Thousands of people make the Inca Trail trek each year. They typically complete the 43km mountainous trail in 4 days. For many the experience is an trip of a lifetime and the fulfilment of a personal ambition. The satisfaction of having completed the trek and arriving at the spectacular Inca ruins of Machu Picchu is hard to beat. However the feeling is even better if you know that all the porters helping you along the way have been well looked after and treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.
Now that most trekkers on the Inca Trail take a trek organized by a local tour operator, the camping equipment (tents, dining tent, kitchen tent, tables, chairs, stove, gas bottle and food) is carried on the backs of human porters. Pack animals such as horses, mules and llamas are now banned from the trail. The prices that tour operators charge for this 4 day trek can vary considerably as can the rates of porter pay and conditions provided by each company. However trying to find out if a company looks after its porters can be quite difficult. Often tour companies are not completely honest about the wages that they say that they pay their porters and real facts are difficult to verify. If you ask a porter how much he gets paid then very rarely you will get a straight answer. If a porter is well paid he is likely to tell you that he is poorly paid so that you give him a better tip! If he is badly paid it is likely that the company has instructed him to lie and tell you that he receives more than he actually does. If he complains about his pay to tourists on the trek then he is unlikely to work much longer!
1. Book your trek with a responsible trekking company.
At the moment none of the trekking agencies are perfect and there is still plenty of room for improvement. However if you pay under US$620 for a 4 day group Inca Trail trek it is very unlikely that porter welfare is high on the company's concerns. When you book with a company let them know that the treatment the porters receive is important to you. Porters need fare wages, decent meals and warm and dry accommodation.
2. Hire a porter.
Hiring a porter will make your trek more enjoyable, giving you time to enjoy the scenery rather than looking at your boots! You'll also be giving employment to people who really want and need to work.
3. Interact with your porters.
Talk to your porters, learn about their traditions and villages. Share some coca leaves. Even ask them to sing some of their local songs. Most porters suffer from low self-esteem so make the first move, don't wait for them to talk to you first.
4. Thank your porter.
Show your porters that you appreciated them. Thank them verbally and leave a tip.
5. Report instances of porter neglect.
If you are unhappy about how your porters are treated then complain to the guide. If he/she can't resolve the problem then make a big fuss back at the office when you return to Cusco. Make sure the office is full of other potential clients. If you bought your trek in another country then make a complaint in writing when you return home.
If you are a member of South America Explorers let them know that you were unhappy with the service. You can also send us an email here at Andean Travel Web (Contact Us)
6. Contribute to one of the porter projects listed at the bottom of the page.
The Peruvian government can be praised for introducing a new law in 2002 stating that a porter should receive a minimum wage (48 Soles per day - about US$15 - in 2016). As far as we can tell only 60% of companies are actually paying their porters this wage, unfortunately most companies have chosen to ignore this law and 40 Soles seems to be the average wage that the cheaper companies are paying their porters and some companies are still paying wages as low as 35 Soles per day. Some of the top companies pay above the minimum wage and several of the companies recommended on this website are paying up to 55 Soles per day.
However, porters wages must be seen in relation to wages paid to other workers throughout Peru. For example a teacher in a local school earns about 800 Soles per month. This is roughly equal to the combined wages and tips of a porter (assuming that the porter can depart on the Inca Trail 4 times in a month and is working for a respectable trekking company who pays the legal wage). Of course a teacher receives other benefits such as a state pension and health care as well as guaranteed work year round whereas a porter receives none of these benefits.
The maximum weight that a porter can carry on the Inca Trail has been limited to 20kg. This includes a 5kg personal allowance for items such as blankets and clothes. Each porter is weighed at the start of the trail and then again at Wayllabamba at the start of the second day. This regulation was introduced in 2002 and has been strictly enforced. Companies that are caught overloading their porters receive fines and the risk of losing their licenses. However, as with most regulations, many companies make great efforts to get around them. Tourists who have hired a personal porter are often asked to carry their own bags through the check points and guides and assistants temporarily take some of the load. If you hire a personal porter to carry your equipment do not accept this practice and ensure that you porter is fully loaded when he is weighed at the check points. Some of the worst companies also restrict the amount of personal items that a porter can take with him, imposing upon his personal allowance of 5kg. Many porters are scared that if their blankets are too heavy or they have packed too many warm clothes then they will exceed the 20kg limit and receive a fine which the company will then deduct from their wages. Obviously responsible companies do not practice such activities.
The biggest difference between a responsible company and an irresponsible one is how they look after their porters on the trek. Many porters are given very little to eat on the trail. They have to wait to see how much the tourists have eaten before the left-overs are divided up amongst them. Many porters end the trail tired and hungry. In general porters sleep together in the group dining and kitchen tents. This is fine since there is warmth in numbers. However, when you are on the Inca Trail remember not end up talking all night in the dining tent as there may be tired and cold porters outside waiting to go to bed. You may also notice that very few dining tents have integral floors to keep out the cold and damp. When it rains the floor can become like a river running through the tent. Very few porters have sleeping mats or even warm sleeping bags. They usually put one blanket on the ground and cover themselves with another one. There is still plenty of room for improvement for even the most expensive and professional trekking companies when it comes to providing warm, comfortable and dry accommodation for their porters.
The Quechua race has a history of being down-trodden, first by the Incas, then by the Spanish and then by the landowners. Only in fairly recent reforms have the Quechua people started to own their own land. Because of their long history of being dominated by others many have a low self-esteem. It is important on the Inca Trail to try to involve the porters in your group. Take some coca leaves to share with them and try to learn a couple of basic words in Quechua (your guide will be pleased to help you). Many of the porters have amazing stories to tell about traditions and life in their villages. At the end of the trek don't forget to show them that you appreciated their work and valued their contribution towards the trek by thanking them verbally and giving them a tip.
Tipping the guide and cook should be dependent on the quality of the service that you received. If their tips are consistently poor then they will soon get the message that they need to improve. However, even if the food was terrible and the guide spoke no English (which we hope will not be the case), the porters were probably still working away hard carrying the camping equipment and tents so don't forget to leave a tip. The amount you pay depends on you but as a guideline we recommend that each porter in your group takes home an extra 35-50 soles (a combined tip from everyone in the group). Try to take plenty of small change so that you can give the tips directly to the porters. This is much better than giving the money to the cook or the guide to be divided up later amongst the porters as often the money is unfairly distributed.
I have heard many stories where trekkers have wanted to show their appreciation of the porters by tipping hundreds of dollars ! Over-tipping can often be as bad as leaving no tip at all. Unfortunately if the porters receive large tips they often end up drinking in Aguas Calientes or Urubamba for several days after the trek and little of the intended benefits reach their families who often need it most. Try to keep your tip to a sensible amount and if you want to help the porters more then contribute to one of the existing porter welfare projects in Cusco.