Machu Picchu with kids
This is going to be a long one, brace yourself. There is a LOT of good information here if you can endure my story telling and fragrantly bad humor.
First of all don’t make the same mistake I did and let your spouse plan the trip. Sure they CAN do it… and they will feel more “a part” of the whole thing. But in the end the trip will be filled with regrets. Instead, take the flak up front and do it your self!
Pro Tip! Don’t forget to get a yellow fever vaccine if you go anywhere near the amazon or its tributaries. Basically anywhere under 6500 feet where those little blood sucking bastards live because A.) it’s deadly, and B.) You will need the yellow vaccination card for the rest of your natural life if you travel to a country at risk for yellow fever and you have been to a country that has it… IE. Peru.
We were in New Orleans for a conference and by “we” I mean my wife. The kids and I tagged along for an exciting week long game of “try not to murder the children” while she was in the conference. I’m happy to say two of us made it out of New Orleans alive.
Anyhow, from New Orleans, or most of the US actually, you will be forced to lucky enough to stop through Panama (Yay). I thought this would be a great opportunity to take the kids to the Panama Canal. I had a 5.5 hour layover to which the guide had told me would be just enough time to take a picture in front of the thing and get back to the airport (Yay again). I thought this was splendid; my wife on the other hand did not. I stuck with my golden rule on this one, ignore the wife. That is to say, “when in doubt, do whatever the hell it is I want”. This strategy seems to have worked out for me in life thus far so why question a good thing? Yeah, well, learn from mistakes. First of all, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned secondly god help you if you are wrong…which I frequently am.
We got to immigration and the non-English speaking gentleman asked where we were going and for how long. Stupidly, I told him, in retrospect I should have lied. Although, my bus driving children would not have wasted a moment in throwing me under the bus to a border agent resulting in my subsequent arrest, your mileage may vary. He promptly handed me back our passports, directed us back inside the airport and told us to “get some food” and “wait for our flight” in his best English which admittedly was better than my Spanish. I was a little taken aback by this as I had never been denied entry into a country before. He in no uncertain terms told me that we wouldn’t have time, we would be stuck in panama, and he would rather not be responsible for that. I gathered our bags, much to my chagrin, and marched back into the airport. My wife, gleeful at my failure, cackled (internally) for a solid 20 minutes. After a decade or two of marriage this isn’t just being paranoid because you can read them like a book, that sparkle in her eye, the spring her step. This behavior could only come from my failure. In any event I tried and failed to get a hold of our tour guide who, while displeased with this arrangement was quite helpful and consoling. For the record, after much deliberation I had chosen “your man in panama” link below. Nice guy, knowledgeable, I can’t however vouch for his tour though others have.
Moving on from my monumental failure. You’ll be flying to Lima, we chose not to stay in Lima as I’m somewhat over big cities at the moment. We did however get in late enough that we couldn’t just hop a plane to Cusco so we spent the night at the Wyndham which is literally attached to the airport. You will walk outside the baggage claim and be staring at the hotel across two lanes. What a location! They have a 24hr restaurant downstairs but we opted for the room service, which was decent. The hotel is shockingly quiet with well-appointed clean rooms that await your weary head. We unfortunately had to get two rooms because they would not accommodate two kids and two adults despite there being two full beds in each room, C’est La Vie.
The next morning we got up bright and early to catch our 6am flight which ended up being over an hour late and switched gates twice. This was to be foreshadowing of things to come with Avianca Airlines. Note to self, have LONG layovers for connections with Avianca or if you’re flying anywhere in Peru really… On our way out we were flying to Mexico city from Cusco and we had a 7:22am flight out of Cusco to Lima for the connection because you can’t fly ANYWHERE out of Cusco. So the world travellers among you know that you have to be at the airport at least TWO hours before an international flight right! Yeah, no, Avianca doesn’t even open until 5:30am. The lines were tremendous, and hysterical. If you didn’t already have your boarding pass they made you leave the line, which you have been standing in for 45 minutes, and go to the kiosk thus effectively blocking the entire terminals traffic while you go through the inane process of filling out all of your passport information for everyone in your party only to have the system crash on the last screen and start over. Which leads me to our next PRO TIP!
