How to find a cheap Inca Trail tour to Machu Picchu
The Inca Trail is arguably the most famous hike in the world. The four-day trek begins at a spot known as 82km along the Inca Trail and finishes at the most famous ruins in South America – Machu Picchu. If you’re going to Peru and like to hike, then you have to do the Inca Trail. Skipping it off your list is like visiting the Louvre and not stopping to look at the Mona Lisa.
But how do you choose a tour? There are many choices and many prices, so it can be difficult to know where to begin. Having completed the Inca Trail last week, after booking the ticket last minute in Cuzco, I’ve managed to learn from my experience and hope to share some of the money saving tips with you now.
Price differences on the Inca Trail
There’s no doubt the price for the Inca Trail can vary greatly. The cheapest ticket I came across was a student ticket for US$320 for a four-day Inca Trail tour and the most expensive was more than US$1,200 for a G Adventures tour which flies you to Cuzco and back from Lima as part of the price.
You might think that if you pay the lowest price you’ll get the lowest service, but we found that wasn’t the case. We paid US$355 each – even though WikiTravel advises that if you pay less than US$400 something must be wrong – and had a wonderful time.
High season vs low season for Machu Picchu
The high season is the dry season, which runs from May through September. In July and August, Machu Picchu is apparently heaving with crowds, as these are the busiest months to visit. With the Inca Trail, they limit the crowds to 500 people starting the trail per day. This is quite a lot though – it is just a dirt track after all and 500 pairs of hiking boots stamping up and down it can make it busy.
The low season coincides with the wet season, which is from October through April. In February you can’t hike the Inca Trail at all as it closes for the entire month for maintenance. We went in the middle of March and even though it was the rainy season, it didn’t rain too much and we found it pleasant as it wasn’t swelteringly hot during the day.
Possibly the best time of year to go would be in early April or at the end of September because you’ll miss both the rainy season and the crowds of tourists.
The prices for the Inca Trail are more expensive in the high season due to the trek’s popularity. If you absolutely must visit during this time, you’ll have to book ahead because the tours can sell out months in advance. Unfortunately, this also means you’ll most likely miss out on a discounted rate as you won’t be able to hunt around for the best deal in Cuzco like we did – unless you can afford to wait (perhaps weeks) for a free spot to become available.
Booking Inca Trail treks through email queries
Emailing is a good idea because you can get a quick idea of the professionalism of the company depending on their response (or their lack of one!) and how much information they’re willing to give online before you book.
It also gives you an opportunity to ask for a better rate. For example, Loki Travel’s website is selling the Inca Trail tour for US$395 but when I emailed them they dropped the price to US$360.
It also will give you an idea of the price differences between the companies. For example, Llama Path wanted to charge me US$635 and Wayki Trek US$610. If you’re going in the high season, I’d advise emailing as many companies as possible to get the best price.
If visiting in the low season, wait until you get to Cuzco and then book when you arrive.
Hit the pavement once in Cuzco
It’s advisable to arrive in Cuzco 3-4 days before you hike the Inca Trail, so that you can acclimatise to the altitude. This is perfect timing if you want to wait until you get to Cuzco to hunt around for the best price for the Inca Trail hike.
This is what we did and the day we arrived we spent about five hours going from agency to agency. In total, we visited about seven agencies and were quoted a variety of prices with US$355 being the cheapest and US$650 being the most expensive.
We received three quotes for US$355 and ended up going with the one that could offer us the best date for departure – three days from when we arrived in Cuzco We also liked their customer service – the people in the agency were very friendly and took the time to answer all the questions we had. The agency was Eco Trek Path.
Warning: People will insist you book the Inca Trail months in advance because otherwise you won’t be able to get on a tour. If visiting in the low season this is absolutely not true – as our purchase three days before the tour proves.
Questions to ask when researching trek operators
So what questions should you ask the tour agency? Firstly, it’s important to know exactly what’s included in your trek because you don’t want to be caught out without food or a train ticket when you need it most.
