Notes On Responsible Tourism And Inca Trail Porters

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Porters, doing heavy lifting and hard work to ensure travelers have a wonderful experience. Photo courtesy of Brian Holsclaw.

“But I already paid $600 for the tour. Now I have to give more money? I don’t have it.”

“Can I maybe give $20 instead? I know they suggested more, but I think this is fine.”

“I already paid $70 for the porter services. Tipping is optional.”

These were the types of statements coming from half of my group on the last night of hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, when we were pooling our money to offer a tip to the trip staff. The other half were on the other side of the fence, wanting to make sure the porters were over compensated for their hard work of carrying 40 pounds (20 kilograms) on their back, 5-7 miles (8-11 kilometers) up steep mountains and down rough paths each day.

In the end the porters for my group were given an adequate tip, but only because a few people understood the importance of tipping these workers, and so made up for those who didn’t.

In my opinion, if you can afford to pay for the Inca Trail entrance fees and guides but not to adequately tip your porters, you shouldn’t book the experience. Being from New York and having waitressed for five years in and after college it’s the same way I feel about tourists who come from places where tipping isn’t the norm who then don’t tip in the United States. I’m not sure about other state laws, but if you don’t tip the wait staff  in New York there’s a chance they’re making $0 total, as some waiters/waitresses only make tips. I was lucky enough to work at a “well-paying” restaurant making $4 per hour. Tipping is something that needs to be factored into your planning (unless the service is bad), as if you can afford the entree but not the tip then you really shouldn’t be having the experience.

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Making friends with my porters on the Inca Trail. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Get To Know Your Porters

It can be easy to forget these hard-working men if you don’t make the effort to talk to them (which you should). As you chat with your guides and friends with other travelers on the trail, just a light day pack on your back, they run past you lugging 7 kilograms (15 pounds) for four days, sprinting to make sure lunch is served on time and your campsite is prepared for you before you get there. They wake up early in bitter cold to make you hot tea and bring you hot water to wash your face. When you set out on the trail, they stay behind to break down the campsite then somehow sprint past you — carrying personal tents, clothing, sleeping bags, dining and kitchen tents, food, water, tables, chairs and a gas bottle stove —  to do it all over again. In fact, looking at the packs you’ll notice many rival the size of even the porters themselves.

If you don’t take a moment to ask their name or their story — translated by your guide as most porters only speak quetchua — share a smile or a laugh, the running porters can become part of the scenery on the Inca Trail. Which is sad, because there’s a lot to learn about these men, many of which are working to support families in another town or village. They have their own unique personalities and stories worth getting to know, especially if you want to learn about local culture. On my trip with Llama Path, an operator I recommend and who encourages interaction with the porters. A very fond memory from the trip was when one of the porters who played the zampoña, Qari, held a small concert for us. What made it extra special was watching and complimenting him allowed me to show gratitude to these people who I literally wouldn’t have been able to complete the Inca Trail hike without.

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Inca Trail porters. Photo courtesy of Amelia Wells.

And It’s Not Just Heavy Lifting For the Porters…

In many instances, once the group has eaten — if there is any food leftover — it gets divided between the porters. They must then hurry to eat and pack up the kitchen and dining tents yet again while the group continues their hike. In order to get the next pit stop ready for their arrival the porters must pass the group that left before them while carrying much heavier loads.

In stops where the group will spend the night, porters must also prepare the sleeping tents for the trekkers. After the group finishes their dinners, the porters can help themselves again to leftovers. It is then not only until all of the trekkers have left the dining tent that the porters can sleep. They generally sleep together in the dining tent area, so they don’t need to carry the weight of a personal sleeping tent for themselves. While communal sleeping areas provide additional warmth, dining tents don’t usually include a floor covering, so porters often face wet sleeping conditions on rainy nights.

Porters then wake before the group, in order to begin packing up the campsite before beginning the same routine for the following day.

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My Inca Trail group enjoying the scenery. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Porters’ Law

Since work as a porter is physically exhausting, the Peruvian government saw fit to enact Porters’ Law in 2003. Under this law, it is required that each porter receives payment of 43 Peruvian Soles (about 15USD) per day. This equates to slightly more than Peruvian minimum wage. Additionally, the law states that porters can only carry a maximum of 44 pounds (20 kilograms), with at least 11 pounds (5 kilograms) being reserved for personal items for the porter themselves.

