Where to go, and what to do, in Peru to infuse your family adventure with thrills, cultural exploration + epic discoveries.
Mind-bending Incan ruins, sand dune thrills, floating islands made of reed, pink dolphins, a Genie and Aladdin oasis, sea lions... Peru is a vacation wonderland for families who like to select the dot on the map less traveled and expose their children to a tapestry of cultures.
Whether your family thrives on being exposed to new traditions, trekking through otherworldly expanses of nature, shopping in exotic markets, sampling gastronomic cuisine in a country often lauded as having one of the best culinary scenes in the world, or all of the above, Peru will be a total win for you and your people.
Because there is so much to do, and each destination requires time to fully absorb its layered heritage, we recommend trekking through Peru for at least two weeks. This span will give you plenty of time to integrate with the following wonders.
Tip: Create a photo scavenger hunt list (make a list of subjects to score photos of), and prize, for each destination to make it more interesting for the kids.
Another Tip: Weary parents can soothe their nerves with a Pisco Sour, a local drink that’s creamy, a bit sweet and always delicious.
Exploring Machu Picchu
I bet you didn’t expect to see this one on the list.
Exploring the iconic ruins of this Incan citadel – “The Lost City of the Incas” - is a must if you’re hoofing it all the way to Peru. Made up of a tapestry of granite passageways, stone rooms and more than 100 staircases, constructed on a peak in the Andes Mountains above the Urubamba River Valley, this is a spot where your brain forces you to stop, marvel and fully take in what you’re seeing. I mean... how the heck did they get all those massive rocks all the way up there?! No wonder there’s conspiracy theories that aliens built these ruins – at least they had access to flying saucers.
To up the kids’ interest in the experience, watch Peruvian-inspired movies like “The Emperor’s New Groove” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or read books such as “Where is Machu Picchu?” or “The Inca Empire.”
And if you want to be some of the first people in the gates at 6am, stay at the Belmond – the only hotel at the entrance to Machu Picchu.
Tip: As Machu Picchu is 7,972 feet above sea level, it’s wise to spend a day or two acclimating in Aguas Calientes (the town closest to Machu Picchu), by drinking lots of water and resting, before making the ascent. And don’t go on a Sunday, as that’s typically the most crowded day.
This agriculturally rich valley is sprinkled with Inca ruins and Peruvian villages, allowing travelers to feel like they’ve fully arrived in Peru. For families with older children that don’t balk at the idea of hiking, there are numerous walking tours that immerse you in the dynamic culture lining the valley. If hiking isn’t your thang, hop on the PeruRail Sacred Valley train. And those interested in sacred thrills can utilize one of the many Sacred Valley ziplining tours.
A few favorite stops in the valley include Pisac Market where you can get your shop on, Ollantaytambo ruins and town where you can score epic photo ops, and the Moray ruins that feature a confounding dug out amphitheater composed of tiered agricultural terraces. If you feel like gettin’ crafty, head to the village of Chincheros where you can hone your weaving skills in a weaving cooperative.
There is so much to do and see in this valley, we recommend spending at least two to three days here. There are amazing glamping lodges, and (for families with offspring that are teens or older) the extraordinary/terrifying Skylodge Adventure Suites, which are glass pods attached to the side of the mountain.
Penguins (!), sea lions (especially from January to March), Peruvian pelicans, Red-legged cormorants, Inca terns, Peruvian boobies, dolphins and turtles can all be spotted on these flora-less rock islets. Explore the diverse communities of these rocks by taking a boat tour that helps you spot an astounding number of birds dive-bombing the sea for their meals, and hear a cacophony of thoughts from sea lions, birds and other vocal creatures.
Above the surface, it may seem like a mystery that these barren isles attract such an abundance of animals, however, under the sea there are 300 different types of algae, which attract fish, which attract all their predators.
Tips: If you’re into wildlife photography, don’t forget your telephoto lens. And because this area is windy, and being on a boat compounds this element, be sure to bring layers and a windbreaker.
Riverboat Cruise Down the Peruvian Amazon
From east of the Andes to the borders of Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia lives the shocking biodiversity (tons of birds, mammals, butterflies, orchids and more) of the Peruvian Amazon. Taking up 60% of Peru, and only housing 5% of its population, this mysterious and intoxicating expansive of jungle begs to be explored.
As trekking through a mud-filled, Parana-inhabited jungle with kids can be an exotic form of torture, explore the wonders of this expanse of the Amazon on a riverboat that allows you and your brood to post up in private, finely appointed staterooms. These river cruises offer a blessed balance of creature comforts and full immersion into the captivating ecosystems of the river, and surrounding land.
One of the most popular cruises is on the Amazon Star, which offers an 8-day tour spanning 600-miles, and access to hard to reach pockets of the protected Pacaya-Samiria Reserve and other areas of the river. On board are experienced guides who know where to take guests to score rare wildlife sightings and help them receive authentic, culturally-rich experiences in Amazonian villages.
Daily excursions include pre-dawn birding, visits to schools in local villages and piranha fishing. In addition, activities on foot, or via a kayak or stand up paddleboard, often lead to sightings of monkeys, exotic birds, sloths, pink and gray dolphins and many other creatures.
