget and your needs.
5. Best to buy two entrance tickets to the citadel so you can do an overview on the first day upon disembarking from your train, as gates close by 6pm. And, you can stay longer on your second day.
6. Hire a private guide for the Machu Picchu citadel. This is a must.
7. To get best views of the Urubamba River on both train journeys, on any class of train service:
Arriving: Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu Pueblo. Book seats on the left side of the train.
Departing: Machu Picchu Pueblo to Sacred Valley or Poroy/Cusco. Book seats on the right side of the train.
For more information, visit sps-travel.com
Photographs by Shy Perez-Sala