The Long Trail to Machu Picchu: a family adventure in Peru

The Trail Begins

The Inca Trail is approximately 42 kilometres/26 miles in length. It winds its way from the Urubamba River, in the heart of the Sacred Valley, up through beautiful mountain scenery, lush cloud forest, subtropical jungles all the while bisected by Incan roads paved by hand-cut stones. I stumbled onto the trail back in the mid-nineties when, as a first-time traveller to Peru and an up-and-coming tour leader, I took my first step on the trail not really knowing what to expect. I also didn’t fully comprehend the reward waiting at the end of a long four-day trek: Machu Picchu. Fast forward four days and it was love at first sight.

That was more than 20 years ago. Five years of tour leading with repeated visits back to Cusco and Machu Picchu, conscious choices to walk the trail again, and 20-odd years of selling Peru as a South America expert and the related returns to Peru for business and pleasure trips resulted in a grand total of 26 completed Inca Trail treks and numerous visits to Machu Picchu. As I said, it was love at first sight and that love continues to this day.

Fast forward 20-plus years from that first trek and my tour leading days are over. I now have a family and a desk job, but I’ve still always wanted to take my family back to Peru and walk the trail together. My wife, who also loves to travel (we met when travelling in Ecuador), and I have instilled in our three boys the joy and benefits of travel. It was only a matter of time before I rounded them all up and returned to my favorite (well, one of my favourite) countries and was able to relive, re-walk and reconquer the Inca Trail with my family at my side—and of course relive the glory days of me being young and single and much fitter!

Although I preach about the Inca Trail when talking about Peru, the country is not just Machu Picchu, so I drew up an itinerary that saw us visit Lima in depth on a bicycle tour then a culinary tour where we all learned how to make ceviche and pisco sours. Afterwards, we head down the coast to Paracas where we took a flight over the Nazca lines. We then head into the desert—all of Peru’s coastline is desert—and rode in dune buggies, sand boarded, and took the expected “jumping high on a sand dune” picture. (It’s all about the angle; we were no more than one foot off the ground.)

Enjoy local cafes in Lima

We spent time in Cusco dining at some old favorite restaurants and some news ones. We bought the obligatory toques (Canadian)/beanies (Australian)/wool hats (American) for the winter back home, and wandered the streets of the original Incan capital and modern-day UNESCO World Heritage city of Cusco. We also helped make adobe bricks, ground maize, and ate lunch at a local Quechan village, before mountain biking down through the Andes to the Urubamba Valley—and I emphasize the “downhill” bit as riding uphill in the Andes at approx. 2,800 meters/9,200 feet in altitude is not recommended for even the fittest sea-level-dwelling traveller.

All this was a precursor to the grand event of walking the trail and helped me give my boys some insight into what Peru as a whole has to offer. Of course, the eyes were now on the prize of reaching Machu Picchu. I swear, each of my boys (12, 15 and 17) did not bat an eyelid on the forthcoming 43 kilometre/26 mile-long up-and-down hike where we would reach altitudes of 4,300 meters/14,000 feet. Either they were: one, suffering altitude sickness and were delirious; two, ignorant of what the trek entailed; or three, were just being stoic and not wanting to show mum and dad they couldn’t handle the task ahead. Hopefully it was option three.

Now, mum and dad where a little more visibly apprehensive. As I said above, when you flash-forward 20-odd years, you get 20 years older and deal with some decline in fitness levels. My wife and I knew (or we thought we did) what was ahead of us, so we took a stoic approach and mentioned nothing but words of encouragement to our kids. Our other concern was our youngest son is asthmatic so we worried that a combination of long walking days and high altitudes may see an onset of an asthma attack. Luckily, this would prove to be the last of our concerns.

So we began the walk. Not much has changed on the trail. It was as beautiful and tranquil as I remembered. What had changed was my recollection of some of the more challenging parts. They say biology has built in a mechanism for women to forget the pain of childbirth relatively soon after birth (says the male writing this article), so as not be reluctant to give birth again. Something similar might have happened with me as my mind had formed selective gaps of the trail in respect to the discomfort one can feel when walking it. I had forgotten the steep descents and some of the length of the uphill climbs. It came back to me in no uncertain terms when I was there, resulting in some sore knees and ankles. But, it’s no race and we took our time and trekked the trail.

Machu Picchu

My boys walked beside me and ahead of me, never behind. Our 12-year-old asthma-sufferer raced off into the distance and got the nickname of mini porter as he literally ran the trail. All their hockey playing and the resulting fitness really paid off. Day Four saw us walking into Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate and then into the ruins. We had a fabulous guided tour and we learned all about the Inca Empire and Machu Picchu itself.

After exploring the Sacred Valley, we head to the Amazon where we trekked at lower altitudes but now in high humidity. We saw bugs, spiders, and fascinating plant life before heading back to Lima and connecting home. Our time together as a family was priceless. I was showing my family a country I love and have many fond memories of, and I was finally able to make the circle whole and share this lovely country alongside them.

We made it

My greatest memory of the entire trip was waiting at Dead Women’s pass, the highest point on the Inca Trail at 4,100 meters/14,000 feet. It’s the apex of the climb, and was the toughest spot for my oldest boy to summit. I could feel my emotions flow as he reached the top where I waited; we hugged and I teared up, and although he’d never admit it, he did as well. My wife took a picture and was also in tears and we stood there, exhausted, but emotionally exhilarated. We had fulfilled a promise made 20-odd years ago. My dream of bringing my family to Peru and to the Inca Trail had finally come true and the reality of that dream was beyond all expectations.

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All of Dons experiences, except for the emotional overload parts, are pulled straight from www.goway.com. Contact one of our South America experts to assist in your planning of a trip to Peru or any country in South and Central America.

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