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Machu Picchu by Train

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Thanks to our daughter Katie for this guest post!

I work for an international development organization based in Arlington, VA. Each year, we take a group of donors to one of our field sites. This year they went to Peru and I was able to go with them. We spent the first half of the week visiting coffee and cacao farmers in the San Martín region of Peru in the Amazon rainforest, and the second half was spent visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

Coffee cherries

We only had a few hours in Lima before hopping on a plane to Tarapoto. We stayed at the Country Club Hotel which was beautiful, and spent a couple hours before our flight touring The Museo Larco, a privately owned museum featuring pre-Columbian art. It was a great way to get a quick dose of culture and context before really exploring the country. Make sure you don't miss the erotic sculptures exhibit! Upon arriving in Tarapoto, we knew we were deep in the tropics. The humidity was intense to say the least, but the mosquitoes didn't seem to mind.

A taste of the tropics

For two days we met with coffee and cacao farmers around Chazuta and Moyobamba - both small towns in northern Peru. The main industry in that area is agriculture, so seeing it first hand and meeting the farmers we train was a fantastic experience.

Green coffee - before it's harvested

Cacao pods - this is what your chocolate bar looks like on the tree. It's about the size of an adult hand when it's ready to be harvested.

A cacao pod that's been cut open.

At the cacao co-op, we were treated to a tradition Peruvian feast called a Pachamanca. Pachamanca is a huge meal of vegetables and meat - in our case lamb and chicken - cooked underground using hot stones to heat charcoal, then wrapped in large leaves like banana leaves, and steamed. But since it takes so long to cook, we were able to take an impromptu boat ride on the Huallaga river.

One of the co-op employees unwrapping the pachamanca. The potatoes, yams, corn, polenta, meat, and other various vegetables were incredible and perfectly cooked

Our group took two boats out on the Huallaga river. Until recently, the name of this river was synonymous with coca but farmers are being incentivized - and trained - to grow other crops like coffee and cacao instead of coca

After spending three great days in northern Peru, most of us continued on to Cusco, the main city used as a first stop on the way to Machu Picchu or while traveling Peru's Sacred Valley. Cusco was also the capital of the Incan Empire, so Incan culture is everywhere.

The Andes from the plane

We had an uneventful one-hour flight and drove from the Cusco Airport to our hotel in the heart of the city, the Palacio del Inka. As seemingly everywhere in Peru, we were greeted with pisco sours, a traditional Peruvian drink that is similar to a margarita.

A pisco sour. There's no right way to serve these - in a wine glass, tumbler, whatever! You can see the Cathedral of Cusco in the background

The biggest difference though, between being in the rainforest and the Andes, is we were also greeted with various coca products that supposedly help with altitude sickness. Cusco is about 11,100 feet above sea level, and you can immediately feel it when you land. Coca tea, leaves, and hard candies are readily available to help with any altitude sickness. I didn't chew any leaves, but the tea and candies were different, but good. I don't know if they helped, but I felt pretty good at elevation.

Coca tea at the Palacio del Inka hotel in Cusco

After a night in Cusco and dinner at a great restaurant called Pachapapa we got back on a bus and made our way to Machupicchu Pueblo, the town where Machu Picchu is located. It took about two hours to drive from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, the town where you get the train, or if you're hiking to Machu Picchu, pick up the Inka trail and begin your three day/four night journey. The drive reminded me a lot of being in the Colorado Rockies.

Vistadome train to Machu Picchu

We boarded the vistadome train just before 9am. It has windows on the ceiling so you can get a full view of the beautiful scenery on the 90 minute journey. They also have no problem serving you more pisco sours and coca tea. We got to Machupicchu Pueblo in time for a late lunch, quickly dropped our bags off at the beautiful Sumaq Hotel, and ate at the Inkaterra Cafe, right at the small train station. After lunch it was time to go to Machu Picchu!

