Train options and Ticketing for Machu Picchu

Visiting Machu Picchu is an amazing experience, and if your travel plans bring you anywhere near the ancient sanctuary you should definitely plan on making the trip. But, navigating the ticket purchasing/route finding options isn’t necessarily what I would describe as easy. Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco involves a combination of train and bus/private transport travel – each requiring a separately purchased ticket – and then, of course, you need to purchase your entrance for the iconic site.
If you’ve pre-arranged to visit Machu Picchu with a tour operator, read no further. In making that decision you just side stepped a lot of lines and a few headaches…congratulations.
If not, here’s a crash course on getting tickets and what the different train names mean:
Ticketing process for trains:

Yes, you can buy train tickets on-line at the websites for Peru Rail or Inca Rail. However, your visa card has to be enrolled in the “Verified by Visa” program which requires either making a call to your bank or filling out an online form – and apparently not all cards are eligible (at least mine wasn’t). You can also reserve the tickets on line (you’ll need full names and passport information for each passenger), and then pay at a local bank. In my opinion, it’s easier to take the third option – going directly to one of the train stations (there’s one conveniently located across the street from the San Pedro market for those staying in downtown Cusco) to purchase the tickets. Although you may have to wait in line you’ll have the satisfaction of leaving with your printed tickets in hand; and you’re good to go. Again, you do not need original passports to purchase the train tickets but you will need passport numbers for each passenger and will need to present the original passport when you board the train.
Train options
-Peru Rail’s Expedition and Inca Rail’s Backpacker:
These are the less expensive train options that leave a little later in the morning from Cusco and leave from MP a little earlier; cutting in to your time at the site a bit if you plan on doing the trip in one day. Last Saturday I took the Expedition train from Ollantaytambo, and found it to be clean and very comfortable. We were served a snack (pretzels, some chocolate, and a drink) and the ride was fast and smooth. Perhaps most importantly, this train still had the panoramic side and ceiling windows that allow you to see the skyscraping peaks towering over you along the route. The trip is jaw-droppingly beautiful from the glaciated Andean peaks to the lush jungle and raging river as you get closer to Aguas Calientes, so it’s nice to be able to get a full view along the way. I’m not certain Inca Rail has ceiling windows on their backpacker trains, which may be something to consider when planning your trip.
-Peru Rail’s Vistadome and Inca Rail’s Executive
These trains are a step up in terms of traveling in style…they’re also $20-30 more each way. I took the Vistadome back to Cuzco on Sunday and liked the plush leather seats and polished wooden tables, but can’t say they necessarily made a huge difference over the Executive’s comfort level. The major difference that I did enjoy very much was the beautiful ‘snack’ – that was actually a delicious meal served in a wooden box tray with polished silverware and linen napkins. Prior to serving you the attendants actually come around and set your table with a Peruvian textile. Later in the trip we were treated to a live traditional dance performance – and in another surreal moment – a fashion show highlighting the luxury alpaca goods Peru Rail’s sister company sells. The dance was great; I could have gone without the sales pitch after a weekend in Peru’s prime tourist and souvenir destination. But, the thumping disco music they played while the attendant models strutted up and down the train car did give a good laugh.
Keep in mind if you’re in a hurry this probably is not the best option – the train goes slower to allow passengers to take in the views and stops dead for the shows.

Peru Rail also has two luxury ‘experience’ options: the Hiram Bingham and Andean Explorer. These are not only luxury trains with the cushiest of seating and dining options, they include private buses to Machu Picchu, a guided tour of the site, and high tea at the exclusive Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (the only hotel located directly adjacent to the site), among other amenities. If you are looking for a truly high-end option it’s worth checking out these services…but be prepared to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime experience. Both these train options run in the hundreds of dollars.

All in all I don’t think you can go wrong with the train journey to Aguas Calientes – once you’ve navigated the ticketing process. Like I said before, the route takes you through the stunning landscapes and biodiversity that make this part of Peru so unique – and it’s a great opportunity to meet fellow travelers.

Ticketing process for Machu Picchu entrances:
oy. This is another ‘reserve on-line…but pay somewhere else’ special. With names and passport numbers you can reserve spots in the “Boleto Electronico” section of the Ministerio de Cultura’s website…but then have to go to a branch of Banco de la Nacion to pay. It’s probably just easier to wait until you get to Aguas Calientes, where you can purchase tickets (you’ll need your ORIGINAL PASSPORTS) at the local Cultura office in the main square.

…and, finally, the bus ride to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes
The endless caravan of buses heading up the switchbacked road to Machu Picchu leave literally every 10 minutes starting at 5AM. You can buy your tickets at a kiosk next to where you’ll see 3-4 buses at anytime – and my advice is to buy your tickets the day in advance, or get up very early. Even in low season we had to wait in line – and I can’t say I give the ticketing office rave reviews for speed or efficiency. Once you have your ticket it’s only a matter of waiting to load up and make the final leg of your journey to one of the new seven wonders of the world!