Peru With Kids
Lost Incan cities, Jurassic size bugs creeping through the vastly unexplored Amazon rainforest, tribal traditions filled with dancing and color…these are just a few things that make Peru an adventure come true for kids. Located on the west coast of South America, with a section of Amazon rainforest second in size only to Peru and a highlands backed by the snowy peaks of the Andes, which slowly fades down to the deserts and coasts of the Pacific Ocean. The capital city of Lima, located on the Pacific Coast, is a modern, urban city with congestion and pollution to match. But, once you head outside the city, the rich culture and history of the Incan empire and Spanish conquistadors romps into view. In south central Peru, the incredible town of Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) is where civilizations crashed and the history of the Spanish and the Incas is still present here with ancient temples topped with colonial churches. Nearby, the Sacred Valley hosts small villages where villagers walk around in colorful, traditional dress and craft markets are filled with artistic treasures. A train ride (or three day hike) through the Urubamba Valley lands visitors in Aguas Calientes, the base town for explorations of the famed Incan lost city of Machu Picchu. In eastern and northern Peru, the Amazon River starts from tributaries flowing from the Andes. Kids will love hiking through the forest finding huge insects and monkeys swinging through the trees.
Cusco with Kids
One of the main tourist draws in South America, Cusco (or Cuzco) is a backpackers dream. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, and later a stonghold of the Spanish conquistadors, Cusco has long been a stop on the traveler’s route. Although it’s a large city, the main tourist attractions are in a relatively small area, making walking to them a breeze. And what a walk it is! Narrow, cobble stone streets lined with Inca walls widening to old Spanish zocalos (town squares) anchored by soaring churches. Keep in mind that Cusco is at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, so you should take it easy the first day and drink plenty of water. (Take this seriously! One of our crew ended up in the hospital the first day due to altitude sickness!) The main square, the Plaza de Armas (a great place to hang out and soak in the atmosphere while resting on your first day) houses two beautiful churches, La Catedral and La Compania, built by the Spanish colonists. The kids loved buying bird seed from local vendors and feeding the pigeons. The best preserved Incan ruins are at Sacsayhuaman, just outside Cusco, where kids can run along tall stone walls and across grassy fields. A combination of the Incan and Spanish styles can be seen in Coricancha, where the Spanish built a church on top of an old Incan temple. The markets in Cusco are legendary with colorful weavings, stone beads and carving, items knitted with llama and alpaca wool, leather goods and jewelry from the small villages in the hills and valleys and beyond. If you want to go to the source, attending market day in Pisac is your best bet (but keep in mind you will find the best deals in Cusco). It’s about an hour by car to Pisac, and most hotels can arrange a driver for you. In addition to a vibrant market (on Sundays and smaller ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays), where villagers come from all over dressed in traditional clothes to sell fruits and vegetables and artists sell hand-made crafts, Pisac hosts some amazing Inca ruins. If you do go to Pisac, try to incorporate a stop at theAwana Kancha, an alpaca and llama farm where you can see how wool is dyed and woven. The kids will love petting and feeding the alpacas and llamas!
Machu Picchu with Kids
One of the most legendary archeological sites of all time, Machu Picchu is only about 50 miles from Cusco, but was not re-discovered until 1911, approximately 500 years after it was built and 400 years after it was abandoned, which is why it is also known as The Lost City of the Incas. This iconic Inca site is one of the New Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site and receives almost half a million visitors per year. If you are interested in hiking the Inca Trail, be sure to book early as they have limited space to 500 people per day to help prevent erosion on the trail. There are several trails to take, the most popular one is a 3-4 day hike from KM88 on the Urubamba River and crosses over several very high passes (two of which are over 10,00 feet). With smaller kids, the train is probably a better option. The Orient Express operates the Hiram Bingham train from Cusco (Poroy station about 15 minutes from Cusco) to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu’s mountains. The train journey is amazing with tall green mountains soaring up from the canyon floor beside the tracks and the Urubamba River tumbling and tossing over boulders in a show of white water. In the open areas, rural Peru life proceeds with small children chasing goats and women walking with huge loads strapped to their backs. The journey takes about four hours, but you are in the lap of luxury all the way with white table cloths, real silverware and a wood-paneled bar car with a back open to the tracks and mountains passing beyond. It’s a real throw back to the romantic days of train travel. There are also trains operated by PeruRail. Choices include the Vistadome with domed windows rolling over the sides to the top of the train and the Backpackers Express, the least expensive option. Whatever option you choose, book early as they all fill up fast!
Machu Pichu is high in the mountains, where there are no towns or services. There is one hotel, with a restaurant/bar, at the entrance to the park, The Sanctuary Lodge. The rest of the hotels and services are down the mountain, over a series of switchbacks, at Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is backpacker’s town. What does that mean? Lots of little guesthouses, cafes serving things like mango lassies and banana pancakes, shops selling trekking gear, Internet and laundry services. It’s got a hip feel to it and lots of inexpensive options. The market near the train station sells jewelry, sweaters and scarves, paper goods, and Machu Picchu souvenirs. The nicest place to stay in Aguas Calientes is Inkaterra, which has a huge property fronting the Urubamba River and offers extensive nature walks and medicinal healing talks. The bus to Machhu Picchu leaves across the river and down the street from the market.
