Traveling Adventures with the Familia: Machu Picchu on a BudgetMari Hernandez-Tuten
Traveling with kids can definitely be stressful, but don’t let that keep you from exploring beyond your hometown and giving your kids the gift of a global world view! I’ve started a series entitled “Traveling Adventures with the Familia” over on my blog where I discuss all things travel — specifically with kids — in hopes to give you confidence, tips, and encouragement to pack your bags and explore the world with your children.
When I was a kid, our whole family would sit on the couch listening to music from the Andes, mesmerized by the mystical beauty of the sounds of Machu Picchu. I never dreamed that my bare feet would one day walk over those immensely large stones.
When we first started planning our family trip to Machu Picchu, we had a 4-year-old and a 15-month-old. It was our dream trip, and to be honest, we debated about going without our kids. But we finally realized that finding someone to watch our children for a week so that we could trek the ancient ruins of Peru was highly unlikely.
We had been saving up for years, and we finally bought our airline tickets for our family of five, after three years of planning. Yes, our family grew during our saving period. We traveled with an 8-year-old, 5-year-old, and 2-year-old. Most people discouraged us from going to Machu Picchu with such young children. However, we decided that we could do it with the little ones, especially since our kids were already accustomed to the outdoors, hiking, and were pretty easy going (the baby not so much).
We traveled in July, which apparently is high season, and we were encouraged to buy our train tickets in advance. However, the tickets must be bought in person, so you can’t book them in advance unless you pay an agency to do it for you. That wasn’t money we were willing to spend. We decided to just book our hotel and reserve our Machu Picchu entrances online. The rest we planned to do upon arrival. Looking back now, I don’t regret having done it that way, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless your train dates are flexible. After you see all of our photos, you’ll want to book your tickets right away!
As I did my research, it was difficult to find information on traveling with kids to Machu Picchu. I hope this post is helpful and encourages you to go beyond Machu Picchu to also discover the little town of Cusco. Please note that my tips and advice below work for any family, but they are geared for families who are traveling on a budget since that was the case for our family.
6 Tips for Traveling to Machu Picchu and Beyond:
1. Wait until you get to Peru to exchange your money
The Peruvian currency is the “Nuevo Sol” or “Sol” for short. You’ll need to calculate ahead of time approximately how much the dollar is worth and then get your money exchanged either at the airport or in the town of Cusco. I was told that I would find better exchange rates in town. We exchanged most of our money in the shops around Plaza de las Armas. You can go from each little store and ask for their exchange rate if you’re trying to find the best rate. Always use extra caution when pulling out money when traveling. This is best done behind closed doors or at least out of sight.
2. Travel when the kids are younger — you’ll get great discounts!
On both of our Latin American adventures, we found that traveling with younger kids can save money as opposed to waiting until they’re older. The Latin American airlines gave us quite a discount on each child ticket that we bought. I don’t know what the cut-off age is for the discounts, but it’s worth checking into before you buy your tickets. Also, many of the tour buses and even the Machu Picchu entrance tickets didn’t charge me for my youngest child. If I would have known this ahead of time, I would have saved some money when I was being quoted for touring packages. Make sure that you let the tour companies know if you have a little one and the ages of your children so you can at least get a discount.
Machu Picchu entrance fees: There is no charge on admission for kids under 8 years of age. Children under 18 years of age only pay the student price, NOT the full price. Our tour agency totally pulled one over on us as we were ignorant to the fact that my 8-year-old didn’t have to pay the full price. Go to the entrance ticket website here to check if anything has changed.
3. Opt for a private chauffeur rather than a tour company package
Speaking of tour companies, I have learned the following — don’t book anything in advance unless you absolutely have to. All of the tour companies we looked at online cost a tremendous amount of money. As soon as we got off the plane inside the Cusco airport, there were quite a few tour company representatives sharing their packages and prices. Some were reputable and some were not, but we just asked our hotel personnel for their opinion upon arrival.
What I advise is to take a brochure from each table and ask them what their tour includes (write it all down!) and then take everything to your hotel and study it. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s pretty straight forward, or you can ask the front desk at your hotel to help you understand. This is one of the positives of exploring Cusco: We were able to take our time to find a reasonably priced tour package and explore the beautiful city in the meantime. Also, if we were to do this again, rather than purchasing a package through a tour company, we would hire a private chauffeur (they are everywhere) to take us to the ruins in and around Cusco. The chauffeur would then help to hire a guide at each of the sites. We did use a tour company for 65 percent of our site-seeing adventures around the city and it worked out fine for the most part. We were able to meet lots of other tourists (the picture above is of our tourist group) and thankfully everyone seemed tolerant of our children. The disadvantages were LONG days and waiting for everyone to get around the ancient sites (we were actually fast walkers compared to most of the other tourists in our group). There were areas we wanted to explore, but if it wasn’t on the tour schedule, then we couldn’t. If the people we were grouped with mostly spoke in Spanish, then the guide would forget to speak in English for our family. A private chauffeur would have been more accommodating to our family and wouldn’t have been much more expensive in the long run, possibly even cheaper.
