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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Peru Vacation Day 5: Getting To Machu Picchu

Day 5 was one of the most anticipated days on this vacation. On this day, we visited the most visited tourist attraction in Peru by far, Machu Picchu. This post describes the process of getting to Machu Picchu by a combination of car, train and bus from Cusco. I will provide photographs in the next post. What we did in Machu Picchu will have to wait for the post after that.

Orientation map showing the relative location of Cusco (A), Ollantaytambo (B), Aguas Calientes (C) and Machu Picchu (D). The rail track from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes follows the banks of the Urubamba river all the way.

We were picked up at our hotel at about 5:30 AM for our trip to Machu Picchu. We had to be driven to Ollantaytambo in a car because the train to Machu Picchu runs only from there rather than Cusco. The drive from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was 77 km long, and took us through Chinchero and Urubamba. It was quite chilly and the sun was just rising, so the scenery was interesting as we drove in darkness while high peaks in the distance had the sun glinting off them. We also drove through several stretches of road where visibility was greatly reduced because of clouds on the road.

The driver did not speak to us. The car's instrument console was in the middle of the dashboard rather than behind the steering wheel, so it was easy to see the odometer, and keep track of distances and speeds from the back seat. The driver played a CD of instrumental versions of popular English songs during the drive. The drive took an hour and 20 minutes to cover the 77 km distance.

We already had tickets to the train (they had been given to us by our tour coordinator in Cusco on the day we arrived there) as part of our package. Usually, the train to Machu Picchu runs from Cusco (or to be more precise, Poroy), but heavy rain and flooding in December and January washed away stretches of the rail tracks, leaving Machu Picchu inaccessible for more than 2 months. Limited service from Ollantaytambo was restored in April. Perurail's website has notices saying that rail service has been resumed between Cusco and Machu Picchu as of July 1, but I saw no evidence that rail service had been resumed all the way to Cusco. All the passengers I met on the train had to make the trek from Cusco to Ollantaytambo by road to get on the train. Ollantaytambo is at KM 68 of the approximately 110 kilometer route from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

The train ride is 43 km long, and goes from an altitude of 2792 meters at Ollantaytambo to 2040 meters at Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu Pueblo). The train ride costs $51 each way (at least that is what our tickets said).

The train consisted of two self-propelled carriages, labeled A and B. Each had large diesel engines underneath for propulsion. The train had 2x2 seating on cushioned bench seats with no recline, but the seats were well-padded and quite comfortable. The seats were upholstered in cloth, and there were no tables or trays to put anything on. There were luggage racks near the entrances to the carriages where people could store backpacks and other hiking gear. We did not bring any luggage with us on this trip except our wallet and handbag, so we did not have any problem finding any storage space for our stuff.

Our tickets had our names on them, so our passports were checked against our tickets before we were allowed to board. Most passengers arrived at the station around 07:30 even though our tickets said we had to be there by 07:15, half an hour before the scheduled departure time of the train. At about 07:20, the train arrived empty (I have no idea from where exactly, I assume there is a rail yard hidden out of sight of the station somewhere). Boarding began around 07:25.

We left the station right on time at 07:45. Most of the route is downhill as we followed the right bank of the Urubamba river all the way. On the uphill stretches, the diesel engines were quite noisy, and it felt more like traveling in a bus with metal wheels than an actual train. Train-like noises were in evidence only in short stretches of the journey. The going was very slow, made even more so because repairs and reinforcements are still being done on the tracks and the rail bed in general all along the way. The train runs on a 3-foot narrow-gauge line.

The train was not very full initially. We were assigned window seats in different parts of the train, but we decided to sit together near one of the window seats (which was a mistake because these seats were on the right side of the train, and the view is much better out the left side of the train, across the river. The train runs along the right bank of the Urubamba river all the way). There are a couple of seats on the train up front that have a large front window over the tracks, to the left of the driver's small cubby-hole. Vistadome meant that there were a few windows at the corners of the walls and ceilings of the train compartment. The whole ceiling is not see-through.

The scenery was quite good, and kept changing quite rapidly all along the way. I spent most of my time in the first hour or so out of my seat taking pictures out of any window that I had access to. At around 08:20, we stopped at a stop that is simply known as KM 82. This is the traditional starting point for the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. A bunch of people got into the train at this point (this is also the farthest point that the road from Cusco extends to, so perhaps these people were trying to save some money by taking the train from this point rather than from Ollantaytambo), and the train became almost fully occupied.

