As a concerned traveller to Peru, you are probably asking yourself the question, Are there many scams in Machu Picchu?
While a great number of tour companies operate out of Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and tourists often fall victim to a variety of scams, there are certain precautions you can take to avoid such occurrences.
Just by being aware of the issues, including what scams are out there, you will be better equipped to protect yourself from becoming an unwitting victim.
Read on for more details about common scams in Machu Picchu and Cusco.
The appeal of Cusco
Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s a beautiful, half Incan, half colonial town high up in the Andes mountain range.
Just as likely it’s the proximity to Machu Picchu and a plethora of ruins from a fascinating, half-understood civilisation.
One that was exterminated by European civilisation half a millennia ago.
Or perhaps it’s the $7 massages.
But for some reason, a very large number of tourists come to visit Cusco each year.
The city has much to offer, itself a jumping off point to other attractions in the region.
The orange-tiled roofs and narrow, ascending cobblestone alleyways conceal a multitude of charms.
These narrow alleyways and archways in the historical centre of Cusco are also where the hawkers lurk; enterprising, entrepreneurial types looking to leverage their knowledge of the city and surrounding region against the disposable incomes of adventurous tourists.
Out of sight of the security cameras.
They offer tours of Machu Picchu, or Rainbow Mountain, or one of the other mountain treks; and they offer it at a low, low price.
When some other services are offered at hundreds and hundreds of dollars, these low prices can be mighty tempting.
But what is the difference between a Machu Picchu package for $150 and another for $550?
Why would you choose the latter?
Is it just the tastier dinner on offer?
There are a variety of treks from Cusco that culminate at Machu Picchu, depending on the level of physical challenge you seek, or historicity that interests you.
They also come in a variety of levels of comfort and luxury.
The price discrepancies can be enormous; sometimes four figures.
There are ways you can legitimately reduce costs, for example, by taking a vehicle to and from Machu Picchu instead of the highly expensive train.
There are always $5 hotels, in which you really get what you pay for.
But a lot of this price discrepancy is due to shady business practices on the part of the travel agency.
In Peru, anyone can open a tour operator business.
There’s no need for specific qualifications in tourism or any other associated certificates.
Your grandmother could fly to Peru and open a tour operator business.
This sort of setup can and really does lead to abuse.
The problem is, the victim is just as often the Imperial City of Cusco or the country of Peru itself as it is the bargain-seeking tourist.
Although tour operators do not need specific certificates to operate a tour company, they do require a license.
This is lacking in a majority of cases.
There are 810 tour operating agencies in the Cusco region, with a whopping 650 of them unlicensed.
This does not necessarily mean that they will offer a bad service to the customers.
But it indicates that they do not likely conform to good business practice.
Most commonly, these operators will not pay tax on their operations.
This may not be a direct concern for the customer, but it is definitely an ethical factor.
It means that they will not pay social security for their employees, leaving them without health coverage or pension contributions.
It also counts as unfair competition against those tour agencies that do comply with the law.
Furthermore, guides are not paid a salary, but paid on commission for upselling to customers while on the tour.
But if you are not overly interested in that aspect, consider that unlicensed operators are more prone to bad practices in the field.
These can include poor safety standards – especially concerning considering some of the high-risk activities these operators undertake.
They can commit to unrealistic timeframes for their tours, hurrying customers through treks or activities in order to finish as soon as possible.
Equipment and transportation might be of substandard quality.
There are countless ways in which poor practices can manifest themselves that directly affect and jeopardise the customer.
And some operators will literally operate fraudulent scam operations in which the unwitting sucker is left high and dry without the service they paid for, nor the money they paid for it.
The most common outcome of a scam operator is that they take the money upfront, fulfil a part of their obligations, but then disappear half way through the tour, leaving the victims only half way to Machu Picchu and very much paddle-less and up a creak.
Just one example of scams in Machu Picchu.
These shysters operate in the streets and also online.
