How to choose a company to hike the Inca Trail

If you are searching the web for information about the four day Inca Trail trek you will find hundreds of travel companies offering this popular experience in Peru. However, many of these companies are acting only as agents for the relatively few specialist trekking companies that actually operate the trek of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Few people realise that only Peruvian trekking companies are granted licenses to operate the Inca Trail and even the biggest overseas tour companies  have to pay local companies to operate their treks.

Inca Trail, Peru

A company with uniformed porters is always a good sign.

How on earth do you sort them out?

Prices for the 4 day trek start at USD$500 per person for a basic service which includes entrance fees and the return train ride. The price can climb anywhere up to USD$1000 depending on how comfortable you want to be. I am not convinced that you can be any more comfortable on this trail with a $1000 trek fee; lets face it the trail is the trail.

The path is the same no matter the price, and we all stay in tents!

There may be a variation in food or how the companies treat their porters. There are no five star hotels or luxury suites along the way.  I am not saying the cheapest is the best but you have to be aware that purchasing the trek directly with a local tour operator in Cusco can often be less than half the price of buying the trek in your own country through an agent.

However, great care should be taken in choosing a tour company especially over the internet. There is also a very complicated way of allocating a permit to walk the Inca Trail to travel operators and if your travel operator does not obtain permits for your specified date then you may be shuffled around with other companies.  For example, the permits initially go on sale in January for the coming year, and often the popular dates get sold out and then it is first come first served.

Inca Trail, Peru

Our small group of 5 was just perfect!

Decide what type of service you require

Inca Trail prices can be confusing, especially since everyone is walking along the same route. Let’s look at the cost of the most popular economic service first:

Basic Standard Service 4 day Trek (US$500 – US$580)*

All prices are in US dollars and refer to prices paid directly with trekking companies in Cusco. Expect to pay 50-100% more if booking with a travel agency outside Peru. We took this class of trail with a very good company Llama Path and we were thrilled with the service and comfort they provided us.
Service typically includes:

  • A maximum group size of 16 people. If you are lucky like us, then you will have less than 16! We had 5.
  • Transport to the start of the trek
  • Entrance fees for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu
  • Your Guide
  • Tents (2 persons per tent)
    • Dining Tent (communal tent where the group will eat meals and for the porters to sleep in at night)
    • Kitchen Tent (to prepare the meals, store the food)
    • Meals (and a cook to prepare them)
    • Porters (to carry just the tents, food, and cooking equipment)
    • Emergency oxygen bottle and basic first aid kit.
    • Return to Cusco in the Backpackers Class tourist train.

If you choose a reputable company then this is a fantastic option, because the track is no more comfortable if you pay $1000! You will pay extra, however, if you wish to have a porter to carry your personal gear.

*The Inca Trail trek can be purchased for prices below US$480.

Simple arithmetic can show that these companies have to depart with the maximum of 16 persons each trek (comprising clients from various budget agencies) and that they cannot provide a quality service or pay their porters half as much as they should be paying. Be suspicious of any such “bargains” on offer. After paying several hundreds of dollars for your international and domestic flights to visit Peru why compromise on the quality of your trek and the treatment of the porters for the sake of saving USD$50!

Inca Trail, Peru

Happy Hikers… on the Inca Trail

Expect to pay more if:

  • The group size is limited.
  • You return with a more expensive train service. The various services can be found on the Peru Rail web site www.perurail.com. The standard Expedition class is comfortable with seated only reservations. The service is not crowded and you can buy teas, coffees and snacks. After the Inca Trail, most people sleep all the way back. The Vistadome is about USD$40 more expensive and has slightly larger seats and glass windows in the roof.
  • Extra porters are included in the price of the trek. Normally porters are included just to carry the camping equipment. If you want a porter to carry your sleeping bag and clothes then you will have to pay extra.
  • The trekking company will guarantee departure no matter how big the group is. Many companies that charge USD$600 upwards provide the same service as the companies that charge less than two thirds the price. This is because they will guarantee to depart with just two persons in the group. Companies that offer a cheaper price often have to join with other companies to meet the minimum group size required to depart. Sometimes these companies can be of a lower standard than you have signed up to.

