The Most Expensive Way To Get To Machu Picchu

Getting to Machu Picchu really is half the fun. Although the site isn’t nearly as difficult to reach as it was in 1911 when historian Hiram Bingham (pictured above in a historical photograph) brought the ruins to the attention of the world, it’s still no walk in the park to get there. For starters, no roads lead directly from main points of entry – Lima and Cusco – to Machu Picchu. Some choose to walk a four-day trek (or portion of it) on the Inca Trail, while others reach the base by chugging along on trains. But did you know it’s possible to get to Machu Picchu in style in a wood-paneled train car with its own private balcony? Well, it is.

The “Presidential Service” by Inca Rail is by far the most luxurious way to get to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. If you order the service, the train operator actually attaches a private carriage to the train that includes its own bar, bathroom, panoramic windows, seating area and a balcony. As you’ll see in the images below, there are also plenty of window shades so that rock stars, dignitaries and others who can afford the ride can do so without any interference. The $10,000 price tag comes with an open bar, hors d’oeuvres and tea service, plus huge bragging rights and lots of stares from passersby. Its maximum capacity is eight people, and it must be booked at least 30 days in advance.

Do you think the train ride is worth the price? And in your opinion, do you think it would add to or take away from the Machu Picchu experience?

[Image of Hiram Bingham from a historical display at Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel. Train car images courtesy Inca Rail]

The 25 Best Contemporary Travel Books


The only thing that can get me through periods of inertia when I can’t travel is a good book. Twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” and have been a restless wanderer ever since. Over the years, great books have inspired me to travel but have also filled in my gaps in knowledge about places I’m probably not brave enough to visit, like Congo or Afghanistan.

For $20 or less, I can sit back and enjoy reading about someone else’s discomfort, and hopefully learn a thing or two in the process. What follows is a highly subjective list of my 25 favorite contemporary travel narratives. Feel free to pick a fight with me in the comments section.Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar- This classic ’70s account of Theroux’s epic train journey across Europe and Asia was Theroux’s first travel narrative and it’s still one of his best works. But he paid a price: when he returned home from the trip, his wife had taken up with another man.

The Old Patagonian Express- In this vividly reported, often humorous book, Theroux rides the rails from Boston to Patagonia, save for a flight across the Darien Gap. Last year, Rachel Pook, a Theroux fan, blogged about her in the journey retracing Theroux’s trip.

The Happy Isles of Oceania- In the wake of a divorce and a health scare, Theroux traveled via collapsible kayak to 51 islands in the South Pacific. As always, Theroux tells the story of his own voyage intermingled with tidbits on the local culture and vignettes about notable South Pacific expats, like Paul Gauguin.

Dark Star Safari- Most 60-something travel writers are looking for gigs in Provence and Tuscany, but Theroux traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town for this modern classic.

Jeffrey Tayler

Siberian Dawn- This is a beautifully written, addictive adventure story about a daring road trip across Siberia.

Facing the Congo- What sane person takes a wooden pirogue and a series of barges up the Congo River? Tayler does and lives to tell about it. To his credit, Tayler took this trip and the Siberian Dawn adventure out of desperation, with no book deal in hand.

Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing- In this perceptive, funny book, Tayler travels through obscure corners of Russia and China, shedding light on places few Western writers bother to visit.

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel- Tayler’s adventures in the Sahel provide insights into an overlooked but fascinating part of the world.

Others

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Round Ireland with a Fridge, and One Hit Wonderland- Tony Hawks- All three of these books describe journeys taken to fulfill gimmicky bets: could Hawks track down and beat all the Moldovan national soccer players at tennis, could he hitchhike around Ireland with a small fridge, and could he write a song that charts somewhere in the world. They’re all completely contrived, but great fun nonetheless.

Lost Continent- Bill Bryson- Bill Bryson’s search for the perfect small American town. His first travel book is still probably his best and certainly his funniest.

Four Corners- Kira Salak- A page-turner about a bold trip in the footsteps of British explorer Ivan Champion through Papau New Guinea. An impressive journey for anyone to undertake, but particularly gutsy for a single female traveler.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals- J. Maarten Troost- Troost tags along with his wife who got a job on a remote Pacific atoll and the result is perhaps the funniest travel book ever written.

