Train to Machu Picchu

After Cusco, we transferred to the town of Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo) as our base for exploring Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is situated a couple miles from Machu Picchu, and is the main way in and out of the ruins. The town exists only to serve the Machu Picchu tourism industry. Squished between the Urubamba River and neighboring mountains, Aguas Calientes is only accessible by trail or train. Like most tourists we took the train! (Lauren and I hiked the classic Inca Trail almost 14 years ago, before kids. We and the kids weren’t up for it this time).

Most trains to Aguas Calientes start at the town of Ollantaytambo, about a 2hr drive outside of Cusco. Ollantaytambo is a famous Inca ruin in its own right, and is fairly touristy (hostels, restaurants, and plenty of vendors selling trinkets and a seemingly-endless supply of woolen goods). (see the previous post for our trip to Ollantaytambo!).

Since we prefer sitting in trains to sitting in small vans or taxis, we elected to take the new-this-year train directly from downtown Cusco’s San Pedro station. This train is slower than the “bimodal” option of driving to Ollantaytambo and getting the train from there, but we had time to spare and figured it would be more comfortable. Our train also left at the reasonable hour of 8:30am. Many trains to AC require a 3am or 4am start to the day. Not a wise choice with a preteen who thinks that 9am is early!

Train service along the line can be interrupted by landslides (as happened to us last time we were here), but we had no such problems this time. The train (Inca Rail’s Voyager) was the low end of the 3 different classes of service. We had 4 comfortable seats around a table*, and large picture windows. It was entirely adequate.

As a train (and transportation) buff, I appreciated the journey out of Cusco. Cusco is set in a river valley surrounded by mountains. The train from Cusco has to climb over a ridge before descending more than 4000’ along the river towards Aguas Calientes. A train’s steel wheels on steel rails help make it very efficient for moving goods and passengers, but a downside is that they aren’t very good at going up hills – there just isn’t enough traction. As a result the civil engineers had to be creative to get the train over the ridge in Cusco. They used a series of switchbacks (zig-zags) in the track. The train travels along the side of the hill for a ways, climbing slightly. Then it reverses direction onto a different track that climbs a bit more along the side of the hill. Then it changes direction again, and so on until it reaches the top. I found it fascinating, and the views of Cusco were great. Wasn’t very fast though!

Cusco from the train

Once over the ridge, we trundled through fields and valleys towards Aguas Calientes. The scenery changes from quite dry in Cusco to a high-altitude rain forest in Aguas Calientes. Our route was flanked by towering snow-capped mountains, shallow rivers, farms – both on the valley floor and up the sides of the mountains – small towns, and the occasional Incan ruins. The Incas were a prolific civilization, and there are plenty of lesser-known sites scattered about the Urubamba valley. In a couple spots we had the interesting juxtaposition of cacti in front of us and snowy mountains in the distance.

The fertile Urubamba valley, more commonly known as the Sacred Valley

We also passed the Sky Lodge, a “hotel” set into the side of a cliff 1200 feet up. You get to the sleeping pods by climbing an iron ladder set into the rock. Honestly I assume the experience is incredible, but it’s not for us. Matt D if you’re reading, this is your kind of place!

The Sky Lodge. What is the toilet situation up there?

In Aguas Calientes, the railroad runs right down the main street. Not such a big deal given that there are very few motor vehicles here (most roads are pedestrian only)! The train is the lifeline to the town, and all goods are brought in by train – even construction materials. We saw workers unloading loads of brick and rebar from a freight train. They then pushed this uphill on wheelbarrows to the construction sites. It looked exhausting. Luggage, food, bottled water, and everything else had to be carried or pushed up the hills as well. I bet that someone with an ATV and a trailer could do a brisk business here.

Train running through town. We had a great lunch at Tito’s House, and enjoyed watching the trains from our table on the balcony.

More to come on Aguas Calientes (including a noisy surprise)!

* An aside for anyone considering Inca Rail. Their staff are either incapable of or unwilling to fulfill seating requests. We picked up our reserved tickets several days in advance (almost as early as allowed), and I specifically asked the agent for 4 seats together. The agent gave me 4 sequentially-numbered seats for both journeys, assuring me they were together. However they were 2+2 rather than all together on one leg and 3 + 1 on the other. Luckily a nice couple were willing to switch seats so the 4 of us could sit together on the way to Machu Picchu. We were not so lucky on the return trip, which despite being a higher class of service wound up having a bit of free-for-all seating (mainly as people ignored the seating assignments on their tickets that were reinforced by staff upon entry to car). Very disappointed in Inca Rail for these experiences. Airlines and even bus companies figured this out years ago.

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