The best and most affordable tours in this hugely popular market, from novices to hard-core trekkers
The Peruvian Andes, and that section of it known as the Cordillera Blanca, is next in popularity, accounting for perhaps 30% of all treks. From Lima you fly to Cuzco and there, your gear stowed atop a mountain burro, you embark on a five-day, 35-mile walk along the ancient Inca Trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu, passing awesome Incan ruins unseen by conventional tourists. Again from Lima, you go by car to Huaraz to embark on an eight-day trek through the heart of Peru's highest mountain area.
In the Swiss Alps (a 10% share of the trekking industry), hut-to-hut trekking replaces the traditional variety, with vans bringing your food, clothing, and bedding to austere and unattended mountain lodges scattered among the mountain trails, a day's march from each other. The classic trip is of the Mont Blanc massif, on a trail dominated by the tallest of Europe's mountain peaks. Trips cost as little as $675 for nine nights (plus airfare to Switzerland), including lodging, some meals, and the services of a support vehicle that moves camp each day.
Country walking tours (inn to inn while a van carries gear ahead)
So much for mountainous treks that are high in terms of altitude and adventure. Next up are walking tours in environments that are less challenging, but just as rewarding in terms of cultural exchange and quaint scenery.
REI Adventures, P.O. Box 1938, Sumner WA 98390 (phone 800/622-2236) offers year-round biking and hiking trips (as well as nearly every other outdoors sport you can imagine) all over the globe. Sample European adventures include "Czech Wonders" (ten days from $1,795) and "Ireland Coast to Coast Hike" (11 days from $2,199). In Asia, one can explore the "Treasures of China" (15 days from $2,595) or hike, bike, and raft in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal on the "Active Annapurna" tour (16 days from $2,599). Groups are generally limited to 16 participants. Accommodations vary according to destination and range from camping to bed and breakfasts or local inns and hotels. Most trips also include luggage transfer from place to place, as well as the majority of meals and necessary equipment. A lifetime membership to REI is $15--all members receive a special discount on trips (between $125 and $200). View the REI Web site for further information at reiadventures.com/.
Journeys International, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, stresses the cross-cultural aspects of a walking vacation. It makes an intense effort to bring about meetings between walkers and the locals of each area. Even prior to departure, Journeys involves its travelers in cultural training for the trip, then delivers daily briefings en route and along the trail by speakers ranging from Buddhist monks and naturalists to ordinary villagers (through interpreters). Specialists to Asia, especially Nepal and Ladakh, since 1978, and highly regarded even by its competitors, Journeys also offers departures to Latin America, Asia, Antarctica, Europe, the Arctic and Africa. There are even a handful of departures arranged for specialty groups (women only, families, etc.). Rates charged are between $150 and $300 per day depending on destination, airfare not included. Contact Journeys International, 107 Aprill Dr., Ste. 3, Ann Arbor, MI 48103-1903 (phone 734/665-4407, Web: journeys-intl.com/, for a well-written, well-illustrated catalog.
If biking, walking or hiking through Europe on your own sounds appealing, Randonnee Tours' "self-guided" trips might be the thing for you. Trips run year-round (May to October is the high season) primarily through France, but also to Italy, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada. Most walking trips average between $200 and $250 a night, and some as much as $300 per night. Each day, you follow a detailed itinerary that Randonnee has created specifically for you, based on your abilities and preferences. The only restriction is that you must arrive each night at a proscribed destination--usually a small hotel. On some walking tours, accommodations are inexpensive B&B's to keep prices down (such as a tour in France, which starts at only $126/day). Luggage is transported separately from place to place. The company is in its 13th year now and has built a loyal following with a generally older crowd of travelers. For more information, contact Randonee Tours, 100-62 Albert St., Winnipeg Manitoba R3B 1E9 (phone 800/465-6488 or 204/475-6939, or view the extensive Web site at randonneetours.com/.)