If you’re planning a family adventure holiday, one of the most famous and memorable things to do in Peru with kids is to hike the Inca Trail. For those aged 12 and above, this is a chance to reach the famed Machu Picchu from a different perspective – after a 42-kilometre walk through the Peruvian Andes. The Inca Trail is popular and famous for good reason – it will take you through the most stunning scenery but it’s not too difficult for anyone with reasonable fitness. All you need is a love of the outdoors and an appetite for fresh air.
A magnificent walk that takes you through magical forests, along plunging cliff tops and in the footsteps of ancient civilisations, the Inca Trail with kids is a real once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is breath-takingly pretty, physically taxing and a very good introduction to serious trekking for kids. Best of all, at the end you are rewarded with sunrise at the world heritage-listed Machu Picchu – a time of day reserved only for Inca Trail walkers before the gates open to the mass public.
After all, since Machu Picchu is a sight not to be missed when visiting Peru with kids, hiking the Inca Trail is a way to create an entire family adventure holiday bonding experience around it.
[To read more about Machu Picchu with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
The Typical Inca Trail Tour
There are a few different options for how you complete the Inca Trail but the most common is a four-day, three-night camping/walking tour. All groups are accompanied with a guide and you can opt for anything from budget backpacker in a group with others to private guide just for your family.
A typical Inca Trail expedition is made up of 3 long days of hiking – sometimes up to 9 hour depending on how fast you can walk – before waking pre-dawn on the final day to see the sun coming up at Machu Picchu. You will walk through huge alpaca-dotted valleys, climb thousands of steps and slip past caves and ancient pathways.
Day Two is the hardest and longest as you set off directly uphill to reach a height of 4,200 metres at the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass. Once you pass this point, the serious work is over and – although Day Three is still long – the rest of the trail seems a breeze in comparison.
At Day Four you will be woken around 3am to trudge in the dark on the final and shortest section of the journey in order to reach the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu precisely at dawn.
Every morning at departure your team of porters will wave their farewells and they dismantle the camp and you set off with your guide. Inevitably at some point they skip straight past you so that when you arrive at camp they are already there.
All meals are provided by your team and – depending on the package you purchase – can be very rustic to full three course meals with (camping) table service.
Depending on which tour you book, accommodation can range from shared tents to private tents with your own private port-a-loo and mess tent – but everyone camps. There are no hotel-style accommodations on the trail. The most expensive tours, of course, get the best (meaning quietest and most private) spots which are booked well in advance.
All tourists are limited to a maximum capacity of luggage per person (usually about 10 kilograms) so this necessarily means that even the most “luxurious” tours are still a little rustic.
Check with your tour operator to confirm exactly what camping supplies will be provided and which ones you are expected to bring yourself so there are no misunderstandings.
Camp sites are communal and specifically allocated with your ticket (you cannot just pitch a tent anywhere) and they are a good place to hang out if you want to meet other families.
The Inca Trail is only open to a set number of tourists every year and books out notoriously fast, especially in high season (May to September; the trail is closed in February for cleaning). You must pre-book to do the walk through a tour agency – usually several months in advance – you cannot just show up to do it. There is also a strict age limit and all children must be 12 years or older.
If you can afford it, booking a private tour works best with kids as you can move at your own pace rather than being held to the pace of the larger group. Pricier tours also mean that there are more porters who will carry the really heavy gear so you can concentrate on just a day pack and putting one foot in front of the other. This becomes particularly important if anyone in the family is finding it difficult to adjust to the lack of oxygen (and that doesn’t just apply to kids).
While the walk is not technically hard for most reasonably fit adults, it is difficult to predict how anyone’s body will acclimatise to the lack of oxygen at the heights you will be walking. Even the slightest inclines can feel enormous and extremely taxing if you are suffering from altitude sickness, so plan to move at a constant but slow pace to take this into account. Consult your travel doctor before you depart for how to identify signs of altitude sickness.
To help your body cope with the sudden change in atmosphere, most travel companies recommend trail tourists spend a minimum of 3 days quietly exploring the sites of the town of Cusco. While there you can also do day trips to the glorious and stunning area around the Sacred Valley.
[To read more about things to do in the Sacred Valley with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
It’s a good idea to get the whole family to do some practice hikes and “training” before you leave – particularly climbing lots of stairs and walking lengthy distances.
The trail, while well worn with people, is still quite isolated from the closest main town. There are no roads or vehicles to take you out if you decide to quit halfway. In case of a serious emergency the local porters will have to physically carry you all the way back, so keep in mind that this is not the place to be experimenting to see if kids who hate the great outdoors can be persuaded to enjoy camping.
And this is a camping holiday. Expect no showers for the four days of the hike and – if you are one of the more economical tours – very basic bathroom facilities (which are only available at the camp sites). There is no electricity for charging electrical gadgets. There are some vendors along the way selling soft drinks and snacks, but everything you need you should bring with you including spare camera batteries.
The weather can vary a lot along the trail. You will need proper hiking boots, quick dry tee shirts and pants (those than can zipper off easily at the knee are ideal), and wet, cold and warm weather gear that you can fit all into one daypack. (Although amazingly all the local porters sprint up the mountain in the most basic plastic sandals.) Pack extra socks for the kids in case their feet get wet. It gets very cold at night so ensure everyone has proper thermal gear for sleeping. It is useful to bring a torch or headlamps so you can see in the dark.
You need your passport to enter the trail (you’ll even get a cool entry stamp) but in wet weather these can be vulnerable to water damage. Make sure you carry your passports along with cameras and other valuables in double wrapped plastic bags for extra protection.
Most hotels in Cusco are accustomed to storing travellers’ larger leftover luggage for free until they return from the Inca Trail, so you can arrive in Cusco will a full load and just take what you need for the trail with you on the hike.
The porters who carry your tents, food and sleeping equipment work hard and get paid precious little. It’s good etiquette to tip every porter at the end of the third day (you will not see them the morning you reach Machu Picchu). Consult your guide about what is the appropriate rate.
It is not safe to drink the water from the tap in Peru. Drink only bottled water for drinking.
Images: Steven Power