Only officially sanctioned travel agencies are permitted to organize group treks along the Inca Trail; at least 160 tour operators (!) -- both Peruvian and international -- have been granted government licenses to sell and operate Inca Trail treks. With the higher-end agencies, it is usually possible to assemble your own private group, with as few as two hikers. Budget trekkers will join an established group. In addition to cost, hikers should ask about group size (12 or fewer is best; 16 is the most allowed), the quality of the guides and their English-speaking abilities, the quality of food preparation, and porters and equipment. You should also make certain that the agency guarantees daily departures so that you're not stuck waiting in Cusco for a group to be assembled.
Recommended agencies that score high on those criteria follow. (Note that the addresses and phone numbers below change frequently; the websites are more reliable sources of info.)
- Andean Life, Plateros 372 (tel. 084/221-491; www.andeanlifeperu.com): A reputable midrange company offering both pooled basic and premium private treks with good guides.
- Andean Treks, Av. Pardo 705 (tel. 800/683-8148 in the U.S. and Canada, 084/225-701 in Cusco; www.andeantreks.com): A longtime (since 1980), well-thought-of outdoors operator based in Watertown, Massachusetts, running 5-day treks along the Inca Trail as well as numerous other programs in Latin America.
- Andina Travel, Plazoleta Santa Catalina 219 (tel. 084/251-892; www.andinatravel.com): An upstart, progressive company interested in sustainable development, owned by a Cusco native and his North American business partner.
- Big Foot Tour Operator, Triunfo 392, 2nd Floor (tel. 084/991-3851; fax 084/222-123; www.bigfootcusco.com): A popular budget agency.
- Chaska Tours, Garcilaso 265, 2nd Floor (tel. 084/240-424; www.chaskatours.com): A very capable midrange company, run by a Dutch and Peruvian team, praised for its private and group treks to Machu Picchu as well as Choquequirao.
- Enigma, Jirón Clorinda Matto de Turner, 100 Urbanización Magisterial 1 Etapa (tel. 084/221-155; fax 084/221-153; www.enigmaperu.com): A relatively new adventure travel operator with a good reputation and specialized and alternative hiking and trekking options, good for small-group and private treks.
- Explorandes, Av. Garcilaso 316-A (tel. 084/238-380; fax 084/233-784; www.explorandes.com): One of the top high-end agencies and the most experienced in treks and mountaineering across Peru. Especially good for forming very small private groups.
- Inca Explorers, Ruinas 427 (tel. 084/241-070; fax 084/239-669; www.incaexplorers.com): One of the best agencies, offering midrange, comfortable Inca Trail treks. Porters carry hikers' packs, and groups are small (including private group treks).
- Mayuc, Portal de Confiturías 211, Plaza de Armas (tel. 866/777-9213 in the U.S. and Canada or 084/242-824 in Cusco; www.mayuc.com): Especially good for pampered Inca Trail expeditions (porters carry all packs). It aims to be low impact, and hosts smaller groups.
- Q'Ente, Garcilaso 210 (tel. 084/222-535; fax 084/222-535; www.qente.com). Receives very high marks from budget travelers. It's very competitively priced, with responsible, good guides, and also offers a premium trek with a maximum of eight trekkers.
- SAS Travel, Garcilaso 270, Plaza San Francisco (tel. 084/249-194; fax 084/225-757; www.sastravelperu.com): Large, long-established agency serving budget-oriented trekkers. Very popular, responsible, and well organized.
- United Mice, Plateros 351 (tel. 084/221-139; www.unitedmice.com): Started by one of the trail's most respected guides, this is another of the top agencies organizing affordable midrange treks.
About Tipping -- At the end of the Inca Trail, guides, cooks, and especially porters expect -- and fully deserve -- to be tipped for their services. They get comparatively little of the sum hikers pay to form part of the group, and they depend on tips for most of their salary, much like waitstaff in American restaurants. Tip to the extent that you are able.
