You’ve decided you’d prefer to take an escorted tour to Peru, but which company should you travel with? An upscale company with a well known brand or a smaller tour company with a more personalized approach?
So much depends on your own travel style, your expectations and your budget. But beware of the “cookie cutter” tour, where large groups of tourists are shuttled from place to place following a tired itinerary, often housed in hotels on the outskirts of town and eating meals that don’t often showcase the region’s best cuisine.
As a Certified International Tour Director, I’ve done tours of varying quality for many different companies, and the most expensive tours didn’t necessarily mean they were the best. A good tour company understands the needs of its travelers. They’ve incorporated the newest trends into their itineraries and they do their best to help you experience and define the culture you’re visiting.
Many of the bigger tour companies are experiencing a great amount of competition from smaller companies that give the traveler a more defined experience: smaller groups, more hands on experiences, better meals and hotels that are located in the center of a destination rather than on the outskirts of town. Many of these larger companies have started smaller brands to accommodate the traveler who wants to get away from “cookie cutter” tours.
It takes a bit of research to find a tour that is right for you. Google a few companies under the search term “escorted tours to Peru” and look closely at the following criteria:
Itinerary: Are they offering the attractions you have on your wish list, and how much time do they allow at each? Many tours that bring you to Machu Picchu only offer an afternoon at the site—way too little time in my opinion. If your life’s dream is to visit Machu Picchu, a few hours in the ruins isn’t going to cut it. Look for a tour that offers an overnight opportunity at a hotel near the site. Your pass is good for the entire day, and many visitors enjoy having extra time to walk a mile on the Inca Trail or slowly walk the site for photo opportunities. A few tour companies offer a pass for the next day as well, so you can watch the sunrise over the ruins or spend a few hours taking one last excursion to the site before the train leaves for Cusco in the afternoon. I also recommend finding a company that offers a guided tour by an experienced Peruvian guide once you get to the site, so you can better understand what you are seeing.
Other must-see items on a Machu Picchu itinerary include the Sacred Valley, the ruins in and around Cusco, the Pisac market, and the churches of Cusco. Beyond the must-see attractions, what else are they offering? Look for something unique, like a pesonalized tour through a museum by the curator, a Paso horse show and lunch at a hacienda in Lima, a cooking class, or a lecture by an archaeologist. You’re looking for a company that really has a passion for the area. You’ll notice that all tour companies have the same prerequisite stops and attractions on their itineraries, so look for something special– something that showcases their passion and knowledge of Peru.
Hotels: If you are booking a Machu Picchu tour, you want to find a company that features hotels in the center of Cusco. It is a fascinating city, rich in restaurants and shopping, so be sure to find a company that books hotels as close to the center of town as possible. Your hotel in Lima should be somewhere near Miraflores–on the outskirts of the city, as that is where the upscale–and safe–hotels are situated. I can’t underscore how important it is to really look at the hotels that are being offered. Read reviews on Trip Advisor. Ask a lot of questions from your tour company. Hotels in Peru are much cheaper than their American and European counterparts, and if you’re picking an upscale and more expensive tour, you want to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth. There is nothing better than coming home from a busy day at high altitude and having a hot shower and a good bed to get into. Many hotels are now offering multi-night stays at the same hotel—and I am a great believer that this makes for a better tour. People like to make their hotel rooms their “home,” hang up their clothes, and leave their toothbrush on the sink. Many tour companies do an overnight in the Sacred Valley rather than return back to Cusco. I prefer to come back to Cusco rather than have my passengers change hotels.
Meals: Look closely at how many meals are included. Good tour companies will understand the importance of groups having dinner together for a majority of the evenings on tour. Dinners bring groups together, and it’s a great meal for a company to showcase their knowledge and understanding of Peruvian cuisine. How many meals does the company provide? Call and ask about the restaurants and do a little research. And please remember how important it is for the restaurants to be carefully chosen. It isn’t uncommon for tourists to have stomach or intestinal problems on tour in Peru. This isn’t entirely because the food is “bad” in this country than it is the difference in bacteria. A good tour company will have tried and true restaurants on their itinerary. Food is less expensive in Peru, and a good tour company will incorporate meals that showcase the cuisine in clean and well thought of restaurants.
Free Time: There is a plethora of wonderful shopping in Peru, and the Peruvians are known for the handmade crafts and artisan skills. You’re going to want free time to roam the streets of Cusco, take in museums or galleries, or have some coca tea–the tea that cures every ill in Peru–on a patio restaurant on your own. Not only is free time important for your own pursuits, but it also gives you time to slow down and enjoy the culture, rather than be hurried through it. I have been on dozens of tours where the experience becomes a blur, passengers are tired and overworked and found themselves wishing for some time alone. Seeing an area with your own eyes is an important part of traveling–whether you’re with a tour company or not.
The less time in Lima, the better: Lima has its charms, but you really only need a day to conquer it. Most people flying into Lima are on their way to somewhere else. Don’t choose a company that includes more than a day of sightseeing there; it isn’t necessary.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m choosing an escorted tour so I don’t have to do the research! But if you take a little time to delve into the itineraries, hotels and restaurants used by the companies you’re considering, it will make for a much more rewarding journey.