Exploring Machu Picchu with Kids
The ancient city in the clouds has held a mystical fascination in my mind ever since I began to dream of travelling. It’s no wonder this place, voted one of the Seven Wonders of the World, has become a sort of mecca of the West, drawing adventurers from across the globe. Machu Picchu has been at the top of my list of places I want to visit, but after my two children were born, I wasn’t sure making the trek would be feasible, so I wrote it off as another “someday.” But since starting our South-to-North America overland adventure, I have begun to rethink what is possible with children. After trekking the Valley of the Moon in Bolivia, I knew no excuse could hold our family back from experiencing Machu Picchu!
Watch Our Video Review of Machu Picchu with Kids!
If you are considering visiting this sacred place with your family, perhaps your first concern will be: How will my kids handle the altitude? This definitely concerned me too, though we had already acclimated to the altitude in Bolivia and Lake Titicaca (12,500 feet!) by the time we arrived. However, if you are arriving by plane to Cusco – the closest airport – I recommend heading straight to the Sacred Valley. This is the valley you have to travel through to get to Machu Picchu, which is actually a couple of hours away from Cusco. The Sacred Valley is around 9,500 feet/2,800 meters high, which is a good place to start your altitude acclimation. We ended up being really lucky, because it seemed like the altitude affected us more than the kids – which in asking around seems to be pretty common (kids are so adaptable!) The secret is to ascend slowly, a day or two at a time, and take it easy. Your body will need to learn how to breathe deeper to get more oxygen, so don’t try to go on a hike the first day. Drink lots of water, and take in the scenery!
The pueblo of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley is a great option to stay as there are many ruins to see right in town. It is right off the train line, which you will have to take to get to Machu Picchu as you cannot get there by road (unless you want to do a 1-5 day hike, which I’m assuming you don’t with kids!). I recommend Peru Rail’s Expedition Train as it is the most economical. There are higher classes of travel too – if you want to splurge, you can travel on the Hiram Bingham Luxury Train sitting at a fancy white tablecloth-ed table and receive brunch or dinner along the way. But we could only imagine our toddlers breaking crystal and crying through dinner so we were quite comfortable with our lower-class (toddler-proof) train. The Peru Rail attendants were very nice to our kids, offering a free coloring book with colored pencils to each one, and even giving our youngest (2 yo) a snack even though his ticket was free. One tip to remember when traveling with a family on this train is that although the seats are in rows of two facing forward, you can turn them around so that four seats are facing each other. As in most places in South America, the attendants are very accommodating to families and won’t hesitate to help you change your seats so that you can all sit together.
Make sure you book your tickets a few days ahead of time (you can do it online) as the trains fill up fast. And don’t forget to bring passports for the whole family as they will check your tickets and passports before you get on the train. If you are coming from Cusco, you will need to arrange for transportation to the Poroy train station, which is a 30-45 minute drive over the hill (none of the trains actually leave from Cusco). A taxi shouldn’t cost you more than 30 soles, or if you have a hotel booked in Cusco, check with them to see if they can arrange your transportation. One important thing to note: as it’s about a three hour journey by train from Cusco to Machu Picchu, you’ll want to get settled in and relax after your long flight and tackle the mountain the next day. Dragging your kids up the steep slopes with little rest is not a good idea!
The little town of Aguas Calientes will be waiting for you at the end of your train ride. From here, you will need to make your way to the bus stop and ticket office, which is just down the hill from the train station next to the Vilcanote River. As the bus leaves every 5 minutes or so, there’s no rush to get your tickets. If you are getting into town in the morning and the kids need a snack or breakfast, head to the second floor of the “Mercado” (right above the bus station) where you can get fresh fruit smoothies and delicious egg sandwiches on the cheap for the whole family. On the main floor of the market, stock up on some fresh fruit and snacks for your day (technically you aren’t allowed to bring food into the ruins though), then head back to the bus station for the long, windy ride up the mountain.
Finally… Machu Picchu!
Hopefully you had a nice relaxing train ride because starting with the hair-raising bus ride on a one-lane dirt road that loops up a steep cliffside (with speeding buses meeting you coming down the opposite way) and culminating in your hike through some of the most incredible but gut-dropping staircases on the planet (with drops that literally fall vertical thousands of feet) your nerves will be tested. Just remember: kids sense fear. If you are at all afraid of heights, pretend you are not. Just keep a tight grip on those little hands as you get near the edges! Most likely, your little ones won’t bat an eye. But don’t worry, there are plenty of places to hike around in Machu Picchu that are not dangerous at all and not close to any steep drops. Our kids especially enjoyed exploring the rocky mazes and rooms of the ancient city and feeding the numerous llamas that are placed quite conveniently around the ruins. Just take your time and take plenty of breaks, as you’ll need to carry small children up most of the stairways you encounter as the steps are very high and the stairways long. I’d recommend bringing a backpack carrier if you have a child under 2 – I found the Ergo Baby especially comfortable and easy to pack away when not needed.
Lunch at the Top
In the midst of such an amazing place, it’s easy to forget the practical matters. Make sure to plan a break in the middle of your hike and head back out the entrance to use the bathroom and have a snack or lunch. There is a very expensive but good buffet lunch available at the Sanctuary Lodge, or you can get an overpriced sandwich or burger from the snack bar and eat outside on the picnic tables. Though entering the ruins with your own food is prohibited, nobody will check your bag, so you have the option to bring something you know your kids will like (in the event they aren’t sandwich eaters like ours!).
Most importantly, take a ton of photos and enjoy every moment of your time at Machu Picchu with your family. It will be an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime and is sure to transform your little ones into true explorers! Though it is a long journey (and expensive), it is worth every moment and every cent.
Rating for Machu Picchu for kids:
Overall as Tourist attraction: 10/10
Attraction for Toddlers: 10/10
Accesibility with kids: 5/10
Kids safety 5/10
Overall as attraction for kids: 9/10