Pro tip: HAVE your god damned boarding passes already.
Not to worry though because, true to form, Avianca was late by an hour again! Hooray for efficiency!
Moving on…here’s what you’re going to want to do. Spend the night as we did in Lima at the airport hotel so you can book the morning flight. As I understand it the flights are early to avoid clouds over the Andes which build up in the afternoon. Then stay an evening or two in Cusco to adjust to the elevation. One in four people get elevation sickness regardless of health I’m told. Our 6 year old got directly into a cab and promptly threw up. She gets car sick anyway but the one two punch of altitude plus cab was a no go. This is especially true because you will be driving over the mountain to get to Urubamba which entails even higher elevation. Of course the cab ride will end up being an hour long cab because your high school Spanish is garbage and lord knows you won’t have the time or inclination to brush up on it because “it will be fine”. Thus you won’t be able to tell the cabbie that you most certainly do NOT want to stop at several tourist traps along the way, most notably the “alpaca factory”. We were presented with a nice picture map of places to see along the route to Urubamba, no doubt they get a kickback from these various trading outposts, being in no mood we declined them all, straight to Urubamba I told him! Yeah, no. I apparently told him in my best Spanish to “stop at every one” Though we did leave with some nice photos, an alpaca teddy bear, a sweater (my god it’s cold this high up) and a filled vomit bag. Have your camera handy, the views on the way there are shockingly beautiful while you are being taken advantage of.
“We” chose to stay at the Sol y Luna hotel in Urubamba. For those of you in the know, wink wink, that means sun and moon in Spanish. Thanks go out to my college Spanish teacher for somehow making that stick. My children loved all the little Easter egg sun and moons hiding everywhere.
This place was like a giant garden with Spanish cabins dropped throughout it. There’s a ranch, a couple of restaurants, a neat horseshow at lunch everyday, and your very own private cabin. This is a really cute place. I’ll let my wonderful wife do a hotel write-up on it later. That said; don’t spend more than 2 nights here. We did three, we were bored. Yes dear, WE, not you per say, but the kids and I had enough. This was partially because there’s not much nearby, and partially because my daughter, at age 6, was too young to do any of the activities we had planned. The magic number is 7 years for those that care. Those activities include horseback riding, parasailing, 4 wheeling etc. I’ll attach their activity sheet to the review.
We ended up hiring a cab driver/ partial guide through the hotel on two occasions to see some nearby places. About an hour drive you can go see the Inca salt mines (salinas de maras) and Moray (terraced circles used for farming). Do go to the Inca Salt mines, and do remember the sunblock. It’s cool so you won’t be thinking about it but you will most assuredly burn. The white salt reflects those wonderful UV rays right up your heiny ho.
The second trip we went to Ollantaytambo, say that 5 times fast. Which is where we would be taking Peru rail, the next day, up to Aguas Calientes or “hot water” Bam there’s my Spanish at work again! On a side note, in all seriousness, my Spanish is terrible, and when I say terrible I mean I probably sound like Helen Keller to them. In the various places I have been in Mexico they look at me funny. In Peru the people were warm, inviting and kind. They encouraged me to learn more of their language. This was much appreciated. Most of them speak a little English in the service sector but even a little Spanish will hold you in good stead and make conversing MUCH easier. Anyhow…
Ollantaytambo has some great ruins that you should see and it was the last great stand of the Inca against the Spanish where the Inca flooded the city and drowned the conquistadors. We happened across a pretty good guide (there are tons there and you can’t bring your cab/guide) for a few Soles (Peruvian dollars) he took us on the abridged tour of the ruins. He was also certified for Machu Picchu and we had no guide so for 120 US dollars he said he would meet us at Machu Picchu. I went with it not expecting him to show up. He did, and he was quite good. Here’s his info if you are interested. There are three tours at the ruins in Ollantaytambo, the 1 hour, the two hour and the three hour. I opted for the 45 minute. We then and had lunch at the cab drivers request at a little trout farm high up in the Andes. Seeing the look on my daughter face when they bonked the fish in the head was priceless. It was a slightly less “sanitized” eating experience than my children were used to.
