Machu Picchu is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Visiting the lost Inca city is an adventure vacation which requires you to traverse the mountainous Sacred Valley by bus, train or on foot. Visiting Peru is also a profound cultural experience. In an era where children are increasingly plugged in to artificial computer screens and inundated with photos of internet celebrities, it might be worth considering Peru for your next family vacation.
As an expat living in Lima, I’ve been to Machu Picchu both as a tourist and a guide on dozens of occasions. The trip requires a flight to Cusco which sits at over 11,000 feet of elevation. There are many spectacular archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley but most of them, including Machu Picchu, require several hours of strenuous hiking to view.
In 2016 I decided to take my then 5- and 3-year-old daughters to Machu Picchu, and I’m pleased to report that they thoroughly enjoyed the trip. However, it’s very important to observe some simple rules to help make the kids’ vacation enjoyable.
This may sound a little bit strange coming from a health-conscious parent, but there is a time and place for everything–even sugar. Glucose helps fend off the effects of altitude sickness, so it’s important to have a steady supply of something sweet when walking around Cusco. Eleven thousand feet is pretty extreme elevation, so be extra attentive to any complaints your kids might have about stomach aches or nausea.
Try not to allow them to run around excessively, and make sure they drink plenty of water or Gatorade. Tourists commonly experience some headaches and nausea on the first day of their trip, but after a night or two the body adjusts. Eating enough sugar so that you feel a slight sugar buzz eliminates most of the symptoms.
The altitude of Cusco and the strains of being in a foreign city can be extremely taxing on small children. It’s important to plan on being back at the hotel after lunch for a two to three hour nap. After hiking around at altitude, the kids are going to be exhausted, and you’ll receive few to no complaints about laying down for a short nap. Join them! It’s a vacation after all!
Don’t attempt to push your kids too hard on a trip like this. If you keep them well rested, they will absorb and enjoy the sights that Peru has to offer, but if you push them when they’re tired the trip will become a nightmare. Pick an activity for the morning and spend an hour or two visiting it before retiring for lunch. Accept that you won’t see everything, but you will enjoy what you do see.
Understand that even adults sometimes have moments of panic when fully immersed in a foreign culture. For children, it is disorienting to go to a place where people speak a different language. Even the act of sleeping in a strange bed for a series of nights can be daunting. You can expect to have a few moments where your kids become a little distraught at no apparent provocation. They only need to be reassured and will bounce back quickly. If they are acting a bit unreasonable, hug them rather than scold them with the awareness that they’re in the middle of a remarkable journey.
Getting to Machu Picchu requires a flight to Cusco and a train ride to Aguas Callientes. These days of commuting are hectic, so don’t plan to double up and see a lot beyond the flight or train ride. Enjoy your transportation days and remember to consider them as part of the overall experience. The train ride to Aguas Calientes is especially fun since it goes through the Sacred Valley and affords tremendous views through the large windows.
Ollantaytambo is a city with a spectacular set of ruins about halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu. The station there is much less chaotic than the one in Cusco, and the train ride is only half as long. To get to Ollantaytambo, you’ll have to arrange road transportation, but this allows you to spend a day seeing the ruins of Pisaq or Moray.
Aguas Calientes, sometimes called Machupicchu pueblo, is the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. Most tour agencies recommend taking a train to Machu Picchu, seeing the ruins, and returning all in the same day. This is far too much for your kids to handle. Instead, plan on spending two nights at Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is at about 6,500 feet of elevation, so it is significantly lower than Cusco and feels much more tropical. Your kids are going to enjoy this city since it is much less strenuous than Cusco and the weather is more agreeable.
The thermal baths in Cusco are not extremely warm and my kids enjoyed them tremendously. The baths help take away the aches and pains of hiking at altitude, and after soaking for a while your kids will be ready to drop into a relaxing sleep. This is a very easy activity and was one of the highlights of the trip.
Machu Picchu is a beautiful set of ruins, but there is the potential for tumbling off ledges in some sections. Make sure you hold your children tightly by the hand at all times, and don’t allow them to run around. They will be amazed by the beauty of the ruins, so it will be up to you to make sure they keep a sure footing.
The day we spent at Machu Picchu was the one day we pushed our little ones a little more than usual. Just like at Disneyland, the kids seemed to be energized by the ambiance of the place, and they hiked around the ruins for 3 hours without complaint. You’re allowed to bring in a small backpack with snacks which was vital for having a good day. Between the bus rides from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins and back, the Machu Picchu day was extremely full. But the combination of lower altitude and a preceding day of rest at the thermal baths allowed the kids to enjoy their visit tremendously.
Peru is a great country for a family visit. The culture has a deep sense of family value, and you’ll find bus conductors and airline attendants go out of their way to make things easier for you. To enter Machu Picchu there is no charge for children under the age of 7 and from years 8-17 the entrance fee is half. Train and bus tickets for children are also discounted.
Our family trip to Machu Picchu was a tremendous success and the kids are now able to recognize and point out Machu Picchu when they see it on a television advertisement or in a magazine. I highly recommend making this life altering trip with the whole family!
This is an edited version of an article originally published on streetsoflima.com
Cover photo: audrey_sel/Flickr