Machu Picchu is perhaps the star attraction of Peru, but it is not very accessible. The closest airport to this tourist attraction is in the town of Cusco, and from there there is a direct rail service to the town of Aguas Calientes. Two rail services companies namely Peru Rail and Inca Rail provides train services between the 2 towns. While both have various classes of services and provides departures from multiple points along the route, Peru Rail seems to have more frequent departures and one that matches my needs better. Costs were more or less similar for either one, but Peru Rail seems to be the more established of the 2 with Inca Rail being a newer entrant to this market.
From Cusco Poroy Station to Aguas Calientes, the train journey takes approximately 3 hours and 50 minutes. Along the way, passengers taking the train can start their journey from Urubamba (at the Tambo del Inka Hotel where I stayed) or from Ollantaytambo, a town about 30-40 minutes drive from Urubamba. There are the most departures out of Ollantaytambo making it the most convenient while only 2 specific departures in the early morning (7:35 and 8:25am) out of Cusco and 1 out of Urubamba at 6:50am. That was the main reason I chose the later morning train out of Ollantaytambo, giving us a longer sleep and taking a pleasant taxi ride to Ollantaytambo station. The number of return trips are equivalent in terms of frequency to the number of departures, constraining the return to Tambo del Inka in Urubamba and Cusco as well.
Travellers can purchase tickets for the rail journey online or at one of the Peru Rail ticket offices. For travellers transiting in Lima to get to Cusco, there is a Peru Rail ticketing office in the domestic terminal of the airport after security. Thus travellers waiting for their connecting flights can get their train tickets for convenience. Alternatively most hotel concierges should be able to help you book a train journey with no additional charges. There are Peru Rail ticketing offices in Cusco city centre and in Lima as well.
On the day of the departure, we arrived about 20 minutes earlier than our scheduled departure at Ollantaytambo station. The train station is basic with minimal facilities. Peru Rail has a simple check-in area with an office and a storage area beside the car park.
All we required to do was present our tickets to the staff waiting underneath the booth marked under Peru Rail. Across from the Peru Rail boarding counter is the Inca Rail waiting/boarding area.
By the platform, there is a waiting area for travellers who are boarding the Peru Rail trains. This is more like a basic open-air hut with a couple of benches. Nothing luxurious but with the cool breeze in the valley, it was a pleasant place to be. There was wifi in the waiting area as well though you might need a couple of minutes to connect to it.
At around the time of departure, our scheduled train arrives on the track. With our ticket, there is the carriage number (an alphabet) and the seat number. This meant we had to find the correct carriage which is closer to the boarding area that is the main entrance to the station.
By the entrance of the carriage there was a luggage rack that was already filled with luggages since this train originates from Cusco. Thus passengers planning to bring luggages should plan to board the train from Cusco. As with the amount of luggage, many of the seats were filled up already with eager travellers.
Our seats on the train was a booth with 4 seats facing each other with a table in between. Nearly all the seats onboard were configured in this manner, and as the Vistadome name represents, the cabin has large windows on the sides to optimize the view. There are partial dome windows overhead as well which gives the whole carriage an airy feel with the natural light brightening the space.
Tickets on the Vistadome includes a snack service and for this 10:32am departure out of Ollantaytambo, the snack was a sandwich and an apple. Beverages choice were between coffee, tea or juices. Only passengers boarding the train was provided the snack as it seems those from Cusco had theirs earlier.
Starting in Ollantaytambo, the views are of surrounding farms in the Sacred valley. Moving westwards, the train journey goes along the Urubamba river valley deeper into the mountain ranges.
Some of the sights that passengers can expect to see includes parts of the Inca trail and dwellings by the sides of the river. The winding river route means the train journey is not high-speed but provides the opportunity for some nice shots for the budding photographer.
Halfway across the journey, the train crew will appear once again with the snack and beverage trolley. Passengers are asked if they want to purchase additional snacks and drinks. There was a good variety of soft drinks, including Inca Kola and small bottles of liquor. The crew will even prepare Pisco sours if passengers demands it. Snacks includes chips and chocolates.
As we reach the second half of the train journey, the landscape changes gradually to a lush forest surrounding with the gushing Urubamba river in the centre. There is even a brief commentary over the speaker about the ecosystem within the Urubamba river valley.
The thick dense forests around the river as we approach Aguas Calientes meant it shielded much of the light and made it feel like we are going deeper into the valley. The narrow pass in this section also meant that there was only a single railway track, and that meant a stop at one of the bypass built so that the return train could make its journey back to Ollantaytambo.
From the bypass it was about another 30 minutes before we reach into the town of Aguas Calientes proper. The station in Aguas Calientes is actually larger and has a proper waiting lounge inside the rigid train station. The train station in Aguas Calientes is the gateway to Machu Picchu as we had to walk to the bus station about 5 minutes walk away from the train station. The bus is the only way for travellers to visit Machu Picchu.
Other than the waiting room and the restrooms in the arrival train station, there is a cafe selling refreshments. This slow train that took about an hour and a half was an enjoyable journey for first time travellers with a nice scenery that entertained me. However the cost for the train tickets at $70 for the one way including that small sandwich and glass of juice or coffee was on the steep side. Travellers should note though that aside from the hiking trail, this is perhaps the only other way to get to the town of Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu so there are no other alternatives.