This took most of the day as we didn’t get back until 3pm or so to the hotel. So while you could do this in the morning before boarding the train to Aguas Calientes, after seeing the train station… “I wouldn’t leave my bags locked up there, and you probably shouldn’t either” those are my wife’s words BTW.
From Ollantaytambo we trained it for two hours to Agus Calientes.
Peru Rail. We chose Peru rail because it seemed a little nicer than Inca rail. After seeing both, honestly, I don’t think there is much of a difference. Now there are a couple issues with Peru Rail. One, they say that you are going to be fed. They brought a single piece of pound cake for each of us and called it a day. That’s not being “fed” especially with two cranky kids. So I suggest you eat first. There is a little restaurant at the station once you’re inside the gates.
Issue two, it’s a free for all with no signage once you’re inside the gate. If you have ever wondered what cattle feel like this will answer that question handily. Once you are through the gate you are ON the tracks. Hang a right and just keep walking along the tracks next to the train until you reach the restaurant and or waiting area. You will have a letter corresponding to your car on your ticket. You have assigned seats so at least that isn’t a free for all.
Issue three, they say you can’t bring any luggage. If you’re smart and you travel light you can bring your luggage. We asked in advance and got it in writing that we were “ok” to bring our small European sized carry ons along with a small backpack each but no one checked the email and there were a bunch of people with similar sized bags. Do with that information what you will.
We chose the Vistadome train which has ¼ round windows along the outside of roof. It’s not exactly a dome but it does allow you see some nice views of the mountain tops that you might otherwise miss. The train follows the river through the valley and it’s steadily going downhill. As you get close to Aguas Calientes you’ll start to see a lot of jungle and vegetation. You will abruptly be stopped and herded off the train. Only two of our bags were waiting for us.
Pro tip: I found our bags between the seat backs near the end of the train.
Aguas Calientes is a town that exists to ferry people to Machu Picchu. As such you should expect to be mugged by touts and to pay too much for everything. When you get off the train don’t panic at the mob. There’s no taxis or any ground transportation and you won’t need it as you will be walking to your hotel. It takes approximately 5 minutes to walk to the end of the town. Upon exiting the train station you will find yourself immediately entering a labyrinth of a marketplace, beware the Minotaur! Use the force to find your way through the mob. Seriously, there’s no signage. Try to go north or east and you’ll be ok.
We stayed at the Inkaterra hotel for an evening because it was on the “National Geographic” list and the pictures looked amazing. It’s way way overpriced and the service is just “ok” and the fireplaces don’t work and fill the room with smoke. Don’t do this. My amazing wife will write a nice review on the pros and cons later.
OK onto the main course, yummy! Also, don’t use exclamation points when you write, my high school English teacher told me it was the mark of a weak writer!
Now, I am averse to getting up super early in the morning and my daughter is a poltergeist any time before 6:15am so I decided not to drag my children up for sunrise at Machu Picchu. But should you be braver than I then here is how it goes from my perspective as I did it alone. Get your bus tickets the night before if you can. For when the alarms wakes thee at 4:30am, seriously, you will be a bitter pill. It will be chilly, and you will rush to get into the line that was, when I got there at 5am, a ¼ mile long (not exaggerating). The anger and fear you will miss your tee time at the front gate will begin swell inside you and you’ll turn to the nearest person and want to tear their head off. With every ounce of blistering rage in your body you will look them deeply in the eye and say…”Hi this blows” you then then the spend the next 20 minutes commiserating over Americas failed political system. Take heart weary traveler for buses don’t start running until 5:30am and once they do it’s fairly efficient. What I mean by that is that once the line gets going it gets going. MAKE sure you go get your ticket before waiting in the ¼ long line or there will be tears. Big ol’ man tears. The ticket booth is at the very front of that line off to the left if your standing in it and that line will be short because most of the smart people pre-purchased their tickets before hand. If you’re lucky enough to end up next to some smug Canadians with their “healthcare” and their “Trudeau” they will kindly hold your spot for you while you book ass down to the ticket booth. I however, recommend against that approach because their may not be a nice Canadian. You might be stuck next to the angry Chinese guy BEHIND the nice Canadians who also, didn’t buy a ticket and didn’t speak English, and for some reason hates you. I can only guess at why… ask me how I know.
