Our family went with SAS for the Sacred Valley tour, Inti Raymi, 4D Inka Trail, Nazca Lines & Ballestas Islands.
We planned our trip 6 months ahead and went through 2 slight modifications. They advised and helped us along our decision-making process. Emails were responded within 2 days, except once when I finally have to Skype SAS. I appreciate how Robyn (one of the owners, I believe) was very accessible through Skype. Before our departure to Peru, she smoothed out a few kinks and were accommodative.
Accessibility: 5+ stars
During our trip (we went through airports, bus stations, and train station) we were never left stranded waiting for SAS to pick up, except once, in Nazca. The bus arrived 1 hour late and the guy showed up 15 min late (acceptable in Peruvian time, but worrisome to us because we thought the bus' impunctuality was causing the chain reaction of our missing the rest of our trip)
Coordination: 4 stars
Their staffs were very friendly, helpful, and accommodative. There were a couple of dudes in the office that can definitely work on their customer service. (From their attitudes & general lack of willingness to get off their computers make me think they could be the office managers)
Staff: 5 stars (except for those 2 dudes)
All the accommodations (i.e., train, buses & hotels) are very satisfactory - 4 stars
Sacred Valley Tour:
SAS packs a lot of things to do in this Sacred Valley tour. That looks like a good bang for your buck, but for me, on hindsight, it's not so great. (On hindsight, I'd rather spend more time at fewer sites). I started the day by being the one person everyone was waiting for (I was 10 min late). We had our first 'charity' stop at a 'strip mall' in Pisac which the guide told us was 'mandatory'. This was the Peruvian government effort to promote local craft school that helps/ trains ex-farmers acquire new skills. When we arrived at Citadel of Pisac, the guide spent 2/3 of our time there 'educating' us and gave us only the remaining 10 min to actually see & explore the ruins, and we did it on our own while he stayed put. Things did not become better as the day went. We stopped at silver artisans' shop to do another shopping before lunch. Then as we were approaching Ollantaytambo ruins, we were stuck in one-lane 2-way traffic. And we were stuck again on the same section when we left Ollantaytambo. The traffic condition made us miss our last destination, Chincero. As night fell, the guide directed us to weavers' community to do one last shopping. That's how most of our days was spent, stuck because of the lack of infrastructure and shopping.
Guide (Christian): 2.5 - 3 stars. He gave the impression of very minimal 'guiding'. Apart from a few factual mistakes (I looked them up & double checked), he spent a long time talking but somehow not much information was given.
Pisac is OK; I prefer Ollantaytambo. Of course they'll be dwarfed by Machu Picchu.
Bus used by SAS: 5 stars
The Sacred Valley tour: 3 stars overall for me (maybe different time, different group, could be better)
Inti Raymi: The festival itself is 5 stars (just google it!). This time we have better guide (Jose): 3.5 - 4 stars. We arrived 3 hours early because the group collectively agreed to not squeeze with the crowd to watch the procession. So we just watched the beginning of Inti Raymi with the ceremony at Qorikancha and the finale at Sacsayhuaman. Due to our early arrival, we got lucky because we had a chance to explore the site a bit. Again, the transportation bus is 5 stars.
No need to add anymore. The guidebooks and internet are all correct in describing the 'thrill' of the trail, the challenge of Dead Woman's Pass, the beauty of the scenery, the serenity of the environment, the good quality of the authentic food, and the amazing feat of the porters & cook. (It's a nice touch when the cook whipped up a birthday cake for one member of the group on his birthday). The final destination, Machu Picchu truly does not disappoint. It is much BETTER than all the pictures on the internet & magazines. And yes, psychologically it is more dramatic if you enter from the Inka Trail than the entrance gate. Our team was pretty tight too. Our guide, Hilbert, and his crews were supportive and understanding. On and off we had a few different people in the group falling behind or having challenging times (including the need of O2). Hilbert & Henry (co-guide) stayed with them throughout. Hilbert claimed to be a student of archeology, so his narration could be pedantic. But he is good. I just wished he spent more time showing us more features at Machu Picchu itself. I felt a bit 'jealous' and sheepish when I had to tag other groups surreptitiously in order to 'learn' more. Overall, the experience is 5 stars.
Hilbert: 4 stars
The overnight bus to Nazca was an hour later than what's in our itinerary, and I couldn't be sure whether that was due to schedule change or typo on the itinerary. Of course the real concern was we would miss the rest of our tour. And it sure didn't help calming us down when no one was at Nazca bus station to pick us up. We were not given local contact number, and we didn't see any public phone to use in order to call SAS in Cusco. (We can't use station/ store phones to call long distance). Fortunately, the pick-up guy was just a tad late. The overnight Cruz del Sur bus was very nice - 5 stars.
The Nazca Lines themselves were a bit disappointing. Due to erosion and other ground activities, there are many 'other lines' on the ground that are distracting us or obscuring the figures. The figures are still all there, they are just not as easy to spot as we thought. SAS used MovilAir for this service. The plane & the pilots are fine - 4 stars. Overall experience: 3 stars
Paracas/ Ballestas Islands
This is a nice relaxing outing. We got to see the 'candelabra', smell the sea (& the guano), enjoy the company of boobies (they're birds :)), penguins, sea lions, etc. Our guide was very nice - 5 stars. The boat: 3.5 stars. The trip itself: 4 stars.
In the end, despite a few snags here & there, I don't mind doing business with SAS Travel Peru again. Based on our 10-day experience with the company, I can also refer SAS to others too.
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