Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and is well worth a spot on anyone’s bucket list. But how to get there? Sure, you can take a train. But if you’re like us, and believe that the journey is sometimes its own reward, then you very well may be considering the four-day hike up the Classic Inca Trail.
But can your kids handle the hike, the food—the bathrooms? We spoke to Matt Waugh, a longtime travel pro who works for Apus Peru, an adventure travel outfit specializing in Peru, including the Classic Inca Trail trek and alternative Machu Picchu treks.
ROAM: When is the best time to hike the Inca Trail and how far in advance do you need to get a permit?
Matt: For the Inca Trail, permits go on sale in January and when they go on sale it’s a mad rush; right now I’m fielding inquiries. That’s mostly for permits from April through July, which is seen as the dry season; it’s also the high season. So some dates will be gone completely by February and March; early May and late April will probably be gone within two weeks of them going on sale. Permits can only be bought by certified agencies, and once permits are gone, they’re gone.
Last year permits went on sale January 12, the year before January 7. The government doesn’t inform agencies [in advance] of when they’ll go on sale—they go on sale when they go on sale.
The Inca Trail is open year-round, except for February when it’s closed for cleaning. Also, the Inca Trail is regimented in sense that you have to stay at the campsite the government tells you, you have to have porters, you have to have a certified guide and you have to have a permit. You can’t just do it off the cuff. It’s amazing how many people aren’t aware of that—they book their hotel, their whole package around the Inca Trail, and they can’t do it [because they didn’t think about the permit first].
ROAM: How old should kids be to do a trek like the Inca Trail?
Matt: Depends on the kids. I had an experience with two sisters—10 and 11—and they were from the Australian outback. The parents were very laidback, just let their kids roam around. They were absolutely top kids, no problem hiking up to the top path, which is around 14,000 feet. They were like mountain goats. I’ve had 7-, 8-, 9-year-old kids—younger than that gets tricky. We do supply mules or horses [on some treks] … but they are not allowed on the Inca Trail.
Most of the families who are bringing kids have prior experience climbing, whether it’s the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, alpine Europe. Most also have experience camping, roughing it a little bit. However, we have had kids whose families have said, “Matt, my kids have never camped before.” For these, I would suggest an easier hike, maybe just an overnight camp, and then connect to the Inca Trail for Machu Picchu. [For more on hiking a one-day alternative Inca Trail with a baby in tow, check out this blog entry from Apus Peru cofounder Ariana Svenson.]
ROAM: What’s the best way to prepare for hiking the Inca Trail?
Matt: Obviously people should do a little bit of training before they come out here. Secondly we always suggest an acclimatization period. Children can sometimes get affected more by the altitude and it can take them longer to overcome the altitude shock. So for a four-day hike on the Inca Trail, we would suggest three full days at altitude. If you are really short of time, two days would be the absolute minimum, but it’s always better to allow the kids’ bodies extra time, especially if they are jet-lagged or tired by the journey. So if a family were to fly to Cusco Monday morning, they wouldn’t be able to hike until Thursday morning – to be safe.
ROAM: What about a side trip to Lima for ceviche and pisco sours?
Matt: Families might not need to spend too much time in Lima. It’s a big city. There are museums and souvenir stands and nice plazas.
In my opinion, it would be more interesting for any family to visit Cusco and the Sacred Valley. They could stay in Cusco and do side trips from Cusco: They could go horse-riding, they could go rafting, they could go mountain-biking—it’s more than just the ruins and the archeological sites and the colonial buildings. [Cusco was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 for its pre-Columbian and Spanish architecture.] There are more outdoorsy things in the Sacred Valley, about an hour or so from Cusco; at just under 9,500 feet it’s a little lower than Cusco, which is about 11,000 feet. So my suggestion would be they could stay two or three days in the Sacred Valley doing outback things, then go off and do the hike, and spend the last day or two in Cusco before they fly back home. Lima to Cusco is about a one-hour flight; you could do a half-day city tour in Lima after flying from Cusco.
ROAM: What challenges do kids have on a long trek? What do they find easier than adults?
Matt: One of the major factors is our guides. They all have different personalities. Obviously we would want a certain type of guide for kids and families, they need to have the charisma that kids would like, maybe a bit younger, more offbeat.
Kids like to see a lot of different things along the way, so it’s not like, “Oh, one more hill, one more mountain.” In the treks that we offer I would recommend the Inca Trail and the Lares Trek, for different reasons. The idea of the Inca Trail is that there are seven ruins along the way and there is a change of scenery, there are high Andean plains with farms and villages and then almost rainforest where there are tropical birds—you may see a parakeet, orchids.
The thing about the Lares Trek that makes it more interesting for kids is the interaction with families. On one trip, we had three daughters who are really mad for soccer and wanted to play soccer. One of the villages, the ball came out and three were no language problems whatsoever—just kick a ball. They ended up getting a game going with the local kids. Kids are really proactive in that way. Sometimes the kids are more outgoing than the parents are, and it really does bridge a gap between communities and us. The communities along the Inca Trail see so many trekkers—500 a day except for February—that they’re not really interested in interacting.
