Booking the Inca Trail through a UK operator is not the only way. Use a local company in Peru and you can save money – and the trail's future. Here, I explode the myths and tell you how to do it
Why do it yourself?
Peruvian companies pay an environmental tax on every booking they take – about $40. Any travel company outside Peru is exempt from this tax (though you can guarantee the saving will not be passed on to you). Therefore, if you book with a Peruvian company, some of your money will be going straight back into the local economy and the upkeep of the trail. It will nearly always be cheaper, too, since a locally-based company will not be paying its office staff UK wages. Some really good, knowledgeable companies in Cusco offer great deals – particularly out of season.
Most people prefer to book with a UK company before they go, simply for peace of mind: there is someone to shout at if anything goes wrong. However, if the Peruvian company takes credit-card bookings, you have some protection from your card company anyway. If it offers only WU money transfer, it's not necessarily a sign that it’s dodgy – but it would put me off.
Why the price rises?
Regulations have increased the number of staff required for each group, meaning there are fewer passes for trekkers. Altogether, they are allocated 200 passes per day, while the remaining 300 go to guides, porters and cooks. The maximum group size per company is 16, and each has to have tents, cooking equipment, first-aid kits, oxygen, and so on. The more the porters have to carry, the more porters are required. Each is now limited by law to carrying 20kg, and each is (finally) entitled to a minimum wage (about $14 per day), the cost of which is passed on to the trekker.
Some companies use three porters for every two trekkers – in stark contrast to two years ago. If your group comprises more than eight people, you will have two guides. All are licensed and trained, and most speak at least two languages – meaning their services are not cheap, and their wages are included in the price. Personally, I don't mind paying a bit extra for a guide who knows what he or she is talking about, rather than a random local (as was often the case in the past).
Entry prices to the trail have also increased – $80 now, compared to $15 in 2000. Increases apply to locals as well as tourists, so the Inca Trail has sadly become a distinctly Western experience.
When should I book?
In low season (December and January), there may be availability just four or five days before you go. Some travel agents in Cusco offer trips leaving in the next 48 hours. In high season (May to September), booking six months in advance in common – and four months is the minimum time ahead that you should book. There is a Peruvian government website (see How to check availability, below) that allows you to see how many permits are left for certain dates. Once they drop below 150, they usually sell out within 24 hours. To stop rich travel companies buying up all the passes using false names and passport numbers (then changing the details as the dates get closer), the Peruvian authorities impose a “no cancellations” rule. Even if you find another trekker who cannot make his or her trip, you won't be able to take their place.
Which type of trek?
Ninety-eight per cent of trekkers go on a group tour – paying pay per person and being pooled together, in groups of 12-16, with people from all over the world. Trekkers will be of mixed ability, so the weakest determines how far you travel each day. You will also be sharing campsites with other companies.
With a private tour, you control the itinerary. If you are fit, you can complete the trek in three days instead of four – or take your time and do it in five. You have a choice of campsites, sometimes just your group in a secluded spot somewhere. The downside is the price – expensive, unless there are more than six of you. Then, it’s a prospect worth looking at – and if there are more than 12, it's usually cheaper than a group tour.
How much will it cost?
If you’ll settle for a sub-standard service from a backstreet travel agent, trekking in a large group, you can do it for less than $400. However, the cost for a decent tour, with knowledgeable guides and good equipment, is about $450 – and you can pay more than $550 if the company has a good reputation, small groups and the best guides. For a private tour, you are looking at about $500 per person for six of you. For 12, it will be more like $420 – which is cheap. The problem, of course, is finding 12 people to join you six months ahead of travel, unless you are already a large group.
Points to remember
Always tip porters and guides, since a large portion of their income comes from this source – and a few dollars out of your pocket goes a lot further in theirs.
Never book through airport tour operators, taxis, or (generally) hotels and hostels, which take a cut and promote only the tour that pays the best commission – not the one with the highest standards. Beware “The Best Trek Company in Cusco”, recommended by your friendly hotel owner.
How to check availability
1) Visit http://www.inc-cusco.gob.pe/portal/index.php
(which is in Spanish).
2) Click on “RCI Nahui Operadores”, on the right-hand navigation bar.
3) Click “Ingresar Como Invitado”, then “Consultas” (top left).
4) On the new page, click “Disponibiliad Camino Inca 2009”.
5) You will then see “Elija el mes para ver la disponibilidad”. Select the month required from the drop-down menu, then click “Ver desponibiliad”. The number of available passes for each day will now be displayed.