El Valle Sagrado, or “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. Its fertile land mean that it was a major agricultural source for the Incas and it continues to serve as something of a breadbasket for Cusco today.
At 2,792m (9.160ft), The Sacred Valley also makes a great first port of call for families travelling in this area. Most classic Peruvian itineraries start in the ancient Andean capital of Cusco, however we chose to head straight to the valley in order to avoid altitude sickness; Cusco is very high at 3,400m (11,150ft). We spent a few days acclimatising in the Sacred Valley and saved our time in Cusco for the end of our eight-day tour and this worked out really well for us. What’s more, The Sacred Valley has so much to do for kids.
1. Explore Machu Picchu
Sitting at the top of most people’s Peruvian wish list is, of course, the country’s most iconic landmark, Machu Picchu. Positioned at the far eastern end of The Sacred Valley, this UNESCO World Heritage Site and Modern Wonder of the World has good reason to be on every family’s bucket list. Built at the height of the Incan Empire in 1452 but abandoned just over a century later, this ancient mountaintop citadel was only discovered in 1911 and archaeologists are still trying to work out what it all means. What was it built for? And just how exactly did the Incas build it? The questions may never be answered, but if there is one lesson a child will learn from visiting Machu Picchu it is that nothing is impossible!
2. Discover Incan Sites
Many visitors to Peru come to see Machu Picchu, little realising that there are so many other Inca sites to discover. The Sacred Valley is full of archaeological wonders, from Pisac in the west, Chincheros and Moray and Maras in the middle, and Ollantaytambo in the far east. All are unique, equally impressive and a lot of fun for children to explore. Some like Pisac have paths that tunnel through mountainsides and others like Chincheros boast massive stone walls seemingly built by giants. The one thing they all share are spectacular views and a lot of stone steps! Needless to say this is not toddler territory.
3. Learn How to Weave
Or rather, learn about Peru’s textile traditions with a hands-on visit to a weaving cooperative. Peruvians have been creating textiles for hundreds of years – during the Inca period, cloth was even used as a form of currency. Skills have been passed on from generation to generation and today a number of weaving cooperatives have been set up in the region to preserve and celebrate these ancient techniques. They also help provide local women with a secure and sustainable income. These centres are also very much set up with tourists in mind and the artisans offer entertaining and informative tours that will appeal to most ages. Many, like the one we visited in Chincheros, also have a token llama or alpaca for kids to feed/hug as well as a handful of guinea pigs – a food commodity in many traditional kitchens!
4. Visit the Museo Inkariy
This museum, located between Urubamba and Pisac is undoubtedly one of the most family-friendly museums in the region. Recently opened in June 2014, it offers a thrill-filled journey through the pre-Columbian cultures of Peru. Scenes from the past are reconstructed using life-size statues that are so realistic they will certainly have little kids fooled.
5. Become a Gaucho
Put on a poncho and a sombrero and explore The Sacred Valley from the saddle. This region is known for both its superb riding country as well as its beautiful horses. The Peruvian Paso horse is a unique breed to Peru, known for its unusual, fluid gait. There are a number of tour operators that offer horse riding in the area, ranging from two-hour rides (for beginners-to-intermediate riders) to full- or multiple-day rides for the more experienced rider.
For small children who may not be up to a two-hour ride, the Wayra restaurant in the Sol y Luna hotel offer kids (and adults!) the chance to ride one of their Peruvian Paso horses around the paddock after lunch – just one lap per person. If this gives you a thirst for more, you can always book one of their longer rides. Other operators we’ve heard good things about (but haven’t personally experienced) include Hacienda del Chalan and Perol Chico.
6. Play Inca Chess!
Legend has it that the last emperor of the Incas, Atahualpa, played chess matches while in captivity against Francisco Pizarro González, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Incan Empire. Whether or not that story is true, Inca chess sets depicting the Spaniards versus the Incas can now be found throughout Peru. My daughter particularly enjoyed playing against her father, who just happens to be Spanish!
The following four suggestions are not tried and tested (sadly, we ran out of time) but I’m including them because they sound fantastic for families and because I’ve only read good reports about them. If you have personally experienced any of the following do share your feedback with us!
7. Walk a Llama
Yes, really! The Llama Pack Project, a private initiative that works with local communities to preserve the traditional use and breeding of the llama as a pack animal, runs half- or full-day llama treks. Half-day treks see families taking the llamas out from their enclosures to grazing spots in the mountains, just a 40-minute leisurely walk towards a picnic spot. Yo de le he ho!
8. Go Climbing & Zipping
Video: By Alexander Estrada
Earn your Inka Cola (or Pisco Sour) at the end of the day by climbing a 400m rock face before zipping back down the mountain with Natura Vive.. You can opt to climb ‘Via Ferrara’ (a system of iron ladders secured onto the rock face that you are roped up to) or just the zipping (via 6 lines ranging between 150m to 500m in length), or both!
Minimum age for Via Ferrata: 9 years old. Minimum age for Zip Line: 6 years old.
9. See the Andean Condor
The Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary offers kids the chance to see the endangered Andean Condor. This family-run private organisation was established in 2007 to protect and shelter wild species, many of whom have been rescued from poachers or illegal hunters. The sanctuary is home to a number of animals including the Peruvian Hairless Dog, llamas, alpacas, deer and, of course, the magnificent Andean Condor. This is a wonderful place for children to see animals native to Peru and to learn about the dangers that many of these creatures face.
10. Get Paddling
Hop in a kayak and paddle your way along the glassy waters of Huaypo Lake. Surrounded by snowy Andean peaks, the setting couldn’t be more beautiful. Owing to the calm waters, this is a very kid-friendly activity, although it is recommended for children aged 7 years and older. This activity is organised by the Sol y Luna Lodge & Spa.
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An Altitude Chart for The Machu Picchu Circuit, Peru