Peru: Guided Tour vs. Unguided
Marco Polo had this debate. Odysseus, too. Not to mention a few hundred generations of travelers like you who have pondered whether or not to tackle the world on their own or to engage an experienced guide to pave the way. The cut-yourself-loose approach works for some people in some destinations and circumstances. On the other hand, explorers as intrepid as Lewis and Clark have long doubled-down by trusting their expeditions to experienced and trustworthy local guides.
Just once, wouldn’t it be interesting to travel in parallel dimensions to the same place and see how the two approaches would play out? Here’s your chance! Recently, two friends of Classic Journeys took long-anticipated vacations in Peru. Nicole and her husband joined our Peru and Machu Picchu trip, while Amy and her best friend decided to tackle the country on their own.
As fate would have it, they were in Peru at the same time and on itineraries that were very similar. Our accidental “guinea pigs” are the same age with very similar backgrounds in international travel. Back at home, they joined us to sip pisco sours and compare notes, particularly about how a guide – or the absence thereof – impacted their experiences.
Arriving at the Hotel
Nicole (with a Classic Journeys guide): “There was never a question who we were when we arrived at our hotels because the staff always knew Edgard, our guide. We felt like long-lost family. A nice warm hand towel was waiting along with an even nicer cold beverage. Our guide coordinated all of the hoo-hah over passports and getting keys. When we arrived in our rooms, our baggage was already there.”
Amy (without a guide): “The hotel staffs were always friendly…and often busy. More than once, we arrived while there was a line at the desk. They kindly suggested that we buy ourselves something from the bar, and they’d let us know when it was our turn to check-in. Once we were finally done with the paperwork, it was the usual process of following the bellman to our room and tipping him.”
Visiting the Salt Mines
In the Sacred Valley, a visit to the fabled Salinera de Maras (salt mines) is an unexpected historical and cultural highlight of Peru.
Nicole (with a Classic Journeys guide): “Edgard explained the 500-year history of the mines, which are older than the Incas. We saw how natural springs bubble up carrying salt deposits to the surface from prehistoric underground lakes. The water forms 3-inch-deep terraced pools that are owned by the same families for generations. Some of them are Edgard’s friends, and he introduced us and encouraged us to ask questions (and he interpreted, too). It’s amazing to understand how something as simple as salt is so incredibly important to the local people and how they live in their small village.”
Amy (without a guide): “Well, we were a little rushed getting to the mines. Our taxi driver took an unexpected detour, cutting our visit short. I knew the importance of the mines prior to my visit, and they were breathtaking to look at. I posted a lot of pictures to Instagram, but I couldn’t exactly explain what they were. While I was there, I felt more like I was seeing a photo rather than being in the movie.”
Handling an “Oops” Moment
Amy (without a guide): “We thought we planned thoroughly, but we missed some important things. For instance, when we purchased our Inca Trail permits, we were never told that we needed to hire a guide too! We managed to chase one down on the spot, and he was okay (but just okay). It also added to our expenses … and our stress.”
Nicole (with a Classic Journeys guide): “Our Inca Trail permits were all taken care of for us, and we had Edgard, so not just a guide, but a guide we knew and loved. He kept us seamlessly on track. Even the one detour we encountered during the trip — due to an unplanned road closure — ended up being a lot of fun because he took us to a family farm to see their baby alpacas and llamas.”
What About the Next Time?
Amy (without a guide): “We had a great time, but my friend has already decided that she wants to travel with a guide next time. I agree. We really spent more time on logistics than you ought to. We worked super hard over a period of several months to put our trip together, and we were proud of that. But all week it seemed like we were still making plans and changing plans and paying for new plans when we would rather have been immersing ourselves in Peru.”
Nicole (with a Classic Journeys guide): “We hit it off with a couple who were traveling in our group, and we are planning our next Classic Journeys trip, probably to Chile. Traveling with a guide gave us the luxury of focusing on Peru and on things like meeting schoolchildren and making new friends. We didn’t waste a minute wondering where we were, or where to eat, or how to get from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba. I saw people who were roaming around in some of the Quechua towns, not really knowing what to do. We were walking on the same sidewalk, but I think we were seeing a completely different country than they were.”