We flew into Peru for only a brief time with our sights set on the major tours around Cusco – a jungle trek, Machu Picchu, and Rainbow Mountain. We were successful with these adventures, but learned some lessons and new tricks that can be played on travelers.
The touristy area of Cusco, Peru reminded me of a larger, busier Vail, Colorado with outdoor stores popping up from the cobblestone on every street and an excellent hat and sweater culture. Cusco had some great food and a lot more diverse options than Colombia. Avoid the Chinese food but the Peruvian food really knocked my socks off. The entrees are typically different types and cuts of grilled meats including guinea pigs (big hamsters) and there are some great soups and quinoa dishes.
Cusco had an odd dynamic with an affluent and rather fancy oasis of the old town surrounded by semi-abandoned buildings with lots of stray dogs going through the trash. I felt a bit like we were in an amusement park seeing a manicured and tightly controlled slice of the city. Admittedly, we only used Cusco as a home base for excursions to the jungle and mountains so we didn’t get to see as much of the town as we would’ve liked. A few more days in the city itself would’ve been well used.
We showed up in Cusco without a hostel or any tours booked. We were testing out whether it would be cheaper to book upon arrival to avoid fees from booking companies like Hostelworld and Booking.com. Also, the tours were absurdly expensive online and operators were difficult to get in touch with over email. Booking once we arrived turned out to be easy and much cheaper for the tours and a little cheaper for the hostel. Booking upon arrival knocked about 2 dollars off our hostel each night but booking the tours in person cut the price by a whopping 75%.
Every street in the touristy area had multiple tour operators pushing to get you in the door and in their chairs. The research I’d done ahead of time taught me that there are few guide companies that lead the trips but many tour agencies that bring in tourists and divvy them up to all the guides for a small cut. Going straight to the guide companies removes the middle man and theoretically should give you a better product since you’re talking to the folks who will take you out. We targeted a few guide companies and heard their spiel then compared their products and prices.
Our big ticket item was a jungle trek into Manu National Forest, a rainforest that as a kid I’d watched a nature video about easily over 100 times. We ended up picking a guide company recommended by Lonely Planet who sold us on a 3 night, 4 day trip into the jungle with 4 other people and a guide. 6 tourists sounded a lot better than the 16 that other guide companies said they traveled with. We also negotiated prices for a 1 day hike on Machu Picchu and another 1 day hike on Rainbow mountain with the jungle guide’s counterpart. Total cost came out to $250 per person for the jungle trek, $230 for Machu Picchu, and $20 for Rainbow Mountain.
Even with all the ammunition Lonely Planet gave me, we unfortunately got taken to the cleaners by sketchy, cheap tour operators. All 3 of the tours we booked cut corners and cheated their way into our pockets but the stunning locations they took us to still made them worthwhile. I guess you just have to go in with the mindset that you will get taken advantage of or pay high prices to avoid being taken advantage of. It’s all more expensive than the price you’re given either in terms of time or hidden costs. For instance, for 4 hours of hiking on Rainbow Mountain, we spent about 9 hours driving (with frequent random stops) and 4 hours just sitting around waiting for the tour company get their junk together and for the one lonely guide to herd all 40 people on their tour. Promises from tour operators like “English speaking guide”, “full meals”, and “entry to the park” are easy to say to draw you in but rarely seemed to materialize. Details like the size of the group and absurd amount of travel time are often avoided or if you ask about them directly, sugar coated. My advice would be to keep expectations low, pad any estimated travel times, and bring some cash in small bills to smooth over miscellaneous expenses.
After paying in full and the night before we were supposed to leave for the jungle, our jungle tour guide told us that he’d had to move us to another company and the group would be 12 people instead of 6 and he’d give us a $20 per person discount. After booking all 3 treks for the short time we were in town, this pulled the rug out from our plans. Unfortunately, our options were to take the paltry discount or cancel for a refund and scramble to find another trek at 7 PM that night for 7 AM the next morning (not gonna happen). Since we were on a time crunch and he knew it, if we’d canceled, we would’ve lost a day and had to probably cancel our day hike to Rainbow Mountain or steal time from our next destination in Bolivia. I don’t know if our jungle guide was intentionally devious or we were all just unlucky but I hope for the latter.
The jungle tour turned out ok but our guide spoke little English, didn’t seem to know much about animal behavior, and was kind of rude. Additionally, with so many people on the tour and only one pair of binoculars, you really didn’t see many animals. We ended up tipping the cook more than the guide. Nonetheless, I saw some of my childhood favorite animals. Unfortunately, the Manu rainforest wasn’t the Eden I’d imagined as a kid. I think they’re having a tough time balancing conservation with economic development and since the local tribes are allowed to hunt the jungle animals, the animals flee when they see people. Nonetheless, it was an adventure and I loved motoring up and down the jungle river rapids in our long motorboat.
Regarding Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain, we just spent a lot of time waiting around as tour operators consolidated everyone into monstrous herds of tourists. I understand that they get some efficiency of scale, but it comes at a cost to the customer’s patience and there’s little chance of hearing what the tour guide has to say about the destination. We ended up ditching our “tour guide” in both locations.
My advice is to either pay a premium for a premium guide and small, limited group or try to piece together transportation on your own. The DIY route requires a lot more time and research but the time you spend researching and booking transportation can save you a lot of money overall and headache the day of your excursion. The Manu jungle trip required a guide by law and you can’t find housing by yourself in this remote region. We really should’ve pushed for a smaller group and I think we would’ve gotten a better product.
To get us out of the mud here, the tours were all worthwhile, Cusco had a really neat vibe and beautiful streets, and the food was very tasty. Just be very skeptical of tour operators, ask a million questions, and make the guide company write down the itinerary and characteristics of the tour in order to hold them more accountable. Also, allocate a couple of days to book tours once you arrive so that you can work through any shenanigans operators try to pull on you and not be in a rush.
My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our belongings and are hitting the road for nearly 2 years. We're blogging about our adventures, lessons learned, ideas, and recommendations. Take a gander at the content, leave a comment, or reach out to us to meet up on the road!