In planning our trip to Machu Picchu, we weren’t able to find a good overview of the journey from Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) to the actual site. Also, the recent rule changes regarding entry times to, and guides for, Machu Picchu made us a bit unsure about what to expect. Below, we have outlined our recent travel experience, including getting from Cusco airport to Poroy train station, our thoughts on the actual train ride to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), getting bus tickets up to Machu Picchu, and the general procedures for getting on the bus and visiting Machu Picchu.
Getting from Cusco Airport to Poroy Train Station:
The Cusco airport (CUZ) is surprisingly small given the popularity of the region. We had an early morning flight from Lima that arrived at 6:15am. Upon exiting the terminal, there were plenty of taxis vying for our business. We tried to use Uber; however, its service is currently limited to the Cusco city limits. Unfortunately, Poroy train station (where the train to Aguas Calientes departs) is a bit of a drive west of Cusco and, therefore, outside Uber’s current reach.
Our taxi ride to Poroy took approximately 30 minutes in light traffic and cost 35 soles. The ride out of Cusco took us through some pretty poor neighborhoods, though they didn’t seem that dangerous looking out from the car. There were, however, numerous stray dogs running around, which did not help our impression of Cusco’s outer neighborhoods. The roads heading out of Cusco were in poor condition, which make the ride somewhat uncomfortable.
The taxi dropped us off at the entrance to Poroy train station, and the station itself was much smaller than anticipated – there is a single room with seating and a small cafe. The cafe serves coffee and snacks, but depending on the train schedule, the wait time can be anywhere from 30 minutes to non-existent. So, keep this is mind if you are trying to grab a coffee/snack before boarding.
When your train is next to depart (the train before yours just left), you will need to check in with the Peru Rail attendants. You will need to show your ticket and passport in exchange for a stamp on your ticket. Once your ticket is stamped, you will not need to show your passport upon boarding.
About 20-25 minutes before scheduled departure, the train will begin boarding. Line up at your corresponding train car and proceed to your car. There will be an attendant at the car to check your ticket one last time.
Peru Rail Vistadome Train from Poroy to Aguas Calientes:
Upon boarding the train, there is a decent-sized luggage rack (the ONLY place to store bags). We note that the advertised luggage policy states that the carry-on luggage allowance is limited to a maximum of “5.0 kg/11 lb and measuring no more than 157 cm (height + length + width).” However, this did not appear to be enforced – no Peru Rail attendants were weighing or measuring luggage. Nevertheless, all passengers seemed to have no more than a backpack and a carry-on-sized roller, if that, and this seemed to be acceptable. If you have larger luggage, you probably need to contact Peru Rail in advance (in accordance with their policy). If you are bringing anything other than a regular-sized backpack, our advice is to be at the front of the line when boarding begins so that you are one of the first people to board the train (and place your luggage on the luggage rack).
Once on the train and seated, we were surprised at how cramped the seating space was, especially compared to our other train travel experiences in Europe & Asia. Almost all seats on the Vistadome train are foursomes (two people on each side of a shared table). There wasn’t room to stretch your legs without kicking your tablemates, and the chairs hardly reclined. As noted above, there is no storage available at your seat. Accordingly, we placed our backpacks between our legs underneath the table. Needless to say, we felt a bit squished. For the price of the ticket, we expected a bit more.
Adding to the discomfort, the train ride itself was not very pleasant. The ride quality was not very good – it is bumpy, and the train seemed to sway back and forth a lot through the windy course. Also, due to the large windows of the Vistadome train, the cabin can feel quite hot at times.
The service on the train, though, was nice and courteous. The attendants were helpful and seemed enthusiastic about the area and its points of interest along the route. We were served an edible sandwich and small brownie in addition to non-alcoholic drinks. Later in the trip, snacks and alcoholic drinks were available for purchase.
The train ride is about 3.5 hours. The first 2 hours to Ollantaytambo are less scenic and go through small towns and agricultural areas. The 1.5 hours from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes are more scenic, as you ride along the Urumbamba River and into more lush mountains. The left side of the train is more scenic, as it is next to the river for most of the latter portion of the journey.
Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu:
Bus tickets do not need to be reserved in advance – you can purchase them upon arrival in Aguas Calientes. The bus tickets can be purchased at a little hut across from the bus station. You will need to show your passport when you purchase the ticket, and your ticket will have your name and information printed on it. A round trip ticket cost 78 soles per person at the time of writing and could only be purchased in cash (despite the numerous credit card stickers on the hut).
During peak times, the line for the bus can get very long and look overwhelming. However, several buses are running, and the line moves quickly. While in line, an attendant will check your ticket and passport in exchange for a stamp on your ticket. During peak times, the attendants also checked to make sure you had a ticket for Machu Picchu (because these cannot be purchased at the site). The buses depart once they are full.
The ride up to Machu Picchu takes approximately 20-25 minutes. As you can imagine, the route is essentially all switchbacks up a mountain. The road itself is only partially paved, and, therefore, the entire ride is very bumpy. The bus does get fairly close to steep drop-offs as it climbs the mountain, so if you are afraid of heights, don’t pick a window seat.
Visiting Machu Picchu:
Once you arrive at Machu Picchu, the entrance gate is up a slight hill and to the left from the bus drop-off. You will need to show your passport with your ticket to enter. Despite the stated no food or drink policy, our bags were not checked, and we did not see anyone else’s bags being checked. There were several guides just before the entrance vying for your business and stating that guides were needed. However, this did not seem to be true, as we walked right in during both of our visits – no questions asked regarding whether we were accompanied by a guide. Therefore, the recent changes to visitation rules that seem to require a guide are either not yet enforced or are currently being ignored.
We ended up visiting the site two days in a row. We had not planned to visit on the day we arrived; however, the weather was sunny and the next day’s forecast (our pre-purchased day to visit) called for rain and clouds. On our way from the Aguas Calientes train station to our hotel the day we arrived, we stopped by the Machu Picchu ticket office (different from the bus ticket hut) to see if any afternoon tickets were still available. Luckily, they had tickets, and we purchased them for 100 soles per person (which seemed to be cheaper than the advertised rate). After checking in to our hotel and grabbing lunch, we bought bus tickets from the hut and headed up to Machu Picchu at around 2:30pm.
Upon arrival to Machu Picchu at around 3pm, we observed an extremely long line of people waiting for the bus down to Aguas Calientes. However, when we left around 4:30pm, there was no line. Therefore, if you are in a hurry, you might try to time your bus ascent and descent during non-peak times.
Since we arrived later in the afternoon, there were far fewer people at the site, and we were able to take some great, sunny pictures with minimal people in the background. We didn’t rush through the site, but moved fairly quickly due to the time (the last bus down is advertised at 5:45pm, and we didn’t know if the line we saw upon arrival would get shorter). On a nice day, you could easily spend several hours exploring and taking pictures.
The next day was our scheduled visit, along with hiking Montana Machu Picchu (at an additional cost when purchasing your ticket). We arrived at the site around 8:45am to a sea of people and tour groups – much different than the previous afternoon. The weather was cloudy with intermittent rain showers. On our way up to the Montana entrance, we stopped by the Guardian’s Hut again to see that iconic Machu Picchu view. To our disappointment (although not unexpectedly), there was no view to be seen except for clouds. We were very grateful and lucky to have visited the previous day.
We continued on to hike Montana Machu Picchu (there are signs directing you uphill from the Guardian’s Hut). Upon arrival at the Montana gate, we had to sign in with our names, ages, gender, nationality, time of arrival, and signature. We were told we had until noon to reach the top before needing to start our descent. After 30 mins of hiking up large rock steps in the rain (that continued to get worse as we ascended), we decided to head back since the weather was deteriorating and didn’t show signs of clearing any time soon. We signed out at the gate and took the short route to the site’s exit.
Getting to Machu Picchu takes plenty of planning – and travel time. In the end, though, when you see the ruins, take in the magnificence of the surroundings, and get the postcard photo, the journey is worth the effort. If your schedule permits, we would suggest trying to plan more than one opportunity to visit the site, as weather cannot be predicted. Our short afternoon in the sun was much more enjoyable than the entire day we could have spent in the rain.
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