A Way to See the World- Tom Swick- A terrific collection of travel stories from Tom Swick, a great writer who can capture the essence of a place in a few pages while making just about any place seem interesting.

The Village of Waiting- George Packer- If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote African village, look no further than this great read.

River Town- Peter Hessler- Hessler’s outstanding, often hilarious account of life as a volunteer (Peace Corps) English teacher in a provincial Chinese city reveals a lot about China and Chinese culture.

Hokkaido Highway Blues- Will Ferguson- Ferguson has a great sense of humor and this account of his hitchhiking adventure across the length of Japan along the trail of the blooming Cherry Blossoms is one of my all-time favorite travel books.

Sean and David’s Long Drive- Sean Condon- A riotously funny account of a lad’s road trip across Australia.

Stealing from a Deep Place- Brian Hall- This 80′s classic recounts Hall’s bike trip across Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in the waning days of the Soviet Empire.

The Places In Between- Rory Stewart- A superbly written account of a ballsy walk across Afghanistan written by an adventurer turned diplomat.

The Summer of My Greek Taverna- Tom Stone- Brilliant, funny tale about what happens when an American partners with a local taverna owner in Patmos.

Travels In Siberia- Ian Frazier- You might not want to visit Siberia after reading this book, which is about a series of trips Frazier took spanning over a decade, but you won’t want this book to end.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu- Mark Adams- Adams shows us that there’s more to Machu Picchu than what one can find on the Inca Trail. A great read.

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto- Pico Iyer- Iyer quit his job with Time magazine in New York and went to live in a monastery in Japan. He only lasted a week, but his observations about Kyoto and Japanese culture are fascinating.

Blood River- Tim Butcher- I read this book and still have no idea how Daily Telegraph reporter Tim Butcher made it out of the Congo alive. This is a must read.

Bestselling Author Mark Adams On Machu Picchu

turn right at machu picchu mark adamsMark Adams is the author of “Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time,” his bestselling account of his attempt to retrace Hiram Bingham’s groundbreaking 1911 expedition to “discover” Machu Picchu. The book, which is now out in paperback, was a New York Times Bestseller and was named one of the best non-fiction titles of the year by Men’s Journal and the Washington Post. Adams gave us the inside story of what motivated him to take this expedition, shared some tips on visiting Machu Picchu and gave us his take on Bingham’s legacy.

What inspired you to trace Hiram Bingham’s famous Machu Picchu expedition route of 1911?

I was an editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine and working at a place like that, Machu Picchu played the same kind of role there that Tiger Woods might have, pre-scandal at Golf Digest. It’s always in your face; you’re always thinking about it; you’re always trying to come up with new ways to look at Machu Picchu because people love it. They can’t get enough of it.

Why is that, do you think?

It has that little element of mystery. Someone once said that you can’t take a bad picture of Machu Picchu, and I think it’s that iconic shot that’s just so alluring that people are really drawn to it. People think, ‘That’s one of those places I want to see before I die.’ It’s so far out and it’s so exotic and yet, pretty much anyone can do it if they have enough money and time.
mark adams machu pichuYou wrote that you hadn’t gone camping since you were a kid, and hadn’t been on any real expeditions, so you had to get in shape to embark on this expedition, is that right?

I was in OK shape. I didn’t quite realize how strenuous this trip was going to be. My guide, John Leivers, had explained to me that I needed to get ready by doing knee bends and other exercises because I’d be carrying a day pack and walking through some pretty deep canyons. But literally 90 minutes into our first day I got a look at a canyon we were supposed to cross and it was essentially like a sub-tropical Grand Canyon. It was a mile down and a mile back up the other side and steep!

This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The last time I’d slept in a tent was when my dad brought a fake teepee home from Sears when I was 7 years old and we put it up in the back yard. That’s another reason why I wanted to take the trip, because I felt like a bit of a fraud working at National Geographic Adventure giving thumbs up or thumbs down to a camp stove based on the color of paint.

You made an investigative trip to Machu Picchu with your son, who was 13, before your big expedition, is that right?

I did. And I’ve been to Peru many times because my wife is Peruvian and her family lives in Lima. But Lima is like L.A. and the Andes are like nowhere else on earth. It’s a weird, beautiful, wild place and Cusco is a little bastion of civilization in the Andes, so I did go on a reconnaissance mission in August 2009 with my son because I knew I needed a guide to recreate the Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition.

