How to Choose the right Company for the Inca Trail
With only five minutes of internet research or half an hour of walking around Cusco you will soon see that there are hundreds of different options available to you. Choosing the right tour company and even the right trail can therefore be quite confusing and difficult. Below we detail the key things you should consider when choosing your Tour Company.
The one recommendation we definitely make though is to book your trek in advance of arriving in Cusco. There are only 200 permits given per day (it’s actually 500 but 300 of those are for the heroic porters who carry the equipment at lightning speed and scary endurance), and as you can imagine these fill up pretty quickly. You can book whilst in Cusco and get cancellations etc, but this is a risky business and you may end up on a less than ideal trek albeit at a cheaper price.
Duration of Trek
Inca Trail 4 day: The most popular by far is the 4 day, 3 night trek (4D3N) which starts at K82 (so called because it is 82km along the historic Inca Trail) and is the furthest place on the Inca Trail as cars can go. It begins in earnest as you climb fairly gently throughout the first day, passing the archaeological site Llactapata. Day 2 is the most difficult as the morning is spent climbing steeply to the highest point of the trek – Warmihuacusca Pass (Dead Woman Pass – 4,200m). From this point different operators then treat the trail in different ways (which we explain next) but ultimately all treks take the same sites in over the 26 mile hike; past the Inca ruins of Phuyupatamarca, known as the ‘The Town in the Clouds’, the Inca site of Intipata or ‘Terraces of the Sun’, the ‘Sun Gate’, the entrance to Machu Picchu and then finally the walk down to the main site itself. The final day the trek is passing through the sun gate, into Machu Picchu and then a guided tour around the ancient city itself before taking the train back to Cusco.
This is the trek we did, and we found it to be perfect. Was not crowded surprisingly, was pretty tough going in places – especially the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass on day 2 but ultimately very rewarding.
The other alternatives should you wish for something shorter or longer are:
Inca Trail 5 day: This follows the same route as 4 day trek. However, you have the opportunity to visit the ruins of Llactapata where you will probably camp on the first night. You’ll also camp at different campsites during your trek. Although you will probably arrive at Machu Picchu in the afternoon of the fourth day of the trek you will usually camp down in the Urubamba valley before returning to Machu Picchu for sunrise on the fifth day.
Inca Trail 2 Day: This is a less strenuous route and starts at kilometre 104 along the railroad from Cusco. The trail climbs up to Winay Wayna where you join the final stages of the classic 4 day hike. From Winay Wayna the trek then descends to Machu Picchu. This is a good option if you have limited time or do not consider yourself fit enough to complete the classic 4 day version.
Salkantay / Inca Trail 7 day: A 7 day trek that passes beneath the sacred snow-capped mountain of Salkantay. The trail starts in the warm citrus valley near Mollabamba and eventually joins the Classic Inca trail route at Wayllabamba on the fourth day.
The Route Taken
Possibly not the best title, as all of the tours take the same trail as there is only one Inca Trail. However, a small number of companies make day 2 a longer day and trek further to a higher campsite which means a much quieter day 3 and more of a relaxing afternoon at the final campsite where you can catch up on some sleep, or just rest your legs. Also this means that they get the best camp spots as they are there first. Day 2 is a real bitch, but definitely doable and very rewarding.
Many operators camp on day 2 at Pacaymayu which is at the bottom of the descent after Dead Woman’s pass, which means that day 3 is also a difficult trekking day. The fewer operators have lunch here instead and continue on.
We did the longer day 2, and that’s what we would recommend; the day isn’t as long or hard as you will spend weeks anticipating (we’re not saying it is going to be easy) but there is something very rewarding knowing you have broken the back of the trek by time you go to bed.
Quality of Online Reviews (TripAdvisor)
This is an obvious step that all will inevitably follow. But look out specifically for comments on the things mentioned in this article as well as how good the guide is and does the guide speak your language.
The 4 day/3 night Inca Trail trek typically costs anywhere from US$500 to in excess of US$1,000. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t want a luxury trek with all the trimmings, consider $500 to $600 as a good price to aim for. If, on the other hand, you want gourmet meals, plenty of trekking staff and self-inflating air mattresses, be prepared to spend more than $800 (perhaps a lot more). Whilst there are not really hidden costs as such you should remember that it is good practice to tip the porters and guides as a group at the end of the tour. The recommended additional money this could cost on average around $70 per person in the group.
Size of Group
Many people pay an exorbitant price to have a private trek, which has its plusses eg focussed guide attention and privacy. However, from our point of view part of the fun is having a good group of people around you for good banter and encouragement. Our group size was 12 people which was about the largest group size you want. Check how many people the operator books on any one tour and if it is more than this…move on. 12 was a decent number, but from our perspective a group size of 8 would be perfect ensuring just the right amount of tailored focus and group energy.
Also, it might be worth asking what sort of ages the groups tend to be through that particular operator. If you prefer to be with people nearer your own age most operators will tailor the groups specifically so be sure to ask the question.
Treatment of Employees
Dare it be said that some companies don’t treat their employees eg the porters (as you might have picked up already are considered by us to be the total heroes of the Inca Trail) and guides do not get a regular salary but are instead reliant on tips from trekkers. There are good operators out there who pay all of their team a regular salary, and invest some of their profits back into the community through various schemes. Also, whilst the government places strict criteria on how much the porters are expected to carry ask the question to ensure that the operator treats them fairly.
Obviously, if this is something important to you (it was to us) ask the right questions and establish their policies before you book.
Quality of Equipment
You’re going to be reliant on this equipment for perhaps 4 days. Sleeping in / on it for 3 nights, using the walking sticks (if ordered, which is highly recommended) every step of the way. You want this stuff to be good and of high quality. Check the reviews online, ask to see the equipment, if possible, and seek all of the appropriate reassurances. It is definitely worth it.
Quality of Guides
All of the guides we encountered were good. But for peace of mind, check some basics with the operator first; do they speak the language you need so you can get all of the really informative briefings along the way? Are they first aid trained? In an ideal world you would want to meet your guide beforehand, but this is really impractical so again check the online reviews specifically for comments about the guides employed.
Getting Back to Cusco
From experience you won’t realise how important this is to get right until the moment you head back from Cusco.
Traditionally following a short hike through the Sun Gate and down into Machu Picchu you will have a tour with your guide through the ruins. This usually finishes around 11am. From there lunch is normally organised (at your own expense) in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes where the trains operate from.
The trains normally take about 1 ¾ hours back to Ollantaytambo where you’ll then be picked up in a bus for a 2 hour journey back to town.
We were on the 4.20pm train and didn’t get back to the hostel until 11pm which is absolutely the last thing we wanted when we had been looking forward to a decent meal, a beer and a really long shower! Because so many people are getting off the train onto buses at Ollantaytambo there is a traffic jam causing delays sometimes of more than an hour.
On the other hand, there are trains running pretty much on the hour from Aguas Calientes so it is definitely worth considering what time you want to get back to Cusco and planning backwards accordingly. Aguas Calientes offers nothing much in reality, but having a final lunch with the team is a nice end. Our recommendation would be to discuss with your operator getting an earlier transit time back to Cusco. If the operator only offers the late train, then please consider your alternative options. Some operators will be much more flexible than others.
We really hope these tips help you to make an excellent choice in choosing the right trek operator for what will be an amazing few days for you. It was one of the best experiences of our lives, and we hope you have as good a time as we did.
If the above has not addressed any questions you have, or you have any further comments, please drop us a line below – we answer every one.