The Ultimate Family Travel Guide to Machu Picchu - Family Traveller (USA)

Tucked away high in the Andes mountains lies the spectacular Inca city of Machu Picchu. If you’ve ever looked into it as a potential travel destination, you’ve probably come across the iconic pictures of people perched in front of the dramatic peaks in the background, looking down on this ancient granite city, mind-bogglingly built on top of a mountain. Simply said, Machu Picchu deserves its place as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Even better, it is a fantastic family travel destination due to its rich culture, history, mystery, and outdoor beauty. We've got the ultimate family travel guide to Machu Picchu to make experiencing this magical spot with the kids as easy as possible.

Courtesy of The Jetsetting Family

How to Get to Machu Picchu

Getting to Machu Picchu, unsurprisingly, is not the easiest task. Don’t fret though, it is absolutely worth it and the journey itself can have as many memorable experiences as the Lost City of the Incas.

The first step towards getting to Machu Picchu is to make your way to Cusco. If you’re not already in Peru, that likely means flying in to Lima and then taking a connecting flight to Cusco. You can also elect to take a bus from Lima to Cusco, but that will take about 22 hours.

We recommend that you plan to spend a few days in either Cusco or the Sacred Valley prior to going to Machu Picchu so that you and your kids can acclimate to the high altitude.  We opted to land in Cusco and immediately hire a 2 hour taxi to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to enjoy its small town feel, easily accessible archaeological sites, and lower altitude. Ollantaytambo sits 600 meters lower than Cusco, so makes it easier for kids to acclimate to the higher altitude. Our kids adjusted fine and we didn’t notice any altitude sickness. We were very lucky and unknowingly planned our trip during the Festival Señor de Choquekillka, which took over Ollantaytambo and allowed us to see a rich cultural side.  The festival is in celebration of Pentecost, so the dates change annually, but are held 50 days after Easter. Our kids loved seeing the parades and festivities so if you can plan around this time you get an extra special aspect to your trip. 

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Once you’re in Cusco, you will need to take a train to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is right outside of Machu Picchu. There are three stations where you can take the train: Poroy in Cusco (3.5 hour ride), Urubamba (2.5 hour ride), and Ollantaytambo (2 hour ride). Since we stayed in Ollantaytambo for a few days before making our way to Machu Picchu, we took the train from there in the morning for an afternoon visit to the ruins.

Once you arrive in Aguas Calientes, you will then have to take a bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu. The buses run quite frequently, and you have to purchase tickets at the office next to the bus station (there are plenty of signs to direct you to it).

The other way to arrive to Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail, which is a 4-day, 3-night hike that starts close to Ollantaytambo. In order to do this, you have to book through a tour company and tickets are limited, so make sure you check in advance what the availability is. The Inca Trail takes you directly to Machu Picchu at sunrise through the iconic Sun Gate, so it's sure to be an unforgettable experience, as long as your kids are old enough to handle the hike. 

What to Expect When You Get to Machu Picchu

One very important thing to note is that you need to purchase tickets before you get to Machu Picchu! The easiest way is to do it is to purchase them from the official website here. You will have to pick the hour in which you plan to arrive at the entrance, so make sure you time it correctly, given the transportation times for the trains and buses. At the time that we booked, children 8 years and under were free, but we had to take their passports to the entrance so they could verify their birth dates. You also have a few options when booking. You can book a ticket for entry into Machu Picchu, or you can get the package which includes the hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain right next to the ruins. Huayna Picchu tickets are very limited and sell out fast, so make sure there is availability well ahead of time.

Courtesy of The Jetsetting Family

Best Time to Go

The most popular time to enter Machu Picchu is for sunrise, which means many people will line up to take the bus in Aguas Calientes at 4AM. So if you’re planning on going in the morning, just expect that there will be lines to take the bus, and likely lines to enter the ruins. Also, most people finish seeing the ruins around the 4-hour mark, so it’s very likely that there will be long lines to take the bus back to Aguas Calientes between 10AM and 1PM. We chose to arrive just after lunch at around 1:30PM. We didn’t experience any lines throughout the whole process, and the park was much less crowded, which allowed us to take our time exploring, let the kids run around a bit, and take the pictures we wanted. At around 5PM, the guards at the ruins will start moving you along toward the exit, and by 5:30PM you should be taking one of the last buses back to Aguas Calientes.

Get Your Passport Stamped

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One little tip that our guide pointed out to us prior to entering was that there’s an official Machu Picchu stamp that you can get on your passport. It’s quite inconspicuously kept on a side table outside the restrooms, so we definitely would have missed it if he hadn’t told us. The stamp is a fun memento to look back upon as you flip through your passport pages!

Just Before Entering

It’s important to note that there are no facilities once you enter the ruins, so make sure to take some time at the entrance to use the restroom if you need it. There are also vending machines and a snack bar so you and the kids can be well fed before going in. There’s no re-entry once you go in, so just be aware of that and have everything set. You are allowed to bring water bottles and some snacks in your bags, just make sure to clean up after yourself!

Do You Need a Guide?

As of July 2019, there are rules that are in the works that require you to hire a guide in order to enter Machu Picchu. However, those rules have not been implemented yet, so it’s up to you to decide whether to have a guide or not. We hired a guide at the bus stop in Aguas Calientes (for $60) and found it to be very worth it. Our guide was able to provide us with interesting facts, information and insight throughout our tour, and was very friendly with our kids. He also was able to take pictures of our whole family (since tripods are not allowed inside). I recommend getting a guide because learning the history of Machu Picchu is just as interesting as seeing the ruins themselves.

More Cultural Immersion Opportunities

Beyond learning about the famous ruins, Peru offers tons of other fun ways to learn about Inca culture nearby. For example, during our trip we also visited the small nearby village of Huilloc, which is dedicated to practicing and upholding Inca and Quechua customs and traditions. You and the kids can even try on outfits for yourselves, witness an ancestral offering ceremony, learn about weaving and more. Our kids especially loved playing with the local children.

Ultimately, Machu Picchu is neither the easiest nor the cheapest destination for a family to visit, but the adventure itself is bound to create unforgettable family memories. If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime trip with cultural, educational and adventure opportunities, then Machu Picchu is an unmissable destination.

Jessica Sanchez, full-time traveller and blogger from The Jetsetting Family