How to Plan a Visit to Machu Picchu with Kids
Earlier this year, my family took a two-month trip through Ecuador and Peru. One of the highlights was a visit to Machu Picchu, the 15th Century Inca Citadel in southern Peru. Here, I’ll review what it was like to tour Machu Picchu with kids. For background, our kids were 10 and 9 years of age at the time.
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Planning a Machu Picchu Family Vacation
A Peru family vacation is an unforgettable adventure. The country has everything from rainbow deserts to Amazon jungles and everything in between. Most families traveling to the country plan to visit Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, and possibly the Amazon, providing a diverse sampling of what Peru has to offer. Here’s what to expect if your family wants to travel to Machu Picchu.
What is Machu Picchu?
Let’s start with some background information for those who aren’t familiar with this UNESCO World Heritage Site. First and foremost, it is one of the most significant remnants of the Inca empire. It is located high in the Andes mountains of Peru above the Urubamba River valley.
The massive complex was built in the 15th century, but forgotten through the years. It was known as the Lost City of the Incas before it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham III in the early 20th century. Today it is the most popular tourist destination in South America and one of the top archaeological sites in the world.
Visiting Machu Picchu Can Be Complex
It’s not easy to visit Machu Picchu, but it is most definitely worth it. Because my family visited in February – the low (and rainy) season – I enjoyed flexibility in how I assembled our Machu Picchu itinerary.
The best time to visit Machu Picchu is usually in the shoulder seasons, so think March and April or September through November. If you’re visiting in the high season, considered to be April through October, with most visitors arriving in June, July, and August, you may encounter less flexibility in your planning and booking.
Overview of our Machu Picchu itinerary
Day 1: Fly into Cusco from Lima, drive to Ollantaytambo
Day 2: Tour around Ollantaytambo
Day 3: Train to Machu Picchu Town; tour around MPT in the afternoon
Day 4: Visit Machu Picchu; train back to Ollantaytambo and then bus to Cusco
Starting In the Sacred Valley
We flew from Lima to Cusco, about a 90-minute flight, landing mid-day. I booked transportation through Viator, an online marketplace for travel tours and activities, and our driver picked us up promptly at the airport.
We drove out of Cusco and down into the Sacred Valley, which has an elevation of about 9,000 feet compared to 11,000 feet in Cusco. This gave us time to adjust to the high altitude before visiting Machu Picchu (which sits at an altitude of 7,972 feet).
You don’t have to head into the Sacred Valley. Plenty of tourists opt to remain in Cusco and take a day trip to Machu Picchu. Given that my kids weren’t into museums and city life and were susceptible to altitude sickness, I opted to spend time in the Sacred Valley ahead of our Machu Picchu visit.
Transportation to the Sacred Valley
There are other transportation options besides booking a van through Viator. There are buses to Machu Picchu from Cusco or Aguas Calientes. Another option is to take a train into the Sacred Valley, but I knew a dedicated driver and private transport would be easiest for my family.
While driving through the Sacred Valley, we made a brief stop in Pisac to visit the ruins and famous market. Afterwards we drove the rest of the way to Ollantaytambo, a quaint town and another Inca archeological site.
I specifically chose to have us stay in Ollantaytambo because of the train station there. I knew we could easily get a train to Machu Picchu Town (also known as the town of Aguas Calientes).
The Train to Machu Picchu Town
Following a two-night stay in Ollantaytambo, we walked from our hotel to the train station and caught the Peru Rail Vistadome train to Machu Picchu Town.
A note about trains: There are two companies that offer rail service to Machu Picchu Town – PeruRail and Inca Rail. Both of these companies provide excellent service.
PeruRail is the older company and offers more daily departures, so I ended up booking my family on PeruRail. You have the option to book train tickets online, at the many Peru/Inca Rail ticket offices in Lima or Cusco, or at the train stations themselves. I chose to purchase train tickets at a PeruRail ticket counter at the Lima airport.
I also chose to have us ride on the Vistadome train, which offers panoramic windows, lovely music, and announcements about historical sites along the way. There’s also a very fun fashion and folkloric dance show on the return trip from Machu Picchu Town.
The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Town takes about 90 minutes. The scenery is beautiful, and it’s an exciting way to start any visit to Machu Picchu with kids.
Hiring a Private Guide
Machu Picchu guides abound in the center of Machu Picchu Town. One guide, Elisban, approached us right away, and said he could tour us around Machu Picchu. He quoted us a price of USD$60 and I asked to see his official tour guide badge, so that I could confirm he was a registered tour guide with the Peruvian government.
I came very close to booking Machu Picchu through GetYourGuide, an online marketplace for tour guides and travel activities, but opted to wait to find a guide until we arrived in Machu Picchu Town.
