Peru with Kids: Things to do in the Sacred Valley & Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is undoubtedly Peru’s star attraction. However, the Sacred Valley region is often overlooked as visitors make their way to Machu Picchu. We found an area filled with charming villages, colorful markets, stunning vistas and archaeological gems that shouldn’t be missed.
My teen daughter and I went on a girls’ trip with friends in late November. We traveled with a group of seven including 10-, 14- and 16-year old young ladies. Our one-week itinerary included three nights in the quaint town of Ollantaytambo within the Sacred Valley and three nights in the city of Cusco. These were some of our favorite things to do in the Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu.
8 Fun Things to do in Peru’s Sacred Valley
1. Discover the Ruins
The Sacred Valley is filled with impressive Inca ruins and fewer crowds. The hilltop Pisac ruins were the first things we visited and they didn’t disappoint. The complex included agricultural terraces, well-preserved temples, ceremonial baths, and a large Inca cemetery.
The Ollantaytambo fortress looms over the town. This Temple Hill was used for religious, military and agricultural purposes. It was worth the steep climb for stunning panoramic views of the valley. Many guides were available at the entrance for a two-hour tour, and we highly recommend hiring one. It gave us a better understanding and appreciation of the ruins.
Moray Agricultural Ruins was a quick stop but worth it. Shaped like a Roman amphitheater, the circular terraces were believed to be the Inca’s version of an agricultural lab. They experimented with growing crops here using different light, altitude and temperature. There was a 59° F (15° C) temperature difference between the top and bottom. Moray was also at 11,400 feet (3500 m) altitude, which was the highest elevation we visited.
2. Shop the Markets
We love visiting markets around the world, and Peru offered the most colorful markets we’ve ever seen. Pisac’s artisan market was the biggest one we visited with hundreds of vendors. We were here on a Sunday and one outdoor area was a hub of activity where many of the indigenous Quechua people came to sell their produce and buy supplies.
Traveling with other ladies on this trip meant plenty of shopping. Prices were cheap, especially for various souvenirs and textiles like scarves, sweaters and blankets. The kids brought home several forms of llama stuffed animals.
Bargaining was highly encouraged and was a great way to practice our Spanish. We enjoyed the markets outside the Ollantaytambo ruins that had some unique items and the large market in Aguas Calientes by the train station. The Sunday market at Chinchero was also highly recommended by locals.
3. Visit Weaving Centers
While many of the blankets and scarves sold in markets are machine made or come from synthetic materials, there are places in the Sacred Valley to visit to see how these items are made the old-fashioned way.
We really enjoyed our visits to the weaving centers in Awanacancha and Chinchero. It was very interesting to see how they turn plants and flowers into dye to color alpaca or llama fur. These furs are then hand made into intricate items that can take months to complete. We were in awe watching these creative women turn yarn into glorious patterns. Of course, prices for these items reflect the materials and effort to make them.
4. Eat Local Food
Peru offered very tasty and unique local cuisine. The country produces over 2,000 potato varieties so there’s no shortage of potatoes, corn or quinoa in meals. Beef and chicken were also common options. We loved the lomo saltado (stir fried beef), aji de gallina (yellow creamy chicken) and ceviche (Peru’s national dish of fish marinated in a citrus juice). Don’t forget to drink some chichi morada that’s made of purple corn.
Alpaca meat was also a common food. My daughter was hesitant to try it, considering how much she enjoyed petting these animals and holding their babies. It’s available on most menus and cooked in various ways from stew to grill to pizza toppings. Alpaca tasted like steak or beef to me. For the more adventurous eaters, a Peruvian delicacy is cuy or guinea pig. This isn’t for anyone with a weak stomach or kids who have pet guinea pigs.
5. Ride the Train to Machu Picchu
Contrary to popular belief, there is a faster way to see Machu Picchu than doing a multi-day hike along the Inca Trail. We took a day trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town below the Machu Picchu ruins) via a scenic train ride on Peru Rail. We highly recommend booking the Vista Dome. The large panoramic windows that stretch to parts of the ceiling made this one of the most scenic train rides we’ve ever taken.
We passed through farms, ruins, a rainforest and snow-capped mountains. The trains were modern with comfortable seats and distinctly Peruvian touches. Service was fantastic and included complimentary food and drinks.
6. Explore Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu and its surroundings were even more incredible than we imagined and definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This Inca citadel, located in the Andes mountains, includes about 200 stone structures. It is believed to have been a religious site or royal retreat for Inca leaders.
There were plenty of resident llamas here to observe and pose with. We went inside first with a tour guide and learned about the interesting history of this complex and the Inca culture. After the tour, we spent a couple of hours exploring the ruins and terraced fields on our own.
Hiking opportunities are available, including the manageable Temple of the Sun route, but the many stone steps can make for a challenging walk through the ruins. Children over age 12 and adventurous adults can also hike the steep Huayna Picchu (seen behind the ruins) and Machu Picchu mountains for an extra fee. Tickets are often sold out months in advance.
7. See the Salt Mines
The Maras Salt Mines or Salineras de Maras included thousands of geometric salt pans arranged along the side of a mountain. It was a unique landscape of shallow pools in various shades of pink, brown and white. The Incas originally built these using channels to direct water from a hyper-saline spring to where it could evaporate under the sun and turn to salt. Local families now own these salt pans. We enjoyed watching the workers gather the salt from the pans.
8. Meet the Animals
One of my daughter’s biggest wishes on this trip was to meet and feed llamas and alpacas. Her wish came true the first few hours after we landed. Our driver took us to the Awanacancha weaving center that also housed llamas, alpacas, vicunas and guanacos (members of the cameloid family). We were so excited to see these adorable and unique animals that seemed so used to being around tourists.
Alfalfa and other greenery were freely available for us to take and feed the animals. You can bet there were plenty of photos and funny interactions with the animals here. We also had opportunities to hold baby alpacas and meet some of the locals wearing colorful Andean outfits. They were also around some of the markets and towns for photo ops and a small fee ($1-$2).
3 Tips for Visiting Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley with kids
1. Know the NEW Machu Picchu rules
As of July 2017, there are now two entrance times of 6 am to 12 pm and 12 pm to 5:30 pm. Visitors are only allowed to enter during the time on their ticket. All visitors entering the ruins must be accompanied by an official guide. The rules weren’t heavily enforced during our visit; however it was low tourist season. The situation may be different during high season from June to August.
2. Dealing with altitude sickness
We all felt ill and had altitude sickness in varying degrees from nausea to headaches and heart palpitations during our first day. Our best tip and lesson learned is to take it easy on your first day, especially if you’re arriving from a flight early in the morning.
We recommend descending into the Sacred Valley first which was at 9,514 feet (2,900 m) to get acclimated to the altitude. By the time we returned to Cusco at 11,152 ft (3,400 m) a few days later, we were well adjusted. We also took chlorophyll pills (available over-the-counter) and Diamox (prescription needed), drank coca tea, ate coca candy, and stayed hydrated. Overall, the kids fared better than the adults.
3. Get the Tourist Ticket
Many of the sites mentioned here require admission but no individual tickets are sold. The Cusco Tourist Ticket is valid for 10 days covering 16 sites, ruins, and museums across the Sacred Valley and Cusco for around $40. Children under age 9 are free and students with a valid ID are discounted. Tickets covering partial days or attractions are also available. Tickets can be purchased at the ruins mentioned above or in Cusco.
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Peru Rail provided complimentary tickets for Mary and her daughter. However, all opinions and photos are her own.