Peru: Machu Picchu by train
The backpacker train to Machu Picchu rocks on its tracks the entire way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. Luckily I’m not prone to motion sickness and the gentle rocking almost lulled me to sleep despite my struggle to stay alert. The couple in their late 50s who were sitting adjacent to my boyfriend and I were not so lucky. Having had too much pisco, Peru’s national liquor, the night before, they struggled to contain their stomachs while I snuggled farther into the recesses of my seat, sipped my coffee, and stared lazily out the window. It was still early, around 8am, when the blue train pulled away from the Cusco station and began heading toward the Sacred Valley. Through the large windows that line the roof and both sides of the train I watched the scenery crawl past. Lush, green fields appeared first, followed by expansive lilac fields, and then small patches of corn. The snakelike Urubamba River cut across the landscape, making hair pin turns around the slender trunks of Eucalyptus and willow trees that crowd its banks. Every few minutes, the train rocked past a small settlement where women in fedoras tended to grazing cattle and sheep, or hung laundry outside their small clay homes made from the rich soil of the fertile river bed.
After half an hour or so the valley gave way to red faced mountain peaks, towering over the now seemingly small train slowly making its way through the deep crevasses between the mountains. Bright green moss clung to the steep cliffs, shocking against the various shades of burnt orange and sienna that streaked across the exposed faces of the mountains. The conductor maneuvered the train through two switchbacks before continuing on the path to Ollantaytambo, a small town in the Sacred Valley halfway to Machu Picchu, famous for its Inca fortress and granaries that dot the hillsides above the town. After a short stop in Ollantaytambo, where more eager passengers climbed aboard for the additional hour and a half ride, the train lurched on. Just when I thought the scenery couldn’t possibly get any more spectacular it did. The once sinewy Urubamba turned into a roaring river resembling a stream of hot chocolate, a reddish brown flow of gigantic proportions frothing foam as it tore past gigantic granite boulders. The larger the swollen river, the greener and more lush the scenery became until suddenly we had left the mountains behind and were in the high jungle. Passengers could sense that Machu Picchu was close, and the train became filled with a frenetic excitement. Sleepers woke up, silent seat partners became engaged in conversations, and camcorders were pulled from the recesses of day packs and aimed out windows into the cloud forest. Long gone were the clay mountains dotted with green streaks and in their place stood lush, but harsh, jagged peaks bursting up into the sky. Oohs and ahhs could be heard as we passed the first Inca terraces and let passengers off not once, not twice, but three times to hike variations of the Inca Trail from the full four-day trek to the day-hike.
Soon we arrived in the town of Aguas Calientes and stepped off the train and essentially into a large covered handicraft market. Passengers who went through tour companies already had their Machu Picchu entrance and transportation tickets and beelined it for the buses, whereas the passengers who didn’t hurried through the handicraft market and scrambled through the small town looking for Plaza de Armas, the main square. This is where you must buy your ticket for Machu Picchu if you don’t go through an agency, but be warned that a line forms very quickly in front of the ticket office and it can be a long wait in high season. Luckily the day after Christmas falls into the rainy, and therefore, slow season, so the line only took us about ten minutes. From the Plaza de Armas we zipped over to the bus platform to wait in another long line for the bus tickets that carry travelers from Aguas Calientes to the Citadel of Machu Picchu. Once the bus was full, we began the somewhat harrowing ascent to Machu Picchu. Despite being brand new, the bus struggled to make it up the steep inclines and the winding one-lane road led to close head-on encounters with buses heading in the opposite direction. At one point, a passenger in the front let out a scream when faced with an oncoming bus, and then quickly laughed and apologized to the other, now terrified, passengers. The bus crawled to dizzying, impossibly high heights, allowing for quick glimpses of Inca terraces and ruins tucked into the mountains. After about 20 minutes on the winding path, we arrived to the gates of Machu Picchu and began the hike to the stone city in ruins named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. For help planning a Machu Picchu tour, or to arrange transportation and entrance tickets to Machu Picchu by train, please contact one of our Travel Advisors who can help you plan your Peru vacation.