I met a guy named Paolo Greer, who appears in the book, he’s an Alaskan amateur expert on Machu Picchu, and he suggested I hook up with John Leivers.

How did your son handle the trip to Machu Picchu?

He was there for about 40 minutes and said, ‘I think we’ve done this, can we move on now, maybe get an Inca cola and catch an early train back?’

That was summertime and you wrote in the book that the place was swarming with tourists. So is summer not the best time to visit Machu Picchu?

It is and it isn’t. June, July, August you get the best weather there. But it’s also when most tourists arrive. John and I went on the (first) expedition in October, which is kind of a perfect month. April, October or September are also good.

You were way off the beaten path for most of your big expedition. You didn’t want to do the Inca Trail, at least at first, right?

If I’m honest, I probably thought I was too cool for it. There are so many stories about the Inca Trail, I thought, ‘I’ve got to try something a little more serious here.’ I don’t think I had any idea what I was getting myself into. The farthest we went was, perhaps 60 miles west of Machu Picchu, and in that span, you go from a 20,000-foot snowy peak in the Andes to being knee deep in the Amazon basin.

We met an archaeologist who told us, ‘Mark, if you see some guys in dresses with bowl haircuts, you run, because those guys are natives and they live by their own laws.’ Not far from where we were there are un-contacted tribes.

So on your first visit to Machu Picchu with your son, it sounded like you made a lot of mistakes, right?

I made this same mistake myself the first time I went, but why would people fly all the way to Peru and then fly to Cusco and then take the 3.5-hour train ride and then go up for a couple hours, come down and go back to Cusco? There are plenty of nice little places to stay in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. I would recommend taking two days, spending an overnight there. Take one of the first buses up in the morning, and hit that main area of Machu Picchu where all the famous things are – the Sun Temple, the Temple of The Three Windows, and the Intihuatana Stone at the top of the main ruins, you can hit all those before 9 a.m. and they’re pretty deserted.

If you wait until say 11 or 11:30, that’s when the trains from Cusco start coming in, and in a matter of an hour or so, the ruins go from being relatively empty to absolutely packed and for 3-4 hours, they’re absolutely packed. You’ve got traffic jams on all the old stairways and it’s almost like someone pulls the drain out of a bathtub around 3 p.m. All the tourists go draining out and you get this lovely hour or hour and a half at the end of the day.

I got up at like 4:30 a.m. to be there early but that was back when the rule was the first people had to sign up to climb Wayna Picchu. I believe they’ve changed that and now you have to buy tickets in advance.

And what else would you do in that area?

There are lots of interesting things to do on the periphery of Machu Picchu. You’ve got Mt. Macchu Picchu, a climb you can do that’s 1,000 feet up that gives you some spectacular views. You can walk up to the Sun Gate, and take probably the best photos of Machu Picchu from that vantage point. Take a break, have lunch but I do not recommend going to the Machu Picchu cafeteria. Picture those iconic photos of the last helicopters leaving Saigon and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like there.

Visiting Machu Picchu isn’t cheap, is it?

It can be expensive. If you’re really diligent there are ways where you can take local minibuses to save money. Kind of an end-around route, instead of the direct route, but it’ll take you a full day to get there that way.

I think the figure I came up with was, maybe $20-$30 doing it that way, and then sneaking in through the train tracks, which isn’t entirely legal, versus taking the train from Cusco, which can be anywhere from $150 to $600.

There’s a section in the book where you describe a place called Salcantay, and it sounds spectacular and also devoid of tourists, is that right?

Salcantay was one of the two holy peaks of the Inca Empire. Salcantay is the famous one near Machu Picchu, it’s directly due south of the ruins, but you can’t see it from the ruins. You have to take the Inca Trail and then on the last day of your walk, if the clouds cooperate, you get this incredible view of Salcantay, which is this massive 20,000-plus-foot white peak, which sort of springs up above all the other peaks in the Andes, and you can see why it was popular in both Inca times with the Quechua people and now because it’s absolutely spectacular.