The snack/meal service (that includes a beverage) started at around 08:30. Since the seats did not have trays or tables in front of them, passengers were handed baskets with food on them, that they had to balance on their laps while eating. The snack was quite small, but reasonably good. But the service was quite slow, and the snack cart blocked the aisle for a long time, impeding movement in the train for passengers interested in taking pictures. The snack service was, overall, a distraction that could have been avoided by having the passengers collect the food from a common point whenever they wanted to have it. The snack service is included as part of the price on the Vistadome train, whereas on the back-packer service, you have to pay for snacks in a separate dining car. The backpacker trains are also much longer with a dedicated diesel-electric locomotive as opposed to the short self-propelled vistadome trains.

In addition to the excellent scenery, I also saw lots of evidence of rain damage from earlier in the year. The river bank had caved in at several points and was being rebuilt with new rocks. Several buildings that had been built on the river banks were partially or fully swept away or were hanging precariously over the river as the bank below them had been washed away. The river valley started out quite narrow, almost like a canyon, and towards the end, it broadened out considerably. The river itself was quite placid at some points, but at other places, it was very turbulent and seemed ideal for white-water rafting.

We had to wait for a long time on a siding to let a train in the opposite direction pass us around KM 101. At KM 104, some people got off the train to start a shortened trek to Machu Picchu. The train pulled into the Machu Picchu station in the town of Aguas Calientes. The rail line forks at Aguas Calientes with one route stopping at the Machu Picchu station and the other route passing through the town of Aguas Calientes and continuing on to a hydroelectric station 18 kilometers further downstream. Unfortunately, the rail tracks to the hydroelectric station were destroyed by flooding and landslides a while back, so there is no train service beyond Aguas Calientes at this time.

The route had several tunnels (about 6 to 8 depending on what you count as a tunnel), but all of them were quite short. The longest took the train about 10 seconds to go through at its slow speed. The compartment had overhead lights, and these were on throughout the journey. There was no air-conditioning, with ventilation and cooling achieved by opening out windows as needed (there were small sliding windows on top of the main picture windows at seat level. The picture windows are fixed in place, and can not be opened). There was a also small restroom at the back of each carriage.

Announcements were made in Spanish and English. There was a short safety announcement soon after we departed mentioning the main exits and emergency window exits, but I don't think anybody paid attention to them. The only entertainment during the trip consisted of loud piped music that was generally quite bad. Some of it was in English, but most of it could not be heard clearly over the noise of the train.

Our train made it to Aguas Calientes by 09:55, a full 2 hours and 10 minutes after we left Ollantaytambo. That is a blazing-fast average speed of just under 20 kmph! We were met outside the train station by our guide. We had been given instructions to look out for someone in a green jacket, holding a yellow flag. It turns out Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are full of tour guides and groups, and guides have a system of using flags of different colors to make sure their wards can keep track of them and not get lost.

The guide was supposed to pick up more passengers arriving by a later train, so we had to wait at the station for about 45 minutes. Just outside the station is a very large market, so I used the time to roam around in this market for some time. The prices in this market were somewhat higher than in other places, but that is not surprising given that this is one of the most touristy towns in the whole world! Once the entire tour group was assembled, our guide walked us to the bus station for a bus ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu.

The bus station at Aguas Calientes is about a 10-minute walk from the train station. Buses run pretty much continuously between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. Our tour guide commandeered a whole bus for his group so that we could stay together. Otherwise, passengers buy tickets and wait in line, then get on the first bus that has a seat for them.

The bus ride is about 25 minutes long, and the route is 9 km long. It goes from an altitude of 2040 meters at Aguas Calientes to 2450 meters at Machu Picchu. The ride costs $7 each way (as printed on our tickets).

The zigzagging bus route between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.

About 5 minutes into the trip, we crossed the Urubamba river over a suspension bridge to the opposite bank before beginning our tortuous climb to Machu Picchu. The route is very winding and steep with numerous tight switchbacks. The road is unpaved and is barely wide enough for a bus in one direction, but buses did cross each other from opposite directions (this involved one of the buses pulling way over to one side of the road and waiting while the other bus negotiated past). Thankfully, there are no private vehicles allowed on this road. I was anxious about getting photographs from the bus (which is very difficult because of the twists and turns in the road as well as tall vegetation that obstructs the view in many places), but it turns out the view from Machu Picchu itself is the same as that from the bus on its way up.

Photographs from this trip are in the post after this one. Look out for it around the same time tomorrow!


Trips to Machu Picchu said...

Thanks for sharing about your Peru vacation and trip to Machu Picchu. I am heading to Peru in a few months and can't wait to see all the beautiful scenery!

Mike Williams said...

Wow that's great. Peru is such a fantastic place to visit. You will enjoy the vast expanse of nature with great scenic beauty. Apart from this you can hire a travel agent, he will help you for providing excellent services that will make your journey more beautiful.
Peru Travel Packages

Rashmi Chaudhary said...

Peru has awesome Archeologist treasures. Is it doing what's needed to guard them.

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