We had Inca Cola with almost every meal.
We looked out the window of an early morning train and gazed at hard Andean peaks caressed by wispy clouds.
We heard some of the funniest jokes we’d heard in years.
We let our imaginations roam through the ruins of an ancient city, sidestepping regal llamas and walking the footsteps of Inca rulers, religious leaders, and farmers.
We fed llamas, vicunas, and alpacas and learned to tell the difference between the three.
Around each bend, our hearts beat with the excitement of explorers and archaeologists who made this ancient world known to us.
Going it alone (ish)
While hiking the Inca Trail seems amazing, the thought of hiking 26 miles up and down mountains with three kids and trying to keep up with Globe Trekker-ish 20-something backpackers just didn’t seem realistic. And while there are a host of adventure travel type tour operators who cater some of their tours to families, these seemed overly expensive and elicited nightmares of being at the whim of somebody else’s whiny kids.
So we decided to plan our own 7-day trip to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
This is an account of that week, the highs and the lows, and some of the lessons we learned along the way, plus some important planning tips.
Day 1: Inca gold, rest and coca tea
“You hear about it but you don’t really believe it until you’re here,” said Julian as he stared at his bottomless cup of Inca Cola on our first internal Peruvian flight. I’m not sure if he was talking about his first taste of the super-sweet soda that flowed like gold in every restaurant, on every plane, and on every train during our week in Peru, or our first glimpse of the majestic Andes out the plane window.
After a very long, three plane ride trip, including a red-eye, we arrived in Cuzco early in the morning, met our driver, and drove a couple of hours to Urubamba. Even in our dizzy bleary eyed flight hangover, we were blown away by the Andes’ strength and grandeur. We spent the day resting at Lizzy Wasi (see my article on our stay), playing mini-golf in the beautiful garden and drinking coca tea to try to ward off altitude sickness.
Jacques overdid it running around the garden and felt terrible on the first night. We should have known that “taking it easy” has a different meaning when you’re 11. But he was fine after a good night’s sleep.
Day 2: Pisac and llama poop
Over breakfast, per Lizzy’s suggestion, we hired a driver for $90 to take us to the Inca ruins of Pisac and Awana Kancha, a cooperative llama farm/weaving center—definitely money well spent. We spent a couple of hours tooling around the Pisac ruins, although we felt the effects of the altitude and didn’t venture too far in. The farthest point in the ruins is a pretty arduous 4 km. climb and is probably best when you’ve had more time to adjust to the altitude.
What struck me about Pisac was how unobtrusive the homes, ceremonial sites and agricultural areas were to the surrounding landscape. Even some of the tombs seemed like part of the scenery, especially the mountainside caverns which housed the remains of some of the lower-status members of society.
Our driver drove us down to the town of Pisac, which sits below the ruins. And here’s my one Peruvian trip regret: we didn’t look around the market. Yes, we were hungry, tired, and, since it was only our first full day, not in souvenir-shopping mode. But none of that seems like a good enough excuse right now. Next time, I will push through the pain and shop.
After lunch at the lovely Ulrike’s Café in Central Pisac, we hopped back in the car and drove to the nearby textile/weaving cooperative, Awana Kancha. We were met by a few dozen llamas and alpacas and finally learned to tell them apart (alpacas are smaller and softer). We got a great demonstration of wool-making and dyeing but things started to fall apart when I translated to Jeremy (age 6) that llama poop was used as fuel to heat the vats of dye. Funniest joke he’d heard in a while (see photo below).
Day 3: Machu Picchu: the reveal
We woke up very early the next morning in a state of great excitement: this was the day we would finally see Machu Picchu. We took a moto-taxi just a few minutes from Lizzy Wasi and boarded the train in the morning mist. (A note about moto-taxis: they are three-wheeled taxis and the transportation mode of choice in towns all over the Sacred Valley. They’re very cheap, decorated like Hot Wheel cars, and the kids love them.)
The train follows the Urubamba River and the views out the window get more majestic with every turn of the wheels, with snow-capped mountains, rocky peaks, white-tipped river waters, and ancient Incan terraces. It was easily the most beautiful train ride I’d ever been on.
I’d done enough advance reading to know not to expect too much from Aguas Calientes, the unavoidable entry town to the ruins. The town is a bit of a dump, with rickety buildings, dirty-looking hostels, and overpriced touristy pizza joints. (Side note: the two bright dining spots were the neo-Peruvian food at Treetop Restaurant and hamburgers at the Palate Bistro).
After checking into our (mediocre) hotel, Rupa Wasi, we boarded the bus for the 20-minute ride to the Machu Picchu ruins. This, I was unprepared for. I can only liken the bus ride to an Andean roller coaster. You go up a very narrow road around very tight curves over very steep cliffs, hoping you don’t crash into the stream of buses heading down-mountain. Needless to say, the boys loved it, although my knuckles got a little bit whiter with each turn in the road.
I’m not going to try to describe our first view of Machu Picchu, the one we’ve all seen in postcards, except to say that it stopped us dead in our tracks.
Day 4: Epic climb and night train
On day two at Machu Picchu, John, Julian and Jacques climbed the arduous and legendary Mount Machu Picchu and were treated to more stunning scenery and the fittest 20-something European backpackers they’d ever seen. I hung out with Jeremy playing “emergency doctor” in the ancient city ruins.
We swallowed a quick National Park-style expensive hot dog lunch at the only snack bar in the ruins and met our guide for a one-hour tour. It was a great way to fill in the questions we’d had in our wanderings for the past two days.
After a final harrowingly gorgeous bus ride down the mountain, we collected our luggage at the hotel and boarded the evening train to Ollantaytambo.
