Being a budget traveler, you should know by now never to travel to places at their peak seasons. This list and all the advice I give here will only apply if you travel to Machu Picchu (or any other hiking destination for that matter) off-peak. The best time to travel here for good weather and best prices are the months of April – May and September – October.
1. It is a lot cheaper to organize the tours at the place where you will start the hike from.
It can be up to several hundred dollars more expensive if you book in advance in your own country (if the hike isn’t in your own country). It is standard procedure for the operators to charge a premium when dealing with international clients from abroad who book well in advance. This will also effectively cut out any middlemen in the online transaction as undoubtedly common. When any of the hundreds of tour operators organize a group to go, they do not discriminate whether you booked online half a year before or walked into their office the day before, they will put you all together in the same group to save on having to hire 2 groups of guides and their corresponding teams of porters to go with you.
The closer it gets to the jump-off date, in the same way that airlines drop their prices right before a flight, the prices for the treks are greatly reduced because they are then trying to fill up the group with the maximum allowable hikers per guide to increase profit.
A strong and effective tactic is to visit a number of different operators (a few days before your ideal starting date), based upon word of mouth recommendations and online reviews and then ask for the prices for their different treks. At this point you can haggle and bring the price down even further, if you’re really on a tight budget.
2. Your hiking companions and guide will be left completely out of your control.
I have heard horror stories of some groups having a terrible guide with a nasty, impatient attitude. Always rushing the group, never giving any explanations, never courteous, never kind. When choosing an operator, try and see if you can meet the guide who will take you, sometimes he’ll be the one you’re talking to at the offices, or the one organizing gear out back. While not always the case, sometimes a 5-second introduction is all you need to gain a sense of if you’ll like your guide or not.
While I have never heard of complaints about other hikers, I’m sure bad hike-mates exist and you would much rather be in a group with like-minded individuals with whom you have already developed a little rapport than otherwise.
A good reason to go to Cusco a week or so before your desired hike date (aside from acclimatizing very well) is you get to find people to go on the hike with. I’ve learned to trust my intuition with people and usually only need from a few minutes to a few hours to develop some affinity or harmony towards each other through conversation, body language and other non-verbal cues – if compatible. Quite often, you’ll see others walking into tour operator offices as well to canvas and haggle. Have an open mind, be friendly and perhaps you’ll make new life-long buddies in the trek to come!
3. You will miss out on the chance of choosing a route less-traveled.
Some people like to choose the beaten path, but I’ve noticed in the past couple of years that most travelers i bump into prefer to avoid the crowds and take a less congested route, i.e., not necessarily but sometimes will entail a harder route. Aside from the Inca Trail, there are many other beautiful trails that will give you different experiences as you make your way towards Machu Picchu.
Some are more adventurous (for the adrenaline junkies) and take you through a jungle with epic views while careening downhill on a mountain bike, ziplining over wild rivers and taking a dip in hot springs, while others take you to remote ruins not unlike Machu Picchu, through several different breathtaking micro-climates (shrubland, rich cloud forest and puna – a high-altitude grassland) notoriously difficult and not for the faint of heart that can take up to 2 weeks to accomplish.
In conjunction with possibly finding new friends to go with, on the fly, you may decide to take one of the other many treks in making your way to Machu Picchu, instead of the popular Inca Trail. I did the Salkantay trek and had an amazing time with a great group and guide, despite the fact that I booked it way in advance, contrary to the advise I’m sharing with you now. Read about the trek here.
4. You will have wasted the valuable information you gained from all the people that have just arrived from their treks.
Half the people you meet in Cusco will have already done a trek and seen Machu Picchu. Ask them about their experience, how difficult it was, what should you bring or leave behind, etc. It’s one thing to hear all this from tour operators but quite another when from the mouths of travelers like you; they have nothing to gain or lose from sharing their story with you.
Ask about their guide names, the companies they took – are walking sticks a big help? How many layers should I bring? How cold did it get? How much did you pay? These and many more questions you ask can help you tremendously in making a more informed decision as to which trek to do and with which operator.
5. If on a longterm trip, you will be more flexible with your date of arrival in Cusco.
There is nothing more wasteful than rushing through your travels. You’ve earned all this money, spent so much time on flights and buses to get to where you are, only to hurriedly get to your next destination. Not having to catch a pre-booked trek or tour will allow you to be more spontaneous with your trip.
If you particularly liked a certain city, mountain or beach, you can guiltlessly spend a few more days there to satisfy your senses and curiosities. If you meet someone interesting along the way (as you usually will) and they invite you to join them to explore some place you’ve never heard of, you can easily change plans, add a new leg to your journey or change it altogether and then still get to do the trek you’ve been wanting to – only at a later date. They may even decide to join you on your trek. It’s not uncommon to find travelers joining up at different parts of their journeys; the key factors in allowing that are flexibility, spontaneity and open-mindedness – and booking your hike online months before will lessen at least the former two to some extent.