Mystical, magical Machu Picchu. Visiting had always been a dream of mine and while I had assumed that I would first lay eyes on the citadel after hiking the Inca Trail it seemed fate had a different plan.
As time was of the essence on my first visit to Peru the Inca trail idea had to be postponed for another time. Instead we were to travel by train.
But any ‘oh that’s a shame’ ideas were quickly blown out of the water when I realised what train we would be on.
The Hiram Bingham is one of the world’s great train journeys, taking passengers from Poroy on the outskirts of Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo, the small town at the base of the world famous mountains.
While other Peru Rail trains travel on the same tracks, the Hiram Bingham is part of the Belmond family, which was formerly known as the Orient Express Group and is now the company behind the Venice Simplon Orient Express. So it’s fair to say they know a thing or two about luxury trains and I was a teensy bit beside myself about travelling with them.
Here’s a taste of what it’s like on board…
The Hiram Bingham Difference
From the welcome cocktails and colourful dancers twirling on the train platform to the gleaming 1920s Pullman style carriages waiting to take you to one of the wonders of the world, there’s no mistaking the Hiram Bingham for your average train.
There are two beautiful dining cars, a bar car and an observation car that has something I adore on a train – an open-air platform where you can feel the wind in your hair and really breathe in that countryside.
As we make our way through townships and farmlands, over Urubamba river rapids and into thick jungle the smells change as much as the view and I only leave the open air long enough to enjoy brunch in the dining car before returning to my favourite position.
A three-piece band of two guitars and a box drum have me smiling as they mix traditional songs in with some of their special twists on Elvis tracks, and while some opt for tea and coffee I’m not saying no to the friendly waiter who appears with a bottle of Peruvian sparkling wine, Intipalka Extra Brut.
While it’s easy to think that we’d be going up to Machu Picchu, in fact we are travelling down, starting at 3,486m (11,437ft) at Poroy station and going down to Machu Picchu at 2,430m (7,972ft). To help those suffering from altitude sickness the train has oxygen and coco tea on hand though fortunately my slight queasiness from Cusco has now left me, which means I’m free to enjoy…
What’s on the Menu – Food and Drink Onboard
As well as drinks and snacks in the bar car there are meals to enjoy in the dining car, with a ‘brunch’ that is more like a three course lunch on the way down to Machu Picchu and a four course dinner on the way back.
The train carries up to 84 passengers and everyone has a pre-assigned seat so there’s no need to jostle to try to sit with your friend or group.
The menu is set, although you can make some changes if you have dietary requirements, and all of the food comes from small organic family farms on the land the train travels through.
Our dishes were delicious and included Wayllabamba smoked trout with mashed fava beans, quinoa tabbouleh, Andean mint oil and airampo (Andean prickly purple pear) emulsion and a Sacred Valley corn cheesecake with purple corn and elderberry sauce for dessert.
If you’d like to splash out on a special bottle of wine you can order from the wine list, which includes Moet Chandon for US$195 a bottle, or you can simply enjoy the selection of wine, cocktails, beer, soft drinks and hot drinks that are already included.
Day Trip or Overnight
The Hiram Bingham takes around three and a half hours each way, which means it’s possible to go down in the morning, see Machu Picchu and return that night.
The day trip is a popular option and includes private bus transfers from the train station up to the citadel, entrance to Machu Picchu, a tour guide and afternoon tea before returning.
However we decided to do things a different way. Instead we went down in the morning, spent the afternoon and night in the Machu Picchu Pueblo town (formerly known as Aguas Calientes), went up the mountain to explore the citadel the next morning and then caught the Hiram Bingham back that afternoon.
Keep in mind that if you split up the journey the return trip is subject to availability and you will have to find your own way up to Machu Picchu and back. And do leave plenty of time to come back down the mountain as those bus queues can get very long and people have been known to miss their trains because of them.
One Way or Return
If you would love to experience the Hiram Bingham but your budget doesn’t stretch to the full package you may want to consider travelling in luxury one way and getting one of the other trains back.
A one-way ticket costs half the price of the full package return, but if you are only doing one way make sure it’s Cusco to Machu Picchu rather than the other way around.
The way back is still a gorgeous way to travel but once the sun has gone down you can’t see the views outside and the outside deck is closed, so if you can only go one way choose the daylight option.
If you do decide to break up your journey like we did there are a range of accommodation options in the town to suit every budget. We stayed at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu and I did a little video of my first impressions of my casita which you can check out here…
So there we have it, a memorable way to travel to the mountain I’d dreamed of visiting pretty much my whole life.
How about you? If you’ve been to Machu Picchu how did you make your way there and what was it like? And if you’re planning your first trip how are you dreaming of going? I’d love to hear more tales from this part of the world.
Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of PromPeru but all opinions remain her own.
Travelling to South America? The Hiram Bingham is just one of the experiences that South America and Antarctica travel specialists Chimu Adventures can arrange for your South American adventure. To find out more visit Chimu Adventures or give them a call to talk about your ideal holiday in Latin America.
Love trains? You may also want to check out my piece on Norway’s great rail journey, the Oslo to Bergen train, find out what it’s like to spend a night in one of the Spirit of Queensland’s RailBeds (they’re more like a business class plane than a train) or find out why I loved the Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to San Diego.
And if you’re heading through Santiago on your South American adventure you may want to check out my piece on whether Bellavista is the best place to stay in Santiago.