To get the dramatic reveal that you would if you were hiking the Inca Trail, veer on the path to the left as you pass through the guard gates. It takes you up near the Sun Gate and gives you the famous postcard view over the ruins. Starting at the top like this also gets all of your up hill hike out of the way first. Keep heading up the hill to reach the sun gate. From there, you can traverse the terraced walls of the agricultural area down into the ruins where you slide along narrow passageways, in a maze of structures like temples and houses. One of the tallest temples houses an enormous “sundial”, which is thought to have predicted astronomical events. The kids like watching the llamas, who share the paths and terraces…sometimes at a frighteningly tight pass! After seeing the “sundial”, it’s all downhill as we wind through the maze of living quarters and back out to the entrance gate. If you have little ones, a child backpack would be a good investment. The steep stairs can be torture on little legs. Keep in mind large bags, tripods and strollers (which would not be sensible anyway) are not allowed into the park. There is a bag check at the main entrance.
Peru’s Amazon Rainforest with Kids
There are a couple popular spots to access the Amazon Rainforest in Peru, Iquitos in the north and Puerto Maldonado in the south. Coming from Cusco, the best option is Puerto Maldonado, which is only about an hour away by plane. There are lodges in Puerto Maldonado itself, but because it is a bigger town with lots of cargo and passenger traffic, the animal sightings are few and far between. So, if you want to immerse in tranquility of the forest and increase your chances of seeing the wildlife, head upriver a bit. We stayed at Refugio Amazonas (about 4 hours upriver), which also has a lodge near Puerto Maldonado and one further upriver at Tambopata (about 9 hours upriver). The farther away from Puerto Maldonado you get, the better your chances of seeing wildlife, but we felt the 4 hours was a good compromise with kids. There were lots of activities to do at the lodge. We went on a morning hike to see the sunrise over the jungle canopy, a night hike to look for bugs, crocodiles and capybaras, visited a local organic farm and shaman, kayaked on the Amazon river and more. The kids loved the fact that the lodge had a kid guide. He took all of us hiking down the Children’s Rainforest Trail, a trail set up to teach kids about the rainforest, its plants and animals and conservation with games, obstacles like balance beams and rope swings and a jungle hut house in the trees. The guide also gave us all temporary tattoos (they lasted for a couple of weeks so keep that in mind if you have any events after the trip – some of the other guests got them on their face without realizing how long lasting they were!) and caught little animals like bugs and snakes around the lodge to give the kids a closer look. So, what did we see? Lots of insects – crying beetles, caterpillars, katydids, bullet ants, fire ants, army ants, butterflies, spiders – monkeys, capybara, piranha (you could fish for them as well), wild pig, snakes, scarlet macaws, toucans and much more! The kids were fascinated by all the creatures and it really got them on a conservation kick! It’s a trip we will always remember and cherish and the global view it gave the kids on conservation and the effects of what we all do is priceless.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Peru
Lima: Mami Panchita: This quaint guesthouse located in the quiet oceanside neighborhood of San Miguel is a great place to spend a night or two en route in or out of Lima. The rooms are simple, but spacious and the staff is friendly. It’s just a short walk to an oceanfront park where the locals hang out.
Cusco: Hotel Marqueses: Located a block from the Plaza de Armas, and within a stone’s throw of two other zocalos, Hotel Marqueses is great for families. It’s set in a beautifully restored 16th century colonial house, the hotel offers the charm and history of Cusco down to the very room you sleep in. The high ceilings and colorfully painted walls lend to the charm and many of the rooms have balconies with views to the main cathedral in the Plaza de Armas. The hotel owners and staff are very friendly and they run a program to help local children stay in school.
Amazon (near Puerto Maldonado): Refugio Amazonas: This 32-bedroom lodge has three-sided rooms, with one side being completely open to the jungle so that you can thoroughly enjoy the sounds and scenery, and private bathrooms. Beds are protected by mosquito nets. Rooms are connected to the main lodge by a series of raised wooden pathways, lined with torches at night for a beautiful site. The lodge has a lobby area, bar and restaurants as well as an upstairs with T.V. playing movies, board games and little nooks for reading. There is no electricity at the lodge,and it is lit with kerosene lamps, which lends to the rustic ambiance.
Getting to/Around Peru
Most international flights fly into or through Lima. If you need to stay the night in Lima, and are planning on leaving the next day, the coastal areas south of the airport offer good proximity and quaint neighborhood lodging (see above). Flights within Peru are relatively cheap (less than $100 for most parts of Peru). TACA has good rates and schedules for towns in Peru and to other South, Central and North American countries. Peru is also accessible by road from Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador and by boat from Brazil. Within Peru, there are tons of different bus lines zipping (quickly..sometimes a bit to quickly for comfort) down the highways. A good line to try in the southern tourist areas is Cruz del Sur. Rail service operates between Cusco and Machu Picchu (see above) and Puno at Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian border, where connecting boat/bus service gets you to La Paz in just a few hours.