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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.
Selecting a Tour Operator
"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. This guide has more than 20 years of experience organizing top-quality alternative adventure and cultural tours. All guides are safety certified and equipment is top-shelf. One percent of profits are donated to sustainable tourism and native tree planting. Av. Collasuyo 910, Cusco. 084/252-846. www.amazonasexplorer.com.
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. 084/251–892. www.andinatravel.com.
Another Planet. For custom-built hiking, biking, rafting and city tours, as well as healing retreats, check out Another Planet. The foreign-owned and family operated company has more than 15 years of guiding experience, and also runs the popular Casa de la Gringa Hostal and Andean Wings Boutique Hotel. 084/243-166. www.andeanwingshotel.com.
Apumayo Expediciones. This operator offers a full gamut of adventure tours and nonconventional treks, including trips geared toward the disabled. 084/246-018. www.apumayo.com.
Aspiring Adventures. Started by two long-time 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 the Peruvian culture in a much more intimate way than with the typical canned 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.
Cusco Top Travel & Treks. Run by the wildly talented and witty David Choque, this guide specializes in a range of packaged and comfort-class custom-built tours. 084/251-864. www.cuscotoptravelperu.com.
El Chalan. This operator organizes single and multiday horseback riding treks for all levels (beginner to professional) throughout the Sacred Valley. Riders and horses alike are carefully tended to and looked after. 984/737-897 or 084/201-541. www.ranchoelchalan.com.
Enigma. Specializing in small, customized adventure trips, you can enjoy trekking, rafting, mountain climbing, mountain biking, or horseback riding led by professional guides. 084/222-155. www.enigmaperu.com.
Explorandes. This is a large and long-running company that organizes customized guided trips and expeditions through the Andes in Peru and Ecuador, including rafting and trekking trips around Cusco. 084/238-380. www.explorandes.com.
Inkaterra. A top-end agency specializing in nature-and-culture oriented trips and a 30-year veteran of sustainable tourism, the company customizes tours around Cusco and the Sacred Valley with however much guide accompaniment you desire. 800/442-5042. www.inkaterra.com.
Intrepid Travel. This Australian company offers a variety of itineraries using Peruvian tour leaders as well local guides when appropriate. Group size averages around ten people and tours are geared toward a balanced mix of planned activities and free-time. 613/9473 2673 Australia. www.intrepidtravel.com.
Kuoda Travel. For top-tier personalized tours, including an eight-day journey from the Amazon to Cusco and the Sacred Valley and outstanding service, try Kuoda Travel. 084/221-773; 800/986-4150 U.S. and Canada. www.kuodatravel.com.
River Explorers. Contact River Explorers for one- to six-day rafting and kayaking excursions on the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers and standard trekking tours. 084/260-926. www.riverexplorers.com.
SAS Travel. Cusco-based SAS Travel has made a name for itself in trekking circles, but can also customize tours and accommodations. 084/291-194. www.sastravelperu.com.
TopTurPeru. An internationally recognized, local company run by Raul Castelo and family. An archaeoastronomy expert, Raul has been sought out by National Geographic and other documentary-filmmaking entities worldwide. 084/243-234. www.topturperu.com.
Wayki Trek. A unique, indigenously managed operator specializing in Inca Trail and alternative trekking. They are known for great guides and excellent customer service. 084/224-092. www.waykitrek.net.
Wilderness Travel. The company offers a variety of itineraries for touring around the Cusco region and visiting Machu Picchu, depending on how active you want to be. A luxury trek features stays at mountain lodges rather than tents. 800/368-2794 in U.S.;. www.wildernesstravel.com.
X-treme Tourbulencia. This agency leads mountain climbing, biking, trekking, and multisport trips. 084/222-405; 702/560-7220 USA and Canada. www.x-tremetourbulencia.com.
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