We began this piece by writing a narrative tracing the hiccups in our Salkantay to Machu Picchu trek, but soon realized that our lessons learned go beyond Peru’s tourist-laden Inca corridor.
So what happened? Our guide got drunk two nights in a row, tried to pinch us for more money with unplanned and overpriced transport, didn’t buy our Machu Picchu tickets in advance, missed our meeting on the day of Machu Picchu by two hours, and mismanaged our return train and bus tickets to Cusco.
Not bad, eh? (But we still had a great time. Our group even enjoyed a few laughs because of it.)
At each turn, the ironic assurances of our Cusco-based tour company echoed: “Pay a little more with us and you’ll have a better experience.”
So next time you book that tour or trek – especially in and around high-traffic choice destinations – here are a few things to keep in mind and some behaviors to look out for:
1. You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For
Sniff that price tag with a healthy dose of skepticism. More than once, we’ve been on a tour whose participants paid vastly different prices for the exact same service. And by vast, we’re not talking a couple of dollars, but double and triple the price.
It’s every buyer’s right to try and get the lowest price and every seller’s right to try and maximize his take. But while it’s fairly clear in the airline business that the cost of a flight depends heavily on when you book, that same level transparency does not appear to hold in the tour business.
Our experience: For the same exact services, participants on our Salkantay trek paid $180, $250, $300, $400 and over $500. Some people booked two days before in Cusco, others in Lima and Germany months in advance.
Advice: If many tour companies appear to be offering similar tours and services, visit a few (in person or online) and shop around to determine exactly what you’re paying for. If you are paying extra, be certain you are doing so for higher quality or convenience. Otherwise you are just leaving money on the table.
When and where you book will weigh heavily on the price you pay…and the number of middlemen sharing your cash. Prices from internet brokers who are not on location will likely be much higher.
Finally, research whether or not your tour or trek is flexible enough to accommodate just-in-time arrival. With the Inca Trail, this really isn’t an option. For alternative Machu Picchu treks like the Salkantay Trek or Sacred Valley tours, it usually is.
This phenomenon occurs when hundreds of companies sell the same tour and dump their clients into a funnel that empties into the embrace of a handful of freelance companies managing the actual services. You book with Company X, who coordinates with Company Y, and you end up in the hands of Company Z. Of course, Company X (who is really just a middleman) never lets you in on this secret. The result: a confounding mess of expectations and accountability.
Our experience: Our trekking group consisted of nine people who booked through six different companies. The trek itself was run by yet another company — if not an amalgam of companies (in fact, it was difficult to tell). The company we booked with marketed themselves as a “direct agency,” meaning that they ran the whole show. Our conversations with other tourists suggest this dishonest broken-record selling point is in play across many tour operators in Cusco.
Advice: A good tour company either runs their own show or offers transparent options outlining who is actually running the tour. Try to determine how many links are in the chain of agents that will deliver your services.
This is the tour variation on: “my friend has a jewelry [carpet/ceramics] shop with great prices.” When your guide begins to cut corners and offer options that were covered in the paid tour in the first place, you know that you are being chiseled. Mastery of this art involves creating opportunities for friends to make money and insisting there are no other providers in town other than the ones the guide recommends.
Our experience: Besides directing us to a taxi that was five times the going rate, our guide tried to convince the group to forgo hiking and pay for a bus the next day (driven by the same friend). When that trick didn’t stick, he insisted that we pay to transport our baggage to the next stop, even though every agency had included this service in the tour. Together as a group, we called the guide on his game. Suddenly, transport was available for our baggage and no more mention was made of his friend’s van.
Advice: If something doesn’t seem right, ask questions immediately instead of waiting until it's too late. If you don’t like the unexpected detours (shops or otherwise), let your guide know this.
4. “No problem”
This is the chorus of guides and organizers around the world intending to soothe fears and concerns. If we've heard it once, we've heard it 10,000 times.
In the world of tours and treks, “no problem” begins when agencies leave details vague enough and open to interpretation so that when it comes down to accountability there is nothing definitive to hang a complaint on.
Our experience: In order to clarify what we were paying for, we asked endless questions when shopping around for our Salkantay trek. Tour companies often made us feel like we were paranoid.
“No problem. We organize everything,” was the common refrain. Yeah, right.
Advice: When you hear “no problem” while booking, expect problems. When you hear “no problem” on the trek, start praying. “No problem” is your cue to ask questions and get more specifics. Bottom line: if the company can’t provide answers, then it’s time to move on.
When your guide begins hinting about money — particularly by sharing stories of outsized tips given by other tourists — you know you are being lobbied.
Our experience: Fortunately, our Salkantay guide did his lobbying for the cook and horse handler (both of whom were competent and deserving of tips).
When we hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, however, our companions’ porter began lobbying on day two of a fifteen-day trek and never let up. Our porter never said a word about money, and in the end, wound up with twice the tip.
Advice: If you find yourself being lobbied, consider diffusing it with humor. Playing dumb or acting aloof can also work. If the guide persists, let him know that the more time he spends talking about money and the less time he spends working as a good guide, the more rapidly his tip will evaporate.
6. The Blame Game
Ah, the musical chairs of responsibility. When things go wrong, the guide blames the tour company; the tour company blames the guide.
Our experience: When our Machu Picchu and return tickets to Cusco weren't ready upon our arrival in Aguas Calientes, our guide blamed the tour company. Upon our return to Cusco, our tour company's response regarding the missing tickets and drinking: “The guide is responsible once the tour starts.”
So what exactly are we paying the tour company for?
Advice: Before handing over your money, consider asking the tour company: “If something goes wrong on the tour or with the guide, who is responsible? What will the company do if things don’t go as planned on the tour? What is my recourse?” Listen to the answers and proceed accordingly.
7. The Culture Card
Cultural differences are one thing, but when you take our money and make promises about very basic things (tickets, times to meet, what services are included, etc.), the excuse – “We do things differently here” – begins to lose its validity.
Our experience: As things fell apart on our Salkantay trek, a woman from Germany began asking questions about the way the trek was organized. The guide’s response: “This isn’t Germany. We do things differently in Peru.”
Sorry, but failing to purchase entrance tickets to Machu Picchu doesn't fall under the “cultural sensitivity” rubric.
Advice: Respect and cultural sensitivity come first. Maybe everything won’t go exactly as you expect, and culture can certainly play a role in that. But when you see the big stuff going awry, then it's time to voice your objections.
A big thanks to our trekking group for helping to make the experience what it was. If forced to choose between a competent tour company/guide and a good-natured trekking group, we’d choose the latter.
And, a special thanks goes to Seamus, the young man with the Irish flag who provided the inspiration for the title of this piece and always kept us laughing.
- We queried over 20 people in Cusco, and countless others along our journey. It was incredible how similar everyone's experiences were, no matter the company or tour.
- Specifically for Cusco, we did hear of well-organized Inca Trail and small-group tours (where, it turns out, lobbying is the biggest problem you face).
- By no means does every tour operator or guide exhibit these characteristics. Having said that, it’s useful to recognize the warning signs should you encounter them so you can respond accordingly.