Because most travelers have limited time and resources, organized ecotourism or adventure travel packages, arranged by tour operators abroad or in Peru, are popular ways of combining cultural and outdoor activities. Bird-watching, horseback riding, rafting, and hiking can be teamed with visits to destinations such as Cusco, the Sacred (Urubamba) Valley and Machu Picchu, or Arequipa and Lake Titicaca.
Traveling with a group has several advantages over traveling independently. Your accommodations and transportation are arranged, and most (if not all) of your meals are included in the cost of a package. If your tour operator has a reasonable amount of experience and a decent track record, you should proceed to each of your destinations quickly without the snags and long delays that you might face if you're traveling on your own. You'll also have the opportunity to meet like-minded travelers who are interested in nature and active sports. Some group trekking trips include porteros or arrieros (porters or muleteers) who carry extra equipment. On some luxury treks of the Inca Trail, porters will even carry your backpack, so all you have to do is hike your lazy self up and over the mountain passes.
In the best cases of organized outdoors travel, group size is kept small (10-15 people), and tours are escorted by knowledgeable guides who are either naturalists or biologists. Be sure to inquire about difficulty levels when you're choosing a tour. While most companies offer "soft adventure" packages that those in decent but not overly athletic shape can handle, others focus on more hard-core activities geared toward very fit and seasoned adventure travelers.
Inca Trail Regulations -- Trekkers once could embark on the Inca Trail on their own, but new regulations imposed by the Peruvian government to limit environmental degradation and damage to the trail itself now require all trekkers to go with officially sanctioned groups, guides and porters.
U.S. and International Adventure Tour Operators
These agencies and operators specialize in well-organized and coordinated tours that cover your entire stay. Many travelers prefer to have everything arranged and confirmed before arriving in Peru -- a good idea for first-timers and during high season (especially for travel to Cusco and its immediate environs, including the Inca Trail). Many of these operators provide great service but are not cheap; 10-day tours generally cost upwards of $2,500 or more per person, and do not include airfare to Peru.
Adventure Life (tel. 800/344-6118; www.adventure-life.com), based in Missoula, Montana, and specializing in Central and South America, has an interesting roster of rugged Peru trips, frequently with a community focus, including a 12-day multi-sport tour (mountain biking, hiking, rafting, jungle tour, and Machu Picchu), rainforest ecolodge tours, and a 10-day "Cachiccata Trek: The Inca Trail Less Traveled," as well as plenty of tour extensions. One Peru trip is specifically designed to raise money (40% of trip cost) for the organization's nonprofit fund (which aims to give back to local communities).
Adventure Specialists (tel. 719/783-2086; www.adventurespecialists.org) travels only to the Copper Canyon (Mexico), Colorado, and Peru. In Peru, it specializes in treks, horse trips, and archaeology expeditions, as well as wildlife and birding adventures by dugout canoe in the Manu Biosphere Reserve. The founder is one of the archaeologists credited with the November 2003 rediscovery of Llactapata, a "lost" Inca city.
Amazonia Expeditions (tel. 800/262-9669; www.perujungle.com or www.peruandes.com) has offered good-value, personalized, and flexible ecotourism trips to the Peruvian jungle and the Andes since 1981. Trips of up to 7 days are all-inclusive (even laundry and tips are included). Jungle trips are to the Tahauyo Lodge (4 hr. from Iquitos) and the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Reserve (they are the only licensed tour operator to the latter). The two websites focus on the group's jungle adventures and Inca ruins/Andes treks respectively.
Andean Treks (tel. 800/683-8148; www.andeantreks.com) is a personalized, high-quality Latin American adventure-tour operator that focuses on trekking in the Andes and exploring the jungle throughout Peru. The Massachusetts-based group's roster of reasonably priced trips for all levels includes cloud-forest treks, llama trekking, trips to Manu and Tambopata, and highlands treks that combine white-water rafting or Amazon lodge stays. Trips range from easy to hard-core.
Backroads (tel. 800/462-2848; www.backroads.com) is a luxury-tour company that offers upscale, light-adventure trips around the globe, and it has several tours of Peru on its menu. It specializes in walking, hiking and biking tours from Cusco to Machu Picchu, some of which incorporate stays at the Mountain Lodges of Peru. Service is personalized and the guides are top-notch.
Condor Journeys and Adventures (tel. 01700/741-318 in the U.K. or 318/775-0190 in the U.S.; www.condorjourneys-adventures.com) is one of the top U.K. agencies organizing package tours to Latin America. Condor offers a huge number of varied trips to Peru, including archaeology tours and lots of soft- and hard-core adventure and outdoor travel: hiking programs along Inca roads, horseback treks to Machu Picchu, rainforest and white-water rafting in canyons and along the Apurímac and Urubamba, mountain-biking expeditions, and special, unusual programs such as "Mystical Peru" and hikes to Salcantay and Vilcabamba by llama.