On board amenities include stylish accommodations with private balconies and en suite bathrooms, all meals, an exercise room and a large bar and observation deck.
Colca Canyon and Arequipa
Filled with agricultural terraces, yawning expanses of volcanic rock and condors, this canyon, which is the deepest gorge in the world, is a must see. Ensure you see the condors this canyon is known for by going to the Peru Condor Sanctuary.
After exploring the canyon, head to Arequipa where you can check out the lively Plaza de Armas, the 16th century Monastery de Santa Catalina, a tour of Museo de la Catedral, and purchase authentic Peruvian goods at markets like Fundo el Fierro or San Camilo Market.
Note: The entrance fee to the canyon is a bit steep at $70 per person.
Riding Dune Buggies Around Huacachina
If you want to see something truly unusual, head to the desert oasis of Huacachina, which seems to be a near replica of the one Genie crafted for Aladdin. While it’s pleasant to explore this marvel on foot, it’s thrilling to view it from the seat of a dune buggy racing up and down one of the many soaring sand dunes surrounding the lush village (which is actually an isolated suburb of Ica.)
Be forewarned that the drivers of these buggies tend to go all out, so don’t expect a leisurely stroll, and ensure your kids are tall enough to be securely strapped in. Then, get ready to laugh, scream and become one with the sensation of your stomach being in your throat. It’s great... really!
If you can’t get enough of the sand, adventurous adults and older kids will also enjoy the sand boarding offered in this area.
Exploring Lima’s Miraflores Neighborhood
Lima’s seaside community of Miraflores is one of the most visually appealing and culturally dynamic in the city. Extremely walkable, a day wandering through this neighborhood might find you at a number of amazing restaurants, many of which offering fusion cuisine (try the ceviche!), the Choco Museo (Chocolate Museum) where you can make and eat endless varieties of chocolate, or stocking up on alpaca clothing and other Peruvian treasures at Mercado Indio (Indian Market.)
A bike ride along the Malecon (sea wall) is another favorite pastime, in addition to a stop at the El Circuito Mágico del Agua, a wonderland of fountains, many of which the kids can run through. This “waterpark” has thirteen cybernetic fountains that combine music, water, sound and laser lights to create captivating displays.
As Miraflores is such a popular tourist destination, it offers a wide range of lodging, ranging from hostels to luxury digs, and is a great place to post up for a few nights.
Taking a Lake Titicaca Boat Tour
Even if you just go here to give your children the pleasure to saying “titty” and “caca” a lot, it’s worth it. This world famous body of water is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet above sea level, and has 25 rivers flowing into it. It’s also home to the Uros Islands (Floating Reed Islands) that are made entirely of Totora reed and were made by the Uros people (by weaving the reed) to evade their enemies. The homes, furniture and boats on the islands are also made of reed.
The Uros people still live on these islands and rely heavily on income from selling handmade goods to tourists. As the heavy presence of tourists causes the locals to have to replace the reed more frequently, a task that equals a substantial amount of work, it’s a sign of goodwill to bring funds for shopping while on the islands.
In addition, the islands of Taquile and Amantani rest in Lake Titicaca, and are the places to buy some of the most extraordinary woven fabrics in the world, which are crafted by the Aymara people. It’s worth it to find a tour that makes a stop at these islets that are so remote they were once used as high-security prisons, a la Alcatraz.
Finding Treasures in Cusco
The array of pre-Columbian buildings and archaeological sites in Cusco has scored this gateway to Machu Picchu UNESCO World Heritage status. Be sure to explore historical sites such as Qorikancha, the heart of the Incan empire that was destroyed by the Conquistadors and rebuilt centuries later, and the Plaza de Armas, before heading to Mercado Central de San Pedro, where you can find pretty much any Peruvian goody you can think of. And know that no price is fixed – they live for haggling.
Tip: While Cusco is safe, pickpocketing is a thing, so keep your valuables in one of those sexy neck wallets you wear under your clothes.
Oohing and Aahing at “The Sistine Chapel of the Andes” in Andahuaylilla
Built by the Jesuits in the 16th century, this church sits on sacred Inca land and is one of the most mesmerizing interiors in Peru. The intricate murals on the ceiling were painted in an Iberian artistic style with Moorish influence, and the structure itself was crafted using kur-kur, a pre-Hispanic construction method that utilized cane, straw and mud. Covering the walls are Baroque frescoes created by artists from the Cusco School, and the altar is a combination of gold leaf, silver and mirrors.
If you take the time to carefully examine the high-density of paintings, you’ll notice an interesting mix of indigenous and Biblical symbols. While this is certainly no Vatican, it’s worth a visit if you enjoy witnessing the spoils of man/womankind’s industrious and creative efforts.
Beaching it Up at Mancora
Said to be an inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, this resort town that’s primarily utilized by Peruvians, is a great way to break away from throngs of tourists and wind down after exploring Peru’s cultural hotspots.
The golden beach is lined with a variety of resorts and budget-friendly accommodations, the warm water is almost always pumping with surf, and the restaurants offer some of the freshest seafood and best pisco sours you’ll ever have. Be sure to try Hnos Lama, La Sirena d’Juan and Restaurante Jasuzi.
Tip: If you need a break from lounging, head up the coast to Tumbes where you’ll find lush national parks and ecological reserves.