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One of the most important decisions you'll make when planning your trip is whether or not you want to engage the services of a travel agency. If you speak Spanish and are only doing a quick Lima-Cusco-Machu Picchu trip, it may not be so necessary. If not, there are reasons you might consider doing so.
When you hire an agency, you'll be met at each arrival by a driver with a sign bearing your name. If there are problems—your hotel loses the reservation, there is a strike keeping you from your next destination, inclement weather grounds your flight—you will have someone on the ground to help you find solutions. Traveling between destinations is also made easier by the fact that the agency will know when the buses, flights, or trains are available. They can plan an itinerary for you taking these things into account, so that you make the most of the time you have available to travel.
The biggest two concerns most people have when considering using an agency are price and being restricted to a specific itinerary. If you choose a moderately priced Peruvian agency (these are typically ones that will charge about $600 USD for a Classic Inca Trail), the percentage that they will mark-up a personalized itinerary usually isn't that much beyond what you would pay doing it yourself. As for restrictions, be sure to make it clear to them what your priorities are, and if you want some down time in places, let them know.
Another question when booking tours is whether to go for a group tour or book a private one. Prices can vary from place to place, but if you are working with an agency, be sure to ask what the difference in price is. For example, a tour to the Sacred Valley with a group is about $20 USD, not including lunch or admissions. Group size can be up to 30 people and, when it is not high season, you may end up in a bilingual group where more explanation is often given in whichever language the bulk of the group speaks.
You can get the same tour in private service for around $185 USD for up to six people. Whether it is worth it to you or not will depend on your interests. You'll be able to hear your guide better, explanations can be geared toward your particular obsessions (history, culture, architecture, plants, etc.), you can decide what sites you want to see, and stay as long as you like rather than being herded back onto the bus before you're done. Making your own decisions is key. If you get tired of seeing "rocks," however impressively they have been assembled, you can get your guide to take you to a site that's off the beaten path, on a walk through the country, or to the best chicheria.
If you need to pay in dollars, as agencies sometimes request, they cannot be even the slightest bit torn. When it comes to soles, many shops do not have change, so it's best to use the larger bills at higher-end shops and restaurants so that you will have small change for the smaller ones.
If you want to spend time in Lima, plan to do so at the end of your trip. That way if you run into transportation problems, you will be less likely to miss your flight home.
"Holaaaa—trip to Machu Picchu?" With so many touts in Cusco's streets hawking tours to Peru's most famous sight, it's tempting to just buy one in order to make them stop asking. Anyone who offers an Inca Trail trek departing tomorrow should be taken with more than a grain of salt—Inca Trail walks need to be booked months in advance. Don't make arrangements or give money to someone claiming to be a travel agent if they approach you on the street or at the airport in Cusco or Lima. Instead, choose an agency that has a physical address. Better yet, select one that is listed here or on www.peru.info.
Amazonas Explorer. For more than 30 years, this company has specialized in top-quality adventure and cultural tours. From gentle half days to two-week adventures, they offer an alternative to rote bus tours and crowds of other tourists. Known for using high-quality equipment and the best guides around, tours include hiking, biking, rafting, horseback riding, and even stand-up paddleboarding. They are the first Peruvian member of 1% for the Planet, which helps fund sustainable tourism and native tree planting. Av. Collasuyo 910, Cusco. 084/252–846. www.amazonasexplorer.com. From $110.
Andina Travel. Specializing in trekking and alternatives to the Inca Trail, Andina Travel also offers standard Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu tours as well as biking and rafting. Plazoleta Santa Catalina 219, Cusco. 084/251–892. www.andinatravel.com. From $70.
Apumayo Expediciones. This operator offers a full gamut of adventure tours and nonconventional treks, including trips geared toward people with disabilities. Jr. Ricardo Palma N-11, Urb. Santa Monica, Cusco. 084/246–018. www.apumayo.com. From $70.
