Machu Picchu was always a planned highlight of our round the world family gap year – although Martin suggested at one point we skip it and come back when the kids are bigger? No way! – OK so it’s crowded, but you have to go!
Probably the first highlight that comes to most people’s minds when they think of visiting South America. It was certainly on my long term bucket list along with the Galapagos islands. But we didn’t have much planned in advance, we hadn’t even heard of the Sacred Valley and found some aspects of the planning a little mystifying – how to avoid going with an expensive tour operator? How to avoid turning up to find all the allegedly limited entry tickets sold out months before! What about the Inca trail with kids – can you get a mule?
First of all, we discovered that visiting the Inca empire is much more than Machu Picchu. Just north of Cusco begins the beautiful Sacred Valley and there are many lovely Inca and pre Inca sites to visit that are unique and magical…..and a lot quieter! Some people, presumably quite a lot, simply take a day trip to Machu Picchu and back which is hard to imagine as they miss so much. You can buy a 10 day ticket covering all the sites and museums both in and around Cusco and across the Sacred Valley (excluding MP) – all can be done from Cusco in 2 or 3 day trips but it’s far better to make a real journey of it.
We contacted a highly recommended local tour operator who put together a suggested package including accommodation for 9 days. It looked great, if a bit too organised for us(!) but cost around $4000USD – way too much over our budget and we much prefer to choose our own accommodation. So when we got to Cusco, we called in at the friendly South American Explorers club and got good tips from Lina, the new Clubhouse manager and then we simply needed to find a driver! We found someone on recommendation and made a plan for a one way day transfer with stops through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo for $100usd. Not bad for 6 of us!
We bought our tickets at the first site as we headed north from Cusco across the hills and into the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo (60km from Cusco) via Chinchero (just 45 minutes from Cusco), Moray (another half an hour or so) Moras and pre Inca salt mines at Salineras – we bought our 10 day ticket at Chinchero (130 sol each for adults, free for kids under 12 – perfect!) a near tourist free and extensive site comprising a pristine village, unchanged for centuries and terraces extending into the hillside, where we ran around, explored and got lost amidst giant Inca steps dropping into the valley and along a stream, finally climbing breathless back to the town which seems unchanged for 100s of years.
This is a must do with kids and we also enjoyed a wool dye and weaving demo for free (of course with chance to buy!)
Moray is a remarkable site of circular terraces making up an Inca Agricultural research laboratory. Nearby Moras is an old town of mud streets and houses, close by too is the Salineras, Incan salt mines, all fascinating for the whole family. On top of that, the views of the mountains and lush green slopes on this drive are breathtaking!
As an added part to our adventure, coming from Las Salineras down to the town on Urumbamba in the Sacred Valley and the main road along to Ollantaytambo, we stopped at a view point to look down and see cars being turned back from the bridge. It had been closed minutes before after 2 lorries overloaded it and made it dangerous!! It was closed afterwards for weeks and traffic had to take the longer route via Pisac from then on. We, however, went back to Moras and came over the mountain down a muddy short cut the driver knew, over a tiny old bridge upstream, nearly got stuck along the river with the other vehicles following us and had another adventure reaching our destination!
Ollantaytambo is a wonderful little town with another fantastic site to explore and great to spend a couple of days before heading to MP! Martin Ben and Zoe did a few more adventurous climbs though we couldn’t trust Lara on some of the narrow paths! There were horse riding trips and a zip wire experience that we missed out on as we didn’t find time to do it when it wasn’t raining. You can see Zoe’s new year blog for more picture and stories about Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo.
Spending a few days in Ollantaytambo was fabulous and made it easy to shop around and organise our Machu Picchu trip, buying our train tickets a couple of days in advance from Peru Rail. We got the cheapest tickets which were still a little pricy at $410 US for three adults and three kids, but perfectly good seats.
It’s a 2 hour journey through spectacular scenery up to the busy little town on Aguas Calientes that hugs the steep slopes of the valley. Small and easy to wander around. We had a dubious soak in the hot pools up the hill, seemingly with most of the town taking their baths, the kids loved it but I was dubious!
And a fantastic fun meal at Indio Feliz where the kids got their drawings ceremoniously placed on the walls. Unfortunately it was so busy that service was a little slow and we didn’t get our hoped for early night!
