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Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley & Cusco: Visiting Peru as a Family

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Machu Picchu is a popular destination, but there’s more to the region than just ancient ruins. Contributing writer Margot Black visited not only Machu Picchu, but also the Sacred Valley and Cusco, which are rich in history and vibrant cultural traditions. Keep reading to find out how she planned this adventure with her family—and her tips for visiting. 

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My ultimate mission in life is to tear my son away from technology, and I was having a big bucket list birthday. I also wanted to immerse my son in Spanish, which is a language that both my husband and I know fluently and are starting to teach him. So we decided to visit Peru and one of the great wonders of the world.

Because I didn’t want to be working too hard on this trip, I signed up with International Expeditions and let them do the difficult leg work. I booked us on a six-day, five-night trip to explore the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and Cusco.

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We flew from the capital city of Lima into Cusco (sometimes known as Cuzco), which is located in the Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world. It was early morning when we arrived, and the top of the lush green rainforest was covered in a light mist. The scale of the mountain range was breathtaking—it felt to all of us as if we were landing on another planet.

We were met at Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport by our nothing-is-too-much-trouble guide Mario, who proved to be not just a happy, knowledgeable companion (he’s been up to Machu Picchu more than 300 times) but also a vital link to the history of the land, culture, and customs that were new to us for most of our trip.

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Cusco is located in the Urubamba Valley in southeastern Peru. Less than half a million people live here, but at nearly 12,000 feet it’s not for the faint-hearted. On arrival, we found ourselves winded just walking to our bus. But it’s worth the extra lung power: Cusco was the historic capital of the Incas from the 13th century until the 16th century Spanish conquest. It was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO 23 years ago and has since become a major tourist region, attracting around two million visitors a year.

The Sacred Valley

Our first stop was the Sacred Valley, which is very close to Cusco and Machu Picchu, and encompasses the heartland of the Inca Empire. Fun fact: the Sacred Valley is where Paul Simon first heard the song “El Cóndor Pasa,” which appears on Simon & Garfunkel’s album Bridge over Troubled Water.

Peruvian woman weaving in Chincheros

Chincheros has been resurrected as a weaving town thanks to weaver Nilda Callanaupa. She is the founder and director of the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco (CTTC), a weaving cooperative for the women who live in the region of Chinchero. Her vision has almost singlehandedly revived this area, which is now an international tourist hub. With seed money from the National Geographic Society’s Expedition’s Council and the help of anthropologist Wade Davis, she established the Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco.

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Now there are a dozen weaving workshops, and a centuries-old Inca tradition is flourishing. The textile centers offer people like us free demonstrations of the traditional methods used to wash, dye, spin, and weave alpaca and sheep’s yarn into wall hangings, rugs, and garments. We learned all kinds of Peruvian weaving techniques, including cochineal, where the women squish bugs to make a red dye. The women worked with broad smiles on their faces and wore traditional colorful Peruvian outfits.

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Our son was so excited he ran up the 40 or so steps to the center but was so winded at 12,000 feet he dropped to the ground. Out of nowhere, Peruvian women came running over to him with a rug and a cup of cocoa tea (an herbal infusion made using the raw leaves of their native cocoa plant). He doesn’t usually drink hot drinks but loved it. Of course we loved the textiles; I brought home alpaca blankets and a ton of souvenirs.

Our room at the Aranwa Hotel and Wellness Spa in the Sacred Valley

After our tour, we headed onward to the Aranwa Hotel and Wellness spa in the Sacred Valley, where we spent one night. Built on the banks of the Vilcanota River, on the lands of an old colonial hacienda of the 17th century, it’s just half an hour from the city of Cusco.

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The hotel rooms are decorated in a Colonial/modern style and the building looked to me like a little church. Waking up there in the morning we saw llamas and alpacas outside on the lawns and were able to get very close. I was so sorry that we didn’t have more days there.

Machu Picchu

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The following morning we caught the train from Ollantaytambo Station to Machu Picchu. The journey is somewhat convoluted and a little hair-raising, especially the bus ride up to the ancient ruins. There are seven steep curves on the way, so it was nail biting in places—but also exhilarating. It’s high—almost 8,000 feet above sea level—and it was a sunny, so I suggest taking loads of sunscreen and water.

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Mario led us into the ruins, which are jaw dropping (as you can imagine) for a 15th century Inca citadel. The ruins are believed to have been a royal estate or sacred religious site for Inca leaders and their devout followers who worshiped over 3,000 gods. Their civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.

Machu Picchu was a secret site known only to locals until 1911 when American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it. The site stretches over five miles and features more than 3,000 stone steps that link the different levels.