In order to ensure this requirement is followed, each porter is weighed at the beginning of the trail and again at Wayllabamba at the end of the second day. If a porter is found to be carrying more than the maximum weight, their company will be fined, with multiple fines resulting in a loss of the company’s trekking license.

Despite the conditions of the law, many companies have gained notorious reputations for finding ways around them.

As many porters are native Quechua farmers looking to earn additional income during the off-season for farming, they are willing to accept a lower wage. If questioned about their payment, they are often told to lie about their wage. And if company administration finds out their porters have been telling trekkers they are not receiving a legal wage, they are likely to find themselves out of a job.

In terms of weight limits, companies have been known to put further restrictions on the amount of personal items a porter can bring. If a porter is found to be carrying more than the allowed amount, the cost of the fine will be taken from their pay. This means that porters are often unable to bring warm clothes and blankets with them, for fear of it resulting in them paying a fine. Alternatively, other companies get porters to ask cooks, guides and even trekkers to carry an extra load when crossing through checkpoints, so it appears as though the porters are carrying a lighter load than they really are.

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Porters setting up the campsite. Photo courtesy of Lee Coursey.

Vicious Cycle

Despite the difficult conditions porters face, many are seasonally out-of-work farmers who need to find an extra source of income during the off-season to finance their farming operations. As a result, they would rather face poor working conditions and low wages than be out of work and unable to support their families. Many of these porters are from the native Quechua groups and leave their homes during the trekking season from May through September), completing weekly hikes.

Choosing A Responsible Tour Operator

Not all tour operators along the Inca Trail treat their porters poorly, and choosing a responsible company can ensure the your memorable experience does not come at a cost to anyone else. Booking a trek needs to be done several months in advance, as entry restrictions mean there is quite a waiting list for entry. Before making a selection, there are a few key things to look for in a company that are clues towards their responsible treatment of trail porters:

  • As a rule of thumb, tours costing less than $500USD won’t be paying their porters a fair wage
  • Look for companies involved with the local community (through charitable donations, etc.), as this demonstrates their concern for ethical issues
  • Tourism Concern has started an initiative where companies that have proved to provide ethical guide treatment receive a special badge they can put on their website

Once you’ve finally begun the trek, there are several more things you can do for your porters (that won’t break your back):

1) Leaving a tip can make a big difference for the overall wage a porter receives during the trek. As a group, you should tip about the following amount for each worker:

  • Porter: $20-$25USD per porter
  • Guide: $5USD per day for head guide; $2.50 per day for assistants
  • Cook: 25USD
  • Assistant cook: 20USD

2) Simply talking with your porters can be an easy way to engage them and make their trip more enjoyable. Many are proud about their native culture and will be more than happy to share their local knowledge with you.

Do you have information or a tip to add? Please share in the comments below.

This article was adapted by Jessica Festa, from an article originally written on her other site, Epicure & Culture, by Judi Zienchuk.

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6 Comments

  1. I don’t know much about this type of trip but 100% think they should be tipped as much as is appropriate. I think it’s the American in me. I had no clue it was so much, but it is an expensive and long trip so makes sense! something to consider before going on it for sure.

    1. @Rachel: It was weird, because on my trip everyone paid so much to do the trek but when it came to tipping — which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t a lot — many felt they’d already paid so much and had nothing left. To me, if you don’t also have enough for the tip, you really shouldn’t be going on the trip.

  2. This is so sad. Knowing about issues like these really breaks my heart. Porters should be properly compensated for their hard work. Thanks for sharing this. Tourists should also know how to be responsible in their travels.

    1. @Nichelle: While I think travelers may be in the dark about how porters are actually often treated, they shouldn’t be about tipping. Most companies state beforehand how you should tip. I think maybe for some they don’t realize how much these people DEPEND on these tips. As always, thank you for the thoughtful comments! 🙂

  3. Hi Jessie,

    Thank you for your very insightful article. I’m planning to trek the Inca Trail end of this year and was wondering whether you recommend Llama Path as a sustainably and ethically responsible tour group?

    Thanks

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