By Sandra Scott
The most luxurious way to get to Machu Picchu is via the Hiram Bingham Belmond (Orient Express) train––one of the world's great luxury train experiences. From the welcome drink to the gourmet meals to the entertainment, every aspect of the journey exemplifies the service and attention to detail associated with the names "Orient Express" and "Belmond."
"Good Morning! Would you like champagne, orange juice, or a mimosa?" asks the formally attired attendant on the Hiram Bingham, the Belmond train to Machu Picchu in Peru. The welcome drink is just the beginning of a luxurious day discovering one of the great wonders of the world.
The Hiram Bingham leaves from the Poroy Station at the civilized hour of 9 a.m. The modern "private" station is located in the quiet countryside is a twenty–minute ride from Cusco. The Backpacker and Vistadome trains depart at 6 a.m. from Cusco. Leaving from Poroy eliminates the switchback portion up a mountain, which some may find interesting, but it ends up being a much faster trip skipping that part.
While sipping the welcome drink guests mingle, meeting other passengers while conversing to the sounds of Andean pipes filling the air and folkloric dancers swirling and twirling in a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, yellow, and oranges. On board the blue and gold carriage, an on–line version of the "New York Times" is waiting on the reserved tables replete with white linen and crystal. The train, consisting of two dining cars, an observation bar car, and a kitchen car, reflects the sumptuous luxury of the 1920s Pullman era.
During the journey there is plenty of time to sit in the plush salon chairs or at the bar in the observation car. The observation car is favorite place to chat, have a drink, and marvel at the views of the Andes and the Sacred Valley. The only other seating option is in the dining car so it can be crowded. The congenial ambiance is enhanced by a duet with a repertoire of Spanish and International songs. From the viewing platform on the last car, or comfortably seated in the observation car, or from their dining table, passengers marvel at the unfolding panorama. The route starts in the high plains that produce potatoes and quinoa, passes agricultural terraces from Inca times, through small villages where people stop working to offer a friendly wave, and along the tumbling Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes. The train closely follows the path traveled by Hiram Bingham in 1911 where, on July 23, he first viewed the Machu Picchu, the Inca's best–kept secret.
Savvy travelers will not tarry upon boarding and head the last car for a preferred viewing spot on the right side heading out of town. Throughout the journey the staff points out Inca ruins, the hiking trail to the Machu Picchu, and other points of interest. An informational book includes a brief history of Machu Picchu, a map of the train's route, and a chart of distances and altitudes. Coca tea and oxygen are available for those suffering from effects of the altitude. However, contrary to popular perception, the altitude decreases from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
With the magical and mystical scenery sliding by, Hiram Bingham guests enjoy a 5–star brunch pre–ordered from the menu at the start of the journey. The gourmet repast may begin with olive corn tamales, asparagus pudding, roasted alpaca loin with elderberry compote followed by an artichoke and Andean cheese cannelloni, and end with white chocolate ginger sorbet served with a choice of international wines. Staff frequently inquires, "Is there anything I can get you? Is everything OK?" One guest replied, "Of course everything is OK. It is perfect. It's the Hiram Bingham." The staff has an amazing ability to address each passenger by name.
The train pulls into the small town of Aguas Calientes around noon with time for shopping in the extensive maze of handicraft stalls before making the short walk across the bridge to waiting buses for the ride up the serpentine road to Machu Picchu. Disembarking staff hands out bottles of water. There is even time to wander around the town that straddles the river. The hair–raising bus ride to the Sanctuary is one hairpin turn after another. It is part of the adventure with precipitous views—for those who dare to look—of the green valley far below.
Arrival at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary is timed for 12:30, when the majority of the visitors are preparing to leave, giving passengers the advantage of exploring the ancient citadel in relative solitude. Note that it can get hot at that time of day though and photos will come out relatively flat, so stay the night here if you're trying to capture postcard–perfect pictures. An experienced guide leads the Hiram Bingham guests around the spectacular site. Regardless of the weather, which can be misty or rainy some months of the year, the experience is unforgettable. In the words of the train's namesake, explorer Hiram Bingham, "In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it."
At the end of the day guests gather in Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge for late afternoon tea complete with a buffet of tea sandwiches, cookies, and sweets. Located just steps from the ancient citadel, there is the option of spending the night at the Belmond–owned Sanctuary Lodge allowing guests to experience the sunset, sunrise, and the ruins in the morning before the busloads of tourists arrive.
On the bus ride down to the waiting train a young Andean lad races straight down a walking path and appears at all the hairpin turns waving and shouting, "Adios!" The staff is waiting with refreshing scented towels. The Belmond Hiram Bingham train departs at 6 p.m. and pulls into Poroy station around 9.30 p.m. so there is little daylight time to enjoy the scenery on the return trip––it is time to enjoy a relaxing dinner.
Pre–dinner Pisco Sour cocktails, served in especially designed terra cotta vessels, are served in the bar along with other libations accompanied by live entertainment. The relaxing four–course, à la carte dinner includes pumpkin cream soup scented with star anise followed by salmon trout with champagne pink pepper sauce accompanied by Peru's own Tacama wines. Special dietary requests are no problem.
The Belmond Hiram Bingham Train, especially coupled with a stay at the Machu Picchu Lodge and the Monastario Hotel in Cusco, makes for a once–in–a–lifetime experience where the luxury treatment is seamless from start to finish.
Visit the Belmond Hiram Bingham train
Round trip – $599 all-inclusive
Review and photos by Sandra Scott except first photo courtesy of Belmond Peru.