Your Complete Guide to Train Travel in Peru
South America is not known for its abundance of train travel options. However, Peru might be the one major exception. Reaching Machu Picchu, the most visited destination in Peru, almost certainly requires a train ride for non-trekkers via the country’s two major train companies – PeruRail and Inca Rail.
However, apart from the Cusco and Machu Picchu region, passenger train travel in Peru is scarce where cross-country travel is mostly done via flight or bus. Passenger train travel has come and gone out of style over the years in Peru. And the current rail network in 2018 is mostly concentrated around the heavily visited southern Peruvian cities like Cusco, Puno, and now Arequipa.
Due to the complex Andean geography, travel by train in Peru is in stark contrast to European trains. Built more for relaxation and sightseeing than for speed, Peruvian trains take patience. But they can be a great way to slow things down during travels and see Peru in a more intimate way.
Like so many things in Peru, good information for travelers is not readily available to the public. Most information on Peruvian train options is left to what PeruRail and Inca Rail decides to circulate on their websites.
In that vein, this guide to train travel in Peru endeavors to lay out information for any Peruvian traveler looking to travel Peru via rail
Trains Between Cusco and Machu Picchu
Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco can be confusing. The city of Cusco sits about 75 kilometers away from the ruins through a maze of hills and mountains to arrive to Aguas Calientes – a small town that sits over 1,000 feet below Machu Picchu itself.
Between Cusco and Aguas Calientes lies the Sacred Valley, containing both the cities of Urubamba and Ollayntambo. From the Sacred Valley, the route to Machu Picchu really narrows down through a series of canyons along the Urubamba River. The difficult access to reach Aguas Calientes has made train travel nearly always required (with the exception of trekkers arriving via the Inca Trail, Salkantay Trail, or other trek that reaches Machu Picchu).
There are three principle departing trains stations to get to Machu Picchu, though it needs to be noted that none of these is in the city of Cusco itself. Below are the regional train stations and a listing of which trains depart from them (in order of their proximity to Cusco) –
In the tiny town of Poroy, sits the train station closest to Cusco. About 20 minutes by taxi from Cusco, getting to Poroy does require ground transportation but gives travelers the longest train ride into Machu Picchu of about 3 hours – a perfect option for those who want more time riding via train.
Of course, this means that the fare costs from Poroy are the priciest. Speaking of pricey, this is the boarding station for the two luxury train options into Machu Picchu, PeruRail’s Hiram Bingham train and the Inca Rail’s First Class carriage. Both options leave and return once daily and are incredible experiences for indulging in luxury along the way to Machu Picchu.
The big downside of departing from Poroy is the frequency of train departures. There is only one daily departure of PeruRail’s Expedition train (budget train) and two daily departures of PeruRail’s Vistadome train (mid-range option). Additionally, Inca Rail’s Voyager line (budget train) and brand new 360 train line (mid-range option) depart from here each once daily.
Due to the higher cost and the number of departures from Poroy, the majority of travelers depart to Machu Picchu and return using the station at Ollantaytambo.
Halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu lies the town of Ollantaytambo and the major departing station for most trains toward Aguas Calientes. This means longer ground transportation via taxi or combi to arrive to Ollantaytambo – about 1 ½ hours (depending on traffic).
This is the main departing station for those staying in the Sacred Valley, and fares are cheaper on every available train line. But the biggest advantages of choosing Ollantaytambo is that fare more trains depart and return here.
The Expedition train departs about eight times daily and the Vistadome train departs about seven times daily. Inca Rail also offers multiple daily departs from here on both the Voyager and two on the 360 train line. Generally this means a more hectic atmosphere for boarding and returning so be sure you have your transportation waiting for your return to Cusco at nighttime to avoid the hoard of taxi drivers.
The little-used Urubamba Station is primarily utilized by the guests of the 5-star luxury hotel Tambo del Inka. With a departing station just outside their doors, PeruRail has quite a partnership with Tambo del Inka with one daily departure of the retro Sacred Valley Train line and one daily departure of the Vistadome train.
However, this station can be used as a boarding station by anyone staying in the Urubamba area. What’s the advantage of boarding here? Mostly exclusivity and fewer people.
The huge downside of the two lines leaving Urubamba is that both train lines can be boarding downline in Ollantaytambo, which lies about only 20-25 minutes away via taxi. However, the train takes more about 1 ½ hours to depart from Ollantaytambo meaning much more time aboard with no real distinct advantage. However, the Sacred Valley Train line does give passengers the feeling of a luxury train in Peru at about a third of the cost as the ultra-luxury Hiram Bingham train by Belmond.
Other Train Lines in Peru
If you’re a traveler looking for more than just the short day ride into Machu Picchu from Poroy or Ollantaytambo, you’re in luck! PeruRail has invested heavily over the last years for a few new lines – the newest of which offers a overnight train from Arequipa to Puno, an overnight train from Puno to Cusco or the entire circuit.
This is the ultimate train lovers’ experience for those looking for a luxury train ride and has the collective name of the Andean Explorer train.
Andean Explorer Train Line
Opened in 2017 to dazzling reviews and photos, the Andean Explorer Train line is the only overnight luxury train in Peru. This partnership between Belmond and PeruRail is a two-night experience when ridden fully from Arequipa to Puno to Cusco – or in the reverse direction.
The shorter option is the one-night Cusco to Puno train – or also available in the reverse direction (note that this train is different than the much cheaper Perurail Titicaca day train from Puno to Cusco). Each of the four Andean Explorer lines departs only once per week with a maximum of 68 passengers so travelers will need to plan their Peruvian itinerary around their train departure date.