All the agencies we inquired at generally included the following:
- All camping gear except for your sleeping bags
- All meals for the four days except for the first breakfast and the last lunch
- Porters to carry all the cooking gear, tents and food but NOT your clothing, sleeping mats and bags and personal items.
- Entrance to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu
- One guide per 8-10 people
- Bus to the start of the trail and train and bus back to Cuzco
What’s not generally included:
- A sleeping bag (make sure you hire a very warm one, we did and were comfortable. It cost us 8 soles – about US$3 – a day.)
- Tips for the porters, guides and cook – we tipped 50 soles each for the porters and cook, and a further 20 soles each for the guide
- Bus down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes where you catch the train back to Cuzco – we walked this and it took about an hour and fifteen minutes
Once you’ve checked with the agency about what’s included, inquire about the service.
- How many people will be on the tour per guide? (It should be 8-10 per guide.)
- How many porters will there be?
- What’s the bus service / train service like? (What class of bus and train.)
- Does the guide speak English?
- Will you be receiving a briefing before you leave? (You should receive one the day before departure.)
- How much extra cash you should bring.
- If hiring the sleeping bag from the agency, how warm is it?
- Where will your campsites be located and how early can you expect to arrive at Machu Picchu? (The earlier the better – we arrived at sunrise, which was around 7am.)
Consider what the tour company pays for
When you break down all of the costs included in the ticket, US$355 really is a great deal. For example, it’s 299 soles (US$105) for the entrance ticket for the Inca Trail, 126 soles (US$44) for your Machu Picchu pass and around 45 soles (US$16) for a guided tour of Machu Picchu. On top of this is your US$48 train ticket and bus transport to and from the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu.
If you add all these costs up, you’ve got US$213 vital elements included in your ticket, meaning you’re paying around US$35.50 per day for your food, porters, camping equipment and guide. I consider this a massive bargain – when you look at the Inca Trail ticket like this it really isn’t expensive at all.
What you should expect on the Inca Trail itself
The Inca Trail isn’t glamorous. You’ll be pooing into a mucky toilet hole in the ground most of the time and sleeping in a two-man tent, possibly with a stranger if you come on your own.
But it’s so worth it. The views you’ll see of the mountains surrounding the trail are amazing. And if you’re lucky – like we were – you might even see a bear!
Not to mention you’ll be visiting Inca ruins with no one else around aside from your tour group. I found this much more magical than the heaving crowds that embrace Machu Picchu each day.
The food on the trail was surprisingly good
I often wondered how the cook managed to whip up his tasty array of meals each day. We even had a cake on the final day, which was amazing as he steamed it in the pan! Each meal was three courses and we never went hungry – although it’s a good idea to bring snacks like chocolate and muesli bars just in case.
You need to be relatively fit
The second day is the hardest when you climb uphill for about four hours. With the altitude, it can be difficult. But you don’t want to be the unfit person slowing everyone down. If you don’t think you’re fit enough, start hiking before you leave so you can get the hang of it and your fitness up.
Saying that, the Inca Trail certainly wasn’t the hardest hike we’ve ever done. The longest we ever walked for was six hours a day, so that was easy!
What to take on the Inca Trail
- Passport – don’t forget it otherwise you won’t be able to get onto the trail or into Machu Picchu
- You need to take cash. We ran out after leaving our tips and so we had to climb down from Machu Picchu to the town instead of taking the bus (US$10 per person). Our legs were aching so it wasn’t too enjoyable.
- Take lots of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It’ll help you to battle the disgusting toilets.
- Take warm clothing (gloves, hat and scarf) as well as a poncho to fend off the rain
- Bring spare batteries for your camera or two cameras so you have something to take capture the moment with when you get to Machu Picchu.
- Bring a plastic bag for all your rubbish, so you can carry it out.
- Take a headlamp for nightime.
- Pack limited toiletries – they weigh a tonne and there aren’t any showers until the last night anyway – we didn’t bother showering at all!
- Don’t forget sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
And there you have it – a rundown to help you book your cheap Machu Picchu tour. Have I forgotten anything?
By Carmen Allan-Petale
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave two years ago and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.