We purchased our tickets from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of the mountain Machu Picchu sits on) about three weeks in advance on the PeruRail website, which was quite easy and straightforward, although knowing which train you want takes a bit of research. There were three options:
1) The “Hiram Bingham” train – a super luxury train that (as far as we could tell) only had the advantage that it served you a gourmet meal on the way. Price was around $300-350 return.
2) The “Vistadome” train (which we took) that was said to be comfortable with great viewing. About $75-100 return. Reviewed below.
3) A local commuter train, which if I remember right was like $50 return, but was said to be quite slow (at least an extra hour) and unreliable. Everything I read in advance said it was well worth paying the small amount extra for the Vistadome.
It wasn’t completely clear that we needed to print the tickets or anything, so the day before the train when we arrived in Cuzco we went to the PeruRail office (easy to find on the Plaza de las Armas) to see what the story was.
It was a good thing we went, because we found out not only that we needed a printout, but that heavy rains had washed out part of the track from Cuzco, so the first roughly half of the journey would be replaced by a bus. The only upside is that the bus would leave from a station in downtown Cuzco, only a 5 minute taxi ride, instead of the normal train station well outside Cuzco maybe a 30 minute taxi ride away. Small miracles I guess?
The busses seated around 25-30 people, but for some reason when we got on the bus there were only 6 of us total. On the way back, however, when the train unloaded straight to the busses our bus was full. Either way, it was a bit over an hour ride and decently comfortable. There wasn’t a ton of legroom, but there was enough that we didn’t feel squashed.
One important note, you are only allowed one small carry-on on the train, no more than 5kg in weight. We never saw anyone checking them, but this is because basically there’s nowhere to put any luggage. Lots of people are on daytrips so it’s not a big deal, but if you’re planning on an overnight stay (or two nights like we were) this could be a bit inconvenient.
On the way to Aguas Calientes and back the train was almost completely full. They seem to add cars as needed – on the way there there was only one car, but on the way back there were six or seven. This ensures most of them are full, if not almost full. Still, for the barely 90 minute journey it was plenty comfortable. A few fews from the train on the way to Aguas Calientes:
On the way there, it was a nice quiet ride. They served a small snack and drinks (non-alcoholic only, alcoholic available for purchase) and otherwise left you alone to enjoy the views. Most of the way you wound alongside a rushing river, and between the mountains, and it was an amazing view. The train cars are perfectly designed to maximize the view with huge windows on the side and on top – I was actually quite impressed! On the way back, however, it was quite a different story!
Like the way there, they served a small snack, but that’s where things got a bit strange. As soon as the snack baskets were collected, some loud music came over the speakers, and they started a fashion show…modeling clothes up and down the aisle of the train and trying to sell things. We weren’t really paying attention, but I think it was wool or alpaca products – scarves, sweaters, etc. It lasted about 15 minutes, and then was followed by what I can only describe as a dancer in some sort of costume. It was just strange!
Perhaps the strangest thing, to me at least, is how many of the tourists on the train seemed to get really into the fashion show and the costumed dancer. Several people purchased the products for sale, and the (mostly korean and japanese) tourists were really getting into the dancer and the music, several getting up into the aisle to dance along with them. It was actually fascinating people watching!
When we arrived in Aguas Calientes there were representatives from several hotels waiting there to meet guests, and the whole thing was quite well organized. There’s also a huge market right at the train station where you can buy all sorts of souvenirs and such. Perfect for that last minute Machu Picchu necktie or cigarette lighter you didn’t know you needed!