The Andean Explorer is a total luxury experience. All meal service is included on board, passengers have their own luxury cabin (with 2 people maximum per cabin), a welcome drink, and en route excursions. The most impressive of these excursions is on the two-night experience from Arequipa to Puno to Cusco where travelers disembark at Lake Titicaca and are treated to a day excursion on the water.
The Andean Explorer includes a Dining Car, a Lounge Car, an Observation Car, and new in 2018 – a Spa Car.
Of course, all of this luxury will cost you. The full 2-two-day experience starts at $2,500 per cabin for a bunk bed cabin and the 1-day experience will cost just under $1,000. However, the three other cabin levels do cost more with bookings during high season filling about six months out.
Still, Belmond and PeruRail have turned the Andean Explorer into the darling of the luxury travel world, and it really is a distinct way to pass through Arequipa, Puno, and Cusco. Tickets for the Titicaca train line can be purchased online at PeruRail, in person at PeruRail kiosks, or with an authorized PeruRail vendor (but tickets for this line should always be purchased in advance).
PeruRail’s Titicaca Train
Departing from Cusco and from Puno three days weekly, the PeruRail’s Titicaca train line should not be confused with the Andean Explorer lines. The Titicaca train is a day train that leaves either Puno or Cusco in the morning and arrives at the opposite city by early evening. It’s an experience that won’t blow your budget with costs of about $300 per person.
With less luxury than the Andean Explorer and increased frequency of departures, the Titicaca train line is much more accessible for travelling between Puno and Cusco. Last minute tickets are also much more accessible than with the Andean Explorer – still travelers will want to plan in advance.
So what do you get on the Titicaca train line? Gourmet lunch service is included in a dining car, with live entertainment, complimentary welcome drinks, and a separate Observation Car for staring at the Peruvian altiplano. Again, it’s a slower way to travel between Cusco and Puno than by flight or by Cruz del Sur bus, but one that makes seeing the Peruvian landscape more intimate.
Currently, the Titicaca Cusco to Puno train runs Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. The reverse train from Puno to Cusco currently runs on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Tickets for the Titicaca train line can be purchased online at PeruRail, in person at PeruRail kiosks, or with an authorized PeruRail vendor.
Ferrocarril Central Train – Lima to Huancayo Train
The only passenger train departing from Lima, the Ferrocarril line up to Huancayo is one of the oldest lines in Peru. Built in the 19th century, this train is made for hardcore train enthusiasts.
Far off of many tourists’ radar, the Huancayo train only departs about once per month (as of 2018) and takes nearly 12 hours to arrive from Lima. It’s a slow-moving experience for those willing to really slow things down with arrival to a city far off of the tourist track. Huancayo is the fourth largest city in Peru with a rich history high in the Andes, but with much less tourist development.
The huge bonuses of the train to Huancayo are the views and the price. Passing through about 70 tunnels and up to about 15,500 feet, the train departs from a train station in Callao and winds its way up through the Andes before arriving in the Montaro Valley.
Tickets begin at about $200 for round trip service or $150 for just one way (many travelers decide to take a flight out of the Jauja airport rather than return by train). With included breakfast and lunch service and an Observation Car there’s still plenty of comforts on board. Just don’t expect this train to get you to Huancayo with any sort of speed.
Tickets are available on the Ferrocarril Central website or at authorized vendors. .
Ferrocarril Southern Railway Train – Macho Train - Huancayo to Huancavelica
The biggest red-headed stepchild of the options for Peru train travel, the Macho Train offers service three times weekly between Huancayo and Huancavelica. Known as a locals train, with tickets for about $4 per person, passengers shouldn't be expecting anything in the way of amenities.
However, the Macho Train has a rich history dating back almost a full century. and some pretty spectacular views of the Andes. Riders will see a colorful blend of Peruvian characters aboard, mostly getting from point A to point B.. There's also hoards of vendors selling their wares and food aboard, which can make for a hectic and smelly travel experience.
With stops at fives stations along the way for additional riders, the train is also painfully slow taking about 5 hours to arrive to the final arrival station. But this is truly a working person's train and a cultural experience that shouldn't be missed for those really looking to get off of the well-trodden Gringo Trail.
In 2018, the regional travel authority opened bids up for the concession of the Macho Train line, bringing excitement (and some fear) of foreign investment in the line and some possible major upgrades if the service changes hands. Stay tuned for future information.
Tickets for the Macho Train can be bought in person at the train station in Huancayo or Huancavelica.
Train Lines of the Future?
No, a train from Lima to Cusco does not exist – despite continued questions and Google searches by thousands of hopeful travelers. A train linking the two principally visited Peruvian cities would be ideal, but the rugged Andean terrain between the two, not to mention the slow progress of public projects in Peru (it took decades to build the one Lima train line) makes the future of any such line doubtful.
A more possible train would be from Lima to Arequipa. With much fewer geographical obstructions than between Lima and Cusco, the coastal zone and distance between the two still make it an unlikely candidate for a major rail project. There has been no history of the two cities linking view rail, and the abundance of cheap flights to Arequipa and even cheaper overnight busses, make a project difficult to picture.
With the complicated mountainous geography of Peru, the next trains in Peru will likely be added in Lima. The line 1 of Lima’s Metro electric train finally launched in 2012, after decades of delays and graft, and the traffic situation in Lima has following lines becoming a growing conversation.
Since a third of Peruvians live in Lima, these following lines will almost certainly take priority over any additional tourist lines barring a major foreign investment.
Still, the current available rail lines throughout Peru are a welcome way to slow down your travels and see Peru via a different light.