Private Service 4 day

Obviously, if you don’t want to join up with other people that you don’t know or you have a small group of your own then you may consider taking a private trek. If there are just two of you this option can work out to be very expensive (USD$1250 – USD$2000 per person depending on the service). However if you have a group of more than ten then this is an option certainly worth considering.

Decide where you want to buy the trek

Buying the trek in your own country offers the security of being able to make a reservation with a well known travel company. However, if it’s just the Inca Trail that you’re after, booking in your own country can work out to be more expensive and not as “eco-friendly” as you would imagine. You will find that local taxes and overheads make up over 40% of the trek price. If you are paying USD$900 in your own country, expect to receive a trekking service similar to a service bought directly in Cusco for between USD$500 and USD$550. Why would you do this unless you know no better?

Buying a trek directly with a local tour operator based in Cusco such as Kuoda Travel like we did, offers much better value for money. There are over 200 tour companies based in Cusco alone and the wide variety of similar sounding names can be confusing. The obvious difference to booking a trek in your own country is that just phoning the company to make a reservation can be expensive and a daunting task especially if you don’t speak Spanish.

The easiest way to find out about the various services on offer is using the internet. Although the internet is a great source of information it can also be a place full of misleading information, phantom companies and businessmen just out to make a fast buck. Buyers beware!

Inca Trail, Peru

There’s always more steps…

Buying your trek on the Internet

Entering “Inca Trail” into the Google search engine is not a very reliable way to find a good local trekking company. Most of the results are US or Australian based travel agents. I found it best to go direct to a local agent in Cusco. How can you check to see if the company even exists? After I had several email dialogues with South American companies and their respective agents in both Australia and New Zealand, it become very clear those that were legitimate and gave good service merely by their email responses.  We’ve put together a few ideas to identify a potential company below to establish whether or not they are legitimate:

1) Number one for me is to check Trip Advisor. This is a fantastic travel forum for checking about individual companies, and in most cases there is a clear picture of what’s good and what’s not.

2) Ask the company if they will actually operate the trek or just sell your tour to another company. Obviously, very few companies will write back and say that they will sell your trek to another company, but very few who don’t will also not lie about it. A quality trekking operator will usually respond with a positive answer while a tour agent or cowboy outfit simply won’t respond.

3) Ask if the company requires a minimum number of persons before they will depart on the trek and what happens if they do not reach that minimum number. If they don’t reach the minimum number required which other companies do they combine with and if the other company is cheaper will they refund the difference. I don’t like this option.

Inca Trail, Peru

Small groups are best…

Selecting the final tour operator.

By following the above information, you may have narrowed down your search to a handful of local operators. Check out their websites and try to compare the services offered. As discussed above, try to establish the maximum group size, whether the trek departure is guaranteed (you don’t want it to be cancelled at the last minute if they don’t meet the minimum number required), if the guide speaks English, what is the food like, and what train service (if at all) is included.

These items should be clear from their web site. If they are not clear on the web then I would just avoid them.  Anyone who doesn’t provide full information on a website in an easy to understand way gets discounted by me.

Our experience

Inca Trail, Peru

Our porters from Llama Path were amazing!

Our trek was average in price @ USD$495 per person with Llama Path. This was the group service, despite there only being 5 in our group, we were guaranteed a departure regardless of numbers. Llama Path was recommended to us by Kuoda Travel, a Cusco based Travel Company. We felt we got great value and exceptional service from Llama Path.

Our porters and guide were always happy, having fun and attending to us all the way, filling our water bottles, pitching our tents, cooking our amazing food, filling and delivering our wash basins. There was always one on ‘watch’ at camp if anyone needed anything.  Our porters were obviously well cared for by their company and we did notice many porters from other companies with poor footwear and packs consisting of tarpaulins tied up with string and bungy cords. You don’t want to have a great experience at the expense of others.

 Thanks for reading our story.  

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