Machu Picchu is a must-see destination for those traveling to Peru. However, you could be put off taking children, given there are some risks associated with the altitude sickness and climate. suitcases&strollers has a solution to minimising kids’ exposure to altitude – avoid the usual tourist route and stick to the Sacred Valley instead, before going up to Machu Picchu with kids. This is a safer and potentially easier alternative that still allows for an amazing family adventure holiday for children of all ages.

At the heart of the Sacred Valley is the Inca capital of Cusco. Most travellers fly into Cusco from the capital city of Lima which takes approximately one hour. The aircraft skillfully and majestically snakes its way through the spectacular Andes (a great view out the window for the kids) to arrive in Cusco at an altitude of 3,400 metres above sea level. The downside of flying to Cusco is that the risk of altitude sickness is greater because the ascent has been so rapid. Most travel advice is to stay in Cusco for several days to acclimatise (especially if you are going to walk the Inca Trail, only for those over 12 years old) but this means you will have real unknowns about what to expect in terms of altitude sickness in children.

Children can be just as vulnerable to the side effects of altitude sickness as adults – only they may not be able to tell you their symptoms.

To minimise this risk, one solution is to leave Cusco immediately and head to the Sacred Valley instead. Urubamba (2,870 metres) and Ollantaytambo (2,790 metres) are significantly lower than Cusco and a few days there will mean that by the time you reach Machu Picchu (at only 2,400 metres) everyone in the family should be feeling great.  

The Destination

The kids will love the drive with the picturesque views of rolling green hills, local farmers in traditional dress, the alpacas and the breathtaking heights and landscape of the Andes mountain range. If anything else, they may also enjoy a lovely long nap in the car, while their parents relax and enjoy the views!

Once in the Sacred Valley you be greeted with cute townships, some impressive ancient ruins and a quaint, rural lifestyle that will charm the whole family.

The Activities

Start slowly in Urubamba to give everyone a chance to get used to the new air consistency. Whilst it is not oozing with history in comparison to Cusco and Machu Picchu, it still has hilltop Pisac ruins situated high above the village. With the agricultural terracing sweeping around the mountain, the dominating structure is said to be the guard of the Urubamba Valley. The famous Pisac market is also a great option to add on to this visit.

On the outskirts of the small village of Urubamba lies the charming hotel called San Agustin Monasterio de la Recoleta, an approximate one-and-half-hour drive from Cusco. Built around an old monastery, the beautiful hotel and tranquil gardens are gated from the road and, therefore, a fantastic and safe place for children to explore, run around and play hide and seek. This is an idyllic place to acclimatise prior to visiting Machu Picchu. The hotel has a charming restaurant, but if you wanted to head out into the town of Urubamba either by foot (approximately 20 min) or by taxi (5 minutes) there are a variety of eating options from budget to top of the range. There is a cute town centre and a fabulous indoor market place to grab some beautiful fresh local fruit, some bottled water and other snacks for the kids, all for just a few pesos!

After one or two nights here, you can be easily driven by either taxi or private vehicle to the quaint village of Ollantaytambo. There are some impressive ruins to be climbed and explored (although watch out with young toddlers as there are no barriers around the edges.)

With its narrow cobblestone streets and historic stone buildings, you could seriously think you have completely stepped back in time. The town is located along the Patakancha River and is the doorstep of the famous Inca Trail for those that are keen to trek.

But for those with young children, the Vistadome train, bound for Machu Picchu, has to be the most fabulous way to see the rest of the Sacred Valley. The train excels in comfort and is a great way to travel as a family, sitting around a table, enjoying food, entertainment and not to mention the spectacular scenery and witnessing local life along the way.

Time easily passes on board the Vistadome train and, after one-and-a-half hours, it arrives in the quaint and picturesque town commonly known as Aguas Calientes (also officially called Machupicchu Pueblo), the foot of Machu Picchu. The town itself has the train line through the middle and it is such an authentic experience to see the locals move on and off the track to accommodate the slow chugging trains that enter through it. There is often some live music around town which will entertain the kids, along with lots of great statues and family-friendly places to eat, all set amidst the sharp and spectacular mountains of Machu Picchu. This vibrant and colourful town (twin town to the equally charming Haworth in England) is easy to walk around, full of markets, restaurants and tourists of all ages getting ready to tackle Machu Picchu.

[To read more about things to do in Haworth with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.

It is definitely recommended that a night is spent here either side of visiting Machu Picchu with kids. The day spent at Machu Picchu can be so enjoyable but also very tiring. The El Mapi Hotel is a great family-friendly hotel in Aguas Calientes with spacious rooms, cable TV with kids’ channels, free wifi and a large restaurant equipped with lots of colouring in activities suitable for children of all ages.

The weather really varies throughout the day in Aguas Calientes. It can be raining one minute and then, if there is no cloud cover, can get very hot very quickly. It’s important to pack an umbrella and sunscreen during the day and a really warm coat and beanie for the cool weather at night.

While a few days in the Sacred Valley is seriously spectacular, all the tourists are just passing by to head to the real highlight – Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes the shuttle bus system ferries all ticket-bearing tourists up the mountain each morning starting from 5.30am in the high season (dry) and approximately 9.00am in the low season (wet) which takes approximately 20 minutes.

[To read more about Machu Picchu with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

The Practicalities

If you do want to base yourself in Cusco it is still worthwhile to dedicate a couple of daytrips to visiting the Sacred Valley. It takes approximately one-and-a-half hours by car or taxi to get to Urubamba (the first stop) or alternatively you can get the train. Peru Rail has a great website for train travel information around the Sacred Valley.

Private cars to pick you up from Cusco airport can be easily pre-arranged by a travel agent or there are many tourist companies at the airport to choose from when you arrive. Before you head off down the Valley you can also stock up on a few items like pharmacy products from the shops across the road from Cusco airport which is handy.

Altitude sickness may have non-specific symptoms such as nausea, headaches, loss of appetite, loss of breath and vomiting. In small children who may not recognise the symptoms themselves, watch out for lethargy and lack of appetite, as this is a good indication of nausea without vomiting. Not being able to sleep or restless and shortness of breath can also be signs of altitude sickness and may manifest within five to eight hours of arrival.

To minimise these issues, rest and drink plenty of fluids. Around this part of Peru, most hotels (of 3 star standard and above) have a portable oxygen supply that is available on request. Oxygen may either be provided to your room or is administered in the hotel’s central facility and, depending on the individual hotel, there may be a small charge for its use. It is also possible to purchase tablets to help ease the side affects of altitude sickness before you leave home. Consult your travel doctor to get medical advice before you depart if you plan to head to any destinations at altitudes higher than 2,000 metres above sea level.

It is not safe to drink water from the tap in Peru. Only use bottled water for drinking and be wary of children drinking water in the shower or the bath.

If you are still interested to hike the Inca Trail with kids to get to Machu Picchu, see the suitcases&strollers travel tips here.

By Fiona Devlin; Images: Fiona Devlin, Steven Power