When booking a train to Machu Picchu, you can choose from Inca Rail or Peru Rail. Each offers service to Aguas Calientes – the town just outside the ruins – with stops in Ollantaytambo and Cusco. On our trip, we rode Inca Rail from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and then Peru Rail from Aguas Calientes to Cusco so we could sample both of them. We opted for the 360° Machu Picchu train on Inca Rail and the Vistadome experience on Peru Rail. There didn’t appear to be a price benefit to booking a round trip, so I would choose based on whichever has the better price or more convenient times for you. Keep on reading for all the pros and cons of Inca Rail vs. Peru Rail.
We were genuinely pleased with the service we received on both the 360° Machu Picchu and the Vistadome trains. Regardless of which one you choose, you’re going to enjoy the gorgeous scenery. It’s incredible to see the plants change from the dryer scrub surrounding Cusco and Ollantaytambo into the lush green vegetation of the high jungle around Aguas Calientes. The Andes are spectacular, so don’t forget to look out the window while you’re traveling.
A note about getting to Machu Picchu: You can do it as a day trip from Cusco if you choose, but I would highly recommend taking an afternoon train to Aguas Calientes, the town just outside the ruins, the day before your tickets and visiting during the early morning session. Aguas Calientes is definitely a tourist town, but the surroundings are gorgeous and doing it this way will allow you to beat some of the day tripper crowds and make for a more relaxing visit. Plus, you can check out their hot springs if you want to relax.
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360° Machu Picchu on Inca Rail
We opted to take the Inca Rail option for our Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu route. The train ride is about an hour and a half for this stretch. Inca Rail offers four classes of service from the lowest level Voyager all the way up to private coaches for the super rich. You can also enjoy the 360° Machu Picchu train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes via their bimodal service that includes a 2-hour bus ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and then a train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. That can be a good option if you’re staying in central Cusco because the Poroy station is a bit outside of town and we had to take a taxi.
The 360° Machu Picchu train is the second cheapest option available on Inca Rail and includes a light lunch, beverages, panoramic windows, and an outdoor viewing car. The Voyager train has smaller windows and only offers snacks. I think the price difference was worth it just for the viewing car though.
Note: Though you can book Inca Rail tickets online, you have to pick them up in person. They have offices at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, the Cusco airport, the Ollantaytambo train station, and the Machu Picchu train station. I grabbed ours at the airport while we were waiting to be picked up, and that was a great choice because we were running a little behind schedule when we got to the Ollantaytambo station and there was quite a line. Bring your confirmation and the credit card used to purchase the tickets. You’ll also want to check the opening hours for each location. The Cusco location doesn’t open until after the first departure of the day, so if you forget to pick them up the day before you may be in trouble.
Though the Ollantaytambo train station was a little chaotic – lots of people, little signage, and virtually nowhere to sit – the boarding process with Inca Rail was pretty smooth. There is only one set of tracks there, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out which train is yours. We had assigned seats, so there was no need to rush the train when the doors opened, and we were able to board quickly and stow our backpacks. Each coach had at least one bathroom.
Our lunch on the 360° Machu Picchu consisted of a chicken wrap with veggies and mayo, an apple, a little protein bar made out of nuts, quinoa, and other things, and two chocolates. I quite like chicken myself, but I inquired with Inca Rail via their chat as I was preparing this post, and they said that if you require vegetarian options or have allergies, you can email [email protected] after booking your ticket (you need to include your voucher number) to arrange something with the chef. The meal was definitely on the light side, but it was enough to get us through the couple hours on the train. We also got to choose from a variety of hot and cold beverages with our lunch.
Seating on our Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu train had two seats on each side of the center aisle and groups of four seats faced a small table. We were seated across from a German dad and his little boy who were on a lengthy South America tour. They offer an app with info to pass the time (it features a map of your journey and some music and ebooks), but we settled for staring out the window (and probably creeping the people across the aisle out because we were on the wrong side of the train for pretty much all the scenery), planning out the next day, and catching up on my journal I’d been too sick to write in the night before.
The panoramic windows were nice, especially since we had to look across the train car for most of our views. The best part about the 360° train though was the outdoor viewing car. Our seats were nearby, so I didn’t have to cross through too many cars to get there, but it would be worth it even if you’re at the opposite end. The open-air car don’t worry, it would be hard to fall out) allows you to enjoy the view unobstructed and get great photos without glare from the windows. I was actually disappointed that I didn’t head out there sooner.
Keep an eye out on the river side of the train as you slow to pull into Aguas Calientes to catch a photo of the pretty Machu Picchu sign without people in it. There’s another one in town, but there were long lines of people posing in front of it every time we passed by. Disembarking was smooth and efficient, though the train station does dump you into a bit of a maze inside a market full of souvenir stands.
Find out more about the 360° Machu Picchu train on Inca Rail here.
Vistadome Machu Picchu on PeruRail
For the ride back to Cusco, we opted for the PeruRail Vistadome Machu Picchu train. We picked this for two reasons – we liked the departure time better than what Inca Rail offered and their service went all the way to the Poroy station outside of Cusco instead of requiring us to use the bus service. PeruRail offers three classes of service on the route between Cusco and Machu Picchu ranging from the Expedition to the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury train class. We’re not of the first class budget sort, so we ruled out the two more expensive options. If you’re looking to spend a little more cash, the Belmond Hiram Bingham train welcomes you with live music and a pisco cocktail, a free travel bag, gourmet food, beer, wine, and pisco sours, and includes on-board music and an observation car. Your train fare also includes admission to Machu Picchu, the bus up to the ruins, and a guided tour followed by tea at the super swanky Belmond Sanctuary Lodge Hotel. Another option in the Cusco region is the Sacred Valley train, which departs from Urubamba.