GorpTravel (tel. 877/440-GORP ; www.gorptravel.com), a self-styled "Guide to Outdoor Travel," is a wholesaler with a vast range of options for adventure and more general travel throughout Peru and the world offered by outfitters across the globe. It recently offered more than 150 outdoor-oriented vacations to Peru (including a "Peru Top 20" list). A few are basic highlights trips, while others are cultural and language vacations or specialist adventures for very active and adventurous sorts.
International Expeditions (tel. 800/633-4734; www.internationalexpeditions.com) features Amazon cruises and jungle-lodge tours (including luxurious river cruises run by Jungle Expeditions). The main tours to Peru are an Amazon Explorer "Jungles of Peru" and a 9-day Amazon Voyage. Visitors help with reforestation projects and participate in conservation programs and tree planting with local naturalists. Extensions to Cusco, Machu Picchu, Lima, and the Nasca Lines are available.
Journeys International (tel. 800/255-8735; www.journeys.travel), based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers small-group (4-12 people) natural history tours guided by naturalists. Trips include the 9-day "Amazon & Andes Odyssey," which includes the Tambopata National Reserve along with Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley; and special Amazon and Inca trips for families.
Mountain Travel Sobek (tel. 888/831-7526, or 0808/234-2243 in the U.K.; www.mtsobek.com) offers seven itineraries to Peru, including the 8-day "Andean Explorer," with day hikes and rafting. Options for mountaineers and committed trekkers include 13 days of strenuous trekking in Cordillera Blanca (mostly camping); a shorter 5-day (but still hard-core) trekking option in the same area; and a challenging 15-day rafting trip along the Tambopata River (half camping, half inns). A unique trip is the off-the-beaten path "Other Inca Trail" -- the company also arranges luxury treks to Machu Picchu with stays at the cool inns owned and operated by Mountain Lodges of Peru . Trips are helpfully rated for difficulty. The company was named one of National Geographic Adventure's "Best Outfitters on Earth" in 2007.
Overseas Adventure Travel (tel. 800/493-6824; www.oattravel.com) offers natural history and "soft adventure" itineraries, with optional add-on excursions. Tours are limited to 16 people and are guided by naturalists. All accommodations are in small hotels, lodges, or tent camps. The 11-day "Real Affordable Peru" includes rafting on the Urubamba and a curandero healing ceremony. The 16-day "Machu Picchu & Galápagos" tour features a good bit of walking. Amazon River cruises and rainforest trips are also featured.
Tropical Nature Travel (tel. 877/827-8350; www.tropicalnaturetravel.com) is known as one of the most sophisticated conservation groups organizing travel to jungle wildlife lodges in Manu and Tambopata. In tandem with its local conservation partner, InkaNatura, it operates four lodges, including Manu Wildlife Center, Cock of the Rock Lodge, Sandoval Lake Lodge, and the new Heath River Wildlife Center; and its Amazon jungle trips can't be beat. The outfit has expanded its itineraries to include trekking, rafting, and archaeology culture trips to places such as Chachapoyas and Colca Canyon.
Wilderness Travel (tel. 800/368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com) is a Berkeley-based outfitter specializing in cultural, wildlife, and hiking group tours that are arranged with tiered pricing (the cost of the trip varies according to group size). There are 13 different tours to Peru, including a 17-day Trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash Blanca, Choquequirao trail to Machu Picchu, and a unique "Peru Festivals Trek." Wilderness Travel also offers soft, luxury treks to Machu Picchu with stays at the cool inns owned and operated by Mountain Lodges of Peru . Trips are helpfully graded according to difficulty.
Wildland Adventures (tel. 800/345-4453; www.wildland.com), based in Seattle, is one of the top international outdoor-tour companies with operations in Peru. It offers excellent special-interest trekking and rainforest expedition programs, with customizing options. There are lodge-based programs, primarily in the jungle; trekking expeditions, such as the Machu Picchu Mountain lodges trek; and special adventures focusing on photographing Peru's "Ancient Lands and Native Spirits." Wildland's programs are well designed, guides are very professional, and the organization is focused on authentic travel experiences -- all reasons National Geographic Adventure named it one of "Best Outfitters on Earth" in 2007.