We left lunch in a pretty steady rain and worried it would be rainy for our three-hour tour of Machu Picchu. I hoped out loud that it had its own micro-climate and the rain would stop. To get to Machu Picchu from town, you have to stand in an incredibly long bus line then drive about four miles (20-30 minutes) on a narrow, switchback road with dozens of other buses. But our guide was great and somehow got us to the front of the line. When you arrive at the park entrance, you go through a little check-point where they scan your ticket, then you start walking up. And up. And up again. (But at 8,000 feet, it's not nearly as bad as being in Cusco at over 11,000 feet). My wishing made it so and the rain stopped, but the famous vista of Machu Picchu was clouded over.

Our first view of Machu Picchu. It's still gorgeous clouded over.

Our guide took that opportunity to explain what we were looking at (or supposed to be looking at). And we patiently waited about 10 minutes hoping the clouds would pass. At the exact time many of us had our backs turned to the vista to get some group photos/selfies, we heard loud "oohs" and "aahs". After turning back around, the clouds parted and we finally saw one of the most beautiful views ever.

Once the clouds moved on...

I can't describe what seeing Machu Picchu is like. It had never been on my bucket list, but now that I've seen it, I can't imagine why anyone would pass up the opportunity. Once you see the vista, you keep going up and get even more spectacular views - not just of Machu Picchu but of the surrounding landscape as well. The mountains of Peru are incredible and we never got tired of looking at them.

As our guide explained more of the history we made our way down into the ruins for a couple more hours. The Inca didn't have a written language, so much of the history of their culture and ruins is "a strong hypothesis", as our guide put it. Also, the Incas built Machu Picchu around the same time as the Renaissance was going on, so the ruins actually aren't that old. After spending about three hours at the ruins, we stamped our passport with the Machu Picchu stamp and took the bus back to town. That night many of us were treated to a complimentary massage which was the perfect ending to an incredible day.

A view from the ruins, with llamas, of course

The next day we had a few hours to wander on our own before getting on the train back to Ollantaytambo. Our driver met us at the station and we made our way to our next hotel, the Tambo del Inka, in Urubamba. This is the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in and will every stay in. But before we got there, we took the scenic route, stopping at a beautiful hacienda in the Sacred Valley for lunch. This part of the Sacred Valley reminded me a lot of the Wasatch mountains in Utah.

We got up to about 12,500 feet and stopped at a town called Chinchero known for its weaving. We got a weaving demonstration, including seeing how they use natural resources to dye the llama and alpaca wool. By the end though, we were ready to get to the hotel.

A weaver explaining how they dye the alpaca and llama wool

I'll say it once more - the Tambo del Inka is the nicest hotel I've ever been in and will ever be in. It reminded me of a Park City, Utah lodge on steroids. The drinks cost about the same. Most of us made our way to the indoor/outdoor heated pool (it's one long pool with a glass divider in the middle, separating it into two with only about 4 feet of space over the water). The next morning we headed back to Cusco. We toured the cathedral in the center of town, learning about how the Spanish and Incan cultures combined centuries ago, much to the chagrin of the Incas, many of whom resisted Spanish and Catholic cultures. A great example of that is the painting of the Last Supper in the cathedral - a guinea pig is the food in front of Jesus since it's a traditional Peruvian meat. After the tour, we ate lunch at a restaurant called Cicciolina. After lunch and a little more sightseeing, we drove to the Cusco airport and boarded our flight back to Lima before we all parted ways.

The main square in Cusco. The Cusco Cathedral is on the left, but clearly Cusco has many churches

It was a whirlwind trip that lasted seven days but felt like two weeks. I had many firsts - my first trip to Peru (and South America!); my first time seeing the work my organization does; my first time in the Amazon rainforest; and of course, my first time seeing Machu Picchu. I realized that Machu Picchu was the fourth modern wonder of the world I've visited. How lucky am I? The Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, and Chichen Itza were incredible, but I don't think there's anything quite like Machu Picchu.

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