Day 5: Picaflor Tambo no sa-rembo in Ollantaytambo
Just a few words on Ollantaytambo: go, go, and go. It is a magnificently preserved living Inca town overlooked by ruins dotting the surrounding mountains.
We took a moto-taxi (yay!) from the train station to our guest-house: Picaflor Tambo. With just a few rooms surrounding a little courtyard, it was a simple, relaxing place to lay our heads for two days, and its location was perfect. It’s just down the street from the main plaza and right across the street from the entrance to the trail climbing up to the ruins.
The evening Pisco Sour get-together gave us a chance to meet the other guests, including a team from Microsoft in town to help set up a computer system in a local orphanage.
Most memorable for Jacques was the fact that we (finally) found him some peanut butter. It was made in-house and declared delicious, as was the $5 three-course daily special the rest of us ate (soup, chicken and rice, and chocolate dessert). We liked La Esquina so much we returned for dinner.
Day 6: Slowest driver in the world, salt mines, and UFO landings
When we arranged for a driver to drive us to Cusco the next day, we hadn’t counted on lucking into the slowest driver in all of Peru. He didn’t top 25 miles an hour and I swear I saw llamas and bicycles passing us on the downhills. It didn’t help that four of us were squeezed in the back seat of the car playing dead hand and pinching each other.
We were pretty tired, anxious and hungry during the ride so didn’t linger at our two stops along the way, although they both definitely merited more than our Griswald-at-the-Grand Canyon glance.
The first stop, the Salt Pits of Maras, are an almost other worldly sight of thousands of pits containing salts in various shades of white. Highly salted spring water trickles down the mountain into the pits, which were constructed by a pre-Inca civilization, the Chanapata, over 1,000 years ago. The mine is still in operation.
Our second stop, Moray, is located very close to the salt mines (not that it felt like it with Slowly the Slow Driver at the wheel). These Incan conical terraces were supposedly used as a type of agricultural laboratory, since they afforded different microclimates that could be used to test and acclimatize different crops. Our other theory, of course, is that they were in fact made by aliens on one of their many visits to earth. Or perhaps we just watch too much Doctor Who?
Day 7: Colonial splendor and night basketball
We arrived in Cuzco pretty late in the afternoon so, after checking into our very large rooms at the Sonesta Hotel, we took a little wander to the main plaza in search of colonial charm and dinner. We opted for empanadas, crepes, and milkshakes at the small, clean and very friendly Nandos (361 Calle Plateros).
On the 15-minute walk to our hotel, which was blissfully off the main drag, we chanced into a game of night basketball. As we watched for a few minutes, John’s trash talking got embarrassing and we had to leave before he decided to go down there and show the 13-year-old players “how we do.” This last part didn’t actually happen—just making sure you’re still reading.
Day 8: Breakfast buffet, “sexy woman” and rock slide
After an excellent night’s sleep, we headed down to the Sonesta Hotel’s expansive breakfast buffet. Up to this point, our hotel breakfast really hadn’t been worth mentioned (so I didn’t) but this one was truly spectacular, with fresh fruit and juice, eggs to order, pancakes, bacon, cheese, and excellent breads.
Before our afternoon flight, we wanted to visit a last Inca sight, Saqsaywaman, not only because it came highly recommended by my sister but because the name made Jeremy laugh almost as much as a certain textile maker’s llama poop “joke.”
The ruins were incredible for the scope of the stonework, with some of the stones measuring over four meters across. Exactly how stone masons cut, fitted, and transported these megaliths remains a mystery, and what they have achieved is one of the most imposing structures ever attempted by man. In a word: awesome. But I’m sure what the boys will remember most is where we spent most of our limited time at the ruins: sliding down giant rock slides.
1. Buy your tickets ahead of time and don’t be afraid to ask (pay) for help.
After hearing several tales of people who had travelled all the way to Machu Picchu, only to find that there was “no more room on the mountain,” we thought we’d buy the tickets ahead of time, and I mean waaayy ahead of time. So a few months before our trip, we logged onto the official website to purchase tickets. We had no trouble buying tickets for the first day but, for some reason, were unable to complete the transaction for the second. Some internet browsing revealed this was a very common occurrence.
After weeks of trying in vain and watching the number of available tickets dwindle to barely 100, we sucked it up and hired a tour company, Bike and Adventure, to purchase our tickets and give us a two-hour tour of the site (you can email them directly at [email protected]). Like many Peruvian transactions, it involved a money transfer and a prayer. But a tour operator met us at the Cuzco airport with tickets and the tour guide was well-informed and friendly so we felt it was money well spent.
2. Find a (relatively) low spot to acclimate to the altitude.
The city of Cuzco sits at a staggering 11,150 feet in altitude. You’ll feel it as soon as you land, with shortness of breath and headaches. While it’s a lovely colonial city, we were much more comfortable acclimating in Urubamba (9,420 feet) before descending into Machu Picchu (7,800 feet). We started our trip with two nights at the lovely Lizzy Wasi in Urubamba fueling up on Coca tea and mostly resting in a hammock. We spent the last night in Cuzco. By then, we were used to the altitude and barely felt it at all.
Hotels we recommend:
Urubamba: Lizzy Wasi
Ollantaytambo: Picaflor Tambo
Aguas Calientes: we stayed at Rupa Wasi, which I didn’t like at all (not too clean, musty odor); we saw the Sanctuary Lodge by Orient Express right outside the gate to Machu Picchu. It seems like a much better option, though the price($600 a night+) is hard to swallow.
Cusco: Sonesta Hotel, Cusco
Restaurants we recommend:
Urubamba: Tres Keros
Ollantaytambo: La Esquina
Pisac: Ulrike’s Café
Aguas Calientes: Treetop and Palate Bistro