Back when we first started planning our trip to Peru, Machu Picchu was one of the very first things on our trip itinerary. With its rich history, picturesque scenery and status as one of the seven wonders of the world, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to visit. And that’s the way it is for most Peru-bound travelers. Nestled at the top of the Andes Mountains, each year nearly one million tourists make the trek to Machu Picchu. For better or worse, Machu Picchu has become the pinnacle of Peru’s tourism industry; a cultural phenomenon on the bucket list of any avid traveler.
In order to get to Machu Picchu, we decided to use the most popular form of transportation: The PeruRail Expedition train ride from the city of Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu). While the train ride is only about 60 kilometers, it actually takes over three hours to get from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. This is due to a combination of winding train tracks, sharp changes in elevation, and outdated railroad infrastructure. That’s why actually getting to Machu Picchu might seem like quite the hassle…at first.
In reality, the train ride to Machu Picchu might just be better than Machu Picchu itself. A controversial opinion, I know. But the incredible views that the train offers of the rural regions of Peru that are untouched by tourists are stunning. Even better, the train offers a food and drink service at surprisingly low prices so patrons can enjoy a cup of tea or a sandwich as the beautiful views whiz by.
And for when you arrive at Machu Picchu, don’t forget to check out our Ultimate Guide to Machu Picchu and sustainable tourism while there.
We had no idea what to expect for a train ride in Peru. Knowing that the railroad infrastructure isn’t as advanced as it is in the U.S., we tried to keep our expectations low. But when we finally got to enter the PeruRail train car and take our seats, we were very pleasantly surprised by how nice the train was.
Each train car was outfitted with comfy reclining seats and small tables, with large windows lining both sides of the train and the ceiling. Also, each train car has a bathroom, which were actually pretty clean. There are luggage racks at the front and back of each car to store your larger luggage, but there is also plenty of room under the seats for a personal item or two.
Our favorite amenity by far was the food and drink service. Two PeruRail train attendants make their way down the train car’s aisle with a cart, offering up beverages, snacks, coca tea, and sandwiches. Everything is fairly reasonably priced, and the food is actually pretty good! We recommend the cheese sandwich and a hot cup of coca tea.
The train departs from Poroy, a small town just outside of Cusco. The ride starts in a more urban and flat landscape, with lots of surrounding farmlands and animals. You even pass through a few small towns.
The PeruRail train makes a few stops along the way to Aguas Calientes, the most notable being the train stop where those hiking the Inca Trail depart to start their hike. The train even makes a stop beneath the Skylodge Adventure Suites, a hotel where visitors can stay in a glass pod hanging halfway up a cliff.
As the train ride progresses, the landscape begins to drastically change. The train’s surroundings narrow and tall mountains shoot up seemingly out of nowhere. Our favorite sights were as the train snaked its way alongside the Urubamba river. It was also really cool as the train made its way through a few dark tunnels.
When you do finally arrive in Aguas Calientes, you’ll be pleased to know that the train station is pretty beautiful. It’s surrounded by steep green mountains, with colorful flower gardens flanking the exits. Just outside the train station, there is a small marketplace where small goods and items are sold that you will walk by as you make your way out onto the street.
Planing Your Trip
If you’re planning your trip to Peru and want to add Machu Picchu to the list, make sure you book your PeruRail Expedition train tickets in advance to ensure that you get a good itinerary. You can book your train tickets here. We recommend that you minimize your time spent in Aguas Calientes, since it’s very touristy and expensive and we didn’t really enjoy our time there.
Getting to and from the PeruRail train station is fairly painless. Located about a 20 minute drive outside of Cusco in the small city of Poroy, the easiest way to get to the train station is by taxi or Uber. We were told that 40 soles (approximately 10 USD) was a pretty standard fare for a ride to the train station. And while that might be slightly on the expensive side, we were happy to pay it. Our driver even agreed to meet us at the train station again to pick us up when we arrived back the following day.
It’s important to arrive at the Poroy Train Station at least 30 minutes before your train leaves. This is advised by PeruRail on each ticket, and we were glad we were early since the station was already so crowded. The Poroy Train Station is really nice, and there is lots of seating for while you wait. And if you’re leaving super early in the morning, don’t worry! There is a coffee and food stand at the train station where you can grab breakfast and get your caffeine fix. It’s pretty much the same food and beverages offered on the train, though slightly less expensive.
When returning to Cusco, we recommend you arrange to be picked up if at the Poroy station ahead of time if at all possible. This is mostly because there are a whole swarm of taxi drivers that will aggressively try to give you a ride when you arrive back at the train station. You can avoid the gaggle of cab drivers a bit if you already have your ride arranged.
Getting to Machu Picchu
Once you have arrived in Aguas Calientes (pictured below), you have a few options for how to get to Machu Picchu itself. The first and most popular option is to take the shuttle bus. Bus tickets have to be purchased in person, but you can buy them at the Aguas Calientes bus station which is walking distance from the train station. Tickets cost approximately $25 USD for a round trip ticket. The first bus leaves at about 5:30 AM, and it’s about a 20 minute bus ride to get to the gates of Machu Picchu.
The second option is to hike up to Machu Picchu. You obviously won’t want to select this option if you have a lot of heavy luggage, but it can be nice to stretch your legs after a long train ride. Keep in mind that the hike is pretty steep and typically takes about one hour. The good news is that at about 8,000 feet up, the elevation in Aguas Calientes is slightly lower than Cusco’s 12,000+ feet elevation. This means you’ll be breathing slightly more oxygen so the hiking should be a little easier.
PeruRail Expedition: Better Than Machu Picchu Itself?
While I won’t go so overboard as to say that the PeruRail Expedition train ride is actually better than Machu Picchu itself, I will say that the train ride was one of our favorite parts of our trip to Peru. While Machu Picchu was crowded with tourists and maybe a little overhyped, we loved as the train made its way through the picturesque yet rural areas of Peru.
Overall, we know you’ll really enjoy both the train ride to Machu Picchu, as well as Machu Picchu itself. Just make sure to bring a fully charged phone, plenty of water and snacks, and a raincoat for unpredictable weather.
TL;DR? Here’s Your PeruRail Expedition Cheat Sheet:
- Buy your train tickets here. Buy your Machu Picchu admission ticket for $70 USD here.
- Take a taxi or Uber to the Poroy train station; leave at least 1 hour before your train is scheduled to depart. Bring cash for food or beverage purchases on the train.
- Minimize time spent in Aguas Calientes (It’s a total tourist trap, trust us), but if you must spend the night, we loved our Airbnb.
- To get to Machu Picchu, either take the shuttle bus for approximately $25 USD or hike to the top.
- Use our Ultimate Guide to Machu Picchu and sustainable tourism while there for details on what to expect.
- For your return, arrange to be picked up at the Poroy train station ahead of time to avoid swarms of eager taxi drivers.
- Any questions? Reach out to us! We’re happy to help.
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