The Inca Trail really is spectacular but you have two options. You can do a five-day option or a four-day option and if you do the four-day option you miss Salcantay. I highly recommend the five-day trip and you also have less hiking to do every day with it, so it’s less grueling, and you’re out of sync with the rest of the hikers, so you end up being alone a lot rather than in huge packs.

The Inca Trail is probably sold out now for the whole summer, because it sells out in advance, but you can also get there via the Salcantay route, which comes from a different angle.

How fit do you need to be to do this?

If you can run 3-4 miles at a decent pace, you’re probably fine. The Peruvian porters are in amazing shape; I’ve seen them run ahead with the packs, dump the packs at the campsite and then run back and literally start pushing people up from behind uphill. It’s a lot like the Sherpas and Mt. Everest. I have to ask, are people doing this just to have a photo of themselves at Machu Picchu for their Facebook profile?

What’s a standard 7-10 day trip to Machu Picchu look like?

I’d say a pretty standard itinerary is 1-2 days in Lima, fly to Cusco which takes an hour or so, and depending on if you have 7 or 10 days, you might acclimate in Cusco, because it’s 12,000 feet. It takes 2-3 days to get used to the altitude. Or if they’re in a big rush, they go straight to Machu Picchu, which the town there is only 6,500 feet in altitude.

Some will then take 4-5 days to do the Inca Trail and then go back to Cusco; others spend more time visiting the sites around the ruins.

How long was your big expedition in which you traced Bingham’s route?

It was almost a month. About 24 days, I think.

Of all the off-the-beaten-track places you visited near Machu Picchu, which ones do you recommend?

You can get out to Vitcos on a bus. It’ll take you a whole day but that is spectacular and there’s nobody there. There are two sets of ruins, Vitcos and Yurakrumi, which is this giant Winnebago-sized piece of granite that has all these sacred Inca carvings all over it that’s in the middle of this weird, green, spooky valley.

What about Choquequirao?

Choquequirao is amazing but there is no bus to get there. It’s called the Machu Picchu sister site for good reason, because it’s spectacular. It’s perched on top of this mountain ridge with spectacular views in all directions. But you have to be in good shape to get there because you’re walking up the far side of a mile-high canyon to get there and it’s steep.

From reading the book, it sounded like you struggled to adapt to the Peruvian work ethic, just as Bingham did?

Absolutely. I’m uptight about being on time and that is not the way things are done in Peru. Even among South Americans Peruvians are known to show up hours late. They had a national campaign to try to address this a few years ago but it didn’t work.

What was the hardest part of your expedition?

All we drank was boiled water, so every time we stopped to take a drink, I’d be so thirsty. It was 85 degrees and you’d be presented with a giant bowl of steaming hot water. It’s the thing you want most but the last thing you want to put to your lips at that moment.

After doing the trip though, I can now see the allure of sleeping outdoors, but that said, I haven’t slept in a tent since.

Would you still have done this trip if no publisher were interested in the story?

I would have wanted to do it regardless but I’m not sure if I could have convinced my wife to let me take the trip. And there’s the cost as well. I think the whole thing cost me less than $10,000 including everything but it still adds up. Peru is one of those places where you can do things dirt bag cheap or spend an awful lot of money.

If someone wants to hire your guide, John Leivers, is he available?

He is. People can go to my website, www.markadamsbooks.com, and if they’re interested in hiring him, I’ll get ahold of him.

Bingham’s legacy is mixed. Some call him an intrepid discoverer, but others scoff at the notion of him “discovering” Machu Picchu and consider him a grave robber and a thief. Where do you come down?

The title of “discoverer” of Machu Picchu was thrust upon him, though he didn’t do much to escape it. In Peru, he was a hero for 90 years, until 2001 or so, and then people started saying he stole credit and took artifacts. I started with the attitude that he was a punk who took all these things from Peru, exploited the people and so on.

But the more I looked into the history and the three expeditions he did in 1911, 1912, and 1914-15, he did a lifetime of work in four years and had he not gotten to Machu Picchu in 1911 when he did and publicized the ruins, they wouldn’t be preserved as they are today. I think treasure hunters or vandals would have knocked them down. And that is the glory of Machu Picchu, the fact that you have these gorgeous stone buildings that are basically in the same state they were built in 600 years ago in this natural setting, and the fact that that exists is largely thanks to Bingham.

