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Clickety-Clack Down the Track: Riding the Vistadome Train to Machu Picchu

October 18, 2012 at 11:35 AM | by | ()

Talk about bucket list locations, Machu Picchu is up there (literally). The sacred Inca city high in the Andes mountains of Peru isn't an easy place to visit, but thousands head there every day for a glimpse at the archaeological site. Having just returned ourselves, all this week we'll give you the low-down on how to get to this high place.

The Jaunted Goes to Machu Picchu Series:

1. Flying into Cusco
2. Sorting out documents
3. Riding the Vistadome train
4. Riding the Hiram Bingham Orient-Express (Part 1 - the train)
5. Riding the Hiram Bingham Orient-Express (Part 2 - the dining & extras)

You've got options. What train to take to Machu Picchu? There are three choices: the Expedition (cheapest, minimal), the Vistadome (affordable, comfortable), and the Hiram Bingham Orient-Express (pricey, but over-the-top luxurious). Booking a Machu Picchu trip on your own versus with a tour company means you've got the option to mix it up and try different trains. Here, we focus on the Vistadome.

It's far from a high-speed journey. The train trip takes 4 hours and averages $76 per person each way (bookable online at PeruRail), so turning Machu Picchu into a day trip from Cusco is doable (it's what we did!), but brace yourself to be utterly exhausted on the return and, well, pretty much over riding trains for a little bit.

One group of four travelers in our car confessed that this was their very first time on a real train train. You know, not a subway or the Epcot monorail or anything. What a way to pop your railroad cherry.

We were pleasantly surprised by the Vistadome; it beats most European regional trains for sure. The seat arrangement is 2-2, all seats have excellent views, and wood tables fold out for meals. Train attendants serve these meals atop actual place settings, but otherwise you're free to gaze out at the Urubamba River and up at the mountain range, or simply nap in the sun that streams through the skylights.

Nearing the end of the journey to Aguas Calientes, the train makes its only stop to drop off and pick up passengers in the Sacred Valley, in the town of Ollantaytambo. It's not long enough of a stop to step out, but that doesn't dissuade the local craft hawkers who walk along the track, holding up various colorful bags and souvenirs.

The arrival at Machu Picchu/Aguas Calientes Station is surprisingly uneventful. The station, even early in the morning after this first train arrival, is packed with tour groups counting heads. Outside, there's one exit and that's right into the labyrinth of the Aguas Calientes marketplace. If you haven't yet purchased something made with alpaca wool, the temptation here is extremely strong thanks to the sheer variety of colors and patterns. Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ain't got nothing on this place.

Hold on—you're not to Machu Picchu quite yet. There's yet another leg, that of the bus ride up the switchback turns to the top of the mountain where the archaeological site is found. For more on those tickets, check out our guide to the necessary tickets & documents.

Vistadome hot tips:

· Bring SPF and wear it in the train. We got such a scalp sunburn down our hair part because the windows above and because we had put SPF everywhere exposed but there.

· Poroy station is a 35 minute drive from central Cusco, without traffic. We had our hotel arrange a taxi to drop us off early in the morning and return at night to retrieve us. It worked out perfectly. There is a small cafe in the Poroy station if you want to grab a quickie breakfast.

· Seats are assigned and you get what you get. We were able to move to a free window seat but, at Ollantaytambo, more travelers got on and we had to return to our original, assigned place. No biggie.

· There are no power outlets on the train or within Machu Picchu (duh). Resist the urge to use your gadgets on the train if you also will rely on them later. For example: don't drain your iPhone battery listening to music when you plan on using it to take some photos at Machu Picchu. We bought a rechargeable backup iPhone battery from the Apple Store earlier in the summer, and it gives at least an extra four hours of life. Perfect.

· You don't really need to bring snacks unless you're diabetic or just really love snacking. The Vistadome provides breakfast and beverage service for free and there's no eating allowed within Machu Picchu. Outside the ruins, you can grab a bite in Aguas Calientes or at the buffet lunch served at the Sanctuary Lodge hotel just outside the Machu Picchu gates.

Disclosure: We rode the rails as a guest of Orient-Express, but all photos and opinions are completely our own.

{Photos: Cynthia Drescher/Jaunted]

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