Taking the Kids to Peru
I have always wanted to go to Machu Picchu. Much like the Taj Mahal in India or the Great Wall of China, it’s one of the world’s wonders that is on everyone’s Bucket List. I assumed, however, that the only way to access this 15th century Inca citadel was on foot, via the well-trodden Inca trail. This gruelling 4-day camping trip was an adventure I had mentally shelved for when my children were older (they are now 7 & 6 years). It was therefore something of a revelation when I discovered you could get transport right up to the entrance gate! If you’d like to know how we booked our trip to Machu Picchu, take a look at this post.
At the same time that I realised walking was not the only way to access Machu Picchu, the Paddington Bear film was released. Based on Michael Bond’s classic children books about a lovable bear from ‘deepest darkest Peru’, this far-flung South American country leapt to the top spot on my children’s bucket list too.
And so it was that we found ourselves in Peru over the Easter holidays on an eight-day (nine-night) tour based around Machu Picchu. If we’re lucky, I told the children, we might even bump into Paddington Bear’s Aunt Lucy…
What I hadn’t appreciated until we arrived in Peru, however, was just how much else there is to see and do besides visiting the magical lost city. Nor had I expected the actual journey to Machu Picchu to be so interesting, so spellbinding or quite so beautiful.
A Day in Lima
We flew into Peru’s main international airport, Lima. A lot of traditional Peruvian itineraries bypass this coastal capital but we decided to take it easy with the kids in tow and spent a full day here. It’s not the prettiest of cities – rather grey and foggy with a strong smell of seaweed! But there’s more than enough to do for a day; we ate a lot of extremely good ceviche, went shopping for sombreros, watched surfers and visited Mario Testino’s Museo MATE (the world acclaimed photographer is originally from Lima).
Lima to Cusco
From Lima we took an early domestic flight to Cusco (we were told that it’s best to book a morning flight as there is a greater probability of later flights being delayed or cancelled due to weather conditions). The ancient Andean capital of Cusco is where most classic itineraries start but at an altitude of 3,400m (11,150ft) it’s very high and altitude sickness is a real possibility.
When planning this holiday I had read that the best place to start the trip is in the Sacred Valley, which is only 1 – 1.5 hours away from Cusco but significantly lower at 2,792m (9,160 ft). So we grabbed a taxi and headed straight there. This proved to be an excellent tip.
The Sacred Valley sits between Cusco and Machu Picchu and stretches some 60 miles (100km) from Pisac in the east through to Machu Picchu in the west. Carved out by the Urubamba River, this valley was the heart of the Incan Empire and, owing to its fertile land, was a major agricultural source for the Incas. It continues to serve as something of a breadbasket for Cusco today.
We spent three glorious nights in the small town of Urubamba (meaning “flat land of spiders”). Located in the middle of the Sacred Valley, we found it to be the perfect location for exploring the region and its many sights. Here’s a post on 10 great things to do with kids in the Sacred Valley.
The landscape is dramatic and regardless of whether or not you are a spiritual person, you will surely feel the magic here (usually more so after a Pisco Sour or two!). We visited at the tail end of the rainy season (during the last week of March, first week of April) when the mountains were blanketed in lush green foliage. The weather was spring-like and the skies could not have been a purer shade of blue.
A lot of tours only dedicate a night or two here but there is so much to see and do that we felt our three nights were not enough. I could have easily spent two weeks here alone. While here, we stayed at the Sol y Luna Hotel, which was incredible.
During our time in the Sacred Valley we visited lots of Incan sites. They are all unique and all equally impressive but there were a couple that stood out for my kids. For my son it was Moray, which consisted of several, huge terraced circular depressions (similar to crop circles) – the largest is approximately 30m (98ft) deep.
Another favourite were the dazzling white salt flats of Maras – evaporation ponds that have been in use since the Inca times.
The wonderful thing with Incan sites is that they are all fun for children to explore. Some like Pisac have tunnels or big boulders and others like Chincheros boast massive stone walls seemingly built by giants. The one thing they seem to share, however, is that they all enjoy spectacular views.
On day four we said a sad farewell to Urubamba and took a taxi to the impossible-to-pronounce town of Ollantaytambo. After exploring the magnificent (and very steep!) Inca ruins here we jumped aboard the train for Aguas Calientes. This train journey (operated by Peru Rail) is considered by many to be one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world and it was another highlight for us. There are three different categories of trains to suit different budgets. We opted for the mid-range ‘Vistadome’, which has large panoramic windows offering unobstructed views of the scenery.
My son plugged himself into an audio book and was taken off to the world of Harry Potter, most likely to the Hogwarts Express.
