Thursday, October 1, 2009

Peru: The road to Machu Picchu

This is post number ten on our Peru trip.

The only reasonable ways to get to Machu Picchu are to either hike the famed Inca Trail or to take the train. We took the train. The Inca Trail system is vast and covers most of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, etc. But the trail modern day tourists take is the one from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu (33 km and four days of backpacking, climbing and camping at high altitude) or any number of shorter treks starting at several points along the way. A guide is required to hike the trail and most of the time you will also get porters, gear and have your meals prepared for you. I understand that you'll need them because the trail is tough.

We took the "backpacker train" which is basic, but has a snack cart and bathrooms. The photo above is of the "vistadome" train which has the curved windows you can see on top and somewhat better seats and service. I think the price difference was $65 per person.

Any way you decide to get to Machu Picchu will cost quite a bit. The train company has a monopoly and the support required to hike the trail costs money. Furthermore, all trails lead you through the town of Aguas Calientes which sits at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. It exist purely to serve the tourist trade (and I use the term "serve" loosely as the service is awful) and hotels there will cost you twice as much as in Cuzco and will be half as nice. After spending two nights there we decided there is really nothing in Aguas Calientes that anyone needs to see. Spending one night there and taking a late train back to Cuzco would have been better.

If you'd like to hike the Inca Trail for a little way you can get off at the last stop before Aguas Calientes and hike the last rugged six hours or so of the trail.

Caleb on the train

On the train

The train trip from Cuzco takes approximately four hours and generally leaves early in the morning. The tracks descend from 10500 ft elevation in Cuzco to 8500 at Machu Picchu and they actually stop the train and back it up a zig zag track at one point. The tracks travel along the Urubamba river, past farmland and ancient terraces, mountains, glaciers and into the jungle. For some reason I had it in my mind that Machu Picchu must be at a higher elevation than Cuzco since it is called a "citadel," but it's not. The train company will only let you take one small carry-on bag per person. We left the rest of our luggage in the luggage lock-up room at our Cuzco hotel.

Urubamba river

The trip takes you into the jungle the nearer you get to Machu Picchu--take bug repellent

We got off the train in Aguas Calientes, which is the end of the line. We were met by a representative from our travel agency and porters from our hotel. The porters took our bags and the rep walked us a short distance to the bus station. Aguas Calientes is a small town and you can walk anywhere there.

View from the bus road near Aguas Calientes up at Inca farming terraces above the river and below Machu Picchu.

From Aguas Calientes you either have a long hike or you take the bus for a 25 minute ride up 14 steep switchbacks to Machu Picchu. The bus is also expensive, but they are convenient and save you a lot of time and energy. They were nice Mercedes Benz buses and made trips constantly back and forth all day. The photo above shows a view out of the bus window.

The bus road to Machu Picchu--taken on day two from the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu--it sure seems steeper than it looks in this photo when you are actually on the bus.

My next post will be about our first afternoon in Machu Picchu!

Copyright 2009 text and photos. All rights reserved.


  1. Sounds awesome! I love the pic of the Urubamba River! :)

  2. Oh Sue! Thanks for this wonderful tour!
    I feela s if I have already been to Peru, thanks to you:o)

    Side not for those who don't know-"Aguas Calientes" translates to "Hot Waters" and it sounds as though that particular town was indeed a tourist trap both figuratively and literally!

    Can't wait for the next installment :o)

    xoxox, Daff

  3. Thanks Daffy,

    Aguas Calientes has a hot springs which we were told was "sorta warm." We didn't go. Guess it's a good place for the hikers who come off the Inca trail and can't afford a hotel to take a shower though.

    The young backpackers spend the night at the bars and then get in line for the bus at 4 AM to get to Machu Picchu and get in line for one of the only 400 tickets they give to hike the Wayna Picchu trail each day.

  4. I have always wanted to see Machu Picchu...and then I saw the road the bus takes. I think I will just live it through your pictures!