Machu Picchu luxury train – Belmond Hiram Bingham
Visiting the lost city of the Incas is high on the bucket list for lots of travellers. Getting there in style can be tricky, especially factoring in the need to acclimatise to the altitude. Rather than spend days hiking, we opted for the Machu Picchu luxury train – the Belmond Hiram Bingham.
Arriving the day before in Cusco, the capital of the Incan empire, we had an afternoon to get our bodies used to being at 3400 metres above sea level. Coca mate (coca tea) is your best friend here, as well as a hotel that offers additional oxygen. We stayed at the JW Marriott El Convento, in the heart of the old city.
Like most Peruvian cities, Cusco traffic can be chaotic, so we opted to take an early car to Poroy, the station where you board the Hiram Bingham. It’s around a 30 minute drive.
We’d been told there was a ‘VIP Lounge’ awaiting us at the train station. Well, not exactly.
There’s only one hall at Poroy Station and, when we arrive, it’s full of people waiting for another Machu Picchu train about an hour before the Hiram Bingham. Until that departs, don’t expect anything ‘luxe’ on offer.
But when it pulls out of the station, the blue and gold cars of the Hiram Bingham are revealed.
And so, around 8.30 am, the welcome mat was laid out, the sparkling wine poured (champagne is an optional extra) and the local band and dancers arrived to send us off in traditional Peruvian style. It’s all crammed into a half hour of song, dance and booze.
There’s a real party atmosphere. Passengers mill around and selfie sticks are the name of the game. The band is fun and the dancers initially get a few self-conscious travellers involved.
With the music continuing, the dancers disappear and return in more traditional garb to perform a smoking ceremony with coca leaves to send us on our way. We’re all given leaves to throw into the fire and make a wish.
But, right on time at 9.05am, we’re on our way. Here’s what the interior of the train looks like – quite glam.
There are tables for four on the left and for two on the right. Bigger groups get divided up and need to head to the bar car to congregate.
At the very end of the bar, there’s a small deck with windows open to the sky. That’s where you’ll find the band. They were, perhaps, a little more tuneful on the way back home than heading down …
We were lucky enough to be one of the early patrons in this area as we headed through one of the local towns.
One wonders what they must think of the train as it trundles past – given the cost of the return ticket is probably more than they make in months.
The trip from Poroy to Machu Picchu is about 110 kilometres but takes nearly four hours, over which we descend around 1400 metres (Machu Picchu being at just over 2000 metres above sea level). The train makes one stop at Ollaytantambo station, not far from the start of the Inca trail – a four day expedition for hikers, which is now strictly regulated by Peruvian authorities.
That would be a fantastic adventure – but do it while you’re young, fit and have enough time to acclimatise to altitude – it was hard enough for us just sauntering around Cusco, battling dizziness and headaches, but I digress.
On the way to Machu Picchu you can sit in the bar car and enjoy a glass of wine, coffee and croissants, or just sit and listen to the band – they play until lunch service begins.
Lunch is accompanied by red or white wines or beer. The only included options are a Tacamo Blanco de Blancos from Peru, or a Chilean Montes Classic Series Merlot. The suggested beer was a ‘Cusquena’ (apologies for the lack of Spanish punctuation/accents), we did ask if there was an IPA (pronounced ‘ee-pah’ in Spanish) and that elicited a furrowed brow.
However, they did come up with something they thought was a bit beyond the mundane … An IPA!
Lunch is three courses with no options (although the staff do inquire about dietary issues). The menu is designed to showcase local, seasonal produce, particularly Peruvian corn and potato (you’ll hear a lot about Peruvian corn and potato over the course of the trip), avocado, trout and local meats.
And so we trundled along past spectacular mountain scenery. The Hiram Bingham has a beautiful fit out, but it is by no means a smooth ride. Be prepared for some good old-fashioned rocking and rolling along, which can make pouring drinks a challenge and getting sharp photos of plates of food somewhat tricky.
First up on the lunch menu was a paean to local trout, avocado and corn. This is ‘Wayllabamba’s’ smoked trout with creamy avocado, a corn tamale and ‘creole’ salad.
Peruvian trout is absolutely stunning; this is a river fish with beautiful colour, a soft texture and a slightly smoky flavour. The avocado slick was delicious but the corn tamale was just a bit of a crumbly mess.
Next up was beef.
This is tenderloin served with a beef jus, medley of vegetables and mashed potatoes. Of course, we put the kitchen to the test, ordering one steak ‘jugoso’ (juicy) and the other blue. Both were perfectly cooked to order. A nice dish.
Finally, for dessert there was a ‘corn’ cheesecake.
Any doubt that this was made with real corn was diminished after fishing some hard pieces of corn out of our mouths.
And finally, we had petits fours – passionfruit curd tartlets and chocolate truffles.
Throughout the train trip, one of the guides gave a running commentary on the terrain, the restrictions for hikers on the Inca trail (must travel in pre-approved groups with porters – sounds like a plan) and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes about Peruvian corn and its importance to the local populace.