An hourish later you’ll be on the 30 minute ride to the front gate of Machu Picchu to stand in another 15 minutes of line because you, dear reader, are not crazy and did not get up at 3am to “beat the line”. Good on you! (nice use of an exclamation point wasn’t it) Those other idiots accomplished nothing, they beat you by 15 minutes and got up considerably earlier, screw those planners and their “no children”.
Congratulations you’ made it to Machu Picchu! Plan to spend 4 hours or so because as of this writing that’s all you will be allowed to. More rule changes as of July 1 2017 include “Only being allowed entrance with a guide” and “limited trails” Moreover, you had better buy your tickets a month in advance because they sellout fast. They only allow 2500 people per day into Machu Picchu. Also, their website is an Abomination. I’ll put up a post on this later.
In my case, I bought tickets 3 months in advance so I could hike the mountain behind Machu Picchu called Huayna Picchu /Waynapicchu. There’s a pile of confusing info on this online. When you look at the standard picture of Machu Picchu the spire of a mountain that you are looking at is Waynapichu pronounced (wayne-, like john wayne, -a- pee-choo) It is also spelled two different ways to make it extra confusing. Both ways can be found on various signs to really mess you up at 7am running on sleep with zero coffee. The other mountain is actually higher but its behind Machu Picchu and that’s not the one you are after. Only 400 people a day are allowed to hike it and it is by appointment. My time was for 7:15am. This hike has an age limit of 13yrs, which clearly didn’t matter to one family from Baltimore whos little shit 9 year old ran past me like I was standing still up this god damned steep mountain. I am unsure as to why they let him in at the checkpoint at the base of the trail. But I digress…I would NOT recommend letting your 9 year old run up this mountain unattended. The steps are steep and in many places not well defined. If you slip, it’s a good 3k foot fall to your demise on some of these stairs. A good portion of the stairs have cables to hold on to but not all of them. Make no mistake about it, this is a dangerous climb. That said If you’re in any kind of shape at all you should be fine. For reference, I’m 35 years old, I work out 2-3 times a week and I run a mile or so every few days. I’m in OK shape but I’m no athlete or anything. If you decided to do this you will be rewarded with some of the most spectacular views you have ever seen. I’m not a spiritual man, but the lack of oxygen combined with these views and a lack of sleep certainly made me one.
At 7:15am the sun is starting to peek through the crags in the tops of the mountains lighting up Waynapicchu like a torch. As you climb, the sunlight spills over the mountains into the mist and creates a surreal environment that has to be experienced to be appreciated. This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and I live in Hawaii if that means anything to you. The hike took me about two hours or so taking a moderate amount of pictures. You can tack on another 30minutes if you’re slower or taking a lot of pictures.
Back to Machu Picchu proper. My wife and kids were picked up by the guide around 9am and met me at the gate by around 10am or so. Which was just perfect timing. However, for picture taking, crowds and kids it’s a little late to really enjoy it. The crowds show up at 10am and the lighting is rather crappy by the time you get to a spot to take decent photos. I would shoot for an hour and a half earlier and try to make it up there by 8:30 or 9. The bus line is CONSIDERABLY shorter after about 7am and if you make it up to the top before ten you’ll avoid the crowds.
Pro tip: There’s a restaurant or two at the base by the entrance along with the only restrooms. Yes you have to exit to use the bathroom and you have to pay one sole to use it per person, so be prepared. Feed the kids before you head up. Machu Picchu proper isn’t too dangerous though there are some areas you’re going to want to hold some hands. Temperature wise it’s a nice cool 60ish by 8am or so.
Now… I made another error in judgment here and we opted to take the train straight from Aguas Calientes to Cusco after hiking for 7 hours. In retrospect I would have stayed another night in Aguas Calientes and sat in a hot tub for a day. I was pretty sore after my 7 hours of hiking and dealing with kids on Machu Picchu and I imagine if you’re reading this you will be too. Also, eat before you get on the train. The train ride direct from Aguas Calientes to Cusco is a solid 4 hours with a short stop in Ollantaytambo. We took a later train and I somewhat regret that as it got dark an hour into the journey and we missed out on all the sights on the way back.
So there you have it. How to do Machu Picchu with kids and not make the same mistakes that I did. Enjoy and happy travels!