In addition to these companies, many extremely well-regarded environmental organizations regularly offer organized trips to Peru. The Nature Conservancy (tel. 800/628-6860; www.nature.org/aboutus/travel/travel) offers "conservation journeys" with members; the trips change from year to year, but past trips to Peru have included a riverboat Amazon voyage that visits the Nature Conservancy project in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. The Smithsonian Institution (tel. 877/338-8687; www.si.edu) offers "Smithsonian Journeys," study tours for members, which have included a river cruise of the northern Amazon and a long (and expensive) trip down the Amazon from Belém, Brazil, to Pevas, Peru. The National Audubon Society (tel. 800/967-7425; http://travel.audubon.org) also offers "Nature Odysseys," which focus on birding and natural history arranged through carefully selected travel partners. An excellent resource for information on ecotravel is Sacred Earth (www.sacredearth.com), a loose consortium of "ethnobotanists" and ecotravelers that publishes an e-zine and has links to a half-dozen featured trips and workshops to Peru, including Manu camping journeys and shamanistic "Listening to the Plants" tours of the northern Amazon.
Peruvian Tour Agencies
Many tour companies based in the United States and elsewhere subcontract portions of their tours to established Peruvian companies on the ground in Lima, Cusco, and across the country. Though it's often simpler to go with international tour companies, in some cases, independent travelers can benefit by organizing their tours directly with local agencies. Prices on the ground can be cheaper than contracting a tour from abroad, but there are risks of not getting what you want when you want it. Also, the world of subcontracting can be byzantine, and even Peruvian travel agencies hire out adventure and outdoor specialists.
Local agencies offering adventure options abound, especially in Cusco, Arequipa, Huaraz, and Iquitos. These agencies can arrange everything from white-water rafting to day treks to horseback riding. Some tours might be held only when there are enough interested people or on fixed dates, so it's worthwhile to contact a few of the companies before you leave for Peru to find out what they might be doing when you arrive. For travel in the Sacred Valley, Amazon Basin, Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, and the Huaraz area, these are pretty much indispensable unless you contract with an international operator prior to your trip.
Class Adventure Travel (CAT) (tel. 877/240-4770 in the U.S. and Canada, 0207/0906-1259 in the U.K.; www.cat-travel.com) is a fine all-purpose agency with offices in Lima and Cusco (it also has offices in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina). In addition to professionally organizing virtually any kind of travel detail in Peru, its adventure offerings include rafting, trekking, and jungle tours.
Explorandes Peru (tel. 01/715-2323; www.explorandes.com) has been doing trekking and river expeditions in Peru for nearly 3 decades, and has regional offices in Lima, Cusco, Huaraz, and Puno. One of the top high-end agencies for treks and mountaineering in Peru, it's reasonably priced and especially good for forming very small private groups. It offers a number of soft adventure trips (with stays in hotels and full- and half-day river trips) and an even more impressive lineup of real adventure, including cool, unique trips such as llama trekking to Chavín, a festival trek, rafting on the Apurímac River, treks on southern peaks around Cusco, and hard-core trekking in the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash. Amazon extensions are available.
Mountain Lodges of Peru (tel. 01/421-7777; www.mountainlodgesofperu.com), a Peruvian trekking company, has built a series of small, spectacular lodges on private lands in the Vilcabamba mountain range west of the Sacred Valley. The sleek inns have whirlpools, fireplaces, and nice dining rooms. The company offers its own 6-day treks to Machu Picchu and also contracts with a handful of international adventure tour operators, including Backroads, Mountain Travel Sobek, and Wilderness Travel .
Peru Expeditions (tel. 01/447-2057; www.peru-expeditions.com) is a Lima-based company run by Rafael Belmonte, an amiable fellow and dedicated cyclist. His company runs all kinds of cool trips across Peru, including treks, four-wheel-drive vehicle tours, and mountain biking, as well as Andean festivities tours, and more standard tours to destinations such as Arequipa, Cusco, and Colca Canyon.
Peru for Less (tel. 877/269-0309, or 203/002-0571 in the U.K.; www.peruforless.com), which began in Texas and is now based in Lima, has added a whole roster of well-designed and personalized alternative trekking tours in the Cusco region, including small-group treks to Choquequirao and Vilcabamba, to its slate of more standard travel packages.
SAS Travel Peru (tel. 084/249-194; www.sastravelperu.com), based in Cusco, is one of the most popular agencies organizing outdoor travel for backpackers and budget-minded travelers. Its roster includes the Inca Trail, a number of short treks in the Cusco area and a couple of longer, more challenging mountain treks lasting up to a week. Jungle treks are to Manu and Tambopata. SAS also offers white-water rafting, paragliding, climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.