Mark Adams is working on a book about the search for Atlantis, which will come out in 2014. He lives near New York City.

Video of the Day – Destination Earth


Why do you travel? For adventure? To know the unknown? To get lost? To find something?

Today’s Video of the Day is an ad for a company called G Adventures that encourages viewers to get out and see “why Earth is the universe’s #1 travel destination”. The short piece does a beautiful job of illustrating some of the moments that beg us to travel, tailored to pull at the heartstrings of the crowd that doesn’t want to be part of the crowd.

Have you found a photo or video that captures why you like to travel? Share it with us! Post a comment below or upload to our Flickr Pool and it could be our next Photo/Video of the Day.

5 train trips everyone should experience

the blue train in south africa While some train routes can seem long and boring, there are many that allow for great views of unique landscape or luxury service. Still, there are some train rides that go above and beyond your wildest imagination. Check out these five train trips that everyone should experience in their lifetime.

The Blue Train
South Africa

The Blue Train travels approximately 1,000 miles between Pretoria and Cape Town and is one of the most luxurious train journeys in the world. Some of the amenities include butler service, two lounge cars (one smoking, one non-smoking), an observation car, and sound-proofed carriages with gold-tinted picture windows, full-carpeting, an en-suite bathrooms (many of which include a full bathtub). Both kings and presidents have made this journey, as the train is marketed as a “magnificent, moving 5-star hotel”. Along with luxury, the Blue Train also takes passengers through unique countryside scenery. Rolling vineyards, pristine coastline, and jagged mountain faces are all right outside your luxurious, gold-tinted view.the west highland lineThe West Highland Line
Britain

The West Highland Line links the ports of Mallaig and Oban and is thought to be one of the most scenic train routes in Britain. In fact, in 2009 the West Highland Line was voted the Top Rail Journey in the World by Wanderlust Magazine, just beating out the Trans-Siberian and Cuzco to Machu-Picchu lines. The West Highline Line not only accesses the remote west coast of Scotland, but also views of numerous sea loches including Gareloch, Loch Long, Loch Lomond, and Glen Falloch. See Rannoch Moore, a National Heritage site, Loch Treig, a steep, freshwater lake, and the narrow Monessie Gorge.

the glacier expressThe Glacier Express
The Swiss Alps

This express train links the two major mountain resorts of St. Moritz and Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. For the main portion of the journey, the Glacier Express passes through the Rhaetian Railway, a World Heritage Site in the Albula/Bernina regions. Passengers will also get to see untouched mountain landscapes, lush meadows, seductive vineyards, deep gorges, refreshing lakes, quaint hamlets, and impressive valleys while traveling through 91 tunnels and across 291 beautiful bridges. Some specific Swiss Alps mounains travelers will encounter include the Matterhorn, one of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps, and the Dom, the tallest mountain to sit entirely on Switerland soil.

machu picchu PeruRail
Peru

The scenic PeruRail lines make trips from Cuzco to Machu Picchu with three choices of train for passengers to choose from. If you’re looking for a sensory experience there is the Vistadome, surrounded entirely by glass and giant panaramic windows for a closer connection with nature as well as opportunities for amazing photographs. For the luxury traveler there is the Hiram Bingham, with cozy intertiors, elegant upholstry, two dining cars, an observation wagon, a bar, and a kitchen. The service includes brunch, dinner, entrance to Machu Picchu, afternoon tea at Machu Picchu, and a guided tour in the citadel. For adventure travelers, there is the Expedition, with backpack racks, seating designed for interaction and mingling, and Andean music to fill the car with cheer. For travelers wanting to visit Lake Titicana from Cuzco, there is the Andean Explorer, a luxurious train ride featuring an observatory car to see mountainous and rolling plain landscapes and Andean entertainment on board as musicians and dancers create a lively atmosphere.

southwest chief trainThe Southwest Chief
The United States

Ever wonder what it must have felt like to live in the Old West? The Southwest Chief can give you a taste of what you’ve seen in classic films. Running daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, passengers will traverse through the mighty Mississippi, take in the Grand Canyon, pass by wheat fields and ranches, ride over dessert landscape, photograph mountains, and see pueblos right outside the train window. Lounges, sleeper cars, and sightseeing decks enhance the journey just that much more.