Getting There: While many people like to hike the Inca Trail, it was not my interest to do so. It takes several days and you have to camp out in somewhat poor campsites and have to cross several very high passes.
On my first trip operated by Country Walkers, we took the first class tourist train from Ollantaytambo (now called the Expedition train operated by Peru Rail), then got off the train at Km 104 and hiked to the Inca ruins of Huinay Huayna where we had a picnic lunch. You pass through the cloud forest with wonderful begonias and orchids. We then hooked up with the Inca Trail and entered Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate (Intipunku). It was an amazing way to see South America’s best known and most spectacular archaeological site. You have all of the advantages of the long route but without the high passes and the camping.
You can also take this train all the way to Aguas Calientes if you don’t want to hike. This train also operates from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes. Peru Rail also operates the Vista Dome, from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and back. This has domed cars for great views.
For my second trip, I took the luxury train from near Cuzco to Machu Picchu. Belmond (formerly Orient Express), through Peru Rail, operates the Hiram Bingham which you can do in a day or else spend the night. I opted for the one day adventure and loved the experience.
After breakfast, I left my hotel in Cuzco for the train just outside of town. You leave just after 9 am and arrive around 12:30. You are seated in a lovely dining car where you will enjoy an early lunch on the way to Machu and a wonderful dinner on the way back. The train cars are decorated in the style of the famed Pullman coaches from the 1920’s with white table cloths and great service. There is a bar car and an observation car at the back where you can see the views along the way. The train goes somewhat slowly so you can definitely see the countryside.
There was music in both directions with many dancing on the way back. It was like a “party train” where you could meet your fellow travelers. I met a couple who I later had dinner with in Bogota, Colombia and a great woman and her husband from Australia who I am still in touch with on Facebook.
Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes, you are taken by private bus to the archaeological site. All tickets and admission are included. Here you are assigned a guide and given a small group tour of the ruins. Afterwards you have afternoon tea at the The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, before heading back to the train for a 6 pm departure. After music, cocktails and dinner you arrive back in Cuzco just after 10 pm, in time for your transfer to your hotel. A full, but amazing day.
Exploring the Site: This wonderful site was built in 1450 and then discovered by accident in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. At that point all the buildings were thickly overgrown with vegetation. It was cleared between then and 1941. There are several new sites in the area that were recently discovered. It was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
I loved exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu, seeing the Sacred Plaza, the temples, House of the High Priest and the Intihuatana carved pillar which was used to tell the time of year. The Incas were able to predict the solstices using the angles of the pillar and therefore to help predict the growing season.
On both trips, I have had a guide which I think is a great way to experience the ruins. If you stay overnight, then make sure to get up early and experience it before the crowds. Some like staying at the site overnight during a full moon.
Where to Stay: There are two great hotel options. The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is now operated by Belmond (Orient Express). It is located right next to the site which allows you to easily see the site at sunrise or during a full moon. It is a smaller property with a small dining room. The room rates are quite expensive.
My recommendation is to stay down from the site in Aguas Calientes at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. I stayed there my first trip and re-visited it on the second. It is a lovely property with attractive rooms and beautiful gardens and grounds. There is a cafe and a more upscale restaurant along with a spa. I remember a great massage after a full day of hiking.
You can always take the first bus up in the morning and still experience the site before the tourists arrive. You are also near the vendors selling local crafts near the train station.