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 US$750 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 downtime 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 US$25, 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 private tour for up to six people for around US$260. 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, or plants, for example), you can decide which sites you want to see, and you can stay as long as you like rather than being herded back onto the bus before you’re ready. 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 (corn-beer vendor).
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 coins and bills for the smaller ones.
The sites immediately north of Cusco (Sacsayhuamán, Qenko, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay) are best and most easily taken in via an organized tour. Although both the Urubamba Valley and Valle del Sur are readily accessible by public transportation, most travelers prefer the convenience of a tour to bouncing between buses—the entire sightseeing circuit is about 170 km (105 miles). Tours are easily organized from one of the many kiosks in Cusco (US$15–US$30), or if you prefer a more intimate, less tourist-driven trip, you can hire a taxi (US$80–US$90) and a guide (US$80-$100).
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 to make them stop asking. Anyone who offers an Inca Trail trek departing tomorrow should be taken with less than a grain of salt—Inca Trail hikes 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. It's best to have a recommendation or 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, it offers 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, and even stand-up paddleboarding. The company is the first Peruvian member of 1% for the Planet, which helps fund sustainable tourism and native tree planting. Av. Collasuyo 910, Cusco, Cusco. 084/252–846; 844/380–7378; amazonas-explorer.com. From USD$150.
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 excursions. Plazoleta Santa Catalina 219, Cusco, Cusco. 084/251–892; www.andinatravel.com. From USD$90.
Apumayo Expediciones. This operator offers a full gamut of nonconventional treks and adventure tours, including those focused on rafting and biking. It also specializes in trips geared toward people with disabilities. Jr. Ricardo Palma N-11, Urb. Santa Monica, Cusco, Cusco. 084/246–018; www.apumayo.com. From USD$144.
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; 643/489–7474; www.aspiringadventures.com. From USD$95.
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, Cusco. 084/234–130; 994/703–027; www.cuscotoptravelperu.com. From USD$125.
El Chalan. This operator organizes single- 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, Cusco. 984/737–897; 084/201–541; www.haciendadelchalan.com. From USD$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, Cusco. 084/222–155; www.enigmaperu.com. From USD$158.
Explorandes. Established in 1975, this is one of the longest-running tour agencies in Peru. It specializes 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. It also offers special opportunities to visit indigenous communities. Paseo Zarzuela Q-2, Huancaro, Cusco, Cusco. 084/238–380; www.explorandes.com. From USD$75.
Gravity Peru. Want to do your touring from the back of a mountain bike? The Gravity Peru people live to ride and are ready and waiting to introduce you to the best trail for your interest and skill level. Single- and multiday rides are available, and they include a full-suspension MTB bike (value of USD$3,000), all equipment, a guide, and more. Av. Centenario 707, Cusco, Cusco. 984/501–311; www.gravityperu.com. From USD$180 for a full-day mountain-bike tour.
Llama Pack Project. This nonprofit organization enables impoverished highland communities to regain economic viability in a way that also sustains their culture: by helping to reintroduce purebred llamas, which are a more valuable resource than the mixed-breed ones commonly found today. What does this mean for you? The opportunity to go on a half-, full-, or multiday trek with these picturesque beasts of burden. You'll have a chance to learn more about the llamas and visit communities or archaeological sites depending on which trek you choose, all while enjoying gorgeous Andean landscapes and contributing to the survival of local villages and their way of life. Km 70.5, Carretera Urubamba-Ollantaytambo s/n, Sector Huincho, Urubamba, Cusco. 998/003–114 ; www.llamapackproject.com. From USD$75.
Pachamama Explorers. This company has more than two decades of experience with a specialty in trekking the Inca Trail and alternative routes, as well as in creating customized itineraries. It promoted porter welfare before regulations were set in place. Cusco, Cusco. 989/551-082; www.pmexplorers.com. From USD$140.
Piuray Outdoor Center. As an alternative to trekking and sightseeing, Piuray Outdoor Center offers kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding (suitable for almost everyone) trips with and without yoga on beautiful Piuray Lake in the middle of the Andes, 35 minutes from Cusco en route to the Sacred Valley. Other atypical offerings include bird-watching and cooking classes. Transportation from Cusco and snacks are included. Piuray Outdoor Center, Pongobamba, Chinchero, Cusco. 992/755–067; piuray.pe. From USD$55.
River Explorers. As the name indicates, this company specializes in rafting and kayaking excursions (of from one to six days) on the Urubamba and Apurimac rivers. It also offers standard trekking tours. Urb. Kennedy A, Brillantes B-36, Cusco, Cusco. 084/431–116; riverexplorers.com. From USD$130.
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, it is the one to call if you prefer hiking with a larger group. Calle Garcilaso 270, Cusco, Cusco. 084/249–194; www.sastravelperu.com. From USD$85.
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, Cusco. 084/243–234; 974/215–160; www.topturperu.com. From USD$125.
Unique Peru Tours. This agency delivers exactly what the name promises: tours that offer something different, such as hikes with llamas, trips to rarely visited communities, and the inclusion of ancient ceremonies with offerings to Mother Earth. Whether you prefer an itinerary oriented toward adventure excursions, cultural tours, or spiritual experiences, or a combination of all three, this company's highly personalized tours promise to intimately connect you with Peruvian life, past and present, in a trip that matches your specific interests. Wanchaq, Cusco, Cusco. 974/213–172; www.uniqueperutours.com. From USD$235.
United Mice. One of the more popular Inca Trail operators, United Mice has been guiding adventurers on multiday hikes since 1987. It also offers a variety of alternative treks throughout the Cusco region. Av. Pachacutec 424 A-5, Cusco, Cusco. 084/221–139; www.unitedmice.com. From USD$85.
Wayki Trek. This unique, indigenously managed operator specializes in Inca Trail and alternative trekking. It's known for its great guides and excellent customer service. Calle Quera 239 , Cusco, Cusco. 084/224–092; www.waykitrek.net. From USD$92.