How to get to Machu Picchu (the hard way)
If you’re lucky enough to have sturdy legs and lots of free time, you can summit to Machu Picchu the way the Incans did, on foot via a several day Inca Trail trek. But for the rest of us, a complicated combination of taxi, rail, and bus is required. Most visitors navigate the Cusco-Sacred Valley-Machu Picchu transportation labyrinth with the help of a tour guide—recommended even for do-it-yourself travelers. However, if you insist on flying solo, you’re going to need a map. Below is a step-by-stop guide to help you successfully pilot your way to the peak.
Step 1. Let us assume that by bus, rail, or plane you’ve successfully arrived in Cusco, home of the historical Incan Empire. Good job! After you refresh yourself with a tasty pisco sour in the bustling Plaza de Armas, it is time to head to the train. It would be nice if the train station was located in town, or in walking distance of town, but it is not. The Poroy train station is located eight-miles west of Cusco, or about a 20 minute ride. To get to the station you can take a taxi or a small local bus—your hotel can help you with this. Hint: The bus is less expensive.
Step 2. Once you are at the station, you need to decide what class of ticket you want to buy. Here are the three types in order of cheapest to most expensive: Expedition, Vistadome, and Hiram Bingham. Please note that if you are traveling during high season, you should buy the tickets well in advance, as they often sell out. Tickets can be purchased online at www.perurail.com. If you fail to heed this advice and discover there are no tickets for the day of your planned Machu Picchu adventure, do not despair: you can take a bus to the town of Ollantaytambo (located between Cusco and Machu Picchu), and take a train from there to Machu Picchu.
You should be aware that unlike airplanes, in which all classes travel in the same vehicle, the Cusco-Machu Picchu train has three different types of trains for the three different classes. Therefore, departure times depend on what type of ticket you purchase. As of February 2011, Vistadome leaves the station earliest, right before 7 a.m., giving those who pay the extra 30 soles for first class a head start to the ruins. Expedition leaves around 7:40 a.m., and Hiram Bingham leaves leisurely a little after 9 a.m.
In addition to ticket price, there are slight differences among the trains. Expedition class takes a standard train with seats that face each other and snacks for purchase onboard. Vistadome offers similar service, though the train has panoramic windows, windows on the ceiling, leather forward-facing seats, and complimentary snacks. Then, for all you classy travelers, there is the Hiram Bingham. You’ll feel like you’re in a moving five-star hotel on this train. This is full-service trip with meals served onboard (there are two dining cars) and your train ticket includes a bus ticket to the top of Machu Picchu, the entrance ticket, a guided tour of the site, and afternoon tea at the Machu Picchu lodge.
Step 3. It is important to remember that the train does not actually take you to the Machu Picchu ruin site. It takes you to the small town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, also called Aguas Calientes (just to make things confusing) and the only way to get here is by foot or train. The renowned Machu Picchu site sits teasingly about five miles further on. But take a deep breath, because now you’re almost there. After you exit the train at the last stop you have two options: hike up the steep path that runs near the road (a one-to-two hour journey) or buy a rather costly bus ticket for the 20-minute ride up to Machu Picchu’s entrance. Buses leave every 30 minutes.
Step 4. Congratulations! You’ve made it to Machu Picchu, one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. Now is the time to forget your travel-induced stress; you’re standing in front of one of the most remarkable architectural and historical sites in the world. It is time to finally enter—if, that is, you remembered to buy your Machu Picchu entrance ticket at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Cusco or Aguas Calientes. Otherwise, you have a long trip back down. There is no ticket booth at the site.