4. Do your research when it comes to choosing a hotel
We stayed at a family-friendly hotel in Cusco that caters to people of all ages and phases of life. We found that their rooms were suitable for the size of our family. When I looked up hotels online, they all required for me to get two rooms since we are a family of five. Because our youngest child was a baby (in Latin America they can still be classified as “babies” until 3 years of age), I called a few hotels and informed them that I needed a queen size bed and 2 twin beds, and that our baby would share a bed (there was no way he was sleeping with us!).
This is what I was looking for in a hotel in Cusco for our three-night stay:
- Reasonably priced
- Our entire family needed to stay in one room
- Free breakfast
- Free airport pick-up (I hate trying to find a taxi in a foreign country with tons of luggage, little ones — sometimes grumpy, etc …)
- Walking distance from the Plaza de las Armas (Many of the tour buses leave from there — plus there are tons of restaurants and museums in that area.)
- Private bathroom
- Overall clean and relaxing
- Stove and fridge
We found all of this plus more at a quaint little hotel built on the hill in between the artsy area of San Blas and Plaza de las Armas called Casa de Campo. They have a hotel, as well as what they call their suites and apartments. We stayed in the latter. It was perfect for our family with a fireplace and jacuzzi in the master bedroom that we enjoyed every night after our boys went to bed! Seriously, after hiking all day, the jacuzzi was a delightful surprise (we didn’t realize our room came with one). I always try to find a place with free breakfast and this hotel’s price came with a breakfast buffet included. For a family of five, getting a free breakfast is always a plus because by the time you get everyone up, dressed, and actually find a reasonably priced place to eat, half of your morning could be gone. There are a lot of hotels in Cusco, so be sure to find one that fits your budget and needs. Because we had such a pleasurable experience at Casa de Campo, I highly recommend it.
5. Beware of tour packages in Cusco — the cost of tourist tickets aren’t included
It’s easy to forget about little ol’ Cusco in the midst of your final destination, Machu Picchu. However, I highly recommend that you take a few days in Cusco to explore and enjoy its ancient beauty. Tour companies will bombard you on the street with their packages offering to take you on a city tour, the Sacred Valley tour, or to some local museums and ruins like Saksaywaman. What they don’t tell you is that the price you are being quoted only includes the guide and transportation. We quickly discovered that you have to buy a Boleto Turistico Del Cusco (The Cusco Tourist Ticket). This ticket must be purchased by the tourist, which is why it’s not included in the tour package price. It costs 130 soles (approximately $45) and it gives you access to 16 different museums. This is what we used to tour in and around Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu. We split the tour into two days and still couldn’t fit in all of the sites. (All of the sites below require the Boleto Turistico del Cusco, and as far as I could tell, you cannot pay at the entrances to get in. The ticket needs to be purchased in Cusco first.)
- Ollantaytambo: This site is about an hour away so our tour included lunch, a tour of the ancient ruins in Ollantaytambo, and transportation.
- Pisac: Another ancient ruin site that we were able to visit on our way down to Ollantaytambo. My boys loved hanging out in this area because there was a ton of rock climbing and jumping to enjoy. The stonework and panoramas at Pisac’s Inca citadel were breathtaking from the Sun Temple.
- Chinchero: This is a small Andean village with a presentation of how they make fabric. We were able to explore the village on foot.
- Tambomachay: This was an archaeological site that I would have been fine without seeing, but it was included in our package so we happily explored it.
- Qenqo: Apparently this site is home to one of the largest wak’as (holy places) in the Cusco Region. Many wak’as were based on naturally occurring rock formations. It was believed to be a place where sacrifices and mummification took place.
- Saksaywaman: We loved hanging out here and I wish our tour guide would have let us walk over to the Christ statue that is situated looking over the city of Cusco.
- Museo de Sitio del Qoricancha and Museo Historico Regional: These museums are located in Cusco. They were the first museums we explored on the tour.
6. The best ways to get around Cusco and Machu Picchu
- Stroller: If you have a baby or toddler, you’ll be happy to know that in most parts of the touristy part of Cusco, you can use a stroller (But keep in mind there are a lot of cobblestone streets so it won’t be smooth riding). Strollers aren’t that practical to use in Machu Picchu, but you can use one in the town of Aguas Calientes where most people spend a night before conquering the majestic ruins. If you have a jogging stroller, that would work even better.
- Walking: Everyone we talked to said it’s pretty safe. Thanks to God we didn’t have any dangerous encounters, but we also weren’t out partying past 10 p.m. and we stayed in well lit and populated areas. A few nights we were out walking as a family near the Plaza de las Armas.
- Bus, taxi, or private chauffeur: We used all of these forms of transportation (including a train ride to Machu Picchu), and they were all affordable and easy to get. (Note: the train ride out of Cusco isn’t running right now.)
Ultimately, I found Cusco and Machu Picchu to be extremely tourist-friendly. Happy trip planning!
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