Your family doesn’t have to hike the Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu, but you will have to pack plenty of patience.
It’s one of the most iconic photos in all of travel: an ancient Inca city perched in the Andes Mountains with a peak, often shrouded in clouds, towering behind it. Nearly every intrepid traveler wants to boast, “oh, I’ve been there,” and many believe that they’ll get extra points if they bring their kids. While this once-in-a-lifetime trip can be a bucket lister for families, it’s not for everyone.
As they say, getting there is half the fun… or struggle, depending on your frame of reference. Typically, your journey will start with a flight (or several flights) to Lima and perhaps an overnight stay at the airport hotel. (Lima doesn’t really offer much for families, so don’t plan any extra time there.) Then it’s on to Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire until the Spanish conquest. Today, the city is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Sitting at a height of 11,200 feet, you’ll want to spend one or two nights in Cusco exploring and acclimating to the altitude. The altitude in Cusco is actually higher than Machu Picchu.
KidTripster Tip: Locals swear by coca tea, or mate de coca, as a way of preventing altitude sickness. It’s made from the leaves of the coca plant, the same leaves used in the manufacturing of cocaine. The tea is a mild stimulant, and some parents chose not to give it to their kids. Alternatively, you can get a prescription for Acetazolamide from your local travel clinic. Our whole family opted for the prescription and had no problems.
There’s plenty of impressive ruins and churches in Cusco, but if your kids are like mine, they have a “culture limit.” Instead we spent an afternoon at ChocoMuseo taking a 2-hour-long chocolate making (and tasting!) class. Yum! Cost: Youth (8-12) $17; Adults $23.
On the morning or evening that you head to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, you’ll take a taxi to Poroy Station which is about 25 minutes from downtown Cusco. Cost: about $10.
There are three trains: the Belmond Hiram Bingham (luxury), Vistadome (mid-range), and Expedition (budget), all with Peru Rail. We chose the Vistadome. The ticket price included a small meal and non-alcoholic drink. The panoramic windows made it easy to take in the scenery along the Urubamba River during the 3-1/2-hour trip. Cost: approximately $190/person/round trip; no child discount.
Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes, you can walk to most hotels. It's possible to take the train to Machu Picchu, see the ruins, and then return in one day. However, if you chose to do the hike up Huayna Picchu (keep reading), you’ll need to have an overnight stay.
KidTripster Tip: Buy your train ticket in advance online, especially if you’re traveling during peak season. You can pick up your physical boarding passes at the Peru Rail office in Cusco.
Where to stay?
Unfortunately, Aguas Calientes is a tourist town; if you’re looking for the Peruvian soul here, you won’t find it. Hotels are overpriced and often booked months in advance, but we found a gem in Rupa Wasi Lodge. Perched on a hillside (and up several flights of stairs), this hotel is a bit rustic, but that’s part of its charm. Our room was like a treehouse with two single beds and a bathroom on the first floor and a queen-size bed in a second floor loft. Cost: $110/night, including breakfast. We opted to add on our bus transportation to Machu Picchu (to avoid the long line to purchase tickets), box lunches, and dinner at the hotel restaurant, The Tree House Restaurant, which was really good in a town where our other dining experiences didn’t measure up.
KidTripster Tip: While you also can have the hotel arrange your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu and a tour guide, there’s a significant upcharge for doing so. Instead arrange them on your own.
What to do?
Hindsight is 20/20. Knowing what we know now about visiting Machu Picchu, our family would have done it differently. You can benefit from our mistakes!
We wanted to climb Huayna Picchu (also spelled Wayna Picchu or Wayna Pikchu), the mountain that towers above the ruins. So we took a morning train, toured Machu Picchu in the afternoon, stayed overnight, climbed the mountain on the following morning, and returned to Cusco on an afternoon train. While this pacing was fairly leisurely, it required paying for two bus rides (Cost: $24/person) instead of one and two entrance fees (more on cost below) instead of one for an added expense of $252 for our family of four.
Instead I’d recommend arriving in Aguas Calientes in the late afternoon and staying overnight. The next morning, get in the bus line at 5 a.m. to assure yourself a spot on the first bus at 5:30 a.m. (Ask your hotel to pack a to-go breakfast.) If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive just as the sun is rising over Machu Picchu. Be prepared to wait in another line to show your ticket and passport at the entrance.
All tickets must be purchased in advance; there are no ticket sales at the entrance. Only 2,500 tickets are issued each day, and tickets can sell out during high season. You either buy a Machu Picchu only ticket (Cost: $40/person) or a Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu ticket (Cost: $46/person) that allows you to climb the mountain. Only 400 combination tickets are sold each day: 200 for the 7 a.m. departure and 200 for the 10 a.m. departure. Because of the heat, you’ll want to climb at 7 a.m. Trust me.
KidTripster Tip: To avoid any upcharge, purchase your tickets directly from the government website. But make sure your credit card purchase actually goes through. There have been issues with U.S. credit card purchases not clearing and would-be visitors showing up with their reservation confirmations rather than their actual tickets.
You may hesitate to climb Huayna Picchu. Yes, it’s a steep, strenuous climb up more than 2,000 ancient stone steps with an elevation gain of 1,180 feet in the thin air of the Andes Mountains. Would I do it with toddlers or preschoolers? No. Would I do it with a baby strapped on my back? Ah, no. But I have two strapping young teenagers who beat me to the top by a good 20 minutes. (It takes a normal human being about an hour to climb.) You may think that they complained the whole way; they didn’t. In fact, the challenge of this climb and the huge payoff at the top was the highlight of their Machu Picchu experience. (That being said, if you’re afraid of heights or have significant health issues, you may want to skip the climb.)
KidTripster Tip: Each climber should carry a large water bottle. You will need to drink often during this climb.
KidTripster Tip: If you choose not to climb Huayna Picchu or can’t get a ticket, consider climbing to the Sun Gate instead for another breathtaking vista; no additional ticket needed.
After you complete your climb, you can return to the entrance, use the only bathroom facilities (fee), and then grab an early lunch at the overpriced snack counter or the even more overpriced Belmond Sanctuary Lodge’s Tinkly Buffet Restaurant (which doesn’t open until 11 a.m.).
Once you’ve recovered, hire a guide outside the gate. Make sure the one that you choose speaks good English and is willing to gear your tour to your kids’ interests. Cost: about $30/hour. You could walk through the ruins on your own, but it’s difficult - especially for kids - to appreciate Machu Picchu without the historical background. After about an hour or two, you’ll all be ready take the bus back to Aquas Calientes, pick up your luggage at the hotel, and head back to Cusco. A well-deserved nap on the train awaits.
KidTripster Tip: Have your child read up on the Inca Empire before you go. If you have an older child, I’d recommend Cradle of Gold by Christopher Heaney.
Click here to find the 5 questions that you should ask yourself before taking your kids to Machu Picchu.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah traveled to Peru with her husband and two sons, ages 13 and 16. The family lives in Portland, Oregon.