Waking up the day of our train ride to Machu Picchu felt like Christmas morning. I have always romanticized train travel, and what could be more epic than riding a beautifully appointed 1920’s pullman-style dining car up to see one of the New Seven Wonders of the World? All of my Wes Anderson-inspired dreams of train travel were about to come true.
The elegant, glossy-blue Belmond Hiram Bingham train was waiting for us as we finished up breakfast and it was just a short 2 minute stroll from our hotel to the platform to board the train. As two of the first guests onboard, David and I explored every nook and cranny, from the gleaming dining car encased in polished hardwood to the bar and observation cars in the back of the train. The whole setting was so glamorous! As other guests boarded and we settled into our dining booth, we pinched ourselves thinking of the adventure before us.
As we pulled away from the train station, guests were in high spirits, chattering as the servers took our orders for brunch and invited us into the observation car for live music and Pisco sours – I didn’t realize what a celebration it would be on board! The mix of popular songs and traditional Peruvian ballads were a hit with the international crowd, as we literally danced our way through the Urubamba River Valley on our way to Machu Picchu, rotating between the bar car, our dining car, and the glass observation deck with incredible views. We settled into our dining booth and together watched the mountains and river wind by. A delicious three-course brunch was served and timed just right so we were finishing dessert as we pulled into the train terminal at Aguas Caliente a few minutes after noon.
The Hiram Bingham train is named for the American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911 and brought the ancient citadel to the world’s attention. This 15th century Incan site, set high in the Andes Mountains above the Urubamba River in Peru, has captured the imaginations of travelers from around the world. Aside from Machu Picchu’s stunning location and the mind-boggling logistics required for construction, much of Machu Picchu’s appeal comes from how little we understand about its history and purpose. What we do know is construction started around 1450, and the site was abandoned roughly 100 years later as a result of the Spanish Conquest. Whether the inhabitants died from smallpox or fled is unknown, but the Spanish did not discover the site, and thus it was left untouched for almost 400 years. The jungle reclaimed the buildings until Hiram Bingham rediscovered the site with the help of a Peruvian farmer four centuries later.
Amongst our fellow travelers onboard were a former astronaut, an olympic sprinter, and a pastor of one of the largest churches in the world. We drew a lot of conversation since everyone commented on wearing espadrilles while “hiking” Machu Picchu. But I’m going to let you in on a secret – if you hike the Inca trail you’ll definitely need all the gear – hiking boots, performance apparel, the works. But if you take the Hiram Bingham train to the top, enjoying Machu Picchu is a total walk in the park – quite literally! Of course you must be careful as there are some uneven staircases and sheer drops to the valley below but unless you are climbing the peaks of Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain in the park, specialty backpacking apparel is not necessary. So, for this once-in-a-lifetime experience I wanted dress for the occasion and wear something timeless that I’d enjoy seeing in photos for decades to come.
After a 3 hour tour of the park we returned to the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge for afternoon tea and to discuss our exploration with other guests. Since we were staying the night at the Sanctuary Lodge, we checked in and took a short nap before dinner. The Sanctuary Lodge enjoys incredible real estate as the only hotel on Machu Picchu itself, and about 50 feet from the entrance to the park, which allowed us to wake up, roll out of bed, and be among the first to enter the park for the coveted views of the sunrise over Machu Picchu. As they say: “Location! Location! Location!” We loved the low-key pace at the Lodge, waking up from our nap in time to grab a pisco sour at the bar before dinner at their on-site restaurant, Tampu. (Which was as artful as very, very good.) From the yoga terrace with views of Machu Picchu to the hot tub and lounge chairs surrounded by jungle, the word “Sanctuary” says it all. My favorite moment at the lodge,
The next morning we woke at 5am to be among the first 50 people inside the park so we could find an enjoyable spot to appreciate the sunrise. Thankfully, a hot coffee service was waiting for us as we sleepily ambled downstairs. Once in the park, we climbed to the old guard’s tower just in time to see sunlight break over the Incan citadel with a shining ray of light. Over the next 30 minutes, low fog rose from the valley below, swept over the ruins, and then disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Looking out over this hidden land, we were glad we decided to experience Machu Picchu over two days. We had perfect weather on both days we entered the park, which I’ve been told is very unusual, as many people choose to hedge their bets and visit the park over two days in the hope of having one clear day.
The return trip to Cusco aboard the Hiram Bingham was just as festive as the first leg of our journey had been, full of music and wine and dancing. Moving from the observation car, hair whipping in the wind, through the merry crowd, to the quiet dining car occupied by servers readying tables for the evening meal, a century of wonder and delight in Machu Picchu’s treasures flickered before my eyes.
Thank you Belmond Hiram Bingham and Sanctuary Lodge for the experience of a lifetime!
All photos by David and Stacie Flinner for Stacieflinner.com