What must be one of the busiest and certainly the most expensive narrow gauge railway in the world is a 43km (27 mile) stretch of 3ft (914mm) gauge line which carries the vast majority of visitors to the world famous Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru.
This is a delightful 90-minute trip down the Sacred Valley, but with a single ticket costing around $75 (£55) it is one of the most obscene rip-offs any tourist could be faced with, and a sad reflection of the privatisation process in Peru, which saw the line handed to Perurail – partly British-owned – in 1999.
The railway only takes visitors to the pleasant tourist hot-spot of Aguas Calientes, from where another monopoly private sector provider of buses (also not Peruvian) will charge you the world’s highest bus fare ($12 single) for the 25-minute ride up to Machu Picchu.
Adding insult to injury, Perurail operates regular local services – like the one shown below – that are restricted to Peruvian nationals, with fares being only a tiny fraction of those paid by international visitors.
There is even a little-advertised service operated beyond Aguas Calientes to a place called Hidroelectrica, offering a far cheaper alternative access to Machu Picchu for those in the know.
Make no mistake that Machu Picchu deserves to be regarded as one of the world’s top tourist destinations. It is a breath-taking place to visit and, on a clear day, the view from the top of nearby Wayna Picchu (a challenging one hour climb open to only 400 visitors each day) helps ease the considerable pain your wallet has suffered in getting you there!
After a day of culture and climbing it is rather pleasant to sit at one of the restaurant tables lining the railway line in Aguas Calientes and watch action on the railway, as one of the local’s trains disgorges its passengers, then coaches of the luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham Pullman are moved for servicing just beyond the town.
Aguas Calientes is a rare place in Peru in not suffering from chronic traffic congestion. There is no road access, and its only road vehicles (delivered by rail) are the fleet of Mercedes-Benz buses that take the many thousands of visitors each day up to Machu Picchu and back.
The tourist trains of Perurail, and its upstart (though hardly less expensive) rival, Inca Rail, use terminus platforms at a station to the south end of the town. There is, though, a steady movement of locos and rolling stock along the line that passes through the town centre to a second station (pictured above), used by freight and Hidroelectrica services.
Looking at a Spanish version of the Perurail website showed two daily round trips to Hidroelectrica from Aguas Calientes, but a subsequent visit to a Perurail office in Cusco displayed a timetable (below) showing a remarkable eight daily round trips.
Services on the 3ft gauge line only operate from Ollantaytambo during Peru’s rainy season, but from the beginning of May certain services operate from a station called Poroy on the outskirts of Cusco, and a 25-minute bus ride from the city centre.
The 120km (75 mile) route originally began at a centrally-located station in Cusco called San Pedro, immediately opposite a splendid and colourful indoor market of the same name, but passenger services were curtailed to Poroy more than a decade ago.
Expecting San Pedro station to be abandoned, I was pleasantly amazed to see that it remains very much alive, for freight at least, with three Perurail locos present when paid a visit on 12 March 2019 (pictured above).
The station remains open from 07.00 to 14.00 each day for the sale of tickets only, but do be aware of a hostile Perurail security guard who refused my polite request for permission to go onto the platform to take a few photos.
Road traffic in Cusco is as chaotic as it is in capital city Lima, so it does seem deeply disappointing, and absurd, that the enormously popular rail services to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) no longer start from the city centre.