Tick Off a Bucket List Mainstay
The Inca Trail is undoubtedly high up on many people's "to do" lists, ranking among one of the best things to experience before you die. Alluring though it may be, it's easy to see how the conflicting mass of information on how best to go about your Inca experience can prevent people from taking up the challenge. This need not be the case, as a few pointers can help you to make informed decisions to enable you to tread in the footsteps of the ancient Incas, at minimum cost and with maximum safety, both to yourself, and to the fragile environment of the trek itself.
The first thing to point out is that things have changed massively over the years; what your friend paid four years ago has absolutely no bearing on cost today. The entry prices alone illustrate a drastic change. In 2000 you could expect to pay a mere $15, compared to at least $80 today. A limit of around 200 passes per day for trekkers, combined with group size regulations (a maximum of 16 people per group) means that finding a place during the high season can be difficult.
Increases in the number of staff required per group, from guides to cooks and porters (sometimes up to 3 porters per 2 trekkers), the imposition of a minimum wage for porters (about $14 per day), combined with tents, cooking equipment, first aid kits and oxygen, all raise the cost to you, the trekker, even further.
All of this is no bad thing. Personally, I don't mind paying a small amount extra for a fairer deal for locals, a guide who actually knows what they are talking about and equipment which works. Often in the past your guide would have been an untrained local, hardly conducive to your memorable Inca experience!
The sad part about this is that these price increases apply to locals as well as tourists, and it has now reached the point where the Inca Trail has become a distinctly Western activity.
Indeed, with all this complexity, it is easy to see why some will opt to pay for the Inca Trail through UK companies for peace of mind. At least this way you have someone to shout at if anything goes wrong. The general rule I work by is, that if the Peruvian company offers credit card booking, you've got some protection from your card company if things turn sour. If they are just asking for a WU money transfer, that's not a sure sign that it's dodgy, but it would put me off.
Regardless of this, it does perhaps make more sense to book through a Peruvian company. While they have to pay an environmental tax of around $40 on every booking they take (a tax from which foreign companies are exempt), local companies will always be cheaper, if for no other reason than they are not paying their office staff UK wages. If this wasn't reason enough, it means that if you book with a Peruvian company, some of your money is going straight back into the local economy and back into the upkeep of the trail, rather than into UK executive's pockets.
What is clear is that you should never book through airport tour operators, taxis, or (generally) hotels and hostels. These people take a cut, and promote the tour which pays the best commission, not the one which has the best standards.
Next, you have to make the decision on when to go. In the low season (December and January), it's very possible that you'll be able to find a space 4 or 5 days before you want to go. You may even be approached by travel agents in Cusco offering you a trip leaving within the next 48 hours (although how they get the relevant paperwork through in this time is a complete mystery).
If, on the other hand, you're looking to trek during high season (May - September), then booking 6 months in advance in not uncommon. 4 months would be the minimum you should be looking to book as demand is so high during this time that once the number of available permits goes down below 150, it's likely that they will sell out within 24 hours, as travel agents book up the remaining spots. Best to always be prepared to avoid disappointment.
Booking the Inca Trail
Be careful before booking a trek without being certain that you can make it. Peruvian authorities, in order to stop rich companies buying up all the passes using false names and passport numbers, and then just changing them as they find real clients, have outlawed cancellations. This means that even if you find another backpacker who can't make their trip, you won't be able to take their space. Good for the communities, bad for the backpacker.
After all this, you still have to decide what type of trek is right for you. You have two choices; group or private.
With the group service (which is what 98% of backpackers would be using), you pay per person and you are pooled together with other people from all over the world, usually in groups of 12-16. The disadvantage here is that people will be of mixed ability, and you may find yourself limited on the distance you can travel in a day by the weakest person in the group. You'll also find that you'll be camping in campsites with quite a lot of other companies.
With a private tour, you have control over the itinerary. If you are fit, you can try and complete the trek over 3 days instead of 4. Or you can really take your time and take 5 days. You'll also have a choice of campsites, and may well end up with just your group in a secluded location, a rarity with the group service. As always, there is a downside, and in this case it's the price. With less than 6 people, this can often be pretty prohibitive. Any more than 6, and it's certainly worth looking at (in fact with more than 12, it's invariably cheaper than a group tour).
Of course, you should always budget a little extra for tips for the porters and guides, and for a bit of insurance in case things go wrong. This, of course, should be less of a problem if you plan ahead and know your stuff before you tackle booking. The Inca Trail is a definite must on any tour of South America, a unique experience which, with the right choices being taken by backpackers, should hopefully be enjoyed by many for years to come.
About the Author: Warrick Howard
Warrick Howard joined the site in 2005. Since then he's visited every continent with the exception of Antartica, and is planning on ticking that box very soon. His main area of expertise is South America, but can offer advice on travel pretty much anywhere; particularly making the most of short trips.
He's also your go-to-guy if you're in the market for a sarcastic comment or thinly veiled innuendo. Off-site Warrick works for an oil company.