The Cheap Train to Machu Picchu
Note: This story was translated and edited from my wife’s and sister-in-law’s account. As an American, the closest I got to the local train was passing one on my journey:)
Even the “cheap” $3 train to Machu Picchu has a hierarchy. Or so the woman, a native of Cusco, explained to us as we stayed put in our assigned seats on the local train in Machu Picchu Pueblo. You see, she continued, since Machu Picchu belongs to Cusco, Cusqueños deserved the seats on the train. We were welcome to stand.
Staring directly at us and bent over slightly, hands on her hips, she hoped to avoid being on her feet during the 3 hour, 30 minute journey between Machu Picchu Pueblo and Cusco. She reminded me of a rooster ready to peck at the intruder in the chicken coop. She had on clothes from top fashion brands, not the traditional colorful fabrics and bowler hat. I figured my husband, an American who couldn’t take the local train (you need a Peruvian ID to do so), didn’t have a similar confrontation on the more expensive tourist train, on which he had just boarded. Maybe you get what you pay for.
That’s not to say Gringos don’t try to avoid paying for the exorbitant tourist train ticket to Machu Picchu. Lately the popular strategy is to take the “back way” from Cusco via Hidroelectrica. This takes more planning and adds time to a trip, but is multiple times cheaper than taking the regular Inca Trail or the trains from Cusco.
Upon arriving at Hidroelectrica, backpackers pay $40 for the one-way train ride or just walk alongside the tracks to Machu Picchu Pueblo. It’s the ultimate budget option to arrive to Machu Picchu, but you’ll find the hikers are almost all foreigners. After all, why would Peruvians take all these extra steps when it’s cheaper to just take the local train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo? It’s one example of the Peruvian state’s attempts to make our cultural heritage accessible to Peruvians as prices are driven up due to an annual increase in foreign tourists. It’s also one of the privileges of being from the land of ceviche and the Incas.
Our day had started before 5AM with a wakeup call in our hostel. After miraculously getting my mother out of bed, we slogged out with our backpacks and hiking shoes on. The piercing chill of the dark morning in Ollantaytambo met us head-on. But that was quickly forgotten as I realized that we didn’t know where the train station was. Just as quickly, this worry was alleviated by groups of tourists, from pairs to dozens in a pack, seemingly getting out of their respective hotels all at the same time. Their backpacks, cameras, and the fact that none of them looked like locals gave it away. They scurried in the same direction like ants to a crumb. And so we followed over a hundred strangers down to Ollantaytabmo’s train station.
As we approached the station, small stands and kiosks run by señoras appeared on both sides of the cobblestone street. Overlooking us in the foreground was Veronica, the imposing mountain Apu not far from town. We had arrived half an hour early and so decided to buy breakfast. The options were traditional for the region; maca, quinoa oatmeal, bread with avocado, kiwicha balls, and coffee. All healthy, natural options guaranteed to boost our energy throughout the morning!
We bought a half dozen rolls of bread and hot quinoa. Soon after the train whistle wiped away our morning drowsiness, and we boarded, breakfasts in hand. First my mother got on with no problem, followed by my sister. But before I stepped onto the first stair the conductor asked me if I was Peruvian- I had to show ID! I showed the man my passport and he let me board. My sister eased the shock at being questioned on my Peruvianness by pointing out all of my clothes were brought in the United States, making me stand out.
The train tracks were adjacent to the Urubamba River. I loved watching as the vegetation steadily changed from Andean bushes, accustomed to the cold and altitude, to tropical trees native to the cloud forest. The teensy towns and solitary farmers started to move about with the first rays of sunshine. It made me think of my previous job working alongside small villages in the Andes. My career and studies had taken me to so many places in Peru, yet this was my first time going to Machu Picchu. My chest had been bursting with excitement for weeks.
While chugging along the tracks, the train came to a stop in the middle of the journey. Coincidentally, so had a tourist train on the tracks next to us. “Oohhhh”s and “ahhhh”s filled our cabin as people leaned over and peeked inside the other train. Each passenger had more space than we- in fact, some had breakfast, even laptops, on top of a table in front of them! The larger seats and overall appearance made our train seem antique.
For the rest of the trip I felt fidgety, with my seat suddenly seeming hard and narrow. Yet I also wondered if the beautiful tourist train was worth paying 40 times more than the local train.
But before long we arrived to our final destination, the tiny town of Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). As people disembarked from whatever train service they had used, they funneled towards the bus station for the 20 minute ride to Machu Picchu. It was so efficient and fast that the only recollection I have of Aguas Calientes is the large statue of the Inca conquerer Pachacutec, visible as we pulled in.
Of course, Machu Picchu was more than worth the wait. We did the strenuous Machu Picchu Mountain hike, enabling us to view all of Machu Picchu, the Urubamba River, and Huaynu Picchu after three hours of going up stone stairs. Throughout the hike we passed tourists from dozens of countries. We all had the same experience despite the varied manners of arriving to the world wonder.
And fortunately, we didn’t have to give up our seats to the rooster woman on the return trip. My sister explained that tourism is important to Cusco, so tourists should be allowed to have seats, too. The woman finally relented. After all, she was only trying to push the limits of the privilege of having a Cusco identification card. Cusqueños travel to Machu Picchu on the local train for even less than other Peruvians: S/ 3 compared to S/ 10. That’s less than a US dollar!
Experiencing Machu Picchu is a reminder of humanity’s potential. Archaeologists still argue over the true purpose of the ancient city. All of us that day were fortunate to make the trip. We arrived at the same spot and roughly the same time, despite the differences in price, privilege, or luxury of our journeys. And each of us returned to Cusco collectively richer than they had been in the morning.
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