All You Need to Know About the Train to Machu Picchu

Planning a trip to Machu Picchu, but confused about how to get there? You’re not alone: before I went, the sheer number of different options for travelling from Cusco to Aguas Calientes took me weeks to get my head round. And even once I had decided to go by train, it seemed as though the world was conspiring to make the process of booking tickets as convoluted and unintelligible as possible. So here’s a simple guide which will tell you all you need to know about how to secure yourself one of those much-cherished seat reservations to Aguas Calientes.

Trek or Train?

There is no road to the ruins and so the two main options for getting there are on foot (along the Inca Trail) or by train.  The way you choose will depend on how much time you have, what your budget is, and whether or not you want to do some trekking. The Inca Trail is the most famous way of experiencing Machu Picchu and arguably the most authentic. However, hiking the trail takes 4 days and must be booked 3-4 months in advance, so taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu) is a good option if you’re short on time and plan to spend just 1 or 2 days visiting Machu Picchu. It’s also the least physically-demanding way of getting to Machu Picchu, making it ideal if you’re travelling en famille. With the train you don’t quite get the same experience of descending down onto Machu Picchu as the sun comes up over the ruins as you do when you trek the Inca Trail, but the railway does wind through the Sacred Valley and past some stunning scenery.

Needless to say, both the Inca Trail and the railway are heavily touristy and at times you’ll feel as though you’re not only following in the footsteps of the Incas, but of the thousands of other visitors schlepping to Machu Picchu that day. If you want to visit Machu Picchu but not feel like a tourist, the great news is that there are ways to do this that aren’t as demanding as the Inca Trail but that still give you a feeling for the local area. For example, you can tour Sacred Valley and travel to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo or follow the coffee trail through the Sacred Valley, staying in local villages and arriving at Aguas Calientes on foot.

The Train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes

Trains to Aguas Calientes leave Cusco at about 06:00 am from the San Pedro train station and arrive in Aguas Calientes at lunch time. If you’re planning on squeezing your visit to Machu Picchu into one day, once you get to Aguas Calientes you can set off straight away for the ruins. It is possible to see Machu Picchu on the same day as you arrive on the train, but the timing is tight won’t leave you much time to explore the site itself.

A better idea is to take the train up and stay in Aguas Calientes the night before you visit Machu Picchu. This means you can get up early and be in Machu Picchu before the hoards of day-visitors arrive, and get a full day to explore the ruins (most people spend about 4 hours wandering around, but allow for more time if you want to climb Huayna Picchu).

All You Need to Know About the Train to Machu Picchu

Photo: José Porras

How to Buy Train Tickets in Advance

You can buy your train tickets to Aguas Calientes from the Huanchac train station in Cusco. However, if you’re on a tight itinerary it’s advisable to buy them well in advance before you get to Cusco in order to make sure you get the day and time you want. This is especially important if you’re travelling during peak season (June-August). You can make your train reservation on www.perurail.com. The “Expedition” or “Backpacker” service is the cheapest and costs 290 soles (about $100) return. There’s also a Peru Rail office at Lima Airport and in Miraflores (in the Larcomar shopping center) where you can buy tickets.

If you’ve left it late and can’t find any seats left, don’t panic: travel agencies and hotels block-book the train tickets in advance which can mean that it’s difficult to reserve seats. 11 days prior to departure when these tickets have to be paid for, the seats become available again online on a first-come-first-serve basis. You can also ask your hotel to get train tickets for you. Although they will often charge a fee, it saves you having to worry about figuring out timetables and can be a big help if you don’t speak Spanish.

How to Get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu

To get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, you can either take a bus (20 mins and costs approx. $12) or climb the hill on foot (1 1/2 hours up steep steps). You can buy entrance tickets for Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes but since the office isn’t in the center of the town it’s better to get them in advance at the Tourist Ticket Office while you’re in Cusco.