Machu Picchu Trains
Due to its location on top of a mountain, Machu Picchu is inaccessible by road, and while it is possible to hike to the site via the Inca Trail or an alternative trek, most tourists choose to arrive by train. The train station is actually located in the town of Aguas Calientes, at the bottom of the mountain, from there it is just 20 minutes by shuttle bus to Machu Picchu.
The two companies that serve the route are Peru Rail and Inca Rail. Both of which offer a range of train services, linking Aguas Calientes to various stations in the Sacred Valley and to the station of Poroy for the city of Cusco. Trains depart daily throughout the year and cater to every budget, from the ‘backpacker’ Expedition train to the 5-star luxury Hiram Bingham train.
PeruRail are the original train operator in Peru and have been running trains from Cusco to Machu Picchu for over 40 years. They offer three classes of train on this route, and we work with all three - in fact, the Vistadome is our standard option - but for many people the question boils down to: should I choose the Expedition or the Vistadome? Read on to find out our recommendations:
The Expedition train (formerly known as the 'Backpacker') is PeruRail's entry-level service, but it's nothing to be sniffed at. Since the carriages were upgraded in 2013, the seats are comfortable, the windows are larger and you also get overhead windows so you can enjoy even more of the scenery.
There are several Expedition trains a day between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, but only one service goes all the way through from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back again. This usually leaves Cusco at 06:40, getting into Machu Picchu at 09:40; on the way back it leaves Machu Picchu at 15:20 and gets in at 19:05. However, it's easy to arrange transfers from Ollantaytambo to Cusco and in fact the road journey on this section is actually slgihtly quicker than the train!
Before the Expedition carriages were upgraded, comparing the Vistadome and the Expedition was easy: the Vistadome was simply much more comfortable. These days, however, if you look at a simple bullet point list, it's not easy to see what the extra £20 for the Vistadome gets you. Once on board, however, it's much more clear.
The big, big difference is quite literally in what you can see: the windows on the Vistadome essentially cover the entire side of the carriage and much of the roof. And when the scenery outside is this good, that's a big bonus. The seats also are more comfortable, and a much wider range of food is available. On the return journey you also get a fashion and dancing show: opinions vary as to whether this is a good thing or not...
There are usually two daily departures running all the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back, leaving Cusco at 07:35 and 08:25, and coming back at 16:43 and 17:23 - again, there are additional services just between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.
Belmond Hiram Bingham
And finally, we also have the Hiram Bingham. There's no doubt that this luxury train is the way to arrive at Machu Picchu. With its 1930s Pullman-style carriages, including a gorgeous bar car and a dedicated, open-backed observation carriage, the comfort levels on the Hiram Bingham eclipse anything else available on this route.
The downside? Well, there really isn't one, apart from the price... At getting on for £400 each way, it's more than four times the cost of the Vistadome, and for a four-hour journey it's a lot to justify. Admittedly you get a proper lunch, free drinks all the way, and high tea at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu, but even so...
The new(ish) kid on the block, Inca Rail has been running trains to Machu Picchu since 2013, and has provided much-needed competition on the route. Their entry-level class (known as Executive) compares well to PeruRail's Expedition class, and they also have First Class carriages which are similar to the Vistadome. Inca Rail don't have separate First Class trains in the way that PeruRail operates the Vistadome, however - more like British trains, they just have separate carriages on the same service.
Inca Rail's Executive class is pretty similar to the Expedition class on Peru Rail. Again, you have reasonably comfortable seats, all with a table, and you get a free drink and snack. The windows are the same size as the Expedition, but you don't get the roof panels. Because the two trains are basically similar prices, we would probably go for the Expedition but would have no hesitation in using the Inca Rail Executive class either.
There are several services a day between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, but only one which runs right the way through from Cusco. This departs at 05:55 and gets you into Machu Picchu at 08:48 - all the Inca Rail services have a slightly shorter journey time than the Peru Rail alternatives.
While the Executive and the Expedition are pretty similar, Inca Rail's First Class option offers something a little different to the Vistadome, in that you actually get a full at-seat lunch service as well as little bonuses like a welcome cocktail. It's just a little more expensive than the Vistadome (by around £10 or so) but if you'd like to arrive at Machu Picchu having had lunch and ready to explore, than it's well worth considering.
The only slight downside is that the First Class carriages only operate on the 11:15 departure between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu - no problem if you stayed overnight in the Sacred Valley beforehand, but if you're coming from (or going back to) Cusco then we'll need to arrange the extra transportation for you.