Aguas Calientes is the last stop on the route to Machu Picchu. It’s one of those towns that has developed purely because of its position near to Peru’s greatest tourist attraction. In other words, you would only come here if you were visiting Machu Picchu. We stayed the night here in Tierra Viva Machu Picchu so that we could get up early and beat the crowds. It’s possible to visit on a day trip from Ollantaytambo but we wanted to be first through the gates the next morning.
Machu Picchu with Kids!
As it was, we left the hotel at 8.30am! Given how quickly we move in the mornings (i.e. not very) we were pretty pleased with ourselves although we definitely did not make it to Machu Picchu for the sunrise. From the hotel it’s over an hour’s steep climb to the entrance for Machu Picchu or a 25-minute ride in shuttle bus. We opted for the latter!
And then we were there. What can I say about this site that hasn’t already been said? At 2,430m (8,000 ft), this iconic city in the clouds was, in every sense of the word, simply breath-taking. It’s one of those places that you have seen so many pictures of – on postcards, travel brochures, chocolate boxes – but, as with so many wonders of the world, nothing can quite prepare you for being there in person.
No one knows really why or how Machu Picchu was built. As the Incas had no writing system they left behind no records or histories or stories and so the true purpose of Machu Picchu will never really be known. It was constructed at the height of the Incan Empire in 1450 but abandoned just over a century later in 1572 after the Spaniards arrived in Peru. Incredibly, it was only discovered in 1911 when Hiram Bingham, an explorer and professor of South American history from Yale University, happened to come upon it. What a day that must have been for him, imagine!
We spent just over three hours here. We could have spent longer but the kids were getting hungry and tired (tip! remember to bring plenty of water and snacks!). Nevertheless we saw a lot in the time we were there and enjoyed exploring on our own. We decided not to take a guide (in general we don’t find guided tours particularly kid-friendly) and ended up following the llamas around instead – much to the children’s delight!
It’s worth noting that the number of visitors is restricted to 2,500 per day so you must book your tickets in advance. Similarly, after 10am it gets very busy so it’s definitely worth trying to get there as early as possible – unlike us! Take a look at this post, How to Book, Plan and Budget a family holiday to Machu Picchu
Back to Cusco
In the afternoon we took the train from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco and then had three more nights in this beautiful colonial city. I fell in love with Cusco and we spent our days wandering the cobbled streets and eating incredible food (undoubtedly the best gastronomic experience I’ve ever had!). We visited the Choco Museo and learnt how to make chocolate, explored the Plaza de Armas and its ornate cathedral and spent a morning in the Inca Museum. We also took a half-day tour of all the Inca sights surrounding Cusco, which was well worth it. I’ve written another post on all the things there are to do in Cusco.
The Highlight of our Trip to Peru
It’s so hard to choose the best part or even best parts, as every sight, every meal and every experience was a highlight for us! The circular terraces at Moray had my son spellbound and both children loved hugging the alpacas and llamas!
One of my favourite video clips from the trip:
One of the best things about Peru for me, however, was the journey itself to Machu Picchu. I had only ever really thought about this mysterious mountaintop city when planning our trip but once I was there I discovered that the country has much, much more to offer. Plus the driving distances and travel times between places were not long – a huge bonus point for families!
And let’s not forget the food!
When is the best time to visit Peru
Peak season is May to October (the dry season or ‘winter’ in the Southern Hemisphere), with the greatest number of visitors in July and August. During this season the days are usually clear and sunny with chilly nights, especially at high altitudes.
We went in Spring Break at the tail end of rainy season and it turned out to be a wonderful time to visit, as everything was so green. Plus there were fewer crowds and the hotel rates were not high peak.
The rainy season runs from November through to March (January and February are traditionally the wettest months). This period sees dramatic price drops and fewer visitors but flooding and landslides are common.
Three Can’t Miss Experiences in Peru
1. Do not rush! Not only do you need to give yourself time to acclimatise, you really need to allow time to enjoy places. I would highly recommend spending at least three nights in the Sacred Valley, this is one place you should not miss.
2. Spend a night in Aguas Calientes so that you can get up to Machu Picchu early before the crowds do.
3. Hug an alpaca!
Peru with Kids: Video series
Click on the icon with the three horizontal lines (in the top left-hand corner of the screen below) to view our video series on Family Travel in Peru.
You May Also Enjoy the Following Posts:
Family Hotel Review: Tierra Viva Saphi, Cusco, Peru
Family Hotel Review: The Garden House Hotel, Cusco, Peru
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Family Guide to Peru
To view all our blog posts and videos in the Peru With Kids series see our destination guide to Peru for Families.