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Machu Picchu might conjure images of intrepid backpackers hiking the arduous Inca Trail, but luckily, that’s not the only way to get to the ancient site. Given Machu Picchu’s boom in popularity in recent years, infrastructure in the region has improved vastly, meaning it’s easier than ever to take the kids on a bucket-list family vacation. (Machu Picchu is even now wheelchair accessible.) That said, it’s not quite as simple as packing up, hopping on a plane and kicking back at the hotel — especially with a new and stricter timed entry policy.
While many visitors may book a private or group tour that takes care of everything from takeoff to landing at your home airport, you can also do the trip on your own. We’ve got all the tips you need to plan a trip to Machu Picchu on miles and points.
Before You Go
There’s one big rule when booking a trip to Machu Picchu: Plan in advance. In 2019 the Peruvian government instituted crowd-control measures, limiting daily entrance to the citadel to a set number of visitors who possess a timed ticket valid for a one-hour entry window. Thus, if you plan on visiting the site without a prebooked tour, you’ll need to snag one of these tickets well ahead of time via the official government website. You’ll need to book even earlier if you’re looking to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the citadel) or Machu Picchu Mountain itself, as there are only several hundred of these tickets available each day. Plus, hotels in Aguas Calientes, the tourist town just beneath Machu Picchu, book up quickly during high season between May and August. Start thinking about your trip at least six months in advance for prime availability.
In terms of timing, Machu Picchu is open 365 days a year. June, July and August are the busiest months, given summer vacation in the US and Europe. If you want to avoid the worst of the crowds, you’ll likely want to visit another time. That said, the weather is best during those months: Rainy season runs from October to April. The site, however, is open rain or shine, and the benefit to the offseason is smaller crowds and cheaper hotel rates. Your best bet for a trip might be around Thanksgiving or spring break — both are closer to shoulder season, and you can easily do the trip in a week. If you plan to piece together the trip yourself, here are some tips to see Machu Picchu on a budget.
One more piece of the pre-trip puzzle is looking at medical requirements. Special vaccines aren’t mandatory for Machu Picchu, Cusco, the Sacred Valley or Lima, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends travelers to those destinations be inoculated for hepatitis A and typhoid. It also recommends a rabies shot for children. It’s wise to check in with your doctor regarding other medication, like antibiotics that can assist with food poisoning. You might also want to consider medication for altitude sickness. Beware too that midges and mosquitoes can be a problem at any time of the year so bring along insect repellant.
Getting to Peru
If you’re flying from the US, start with a flight into Lima. American, Delta and United all have nonstop service from major US cities, as do Spirit and JetBlue. LATAM and Avianca also fly a number of routes, with the former offering red-eye flights from New York and Los Angeles that maximize your time. But if you’re willing to take a layover, you can find worthwhile award deals, such as 35,000 AAdvantage miles for round-trip economy tickets on American (or 60,000 AAdvantage miles for business class) from New York to Lima via Miami.
Though the flights are roughly the same duration as ones between the US and Western Europe, Peru is usually just one hour behind New York and two hours ahead of Los Angeles, depending on daylight saving time. This means that jet lag shouldn’t be too big a problem. That said, we do recommend staying a day or two in Lima before continuing toward Machu Picchu to give the kids a chance to rest after the long flight. (Not to mention Lima is a great destination on its own.) Then head back to the airport for a short flight on to Cusco, the closest airport to Machu Picchu, a nonstop route serviced by LATAM, Avianca, Peruvian, Viva Air Peru, and Star Peru.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley
While Lima is at sea level, Cusco’s elevation is 11,152 feet and altitude sickness may be a problem for some. We recommend heading straight down into the Sacred Valley, which can be anywhere from 2,000 to 4,500 feet lower than the city. But, do spend time in Cusco on your way back.
If your family lives at sea level, it’s best to spend a day or two in the Sacred Valley — there are lovely hotels in the town of Urubamba — to acclimate to the elevation (more on that soon). To get from Cusco to your hotel, you can catch a public bus or take a taxi. While you can easily get taxis at the airport, hotels can also arrange car services to pick you up.
While in the Sacred Valley, stay well hydrated with bottled water, limit physical exertion and get plenty of rest — this will help prevent altitude sickness, of which symptoms can include dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting and fainting. (Most hotels have bottled oxygen should you or your children start feeling the effects.) If you allow for extra time here before heading to Machu Picchu, visit some of the area’s attractions like the Salinas de Maras salt ponds and the Moray archaeological site, or enjoy activities like horseback riding, ziplining and mountain biking.
The next step is taking a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. There are two options: The government-operated PeruRail and the private Inca Rail. Both companies have multiple classes of service ranging from entry-level tickets for cushioned seats with mountain views to a private car with a three-course meal, balcony and live music (Inca Rail’s Private class). All of the services are good, so it’s up to you how much you’d like to splurge for the 1.5-hour ride.
While some travelers take the earliest train so as to ascend Machu Picchu that day, we recommend taking a more leisurely approach, choosing whichever train best suits your schedule and then relaxing at a hotel — options range from five-star lodges to budget-friendly accommodations — for a night before tackling the main event. There’s not too much to do in Aguas Calientes itself, save for shopping the tourist markets, but you can find great food here.
