Getting from Cusco to Aguas Calientes - the gateway to Machu Picchu

PeruRail is the primary train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes

If you’re heading to Macho Picchu, you will most likely be going through the town of Cusco – the gateway to the Inca ruins – to get there. Besides the ruins at Machu Picchu, there are incredible Inca ruins to see in Cusco and many places in the surrounding Sacred Valley. See our blogs titled Cusco – the ancient Inca capital and Touring the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru for more information before finalizing your trip plans.

There are a couple of options for getting to Cusco

  • Many people choose to fly into Cusco from Lima (a little over an hour flight) or several other Peruvian cities. I flew from Lima to Puerto Maldonado and stayed at a lodge in the rainforest (see our blog titled An Unforgettable Stay in the Amazon Rainforest for more on this). I then took a short 40-minute flight from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco.

  • Another option is to take a bus from Puno, which is located on Lake Titicaca in southern Peru. The tourist buses take 10 hours, which includes a number of stops at tourist sites, and lunch, along the way. I took the Inca Express tourist bus from Cusco to Puno for 65 USD. They do a similar one in reverse. I enjoyed the full day tour, with tour guide, very much.

Once in Cusco, it’s a good idea to allow a day or two to acclimatize you to the altitude of 11K feet. You can expect to be light-headed initially, have headaches for a few days and naturally have a hard time catching your breath. Even a simple flight of stairs can wear you out. While you’re in Cusco, take some time to see the many Inca sites in the city, the surrounding area and in the Sacred Valley. There’s a five-day city tour in the afternoon that covers all the major sites.

When you’re ready to head to Machu Picchu, there’s a couple of ways to do it.

  • Take the train from Poroy, which is about a 20-minute drive from most hotels in Cusco (you’ll probably need a taxi to get there; mine cost 40 Soles or about 13 USD), to Aguas Calientes. It’s a three-hour train ride with some incredible “get out of your seat in order to photograph” scenery along the way. There are a couple types of trains – the Vistadome and the Expedition. Both have panorama windows, which help capture the entire landscape. Ticket prices are about 55 to 75 USD (Expedition) and 77 to 90 USD (Vistadome) for a one-way ticket if you start in Poroy (Cusco). They are less if you start or finish in Ollantaytambo. For an extravagant train ride, try the Hiram Bingham from just under 400 USD (one-way). Visit the website for more information.

  • Hire a car and driver (through a travel agency) or take a tour that starts in Cusco and ends in Ollantaytambo. This will give you an opportunity to see all of the great sites throughout the Sacred Valley. In Ollantaytambo, you can spend the night and catch the same train to Aguas Calientes, the next morning, for a lower price. When returning, you can take the train from Aguas Calientes all the way to Poroy. Or, you can do it just the opposite way.

  • Another option is to sign-up with a trekking company in Cusco (make sure you do it well before arriving) and hike the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu. The typical hike is four days and three nights. The government only allows 500 people, including tour guides and porters, on the trail on any given day. This means there’s availability for about 200 hikers per day. Inca Trail spots fill up months in advance so make sure you contact a trekking company early on in your travel planning. I’ve heard a number of good things about Peru Treks in Cusco.

The panoramic windows on the Expedition train provide great visibility to the scenery especially in the narrow canyons

I caught the train, to Aguas Calientes, in Poroy after a taxi transfer from my hotel in Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood. Getting there a half hour ahead of time, as requested by Perurail, I chatted with an Englishman who was heading to Machu Picchu solo like I was. Soon, we were called to board the train. The boarding process is very straightforward. Your ticket assigns you to a specific seat within a specific car on the train. Each car has a sign at its entrance indicating the letter of the car. Just line up for the car you’re assigned to, show your ticket AND passport to the agent at the doorway to the car and then step on in. There were no overhead luggage racks on my train – only racks at the entrance to each car. Note that Perurail requests that you keep your luggage light (no more than 8 kg, which is about 18 pounds; most people leave their heavier suitcase at their hotel in Cusco and just bring a backpack since they’ll only be gone a day or two). I left my backpack (suitcase was left at my Cusco hotel since I would be returning there) on the racks at the entrance to car D – the one I had been assigned to. I was a little hesitant to leave my bag there since I had my laptop and camera in it. I decided to take my laptop out and carry it to my assigned seat. I noticed there was some room to put a bag behind my seat. I had a pretty good view of the bag racks so I figured I was good.

The three-hour ride was so delightful. I was sitting with a group from Costa Rica. Their English was about as good as my Spanish; however, we had a really good time together as we came across one photo op after another trying to keep up with all of the beautiful scenery visible on both sides of the car.

Soon, we were pulling into the station at Aquas Calientes, which is located along the Urubamba River. I grabbed my bag and hopped off the train. I tried to get my bearings on the map app on my iPhone. I wasn’t getting a connection, so I set off and just started asking a few people along the way where the Terrazas del Inca Hotel was located. It couldn’t be too difficult to find. I had an address and the town is fairly small. After promising to come back to his restaurant the next day for giving me directions, I quickly arrived at the hotel. A young lady, Nelly, greeted me and within a few minutes was showing me how to work everything in my room.

Aguas Calientes is a small, touristy town. Pretty much the only people coming here are those heading up the mountain to Machu Picchu. After checking in, I went in search of the small bus station where I could buy my ticket for the ride to the top of the mountain the next day. They didn’t start selling tickets for tomorrow’s rides until after 2 pm. So I decided to have some lunch and went off in search of Indio Feliz Restaurant – rated high on TripAdvisor and also suggested by Nelly at my hotel. Being mid-afternoon, and many people still up on the mountain, I found plenty of tables inside the mountain cabin-looking interior. I had the salmon trout in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and chili along with a spicy sauce on the side. Served as a filet, it was one of the best trout meals I have ever had. The sauce that came on it was delicious. A tiny spoon of the spicy sauce gave it just enough heat to suit my tastes.

People are lined up to purchase their bus tickets (Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu) from the little kiosk

After purchasing my bus ticket for the next morning for 19 USD (not cheap for a 25-minute ride up a mountain), a little siesta and then connecting with my tour guide about the next day, I set off for another one of the excellent restaurants in town – the Treehouse. Well, it wasn’t really in a treehouse; however, after climbing a number of stairs to get there, I felt like it could have been in one. As a starter, I had the choclo endos texturas, which is creamed corn soup with Huacatay foam and sweet tamales. For an entrée, I had the ravioli de camote, which is quinoa flour raviolis stuffed with sweet potato, Brazil nuts, ricotta, and Parmesan cheese with pesto. It was absolutely delicious.

After leaving the Treehouse, on the way back to the hotel, the electricity went out in the entire town. I mean it was pitch black. I had a flashlight in my bag; however, didn’t think to bring it to dinner with me. I walked carefully and stayed just in front of someone with a flashlight walking down the street I was on. I stumbled my way back to the Terrazas del Inca. I went to bed soon after because tomorrow would be an early morning.

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