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Jett was enthralled with the ruins—and also the nature. He was able to get so close to a llama they basically became friends for life. My husband was enthralled for different reasons. He was fixated on the architecture and the technology the Incas employed all those years ago; they were the first organic architects. He spent hours trying to figure how they built everything, how many men they needed, and how long it took. After hours of rumination, my DIY-loving husband was none the wiser but marveled at how it was all achieved.

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We spent two days at the ruins, and my advice would be to build two days into your stay at Machu Picchu (especially if traveling with family). I was happy our tour organizer gave us a leisurely pace in this special place. If you can extend, do it. After all it’s a long way to go and you’ll probably never return. We were grateful to see it as soon as we arrived, and then to have an opportunity to return to different parts the next day.

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We stayed that night at our second hotel, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. The Inkaterra Hotel is in essence an Andean village. It is set in terraced hills, with waterfalls, stone pathways, and 81 whitewashed adobe casitas that come with private hot tubs. Bird watchers and ecologists flock here for its unique location. But for a family it’s elegant, cozy, and earthy with vibrantly-colored textiles hanging everywhere. It has a beautiful gathering area for tea time, a waterfall throughout, plus a spa, bar, dining room, hot tub and—most memorably for my men, big and small— an amazing breakfast buffet.

Everything we ate was delicious. Peruvian food is spicy and colorful—just like its textiles. Everyone’s heard of ceviche, but my husband absolutely loved the lomo saltado, which is meat, onions, tomatoes, and yellow ají chilli cooked with fried potatoes and rice, as well as the antichuchos—grilled meat on skewers served with traditional spicy, creamy Huancaína sauce. I really enjoyed their pollo a la brasa, which is Peru’s version of roast chicken but cooked in soy sauce flavored with red peppers, garlic, and cumin. My son couldn’t get enough of the picarones, which are donuts covered in syrup (and to be honest, neither could I).

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The next morning we made our way to the station where we boarded the train back to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. We stopped to enjoy lunch in the great outdoors and a horse show. Not only did we see the horses, we also got to ride them too, which Jett loved.

Cusco

Then we arrived in Cusco. The town square is called the Plaza de Armas, and it’s magical. We visited the artisan market of Loreto St, which is a small street off the main square and browsed the many stalls and enjoyed the architecture. As we walked around we met many wonderful characters, including a woman carrying a baby llama. She let Jett hold the llama which then peed all over him. He said “Fair enough, that’s what it’s like to have a baby!”

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We had so much fun in colorful Cusco. Jett fed the animal its lunch, and later acquired a hand knitted Angry Birds cap that he wore the entire time in Cusco. It made me smile seeing him get so much enjoyment out of it.

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Later, we saw the townspeople and their children rehearsing a dance in full costume for an upcoming national holiday. We wandered over to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as Cusco Cathedral, another World Heritage Site. Building was completed in 1654, almost 100 years after construction began. It’s beautiful and decorated in tons of gold, but be warned, photographs are not allowed.

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That night we stayed in the Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel. Built in a colonial mansion of the 16th century, it is filled with Peruvian artifacts and has several Inca paintings, colonial sculptures, and carvings. Just two blocks from the main square, it’s an older hotel but it’s full of charm and personality, just like Cusco itself.

Travel Tips

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As we reflected on the trip, I realized that I was most pleased with the fact that I’d booked us onto a fully organized tour. Usually I do everything myself, but there’s no way I could have done all these great things without them being planned and without a guide. Mario dealt with everything big and small. On one of the train journeys, someone was sitting in our seat and he cleared up the confusion. Those are the kinds of things I would have struggled with.

When you visit Machu Picchu, my advice is to arrive in the afternoon. In the morning the lines are long and the ruins are more crowded. By the time we arrived it was emptying out and we had a much more peaceful and beautiful experience.

Do your laundry in Machu Picchu if you are traveling for a while throughout Peru. There are laundromats everywhere; Machu Picchu is well equipped and ready for many different types of international travelers. We did our laundry in Cusco, but it was much more difficult.

As a precaution, I took anti-altitude pills. I was glad I took them, I wanted to make sure I was fine to look after our son who was too young for any altitude medication. My son only felt nauseous for one moment at 12,000 ft and my husband was fine. We moved slowly and drank loads of cocoa tea and twice the water we would normally drink. Keeping hydrated is so important. My husband and I decided to refrain from drinking alcohol during the entire trip. We felt great and got loads of sleep.

My last tip would be to pack light. When you travel so far back in time, you want to bring back some of the past with you. The colors of Peru are so stunning, I wished I could take home one of everything and never look at beige again.

For more family-friendly travel tips from Margot Black, check out:

Text and images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com

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