With an estimated 400 plus tour agencies in Cusco, it can really be confusing to figure out who to go with, who to trust, and who will take your money and run. Most of these agencies, however, feed into one of five or so actual tour operators, so often it´s not the tour itself that needs careful combing over, it´s the cost.
Touts scour the streets with their tour books, agencies with double or triple names occupy many of the shops along the likes of Plateros, and signs suggest that there are trips leaving for all treks the following day (they don´t).
Whilst Cusco is a good base for multi-day rafting trips, it is much more famous for The Inca Trail and treks to Machu Picchu. There are also a couple of other popular options (and I´ve not included the activities at Action Valley or chocolate making workshops or Peruvian cooking classes), the main choices being:
- The Inca Trail
Expensive at around $500 for the four-day trek with the need to book months in advance. One girl I met managed to get a shorter waiting period of about six weeks, paid upfront (as you do) only to discover the day before that she had been duped. No Inca Trail for her. She was able to switch over to the Inca Jungle Trek, but was understandably pissed off. The Inca Trail is a tough walk up and down and along narrow ridges at high altitudes (Warmiwañuska or Dead Woman’s Pass is the highest point at over 4,200m). Not an easy option, but undoubtedly a necessary pilgrimage for some.
- The Inca Jungle Trek
Offered by every tout in town, this trek does actually seem to leave on a daily basis with tour groups of around ten to fifteen people. It´s a four-day, three night trek that starts with mountain biking from the highest point of 4,350m and includes options for ziplining and visiting hot springs. Some of the walk takes you through the jungle and onto the actual Inca Trail, finished by a wander along the rail lines and towards Machu Picchu itself. Transport, food, accommodation and entry to Machu Picchu included. For the majority of the trek you carry your own bags, so pack light. Treks should cost around the $180 mark, and not the $300 that one agency tried to charge me. With ziplining and entry to Huayna Picchu, the total cost to me was $220. Worth it. I went through EcoTours based inside Eco Packers Hostel, although from the street they are known as Andean Odyssey. Don´t ask.)
- The Salkantay Trek
This is another toughie that reaches high altitudes and is really for the fit and acclimatised amongst us. The highest point is the Salkantay Pass at over 4,500m. Taking between five and ten days, depending on route and agency, one Lonely Planet forum poster describes it as having ´a little bit of everything: wild backcountry meadows, high mountain passes, natural hot springs, dense cloudforests, and of course a dramatic finish in Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu´. Read his full account of the trek at Kyle The Vagabond. Prices for this trek are typically above $400, depending on the group size.
- The Ausungate Trek
So this ´trek´ sounded ideal, being considerably cheaper than the others (S/.240 Note: Peruvian Nuevo Sol, not US dollars this time) and predominantly on horseback. What a way to enjoy the mountainscape and lagoons. But wait! This trek does require some walking each day, and the big sticking point for many is the altitude which is predominantly over 4,000m, the highest pass being 5,200m. Sore bums are not unknown and one guy I met who did the trek said he chose to walk alongside his horse because just being on horseback at a pottering pace was ´a bit boring´.
All in, shop around and consider your fitness level and how you deal with the altitude. I did the Inca Jungle Trek and expected it to be a bit of a soft option (I still stand by that hypothesis) but for some group members the climbs up through the jungle and onto the Inca Trail were really quite challenging.
Also think about when you decide to go: Peru´s rainy season kicks off late October and when I was there in late November, many tours were already not running because of rainfall that had caused problems accessing some of the pathways and passes. I took a gamble (how can you go to Peru and not trek to Machu Picchu?) with the jungle trek which did start off as a bit of a torrential, soggy mess, but that, dear reader, is for another blog post.