Aguas Calientes is where you buy your entry tickets and bus tickets for the next morning’s 10 minute ride up to Machu Picchu – our hostel – and probably all hotels and hostels – directed us to the two ticket offices as our first port of call after check in.The buses run from around 5.30am but you get an open ticket – it nearly killed us to drag everyone out of bed at 4am but totally worth being in the queue at 5 and being up there early, partly to avoid the crowds and heat of day for at least the first few hours and party to enjoy the views as the sun rises and clouds lift.
We thought about doing all or part of the Inca trail… We decided and were told repeatedly it’s too much for younger kids, though our friends the Holletts who we’d met in Quito with their girls age 10 and 8, made a clever choice and did part of the Inca trail, taking the train to the hydroelectric plant, the only stop en route and trekking a day up to Machu Picchu arriving late afternoon. It worked out tough but spectacular. I think you need a guide but I’m sure you could pick one up in Ollantaytambo . we weren’t ambitious enough to try this with our 5 year old or with Oma suffering soroche (altitude sickness). I never came across any guides offering mules to rent that could carry younger tired trekkers!
We picked up a guide on the gate of MP at 6am as we arrived – it was good for adults and Ben was interested but really the kids simply wanted to run around and be intrepid explorers! Perfectly possible! Though easy to lose each other! The guide was with us around three hours, it flew by, going around the main complex then pointing us in the right direction to explore further afield – we climbed to the top of the hill for the money shots and wandered around to enjoy the spectacular views – Martin and Ben trekked out to the Sun gate and the Inca bridge – both pretty easy and worthwhile. The girls were hot by 10am and happy to take it a little easier, finding a few pleasant places to stop and take pictures. Shade is scarce! Hats and sunscreen essential! I could’ve stayed all day but we were ready to head back to Aguas Calientes by around 2pm as it was New Year’s Eve and we had booked the train back to Ollantaytambu at 6pm. Martins review and tips can be found in his Trip Advisor review! And you can see all his other reviews of just about all the hotels and restaurants we’ve visited too!
It might have been more fun to spend another night in Aguas Calientes – especially if we could’ve got a table at Indio Feliz again and that would’ve given us all day at MP if we’d wanted. Aguas Calientes gets some terrible reviews. Sure it’s full of tourists but we liked its cosy, relaxed, almost ski resort feel, not that it’s cold!
In hindsight, we should have headed to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu as soon as possible as Ollantaytambo is at 2700m, a good altitude to acclimatise before heading back to Cusco at 3400m and could have avoided poor Erika having the unpleasant altitude sickness in Cusco.
Back in Cusco via Pisac, renowned for its market, which we found un-special and not really selling anything different from everywhere else but then we’re not really market people, though of course the kids liked it and in fairness, it’s fun for them to buy a few little souvenirs – a pencil with an Inca doll on top. a hair slide with tiny Inca dolls on, a bracelet – the kids could usually haggle to buy these for less than $1USD! Pisac also has another lovely Inca site on the hillside behind the town which is well worth a visit with your 10 day ticket.
The trip back on this route was another one way transfer in a minivan with our own driver which we organised with the same Cusco agency but probably could have organised in Ollantaytambo for even less. Or we could have gone back on the 6 hour train to Cusco or by bus, but then we’d have missed Pisac ruins. Having visited, it was miss-able compared to Moray, Moras and Salineras, but nonetheless good to have been to all the major sights and checked them out ourselves and a nice stop on the way back to Cusco!
And there was a surprise stop too at a small animal reserve. It looked dubious but was actually wonderful. They had a lovely assortment of parrots, alpacas, llamas, a mountain cat, two leopards, but the highlight was the two Andean Condors which we could be quite close to and then they flew right over our heads almost touching us! Their wingspan reaches 3 meters!
We were also going to stop by Saqsayhuaman – proudly pronounced as ‘Sexy woman’ by many jovial guides and locals but we were just too tired – sometimes you can only do so many Inca sites in one day! It’s on the edge of Cusco – you can even walk from the city and visit Cusco’s White Christ statue – many many towns and cities have one, But we were simply too tired. In our remaining Cusco visit, we took another driver for a half day, visited Tipon – an intact site with water terraces and irrigation canals….one of the highlights of the visit is that we were almost the only people there!
Then we stopped by Saqsayhuaman too and walked through to admire the massive stones, fitting snuggly together to make giant walled terraces. How did they do that?? Answers on a postcard please!