Machu Picchu by Train

I’ve not really been in for writing a guide type article on here but this was something I spent a lot of time researching and thought I would put together what I found.

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We decided to take the train instead of the Inca Trail for 2 reasons, firstly we seem to be under the weather a lot just before a physical activity (Climbing Volcanoes in Nicaragua) and we heard a lot of bad reviews from travellers saying the trail was expensive and overhyped.

This left the train to get to the ancient city (already an expensive day out with the entry ticket). A bit of shopping around on the internet and we’d found 3 companies with the most convenient trip being with the newest company, Machu Picchu Train, at $58 each way.

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Visitors to Machu Picchu are limited to 2,500 each day so to be safe we made our way to buy the ticket at the office in Cusco the day before. Once this was reserved we went to the train ticket office in Cusco on Avenida del Sol and found the tickets are cheaper booked there in cash at $50 each. US Dollars can be withdrawn from the cash machine a few doors down the street.

The train leaves from Ollantaytambo station around 11.30am, about 1hr by car or 90 minutes by bus from Cusco so plenty of time to get there. The bus is crowded, local and fun and leaves from a local bus station a couple of blocks behind the train office to Urubamba. It cost 6 soles each. From here you must change to a minibus or colectivo for around 5 soles each to reach Ollantaytambo.

A collectivo from central Cusco all the way to Ollantaytambo will cost around 15 to 20 soles each depending on your negotiation skills.

Our train was virtually empty, just 2 of us, 2 Japanese tourists and 4 staff! We were served a drink and sweet snack while watching the view of the valley. Really rather relaxed and a little bit colonial. The train should get you to Aguas Calientes, the modern town beneath Machu Picchu itself. Here you can buy all sorts of tourist stuff and get a quick but pricey meal.

There are regular buses up the mountain the the park entrance, at a pricey $16 return. However once you see where they go you will not begrudge it. You can walk the route, we heard of people doing it in an hour and some said two. I believe the latter more. If you take the train this will cut you short on time at the ruins.

By now you should have about 4 hours to see the site. It closes around 5.30 or 6pm. I suggest you head for the famous vista for the postcard shot by taking a path to your left soon after entering. At this time it should be quite quiet, especially in lower seasons away from summer holidaymakers. From here you can backtrack to the sun-gate where hikers enter the site or the Inca Bridge, one of the former residents entries and security measures.

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As you stroll around you can pick up tit bits from overhearing late running guided tours, though they often seem to tell different and contrasting tales that sound pretty made up to me. We didn’t bother with a guide and chose to enjoy the place with our existing knowledge and imagination. One tip all prospective guides will give you for free however is this – USE THE TOILET BEFORE ENTERING THE CITY! Machu Picchu has no public conveniences and instead nooks and crannies or alcoves (laugh if you’ve seen the movie In Bruges) will substitute. On hot days it can smell quite potent.

We wandered the city till closing time, by which there were just a few llamas and Peruvian school children to share it with. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) you’ll be harassed for photos with them – actually quite fun! On your way out don’t forget stamp your passport if you want a cheap memento of the trip.

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We decided to stay in Ollantaytambo for the night and caught the 7.15pm train back, a little busier this time with about 12 passengers. You could stay in one of the many hostels and hotels Aguas Calientes if you wished to revisit the city the next day to climb the mountain Huayna Picchu above it. Or you can catch a late return taxi to Cusco, if one is close to full you can share for a good price.

I recommend stopping in Ollantaytambo however for a chance to see a slightly less touristic town than Cusco. The hotels are clean, comfy and quite cheap. Below the ruins of the same name (access with Boleto Turistico) is an interesting a cheap souvenir market. We both bought a couple of cool ornaments to take home. Further away from the tourists is a fully functioning local town with connections back to the Incas and friendly local people. I didn’t spot many tourists exploring far off the beaten track.

Hopefully if you’ve stumbled on this little account it will be of use to you on your visit. If you’ve found something different, want to correct anything or add your own little account please do comment.

Otherwise, enjoy your trip!

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You’re going to Colombia!?

After a fantastic few months in Central America, a few people were asking if we dared go to Colombia next. Of course was the answer!

Colombia doesn’t have the best reputation in the world, thank Pablo Escobar and the cocaine trade for that! However what we found was totally different, I’ve added a new city to my all time top 5, experienced incredible scenery and extremely friendly people. Here’s a little run through of our time there.

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We arrived in the city of Cartagena following our eventful sailing trip through the San Blas islands of Panama. The first thing that struck us (apart from being back in civilisation) was the heat, Cartagena is a HOT city. Just a few yards of walking down the street and you’re ready for another shower!

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We only spent a couple of days here enjoying the old town and taking in the nearby mud volcano. Yes that’s right a mud volcano. The basic idea is a small hill that looks a little like a volcano that you can bathe in – grey, sticky mud. I managed to drop my camera in it, thankfully it’s waterproof (and it seem mud proof).