Aspiring Adventures. Started by two longtime professionals in adventure travel, this agency specializes in tours that go off the beaten path. In addition to visiting the must-see sights, you will have the opportunity to engage with Peruvian culture in a more intimate way than with more typical tours. This boutique company excels in personal service, ensuring that the trip you get exceeds even the highest of expectations. 877/438–1354 U.S. and Canada; 643/489–7474 Worldwide. www.aspiringadventures.com. From $35.
Cusco Top Travel & Treks. Run by the wildly talented and witty David Choque, this company specializes in a range of packaged and comfort-class, custom-built tours. Urbanización Cerveceros 3-A, Wanchaq, Cusco. 084/234–130 or 994/703–027. www.cuscotoptravelperu.com. From $125.
El Chalan. This operator organizes single-day and multiday horseback-riding tours for all levels (beginner to professional) throughout the Sacred Valley. The ranch uses only the elegant Peruvian Paso horse, a breed known for its smooth, dancing gait that does not bounce the rider up and down like a typical trot. Riders and horses alike are carefully tended to and looked after. Km. 75 Autopista Urubamba–Ollantaytambo, Urubamba. 984/737–897 or 084/201–541. www.haciendadelchalan.com. From $95.
Enigma. Small, customized adventure trips let you enjoy trekking, rafting, mountain climbing, mountain biking, or horseback riding led by professional guides. Calle Fortunato L. Herrera 214, Magisterio, Cusco. 084/222–155. www.enigmaperu.com. From $136.
Explorandes. Established in 1975, this is one of the longest running tour agencies in Peru. They specialize in adventure tours, including rafting and trekking trips in the area around Cusco, and organizing customized guided expeditions throughout the Andes in Peru and Ecuador. They also offer special opportunities to visit indigenous communities. Paseo Zarzuela Q-2, Huancaro, Cusco. 084/238–380. www.explorandes.com. From $34.
River Explorers. As the name indicates, River Explorers are specialists in one- to six-day rafting and kayaking excursions on the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers as well as standard trekking tours. Urb. Kennedy "A" B-15, Cusco. 084/260–926 or 958/320–673. www.riverexplorers.com. From $99.
SAS Travel. With more than 25 years in business, Cusco-based SAS Travel is one of the longer-running companies in the area and well known especially for its treks. Although the company does offer private treks, they are the ones to call when you prefer hiking with a larger group. Calle Garcilaso 270, Cusco. 084/249–194. www.sastravelperu.com. From $70.
TopTurPeru. This internationally recognized, local company is run by Raul Castelo and family. An archaeoastronomy expert, Raul has been sought out by National Geographic and other documentary-filmmaking entities worldwide. That experience stands him and his team in good stead as they design customized travel itineraries and private tours for their clients. Calle Saphi 877 B-6, Cusco. 084/243–234 or 974/215–160. www.topturperu.com. From $240.
Wayki Trek. This unique, indigenously managed operator specializes in Inca Trail and alternative trekking. They are known for great guides and excellent customer service. Av. Pardo 506, Cusco. 084/224–092 Coordinations; 012/418–796 Booking. www.waykitrek.net.
X-treme Tourbulencia. This agency leads mountain climbing, biking, trekking, and multisport trips. Plateros 364, Cusco. 084/222–405. www.x-tremetourbulencia.com. From $232.
SUP Cusco. As an alternative to trekking and sightseeing, SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) offers leisurely paddleboarding trips on beautiful Piuray Lake in the middle of the Andes, 35 minutes from Cusco en route to the Sacred Valley. Stand-up paddleboarding is suitable for almost everyone; yoga and kayaking are also available from the center. Transportation from Cusco and snacks are included. Piuray Outdoor Center, Pongobamba, Chincheros. 944/259–306. www.supcusco.com. From $70.
Unique Peru Tours. A newcomer to the Cusco market, this agency delivers exactly what the name promises: tours that offer a different experience, such as their signature Salkantay Trek with yoga and massage. Future plans include tours focused on local medicinal practices and extended trips that promise to bring the history of Peru alive. Qanchipata 560, San Blas, Cusco. 982/349–861. www.uniqueperutours.com. From $80.