Completing the Inca Trail to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu is a dream adventure for any traveller heading to South America. This trek is modelled on the original journey taken by Hiram Bingham in 1911 when he made the existence of the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu public. Over 100 years later, you can follow in his footsteps on a path that takes you to a height of 4,200 metres. With scores of trekking companies advertising trips on this infamous hike, picking the right one can seem a bit overwhelming.
Book with a responsible trekking company
This might seem like a daunting task – how do you know if a company is practising responsible tourism or not? There are a few simple things that you can do to immediately rule out some companies. If they are offering really cheap trips (less than USD 500), then it is unlikely they are paying their porters fair wages.
Do they mention sustainability or fair employment practices on their website? If in doubt, you can always ask. Contact the company directly to ask any questions that you might have. Do your research online and read any reviews or blogs written about the company paying close attention to their treatment of porters.
The porters on this trail largely come from poorer communities in the mountains. Due to the continued mistreatment of porters on this hike, the Peruvian Government introduced legislation to regulate the weight porters are allowed to carry (5kg personal luggage, 20kg client’s luggage), pay rates and insurance requirements. Sadly, some companies continue to ignore this legislation in their pursuit to offer the cheapest tours for tourists.
The current minimum wage for porters on the Inca Tail is 46.2 soles per day (approx. USD 15), although some companies continue to underpay their porters. Many responsible tourism operators clearly disclose their pay rates on their website. If you are unable to find this information, you may wish to inquire about their salary requirements.
When you start your hike, you will notice that the porters’ luggage is weighed at the beginning of the route as well as once during the hike itself. Some companies are restricting the personal luggage allowance of the porters to allow them to carry more tourist luggage. While their packs may meet the legal weight restrictions, by restricting their personal luggage allowance, these companies are infringing on the rights of their workers.
Check with your tour provider whether they supply adequate equipment for their porters. This should include rain ponchos during the rainy season (December to April), as well as the option to wear hiking shoes. Peru Treks, for example, consulted with their porters before purchasing quality walking shoes for them to wear. While many of them choose to wear rubber sandals, they do have the option to wear shoes if they would like to.
Food and nutrition
The treatment of the porters on the hike varies between tour providers. Ask your tour operator if they supply adequate amounts of healthy food for the porters as some companies only let the porters eat the leftovers from the tourist dinners. In general, you will see that the porters and cooks sleep in the group cooking and dining tents. If the tourists decide to stay up late one evening, this means that the porters also have to stay awake.
Get to know your porter
The porters are often Quechua and are very shy with low self-esteem as a result of their history of oppression. While the hike will be very tiring and you will probably feel exhausted, try to learn a few basic Quechua words from your guide and have a short conversation with your porters. Many of these porters have fascinating stories to share, and by chatting with them you will gain an incredible insight into their culture.
As always, tips are based on the level of service that you received. Even if you have chosen not to hire a porter to carry your personal belongings, don’t forget to tip the porters who carried the cooking equipment, shelters and tents. If you bring small change, you will be able to tip the porters directly rather than in one lump sum that may not be evenly distributed. Some companies have tip recommendations on their websites to help you estimate how much money to bring with you.
While there is legislations in place to protect the porters working on the Inca Trail, many companies are still finding ways to evade these regulations. If you witness any mistreatment or abuse of the porters, notify your guide immediately and your tour company when you return to Cusco. If you are unsatisfied with their response you can file a complaint. Unfortunately, the Government does not release a list of the companies that breach this legislation which makes it harder for tourists to identify the responsible tour operators.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a once in a life-time experience for anyone wishing to gain an insight into Incan history and culture. While it might take a bit more research than normal, choosing a responsible tour operator will ensure that the porters on your hike are well treated and happy workers. If more and more people choose responsible tour companies, the less ethical companies may begin to change their practices. Help make a difference to the lives of porters in Peru!