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Friday, 8 September 2017

An Excursion To South America: 18. The Journey To Machu Picchu


Visiting Machu Picchu can be quite an expensive affair. The journey which will require changing a few modes of transportion and the purchase of an entry ticket can come to a whopping USD250 per person or even more.

After landing in Cuzco and assuming you've put up in its vicinity or in Sacred Valley, the first leg of the journey to Machu Picchu is a bus or taxi ride to the nearest train station. Train is literally the only means of public transportion that traverses a big section of the highland area to access the world renowned Machu Picchu. About 70% of people visiting Machu Picchu would take the train from Ollantaytambo as it is the westernmost village in the Sacred Valley and one closest to Machu Picchu beyond which the area becomes inaccessible by road. Poroy Train Station, on the other hand is nearer to Cuzco Airport but further from the ancient ruin.

The second leg of the journey is a train ride either from Ollantaytambo or Poroy to Aguas Calientes, a town that is not accessible by road.

The last leg of the journey is to take a shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to the base of Machu Picchu. From here visitors will still need to hike up a mountainous terrain to reach the fame citadel.

I am sharing an account of the journey I took to get to the base of Machu Picchu which includes an unforgettable train ride on Peru Rail.
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We started our journey very early in the morning as we had to change transportation a few times. Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel where we stayed is about 30 km from Ollantaytambo Railway Station and we first hopped onto our tour bus to get there. This bus ride took slightly less than an hour. Staying in and starting our journey from the central part of Sacred Valley does have its advantage compared to staying in and starting the journey from Cuzco as travelling time is greatly reduced. 
Ollantaytambo is an interesting town which I would love to explore but time was not on our side as we had a long day ahead of us. 
Passports are required to purchase train tickets and have to be shown before being allowed to board the train. There are two companies that operate train services to Machu Picchu namely Peru rail and Inca Rail providing a total of 15-19 outbound trips (depending on the season) between 6 am and 7pm daily. We went on Peru Rail.
Peru Rail offers three categories of trains, namely Expedition Service, Vistadome service and Hiram Bingham service. We took the mid-range Vistadome service which comes with large panoramic windows and additional windows on the roof allowing you to enjoy the spectacular scenery during the journey. A snack and hot drink are included with the Vistadome service. There is also a table in front of you. With the Vistadome service we get posh leather seats which are very comfortable with a lot of leg room. The price of tickets for Vistadome vary slightly depending on the various times of departure.  A two way ticket would cost something between USD 140-186 which is pretty expensive for a 1½ hour ride.
During the inbound journey we were served a piece of carrot cake and a hot drink of our choice. Other types of snacks are available but you will have to pay for them. 
This is one memorable train journey I've ever experienced.  The train is comfortable and clean and you get to eat and drink while enjoying a scenic panorama all the way.
The railway track runs parallel to a river and is surrounded by mountains of the Andes.
You get to savor beautiful sights of verdant abundance.
This leg of the journey which took 1½ hours was hardly a bore. The magnificent vistas of mountains, streams and a lush greeneries makes a natural therapy for a tired soul. 


The railway line ended in a tiny town called Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). We alighted here and made our way to the shuttle bus depot.

We passed through a market place with interesting local handicrafts for sale but didn't have the liberty of time to scout around.
Aguas Calientes is a very laid back town that lies in a deep gorge. It is cut off from all roads and enclosed by stone cliffs, dense forest, and two rivers. We didn't have time to explore this town too as our tour guide was eager to get us on the shuttle bus so that we could reach Machu Picchu as early as possible. There was a very long line of people waiting to board the shuttle bus and we waited a fair bit before we could hop onto one. For this reason visiting Machu Picchu during the peak season (June, July August) is best avoided.
Aguas Calientes is located at the base of Machu Picchu and it can be considered the only gateway to this ancient ruin. The only mode of transportion available from here is the green shuttle bus which takes visitors to the base of Machu Picchu.  Passports were again needed to purchase the bus tickets and to board the bus. 
The wait was getting very tedious and I did a few things to kill boredom like peeping into shops and restaurants and looking out for the indigenous people of Peru.
I saw some interesting food in one of the cafes and caught glimpses of some people wondering whether they were descendants  of the Incas. I was told the Incas have distinct hooked noses so these people caught on my camera must be Inca descendants (RHS pictures below) 

The shuttle bus ride lasted just half an hour but the return bus fare is exorbitant, costing  USD 24 per adult. Monopoly is the name of the game here so visitors have little choice but to pay. To save this money a number of visitors were seen hiking up the hill instead of taking the shuttle but this is going to require a lot more time and energy as there is another mountain terrain to scale after this bus ride which can only be done on foot.
There was already a big crowd at the base where the shuttle dropped us. The number of tourists allowed to visit Machu Picchu is limited by the Peruvian Government to 2500 per day as a measure taken to preserve this priceless site. The entry ticket costs USD 70 which again is very steep. It will be a sorry thing for those who travel all the way to the base just to find that they can't enter the site because the day's quota is up. By the way visitors are not allowed to carry big bags over 20 liters or to consume food in Machu Picchu. These have to be kept in lockers provided before the ascent. 
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The Return Train Journey 
After our visit to Machu Picchu we again board the Vistadome Service of Peru Rail to return to Ollantaytambo. The menu on board is different this time and we were given pizza, berries and a hot drink of own choice. 
This journey is especially unforgettable because there is entertainment and a fashion parade unseen before on other trains. A man in fanciful attire and wearing a beastly mask suddenly hopped onto our carriage mid-way into our journey. He monkeyed around and invited a few passengers to dance with him along the aisle. There was much laughter and cheers on board the train sprucing up this little journey.
There was also a fashion parade not by professional models but by the train's own staffs. Parading up and down the aisle promoting sweaters, scarfs, ponchos and shawls made of Peruvian alpaca wool, these guys made a good sale for Peru Rail that evening.


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