TPG also has more ideas for what to see and do on your way to Machu Picchu.
Touring Machu Picchu
There are two ways to visit Machu Picchu: with a prebooked tour or on your “own.”
A prebooked tour might be the most convenient option, as all the logistics will be handled for you. Most Aguas Calientes hotels can organize special guided trips to Machu Picchu — consider booking Sumaq Machu Picchu’s new family-friendly excursion for both guests and non-guests, which is designed for families with children ages 6 to 11 and includes entrance tickets, bus tickets, a guide, packed lunches and a box of toys for the kids. Do remember to book such tours in advance, and be sure to ask exactly what’s included in the package.
If you don’t want to book a prearranged tour, you can still visit Machu Picchu by hiring one of the guides waiting outside the entrance gate. (By law, you’re technically supposed to enter the site with a licensed guide, but we’ve discovered that this isn’t always strictly enforced.) Mileage may vary per guide, so we recommend briefly interviewing several regarding language skills and adapting information to a child-friendly level. Prices vary, but you can expect to spend about $25 per person for groups of three or more.
Visiting Machu Picchu With Kids
There are three areas that you can access at Machu Picchu, depending on which ticket you purchase: the citadel ruins, Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu. The most kid-friendly — and the most popular overall — is the citadel. Your guide will take you through the entrance gate, up a slew of terraces and onto an overlook where everyone takes their quintessential Machu Picchu photograph. This is the most “difficult” part of the hike, as there are a number of stairs to climb. (Be wary of the stones in the rain, as they can get slippery.)
But overall, it’s extremely manageable for kids of all ages, as well as parents toting babies in a carrier. You’ll be mainly walking on well-trodden dirt paths or ascending the large stone steps. It’s quite common for visitors to take breaks if you or your kids do get winded — bring plenty of water and snacks to keep energy levels up, but be sure to take all your garbage out of the site with you. The citadel itself is very much a historic site and not a strenuous hike, so you might see visitors wearing street clothes and shoes rather than fitness or hiking apparel. That said, it’s advisable to outfit your kids with a sturdy pair of boots or sneakers with good treads, as there is a certain, albeit low, level of physical activity required to walk through Machu Picchu.
From the scenic overlook, your guide will usher you down more stairs into the ancient citadel itself, where you’ll follow an even easier path that’s no more difficult than a simple hike through the woods. But keep a very close eye on your children. It can get very crowded, and though you’re supposed to stick to the prescribed route, there are plenty of side alleys that a child could get lost down. The citadel also sits atop steep cliffs, and there have been several instances of careless visitors plummeting to their deaths. You’re allowed four hours at the site with the regular entrance ticket, and most visitors do take the full time to explore. Adults can easily finish the route in two hours walking at a leisurely pace, so you can certainly take your time with kids and still see it all.
The Machu Picchu Mountain climb, on the other hand, is significantly more difficult. To reach the summit, which is nearly 2,000 feet above the citadel, you’ll walk steep dirt paths and climb even more stone stairs for an hour and a half, with the return journey being slightly shorter. If your kids are used to tougher hikes, they’ll be able to make this journey, but it’s not advisable for parents to take very young children — or inexperienced hikers of any age — on this path.
Huayna Picchu is an even more grueling climb than Machu Picchu. Even though the summit is only about 1,000 feet above the citadel, the hike is nearly vertical up incredibly steep stone stairs that in some areas are surrounded by sheer cliff faces. There’s even a segment known as “The Stairs of Death.” The whole hike takes about three hours: two hours to ascend and one hour to descend. It’s widely acknowledged as a dangerous climb, so it’s best left to sure-footed teenagers and adults rather than younger children.
Basic Info for Machu Picchu
To get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, there’s a bus that runs every 10 minutes — lines can be more than an hour long, so bring something to entertain the kids. Buy tickets from the office near the train, or ask your hotel’s front desk to arrange it for you. The ride takes about 30 minutes and is much easier than hiking the nearly 1,300 feet up. While kids who are experienced hikers might be able to make the climb on foot, the trail isn’t particularly scenic, so it’s best to save your energy for exploring Machu Picchu itself.
The only bathroom at Machu Picchu is outside the entrance gates. If you’re touring the citadel, once you enter the site, you won’t be allowed to exit and renter. If, however, you have a ticket for climbing Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain that includes entry into the citadel as well, you’ll be allowed a 15-minute break to use the facilities between your climb and your tour around the citadel.
Wear layers and prepare for rain. Most guests spend several hours at Machu Picchu, and the weather can change unpredictably during a single visit. The temperature can fluctuate greatly, and downpours can happen out of nowhere, even in the dry season.
Bring insect repellent and sunscreen, and consider long pants — your skin will thank you. Also bring your passport as ID for entry. There’s also a stamp you can get to say you’ve been to Machu Picchu. The kids will love that!
With the right advance planning and attitude, it is possible to bring your kids to Machu Picchu. Just remember the mantra: Slow and steady wins the race. If your family isn’t used to high altitudes, ease into the higher elevation destinations and be vigilant about staying hydrated. Have you been to Machu Picchu with your children?
Featured image by mailanmaik / Pixabay
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