Machu Picchu by train (for those who want to avoid the five-day trek)
There’s more than one way to reach Machu Picchu, and Lucy Jones found one that’s much easier on the feet.
In 1911, British explorer Hiram Bingham and a small band of weary (and somewhat disinterested) companions pushed through a final swathe of thick vegetation and stumbled upon one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century. Bingham thought he had discovered Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Incas against the Spanish conquistadors, but in fact he had discovered a site whose name is now synonymous with Peru; Machu Picchu.
Perched dramatically atop a mountain in the Peruvian Andes, Machu Picchu dates back to the 15th century, and had once been a retreat for up to 750 people, with terraced farms, houses and temples. And, almost 500 years later, it lay all but forgotten except by a few local farmers.
Today, there are at least seven trails that lead to Machu Picchu, taking from two to 13 days, the most popular of which is the five-day Inca Trail. The going is tough – particularly with the extreme altitude – and accommodation ranges from a pitch-it-yourself tent to plush lodges. I imagine travellers who embark on one of these physically intimidating treks must feel something of the same satisfaction that Bingham felt when he reached the summit on that drizzly July day. I couldn’t say – I caught the train.
The train begins in Cusco and passes through the Sacred Valley, picking up passengers in Ollantaytambo. But I was lucky enough to be staying at the Tambo del Inka hotel; not only is it the swishest digs in the valley, but it’s also the only hotel with its own train station, just down the track from the public station at Ollantaytambo.
The day requires an early start, but it’s made a lot easier when you can jump out of bed and walk across the gardens to your waiting carriage. Once onboard, the pace is sedate and the tracks wind gently through jungle and beside rivers, climbing steadily towards the peak. The full journey from Cusco takes around three hours; half that time from Ollantaytambo.
The train doesn’t quite take you all the way, and I hopped off in the town of Aguas Calientes. Just a few kilometres from Machu Picchu, this is the end of the line – a coach makes the final (slightly hair-raising) journey up a narrow winding road to the gates. Aguas Calientes is actually a very charming little town in its own right (though predictably over-touristed and over-priced). Café Inkaterra, sandwiched between the Vilcanota River and the train line, is perfect for a post-Machu Picchu meal on the way back down.
But first, the main attraction. Taking the train has the inestimable benefit of avoiding multiple days slogging along a muddy trail, but it does mean you enter by the main entrance (next to the ultra swanky Machu Picchu Lodge), instead of by the Sun Gate at the top of the site. The view from main gate is not as arresting, though I have it on good authority that the Sun Gate is fogged in as often as not. It’s only a short walk up an incline before you reach the first viewing terrace and… wow.
I have travelled to more than 40 countries in the past decade or so, visited beaches and mountains, temples and castles, and Machu Picchu remains the only place that has truly left me speechless. I had seen a hundred pictures of the site before I arrived, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer power of the place. Bingham must have thought he had entered another world, another time.
The site covers only around 13 square kilometres, but there’s a lot of walking to be done in a day. The high altitude (the ruins sit at 2,430 metres above sea level) is also a formidable foe, so you may find yourself moving a little slower than usual. Make the trek up to the Sun Gate for a truly spectacular view, but also take the time to poke around some of the ruins away from the central area. If you’re lucky, as I was, you may find yourself for a moment completely alone amongst the huge stones.
On the way back down the mountain the mood is more subdued, the passengers dusty and footsore. We sit quietly on the train, now plowing through darkness, and consider the ancestry of what we have just seen. But, before the crowd becomes too reflective, the Peruvian crew have a little surprise for us; a fashion show. Decked out in a range of alpaca hair jumpers, cardigans and ponchos, they dance up and down the aisle to music, encouraging passengers to stand up and dance with them. The purpose is to sell the items; but rather than feeling like a sales pitch, I found it arguably the best in-journey entertainment I’ve ever experienced. Airlines, take note.
I will admit that I was asleep by the time the train pulled into the station, my head resting on the cool glass of the window. Machu Picchu is overwhelming in every sense of the word, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I fell into bed that night with my legs aching, and my head still in the clouds.
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