There’s no doubt, however, that the scenery from the train is incredible …
Eventually, the train pulls into the Machu Picchu pueblo (town), also known as Aguas Calientes. The road from the train station is chock-full of restaurants and trinket stores. The Hiram Bingham passengers were divided into two groups and instructed to walk together, down a small hill, to where buses would take us up to the entrance to the Machu Picchu national park.
The bus trip up the mountain takes about 20 minutes. If you have a problem with heights, either try to read a book or continually avert your gaze away from the unbelievably spectacular yet vertigo-inducing vistas as your driver zig-zags his way up.
But, before you know it, you find yourself at the entrance to the Machu Picchu ruins. This is also where you’ll find the only hotel in the vicinity, the Belmond Sanctuary (our venue for afternoon tea later), a host of souvenir shops and the only public restrooms. Hiram Bingham passengers get to use the restrooms for free although for other visitors, there’s a small fee.
The guide handed us all bottles of water and our entrance ticket to the national park. Foreigners are required to produce their passport for entry so don’t leave it behind in your hotel safe.
Then comes the fun part – you need to hike up a fairly steep trail to get to the magic vista you can see at the top of this post. It’s definitely worth every lung-busting, knee-aching step.
Some of our group weren’t quite as fit as they probably needed to be for this adventure and, after a while, our tour leader took pity on us, and said we were at liberty to follow the trail through the ruins at our own pace, as long as we were ready to take the bus back down the mountain at 4.30pm. Done.
We had a few magical hours of exploring; the area is well policed and someone will come rushing after you if you move into areas that are roped off, or do things you shouldn’t. Happily most people seem to be respectful of the site and there’s very little damage in evidence or litter.
What there is, is vistas aplenty. How this city came to be built, on a small parcel of land, surrounded by mountains, ravines and rivers, is one of the great mysteries of the world. As our guide reminded us, the Incas left behind no documentary evidence of when or why it was built – it just was, and it’s extraordinary.
A short history lesson – Machu Picchu (which apparently just means old mountain) was “discovered” by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in July 1911 (hence the name of the train). While much of the area has now been cleared, to make way for the tourist infrastructure, all Hiram and his expedition found was lots of jungle and a few hardy tribes still ekeing out a living.
Today, it’s a smartly-run world heritage site, with the Belmond hotel in the grounds of the national park. That was our spot for afternoon tea, which commences at 4pm, to recover from a long and demanding hike. Afternoon tea was OK. There were a selection of sandwiches, cakes, cheese and a couple of hot dishes, as well as a variety of tea and coffee.
Before you know it, it’s time for the bus slalom ride back down the mountain and into the waiting room at Aguas Calientes train station, where trays of pisco sours and sparkling wine cocktails abound.
And then it’s time to board the train for the nearly four-hour trip back, which is mainly in darkness, so apologies for the quality of some of the food pictures.
There were more passengers on the return journey, so some people had their seating changed. The boarding process was also a bit of a schemozzle, so there were a few fired-up patrons as we started the haul to Cusco, particularly regarding the lack of booze on offer. Our friendly guide Gary decided to take the initiative and quickly organised some pisco sours.
We were looking for another bottle of ‘Curaka’ ee-pah. None aboard. Apparently we got the only bottle there was. Hmmm.
This is a four-course menu with a choice of main plate. First up was an ‘amuse bouche’ of peruvian potato and tomato sauce. It was OK, although could have been a bit hotter.
The first course was prosciutto over a quinoa tabbouleh, gooseberries and marinated zucchini. It was quite edible, although the gooseberries were a bit tart.
Next up was soup. Kudos to the wait staff who were able to carry these along the rocking train aisles from the kitchen.
This was served with ‘kiwicha’ (an Andean grain) caviar and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and ‘Ayrampo’ essence. Ayrampo is an Andean fruit which apparently has some medicinal benefits, but is prized by Peruvian chefs. It was an interesting flavour but not a hugely successful addition to the soup.
Our final savoury course was the selection. Duck confit, or fillet of trout.
This is served with a traditional northern Peruvian sauce, corn ‘au gratin’ and local market vegetables. It has to be said the duck was perfectly cooked, with crispy skin. A delight.
The other dish was trout grilled in a crust of ‘Maras’ salt, over mashed pumpkin, onion, tomato and yellow pepper ragout.
The fish was undoubtedly very good, but it had been way overcooked.
Finally, dessert was organic chocolate with pineapply, plus a tarragon strawberry coulis, Maras salt and lavender.
The texture and flavour of the chocolate was acutely disappointing and the dish didn’t work together with any harmony.
We were done, except for another round of petits fours. The train wasn’t far from reaching Cusco station and we were happy at the prospect of being only slightly jostled from the chaotic car ride from Poroy back to our hotel.
This isn’t a cheap trip; it’s absolutely bucket list stuff. The train costs around US$475 for the trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu and about US$450 for the return journey. We did it to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary so it was a great gift to each other, but it’s a big ask.
And we have to say, while the service (and food) was reasonable on the outward journey, on the way back it was quite poor by comparison. Not a good look for this sort of investment.
Still, if you want to do the trip in the shortest possible amount of time and the greatest degree of comfort, this is something you should definitely look at.