Most travelers use the city of Cusco as a starting point for a visit to the famous Incan archeological site, Machu Picchu, which lies 75km (47 miles) northwest of Cusco. This complex of terraces and temples is enthroned above the Urubamba Valley at 2,430 meters (7972 ft) above sea level. The trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu involves an almost 1,000-meter descent (3281 ft) and offers a fascinating change in vegetation over the course of the journey. But how do you get to Machu Picchu? The only way to get there is by train or by an arduous hike. There is no public road leading to Machu Picchu.
A side note: When I say "get to Machu Picchu," I mean reach the village of Aguas Calientes, also called "Machu Picchu Village." This lively tourist town is located at the bottom of the Urubamba valley, below the citadel of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes, shuttle buses go up to the ruins; the bus journey takes about 25 minutes. As an alternative, you can also hike from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu.
The most convenient way to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco is by train. Perurail and Incarail run daily trains between Machu Picchu and Cusco, Poroy, and Ollantaytambo.
Most travelers visit the citadel of Machu Picchu during a one- or two-day trip from Cusco. Daily trains leave from Cusco's San Pedro Station, which is not far from Cusco's Plaza de Armas and is therefore within comfortable walking distance of most hotels in the historic downtown area.
You’ll find a wider variety of trains departing from Poroy outside of Cusco, however. The railway station of Poroy is about a 25-minute taxi ride from downtown Cusco. All trains from San Pedro also stop in Poroy.
Boarding a train in Ollantaytambo is the best option if you plan to visit the scenic Sacred Valley of the Incas before or after your visit to Machu Picchu. A large number of trains to Machu Picchu departs from Ollantaytambo every day. The journey to Machu Picchu takes only about 90 minutes from there.
Note that Cusco's San Pedro Station and the Poroy Station have train departures only during the dry season from May to December. Both railway stations are closed during the rainy season between January and April. During the latter months, one must travel by road to Ollantaytambo to board the trains. Perurail and Incarail both offer a "Bi-Modal" service from Cusco, which means travelers are first taken in a private vehicle from their Cusco hotel to Ollantaytambo, a road journey that takes about 90 minutes. Once in Ollantaytambo, travelers board a regular train to Machu Picchu.
Additionally, the Hiram Bingham Train departs during the rainy season from the Belmond Rio Sagrado Hotel near Urubamba. You can travel from Cusco to the Rio Sagrado Hotel in a private Belmond vehicle in order to board the train.
Two railway companies run trains to Machu Picchu.
Perurail is the oldest railway company running trains between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Peruvian Trains & Railroads (PTV) and Belmond Ltd (previously Orient-Express Hotels Ltd) own Perurail.
The Hiram Bingham Train is one of the most luxurious trains running in South America. The train consists of 5 dark blue carriages, two of which are 1920s Pullman-style dining cars, another of which is a bar carriage, another an observation car, and another a kitchen car. The train departs from Poroy in the morning and returns from Machu Picchu at night. You get served brunch on the journey to Machu Picchu and enjoy dinner on the way back to Poroy.
We return from Machu Picchu on the Hiram Bingham Train on our tour Buenos Aires to Lima: High Andes & Machu Picchu.
Explorer Trains are the most economic option with Perurail to travel to Machu Picchu, but the service onboard is still excellent. You can board the Explorer Train to Machu Picchu from Cusco San Pedro, Poroy, and Ollantaytambo.
Vistadome Trains have more oversized windows than Explorer Train coaches and additionally have a window in the roof. The service on the Vistadome Trains is more refined than on the Explorer Trains, and the seats are more comfortable. You can travel on Vistadome Trains between Cusco San Pedro, Poroy, and Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu.
However, it is not worth paying a massive supplement for the Vistadome Train if you can get a reasonable price on the Explorer Train.
Incarail is a much smaller company than Perurail but still offers an array of different rolling carriages and a variety of comfort levels on its trains between Cusco and Machu Picchu.
The First Class Train is Incarail’s luxury train. The journey starts in Cusco's San Pedro Station with stops in Poroy and Ollantaytambo on the way to Machu Picchu. In the morning, guests are served breakfast and lunch before reaching Machu Picchu. On the way back to Cusco, a delicious dinner is served on board. The train has a small observation balcony in the bar car of the train. This train is an excellent option to travel comfortably to Machu Picchu; however, its services still cannot compare to that of the luxurious Hiram Bingham Train from Belmond.
The Incarail 360° Train has a large observation area in the middle of the train. The level of comfort on board the train corresponds to Perurail’s Vistadome.
The Incarail Voyager Trains are equivalent to Perurail Explorer Trains. You can board the Voyager Train in Cusco San Pedro, Poroy, and Ollantaytambo for the journey to Machu Picchu.
Be prepared to return late at night to Cusco if you decide to visit Machu Picchu in a single day from Cusco. Or, consider staying one night in one of the many hosterias in the picturesque Sacred Valley or in Aguas Calientes.
If you wish to consider hiking from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, there is a one hour and 30 minute hike that follows the Urubamba River and then climbs along steep paths and stairs up to the citadel of Machu Picchu. If you are physically fit, the walk is charming and mainly in the shade. If you plan to walk to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, you should consider staying in Aguas Calientes for the night.