Internet punters are easy game for the unscrupulous.
This is because online buyers often have no idea what a fair tour price is, and they are also anxious to book for fear of missing out and ruining their trip.
In and around the vicinity of Plaza de Armas in Cusco, there is an army of street hawkers selling one thing or another.
They seek to bamboozle new arrivals with dazzling offers, undercutting established firms and appealing to their shallow pockets.
The deal sounds really good – too good to be true, if you really think about it – and the unstreetwise will therefore hand over the cash and get scammed.
And then, by sheer coincidence, the original street hawker cannot be found.
With no office, website or point of contact in which to make their irate case.
That’s how it works.
Other operators might run an old-fashioned credit card scam.
Before handing the plastic over, ensure that you are dealing with a reputable company that uses a secure line to receive its payments.
Otherwise you might find your card billed multiple times for that one train ticket as the firm pull off more scams in Machu Picchu.
The Rafting Disaster
On December 18, 2012, the tour operator Aqua Explore took three customers out onto the river Vilcanota.
They were to raft from Santa Teresa to Quillabamba.
The two guides were just 18 and 19 years old, as well as unlicensed and unqualified.
Aqua Explore was also an unlicensed tour agency, a fact that was unknown to the tourists.
Half way down the river, traversing some of the ugliest rapids, the boat capsized, tossing all five occupants into raging waters.
While the two guides and one of the customers managed to swim to the river bank, the two other customers did not, and died of drowning.
How to avoid dodgy operators and scams in Machu Picchu
A level of streetwise nous is advisable in all walks of life, but not everyone possesses it.
Unfortunately, often the best way to acquire it is by simply getting scammed and learning your lesson.
Another way is to read the following advice!
As a tourist you are always a target for scammers, knowing that you’re less likely to report the crime and even less likely to stick around for any potential prosecution.
As such, there are three main considerations to take into account at the moment of choosing your operator.
One; the guarantees that the operator provides, two; the quality of the service, and three; the fulfiment of what is agreed upon.
The top travel agencies will always rank highly for all three criteria.
A lot of the steps are common sense.
Before handing over your cash, check that the tour operator has a website and, ideally, offices that they can’t pick up and run away with, should things go south.
Try to go with recommendations from other tourists you meet who can vouch for the operator.
And if you do decide to go with a guy in the street, ask him to take you to his offices, meet his colleagues, get his business card, and so forth.
Because not all of the street hawkers will necessarily be hawking scams in Machu Picchu.
The Peru government issues the SABP certificate to the best tour operators and travel agencies who meet the highest standards of practice and fidelity.
Look for this logo when choosing your operator.
You can also look them up on Tripadvisor, and other similar review-system websites.
And finally, there is the very useful website iPeru, which is a government-funded initiative dedicated to fair and impartial tourist information and assistance.
This website, designed to combat illegal tour operators and scams in Machu Picchu, allows you look up useful information on the various tourist attractions and tours available in Peru.
It also provides advice and counselling for those tourists who have become victims of the shady practices of illegal tour operators.
It will show if a particular tour operator has a record of complaints.
Combatting scams in Machu Picchu and Peru
It may seem that illegal tour operators are a ceaseless torrent against which the government is being swamped.
And that’s because it kind of is.
The number of illegal operators has only reduced between 3-5 per cent in the past five years.
As soon as one shuts down, it seems another springs up to take its place.
The government is now putting its efforts into convincing illegal operators of the ease and value in ‘going legit’, as opposed to being prosecuted.
The problem is that – with so much competition and such slight profit margins – the extra costs associated with legal compliance is often the straw that drowns the whale.
That is not to say that prosecutions are not taking place either.
The worst offenders receive fines and other penalties.
But the reality seems to be that it is up to the tourist to be discerning in their selection of tour operators in order to avoid the eponymous scams in Machu Picchu.
Therefore, taking the time to check their reputation, their credentials and the quality of their service is highly advisable.
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