How to Choose a Machu Picchu Tour
Selecting a tour company for your trip to Machu Picchu can be overwhelming. Numerous companies offer tours to Machu Picchu, but not all of them are equally reputable. If you want to have the best time possible during your Peru vacation, here are several questions to consider before you book anything.
1. Do you like traveling alone or in groups?
Machu Picchu is a major tourist destination, so if you enjoy the adventure of going it alone, it is entirely possible to see Machu Picchu without a tour group. If you think you might want to travel independently, there are some major factors to take into consideration, including transportation, timing and convenience.
Transportation: Solo travelers will need to book their own flight to Cusco, purchase site entrance tickets, buy train tickets to Aguas Calientes (the gateway town to Machu Picchu, and only reachable via a multi-day trek or a several hour train ride), and take a bus for the remaining couple miles to the site’s entrance. If you don’t like pre-planning, this can be a lot of work.
Timing: Tour operators know the best time of year and time of day to visit Machu Picchu, and can help you schedule accordingly. They also have up-to-date travel information. Unexpected train cancelations and unannounced site closings have occurred in the past. This could ruin an uninformed traveler’s trip if one is not flexible.
Convenience: In addition to the hassle of booking numerous modes of transportation just to arrive at the site, solo travelers need to remember to read up on Machu Picchu rules and regulation prior to travel. For example, only 400 people per day are allowed to hike up Huayna Picchu, which offers the best panoramic views of the site. Special tickets for this must be purchased in advance. You’ll also want to remember to bring a guidebook with a good site map and description.
2. Do you want to hike the Inca Trail?
Decide early if you want to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Your trip planning and preparation will be more intensive if you select this option.
Picking your path: If your heart is set on the standard Inca Trail, you must travel with a tour group or a certified guide. Authorities limit the number of trekkers to 500 per day, and permits must be approved in advance. However, there are several alternative treks to Machu Picchu, including Lares, Choquerquirao and Salkantay. These paths also follow ancient trails strewn with ruin sites, but are less crowded than the “traditional” Inca Trail.
When to trek: You can hike the Inca Trail any month except for February, which is when the trail undergoes maintenance. The rainy (but warm) season lasts from November until March, and the dry (but cold) season lasts from June until August.
Know what’s included: Most Inca Trail packages include the price of your guide, porters, tent, food, a cook and admission fees. Some companies provide porters that carry all equipment; others require that everyone carry their own personal belongings. Necessary expenses that may not be incorporated in quoted price include: return transportation to Cusco (bus and train fares), sleeping bags, tips for guides and porters, possible hotel nights in Aguas Calientes, and multiple day entrance tickets to Machu Picchu. Expect to pay more if you want to travel with a smaller trekking group.
3. Choosing the Company
The saying is true: You get what your pay for. If you’ve decided to pay for a guided Machu Picchu tour, you should make sure the experience is worth the expense. There are hundreds of tour providers operating in Cusco, so it pays to shop around.
Small, local operators: Booking with a local operator will be the least expensive option. But know that quality is not always guaranteed. Touring with a local operator is a good choice for travelers who arrive in Cusco without prior travel plans. If you don’t understand Spanish, speaking with your guide ahead of time is recommended to assess for yourself their level of English. Also be sure to check provided equipment ahead of time as well.
Large, international operators: An international operator will be more expensive, but your investment will be more secure. They tend to offer travel insurance, online payment options, and all inclusive trip planning (such as airfare purchase, transfers, and support services). International operators usually partner with local companies or guides that are independently assessed for quality.
Final decision: After you’ve decided exactly what kind of tour experience you’re looking for, it is time to choose the final company. Many guidebooks and their online equivalents offer specific company suggestions. You can also look at each company’s individual website and assess for yourself their level of reputability and expertise. A great way to insure you’re working with a knowledgeable company that has employees who can communicate in English (for tourists) and Spanish (for secure local operations) is to simply call your potential tour company direct and start asking trip planning questions.
This article was written by Laura Elise at SA Luxury Expeditions, a South America travel company specializing in Machu Picchu tours and helping clients experience the wonders of South America in comfort.