ROAM: What bothers adults versus what bothers kids?
Matt: Danger. Kids can be fine with heights and drop-offs, and don’t take as much care as they should. A lot of adults have vertical issues. But on the Inca Trail, I can’t think of anywhere that would bother anyone, unless they had really extreme issues.
Kids can sometimes be a little homesick in regards to food, especially when coming to a country that doesn’t have the same diet. We want to make sure that we take into consideration what the kids like to eat and make sure we have something agreeable. We try to do familiar things in a different way. For example, alpaca is something that people eat here, which is quite similar to steak. So we could do alpaca pizza. Or pasta with some kind of Andean cereals, like quinoa.
ROAM: What about the crowds? How is the health of the Inca Trail?
Matt: I feel a bit mixed. Ten or 15 years ago this trek did not have any restrictions; you could make a campfire anywhere you wanted to, camp anywhere you wanted, you didn’t have to have a guide if you didn’t have a porter with you. The Inca Trail is making vast, vast improvements every year, but every year because they’re making the levels so much higher than what normal camping and roughing it would be about, there are people coming on the Inca Trail and saying, “That’s not good enough.” One bit of feedback that keeps coming back to us is about the health and cleanliness of the bathrooms. Because of the volume of people coming through, it’s impossible to keep the bathrooms up to the standard of the hotel people are staying at in Cusco. By the time everybody comes through, the bathrooms are pretty disgusting. Plus, because of the environment, we can’t throw bleach down the toilet.
There are 500 permits per day, which is already a big number; that number has been in place for about 10 years now. But [the government] is talking about making the permits less and less and less and making the price of the Inca Trail more and more and more. That’s a good way to go, I think.
In 2007, Machu Picchu was listed as one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Since then, they’ve built a Starbucks, a McDonalds, a KFC, that’s the kind of changes I’m seeing in Cusco. They are talking about building a new airport, which would be near the Sacred Valley, so they can fly planes directly from international airports without going through Lima. There was none of that here 10 years ago.
ROAM: What’s the level of difficulty of the Classic Inca Trail, in your estimation?
Matt: All the treks we do are challenging, [because] they are high-altitude treks. If you’re not used to the altitude, it will take the wind out of your sails. We are not frog-marching any of our clients … but at the same time, you have to get from A to B before it gets dark.
On the Inca Trail there are three camps. The second day is the toughest day, the elevation gain is just over 3,000 feet over about six or seven miles. But it’s uphill so you have to go a lot slower … from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with stops. The second and third days are the hardest. The third day, for me, the hardest part is the steps down on the way to the last camp spot; they call it the Gringo Killer because there are 3,000 steps and none of them sized like on a regular stairwell—some of them are waist-high and it’s hard on your knees. We don’t do more than 10 miles on any one day. The Inca Trail is not the hardest trek we do, it’s probably one of the easiest—but I don’t tell my clients that. For most people, it’s still a hell of a challenge.
ROAM: Let’s say you missed the window to get permits and can’t do the Inca Trail. What other Andean treks do you recommend for traveling families?
Matt: There are hundreds of amazing trekking routes through the Andes so if you’re booking late, short on time, or not into crowds, there are many hikes that don’t include the Inca Trail.
We do offer several treks that take alternate routes to Machu Picchu and don’t need permits. Salkantay is the second most popular trek in the area, after the Inca Trail. National Geographic Adventure Travel magazine rated it one of the top 10 treks in the world. Natural scenery is the major highlight of the five-day trip, including hiking along the amazing Apu Salkantay.
I also like the Lares-Machu Picchu trek. It takes you through the Patacancha and Lares valleys, and takes four days. This is a much less-traveled route to Machu Picchu that offers diverse scenery, turquoise lakes and local culture. The Inca Jungle Trail travels four days through lush, lower altitude terrain and ends with a trip to Machu Picchu.
For a beautiful family hike that is shorter and doesn’t end at Machu Picchu, I like the Huchuy Qosqo trek. This gives hikers a lovely feel of the high Andes and the chance to see some remote villages with thatched straw roofs, as well as mountain lagoons. This can be done over 2 days and very reachable from Cusco. The bit with the canyon and waterfalls with wooden bridges is especially stunning!
ROAM: What can kids get out of a long trek like this?
Matt: I always tell them there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
*Photos courtesy of Apus Peru, Megan Gaston, Megan Malley, Michael Mossop, Ariana Svenson, Matt Waugh, Sophia Kohler, VisitPeru Travel
by Maria de la O, November 2015
© ROAM Family Travel 2015 – All rights reserved
Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, Inca Trail with kids, family vacation to Peru, Inca Trail family, how to hike the Inca Trail, Peru family travel