The Road Less (or More Comfortably) Traveled: Alternatives to the Inca Trail
The legendary Inca Trail was once very much off the beaten path and at the cutting edge of adventure travel -- for hard-core trekkers only. Although the Peruvian government adopted new measures to restrict the numbers of trekkers along the trail, it has become so popular and well-worn that in high season it's tough to find the solitude and quiet contemplation such a sacred path deserves. Trekkers and travelers looking for more privacy, greater authenticity, or bragging rights are seeking out alternatives, and many adventure-travel companies are catering to them by offering less accessible trails to keep one step ahead of the masses. Several international operators now offer custom-designed alternatives to the traditional Inca Trail, and many Peru cognoscenti believe this is the future of trekking in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Some of the challenging treks terminate in visits to Machu Picchu, while others explore stunning but much less-visited Inca ruins like Choquequirao. Adventure Life (tel. 800/344-6118; www.adventurelife.com) promotes a 10-day Cachiccata trek and 11-day Ausangate trip Alternative; Andean Treks (tel. 800/683-8148; www.andeantreks.com) offers a 4-day "Moonstone to Sun Temple" trek, as well as others to Choquequirao and Ausangate; Mountain Travel Sobek (tel. 888/831-7526; www.mtsobek.com) offers a 12-day (7 days hiking) "Other Inca Trail"; Peru for Less (tel. 877/2609-0309; www.peruforless.com), originally based in the U.S., recently launched a series of small-group, alternative treks in the Vilcabamba region, with trips to Choquequirao, Ausangate, and Espíritu Pampa; and Wilderness Travel (tel. 800/368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com) has a 17-day (13 days hiking) "Choquequirao to Machu Picchu Hidden Inca Trail" tour. Most treks range from about $600 to $4,000 per person.
The trend toward luxury, or soft, adventure is also gaining traction in the Peruvian Andes, and companies offering treks to Machu Picchu and other highland destinations are targeting more affluent and creature comfort-oriented travelers who want the adventure experience without roughing it too much. Mountain Lodges of Peru (tel. 01/421-7777 or 510/525-8846 in the U.S. and Canada; www.mountainlodgesofperu.com), a Peruvian adventure travel company, has constructed four lodges on private lands in the Vilcabamba mountain range west of the Sacred Valley. The inns are stunning, not only for their high-altitude locations but also their sophisticated architecture and amenities -- which include whirlpools, hot showers, fireplaces, and sleek dining rooms. Mountain Lodges offers its own 7-day treks ($2,650 per person), culminating in a visit to Machu Picchu, but the company has also contracted with international trekking and adventure companies, including Backroads (tel. 800/462-2848; www.backroads.com), Wilderness Travel, and Mountain Travel Sobek, which have booked the lodges for their own 9-day (5 days trekking) "Machu Picchu Lodge to Lodge" or "Inn to Inn" packages. Prices for full trips, including stays in Cusco, run to $4,995 per person. Andean Lodges (tel. 084/224-613; www.andeanlodges.com), a rare joint initiative between the tour group Auqui Mountain Spirit and local Quechua shepherding communities, operates four simple and ecofriendly mountain lodges, which it claims are the highest altitude lodges in the world (at 13,000-15,000 ft.), along the Camino del Apu Ausangate (in the Vilcanota range). Trek prices start at $845 per person.
If the notion of luxury adventure travel doesn't excite your inner hard-core adventurer, consider one of the spectacularly scenic (and arduous 4- to 11-day) treks that have gained wider traction in the last few years: Salcantay, Vilcabamba, Espíritu Pampa, and Choquequirao, the last two "lost" Inca cities only truly unearthed in the past decade. All are increasingly offered by local trek tour agencies in Cusco and some of the most established international trekking and Peruvian travel companies . Much as I hate to disparage the legendary Camino Inca, it has become too popular and laden with restrictions and hassles for many adventure travelers to enjoy it the way it was intended. By going off the standard trekking grid, not only can you be sure that when you get back to Cusco not everyone in the coffeehouse will have the same bragging rights, you are likely to have a more authentic, peaceful and exhilarating outdoors and cultural experience.