If, like us, you’re deciding between the PeruRail Expedition train vs. Vistadome options, you’ll be looking at a $25-30 price difference. For that extra cost, the Vistadome train includes panoramic windows, a light meal, and some on-board entertainment. Since we were taking the train from the Machu Picchu station to Cusco and it was going to be about 3.5 hours long, we decided to spend the extra money for the ride with a little more to do.
Our on-board entertainment included some folk dancing and music and a Peruvian fashion show. The PeruRail website says that it’s only available on the trip departing Aguas Calientes, so if you’re taking a round trip train from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back, you may want to book the Expedition option on the way there and return on the Vistadome. The Saqra dancing was a brief demonstration that involved performers in brightly colored costumes and masks. The lady dancing in our car grabbed a few different passengers seated along the aisle to get up and dance with her. To my great disappointment, my boyfriend wasn’t one of them. After the dancing, there was a short fashion show that highlighted Peruvian designs and fabrics. There were a lot of alpaca wool knits and versatile designs that could transform into multiple different styles. You could, of course, purchase the items if you liked them enough, but I found them to be a little expensive.
The Vistadome train service includes a light meal and non-alcoholic beverages. Our meal consisted of a veggie sandwich with too many mushrooms for my liking and a muffin that I thought was chocolate but was actually healthier than that and in hindsight probably topped with quinoa. The FAQ on the PeruRail website says that special requests can only be made on the Hiram Bingham luxury train, so you may be out of luck if you need to request accommodations for allergies or other diets. I also took the opportunity to sample some of the chicha morada drink popular in the area, though there were plenty of other soft drink options. I also really liked my cat placemat.
Each coach has a couple bathrooms, but unfortunately passengers on the Vistadome train aren’t allowed to switch cars. Unlike the 360° train on Inca Rail, there is no outdoor viewing area.
My only complaint about the Vistadome train was that the meal and all of the entertainment were packed into the first hour and a half between Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo, where we made a stop to let some passengers off. That left us with not much to do for the last couple of hours, and after the skies got dark and we could no longer enjoy the scenery, the time sort of dragged on. Obviously, if you take an earlier train, that won’t be an issue, but with the overhead lights barely providing enough light to play cards, it got a bit boring toward the end.
Find out more about the Vistadome service, check out your other options, and make PeruRail reservations here.
Note: PeruRail is temporarily running its Cusco to Machu Picchu trains (and vice versa) as bimodal service like Inca Rail through April 2019. Check their site for more info.
Inca Rail vs. PeruRail Pros and Cons
|Inca Rail 360° Machu Picchu||PeruRail Vistadome|
|-Better lunch included|
-Pickup/drop-off location in heart of Cusco
-Cheaper (I picked a few sample dates and Inca Rail came out $27 cheaper than PeruRail)
|-Bimodal service from Cusco means transferring from a bus|
-No live entertainment
|-More to do on board|
-Wider variety of free drinks
-More departures available
|-No outdoor car
-Can't select seats
-Can't arrange for special dietary needs
If I had to do it all over again, I’d attempt to book a round trip on Inca Rail, using their Voyager option for one way and the 360° for the other direction
Tips for choosing Inca Rail vs. Peru Rail
- Neither train company allows you to bring luggage on board, and you’re in theory limited to a small backpack. However, both of them state on their websites that special arrangements can be made if you email in advance, though space is still limited. We opted not to try this and arranged for our hotel in Cusco to take our luggage two days early and packed in smaller backpacks for our nights in Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. The ease with which we arranged that makes me think that it’s not all that uncommon, and I’d assume that most hotels in the area are familiar with the restrictions.
- For the best views, try to snag seats on the left side of the train’s forward motion (that’s the driver’s side for my fellow Americans and pretty much anyone who drives on the right) for your trip to Machu Picchu Pueblo and the right side of the train’s forward motion (the passenger side) for the return trip to Cusco. During the most scenic part of the journey, the train tracks hug a river bank, so our window on the ride to Machu Picchu gave us a great view of…mud and some scrub plants. We were a little jealous of the people on the other side.
- Both train options allow you to purchase additional snacks, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages if you choose.
- You’re also able to bring your own snacks and beverages on board.
Have you ridden with either of these train companies? Let me know whether you prefer Inca Rail or Peru Rail in the comments.
Here are some of the many booking options you have for getting to Machu Picchu:
Check out these other great things to do in Peru:
- Relax at the Hot Springs in Aguas Calientes, Peru
- Ten Reasons Not to Miss the Parque de la Reserva’s Circuito Mágico del Agua in Lima
- Visit the Pre-Incan Ruins of Huaca Pucllana in Lima
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I love posts like these that get into the nitty gritty of travel details. I hiked part of the Inca Trail and so only rode part of the way up (about halfway to Aguas Calientes) but agree that checking the times and prices that are most convenient for you is the best way to go!
Hi! Loved your detailed post – so helpful. Curious which side you were on during the train ride with IncaRail? Hoping to book on the side you noted has great scenery.
Sorry for the delay – if you haven’t booked yet, the best views will be on the left side of the train (driver’s side if you’re used to driving on the right side of the road) for the way out and the right side on the way back.