I needn’t have worried about finding a quality guide – the guides I came across in Machu Picchu Town were experienced and professional, and many of them had worked for large tour agencies in the past.
TIP: For any guide you book, you will want to make sure that the guide is registered with the Peruvian government.
Getting to Machu Picchu
From Machu Picchu Town, there are two ways to get up to Machu Picchu itself.
It is possible to walk from town up to the Citadel of Machu Picchu. It’s a nine-kilometer hike uphill. I knew our kids wouldn’t be able to handle the hike and a visit to Machu Picchu, so I opted for the bus.
I purchased bus tickets at a small ticket office in Machu Picchu Town. Because we visited in the low season, the line to buy tickets was short. In the high season, the line gets quite long.
Entrance Tickets to Machu Picchu
There are several ways you can purchase Machu Picchu tickets. One option is to buy tickets directly from Peru’s Ministry of Culture website. However, this website is only partially in English and I was unable to purchase the half-price tickets for my kids.
You can also purchase tickets at a kiosk in Machu Picchu Town. I wouldn’t recommend this route unless you’re visiting in the low season.
We purchased our tickets on GetYourGuide. There was an extra charge for the service, but I also enjoyed peace of mind knowing my preferred date was in hand. We printed the tickets at our hotel. It’s only possible to enter Machu Picchu with paper tickets – no electronic tickets will be accepted.
You can also purchase tickets on other travel websites, like Viator or TripAdvisor, or go through a travel agency.
Our Visit to Machu Picchu
The day we visited Machu Picchu, I woke my kids early to eat a filling breakfast at our hotel. Tourists are not allowed to bring food into Machu Picchu – you’re discouraged from eating while moving around the ruins. That said, I did pack a candy bar each for my kids, because I knew it would be several hours before we could eat again, and our guide told us that kind of quick snack was okay.
While Machu Picchu opens at 6am, I opted for 9am entrance tickets. Tickets are sold with specific entry times so I decided to book a slot that aligned with my kids’ schedules.
In the low season, you’ll want to be at the bus pick-up zone an hour before you’re scheduled to enter Machu Picchu. In the high season, it’s likely you’ll need to be in the bus line two to three hours ahead of your visit. About 3,000 tourists visit Machu Picchu each day during the low season, versus 8,000-12,000 tourists a day in the high season.
The bus ride takes about 25 minutes from town up to the Citadel entrance. Know that your tourist guide will be with you throughout your entire visit to Machu Picchu, including the bus ride up and back down.
Upon arriving at the entrance of Machu Picchu, it’s a good idea to use the restrooms on-site. There are no restrooms inside the ruins.
NOTE: You will need to show your passports at the gate, but not your tickets. Tickets are scanned in town as you boarded the bus.
Exploring Machu Picchu
Our guide, Elisban, toured us through Machu Picchu for three hours. This was just the right amount of time for my kids. As we followed a certain route through the Citadel, Elisban shared so much with us. We learned about the history of Machu Picchu, local stories, fun facts, and more. Learning about Machu Picchu while walking through it was an absolutely incredible experience for the whole family.
Within the Citadel, there are two additional hikes you can do: Huayna Picchu Mountain and Machu Picchu Mountain. These spots require separate entrance tickets – and allow for tremendous views. Given the time needed to visit these areas, I chose to keep my family in the Citadel.
Leaving Machu Picchu
Upon exiting the Citadel, we took the bus back into town, said goodbye to Elisban, and ate lunch. Afterward, we boarded the PeruRail Vistadome train back to Ollantaytambo.
We had to leave the Ollantaytambo train station, walk a quarter mile to the Peru Rail bus, climb on the bus, and then drive back to Cusco. Because it was the rainy season, we could not take the train all the way back to Cusco (in the dry season, it’s possible to take the train from MPT back to Cusco).
We arrived in Cusco late in the evening. It made for a long day, but we were all on a high from our Machu Picchu visit, so the time flew by.
Where to Stay Near Machu Picchu
There are plenty of hotel options in Machu Picchu Town, most of them near the center of town. I booked one night at Casa Andina Standard Machu Picchu. This hotel was perfect for our family. We had a view of the Urubamba River and could easily walk around town.
Other popular properties near Machu Picchu include Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, and Hatun Inti boutique hotel.
Visiting Machu Picchu With Kids Is Do-Able
Visiting Machu Picchu with kids is do-able and enjoyable. Based on personal experience, I would recommend a visit in the low season. It’s much easier to move around with kids. If you visit in the high season, make sure to plan well in advance. Know that lines will await you, but so will magnificent ruins.
About the Author: Sarah Middleton is a working mom of two in Southern California. She enjoys running, reading, and travel time with her family. You can find her family’s travel blog about Ecuador and Peru HERE.