Although we were able to wash off the mud in a nearby lake, we didn’t have the opportunity for a shower before catching a night bus to Medellin. Not great.

Most people who know of Medellin associate it with Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin of Colombia during the late 80s and early 90s. During this time Medellin was under siege by the US and Colombian governments vs. Escobar’s ‘sicarios’ who would carry out vicious murders on anyone deemed to be against him. Locals found themselves caught in the middle of this.

Since such dark times, Medellin has rejuvinated itself in terms of housing, transport and cultural buildings. I absolutely loved our time here.

After arriving we were a bit grumpy following a long bus journey and upon arriving our hostel we weren’t much happier. It’s not often a shower following a mud volcano will leave you feeling dirtier – but when the water comes out brown and you’re sharing it with a pair of giant cockroaches, it isn’t a pleasant experience. I therefore don’t recommend the Pit Stop Hostel in Medellin. For less than a couple of skanky dorm beds there we found a spotless hotel with a rooftop jacuzzi – go figure.

The perfect pick me up was however found that evening – beer – and not just the typical lager found all over Latin America. Real beer! I’d been craving a proper pint for months so when we found out about the 3 Cordilleras brewery and their weekly tasting nights we were there instantly! For about $10 you get 5 beers and a souvenir glass to take home with you. I was in heaven with their dark Porter and American Style Amber Ale – the perfect Thursday evening.

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The following day we took the chance to explore the city. Medellin has the feel of a working class city with a lot of soul, a bit like a Glasgow or Manchester in the UK, Nashville in the USA or Kaunas in Lithuania. Downtown there are huge sculptures by the famous artist Fernando Botero, as well as a museum exhibiting his paintings, in the same area as locals working and shopping.

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While cooling off with a raspado we chatted to a local guy who worked as a truck driver, learning English ‘for fun’. We also found a park for bare feet with fountains galore – one of them caught Katrina out!

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Medellin as a city is very narrow, hemmed in by the surrounding mountains on which neighbourhoods sprawl up. To connect these to the city more easily the government has built cable cars. That afternoon we rode up one to see the view and it was breathtaking. In a day it was great to get a flavour of an entire city, rather than of just one small and probably touristy part. To end it, and rest our tired feet, we retired to the jacuzzi on the roof of our hotel – bliss.

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We spent quite a while in Medellin as the city just lured us to stay longer. One day we heard of a parade through the city so went to watch, it turned out to be the end of the flower festival which is marked by the Cabalgata, a long procession of horses.

To many, 4 hours of horses passing by would be pretty dull, not in Medellin. The city has a reputation for ladies taking advantage of cheap plastic surgery, so many horses were ridden by beauties that we just couldn’t take our eyes off! Many locals couldn’t take their eyes off us and were eager to share Aguardiente (the local spirit) and ask why we weren’t back in London watching the Olympics.

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Another highlight (literally) of Medellin was paragliding, the city has a reputation for it. We drove up one of the surrounding mountains, strapped ourselves to a pilot and ran off the edge of a cliff! It’s not as exhilarating a feeling as I expected, there’s no huge adrenaline rush that I’d experienced from skydiving or bungee jumping, it’s more pleasant.

For about half an hour we floated with the birds taking in the view of the city from even higher than the cable car. However towards the end with all the circling around we did start to feel a bit queasy, though I think that has more to do with excessive drinking with some Colombian girls the night before!

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I’d been missing football a little while travelling, less so as I write this following Burnley’s poor start to another season, but had to see a football match in Medellin. We took in DIM vs. Patriotas in the Colombian Premier League which DIM won 2-0. The noise from some of the home ‘fanaticos’ could teach English clubs a thing or two about noise despite the rest of the stadium being quite empty.

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After adding Medellin to my top 5 cities list (alongside Glasgow, Shanghai, Brussels and Hanoi in case you were wondering) we left for Cali.

Now anywhere after Medellin was going to have a hard act to follow, but I just never warmed to Cali. It could have been a few rude taxi drivers or irritating hotel workers but I just didn’t such a good feeling from the place.

Despite that we did love being big kids and taking tonnes of photos at the zoo, one of the best in Latin America I’m told.

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Close to Cali is the village of San Cipriano where they have quite possibly the most brilliant railway in the world. The trains here are powered by motorbikes! There is no road to the village of San Cipriano, just an old railway line, so local people have made their own transportation service by attaching some homemade wheels to a wooden bench upon which they strap a motorbike. The back wheel sits on the track and pushes the unorthodox vehicle along the track. The experience was awesome!

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From Cali we made for the border with Ecuador stopping on the way in the pretty little town of Popayan and the chilly border town of Ipiales. Close to the latter is the spectacular church, Santuario Las Lajas, built across a gorge.

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From there we headed across the border into Ecuador. We’ve had a great time in Colombia, I’d definitely return and suggest anyone with a bad idea of the place come see such different country.