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Without doubt, for many visitors to Peru, the arrival at the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu after having completed the Inca Trail is the highpoint of their trip. For others it is a fulfilment of a life long dream. No matter what your religious beliefs are, the Inca Trail really is a special pilgrimage passing through spectacular mountain scenery, beautiful cloud forests with orchids and hummingbirds dotted with Inca ruins, finally arriving at the mysterious ancient city of Machu Picchu for sunrise. Visitors cannot help but feel an inner satisfaction and a sense of personal achievement at having completed the trek. Some people say that this feeling is enhanced by the spiritual energy that is derived from the sacred stones at Machu Picchu. However you feel, it is certain that this positive feeling is greater in the knowledge that your haven't contributed to the exploitation of the porters who have helped you achieve your goal by carrying the trekking equipment.
The majority of the porters on the Inca Trail are from the countryside, simple farmers who supplement their income by working on the Inca Trail during the busy months. Their first language is Quechua, the official language of the Incas, although many now speak Spanish. In fact the majority of these people are still pure blooded Quechua, the people who were governed by the Incas almost 500 years ago. Many of their traditions and superstitions have remained unchanged since well before the Spanish arrived. However, most would agree that these people have remained a quiet and humble folk and easily manipulated by both governments and tour operators who have been quick to exploit this hardworking source of workers.
As from July 2017 we have increased our porters pay from 215 to 230 Soles (57.50 Soles per day) which is 27% more than the porters legal minimum wage which most porters working for other companies earn on the Inca Trail. Peru Treks has always been in the top five companies paying their porters well.
By Western standards this wage obviously appears to be low, however wages have to be seen in relation to what other people earn in Peru. Most of our porters depart on the Inca Trail at least 4 times a month (16 days work) earning about 1040 Soles ( 4 x 230 Soles plus tips of about 120 Soles). This is about the same wage of a professional school teacher in Cusco who earn between 1000 and 1200 Soles for working 22 days per month. Teachers in the villages earn much less than this, some as little as 900 Soles per month. It should be noted that teachers have to study for a minimum of 5 years at a university or institute and often have to work the first couple of years for wages between 600 and 800 Soles per month!! A master tradesman such as a carpenter may charge about 60 Soles per day for his services and a labourer will charge about 40 Soles. A farmer in the villages earn about 20 Soles per day so a porter can earn about the same as a village school teacher and has enough left over to pay a neighbour to work his fields while he is away on the trail. Most porters are land owners and do not pay rent, so their outgoings are fairly minimal. So on the whole if porters are paid the legal wage they are not badly off compared to other professions. Even though the Porter Law states trekking companies should pay their porters 45 Soles per day only about 70% of the trekking companies are actually complying with this requirement. Some trekking companies are still paying their porters as low as 35 Soles per day and getting their porters to sign receipts for 45 Soles per day!! Many porters feel that they cannot complain or they will be sacked and even put the jobs of their fellow workers in jeopardy.
The same "Porters Law" that requires a minimum wage to be paid to porters also states that the maximum weight that a porter can carry on the Inca Trail is 20kg. This comprises 15kg of equipment from the trekking company plus 5kg of personal items such as warm clothes and bedding. At the start of the Inca Trail there is checkpoint where all porters have their loads weighed. Companies that are found to be giving their porters over 20kg receive a notification and fine. Too many notifications can lead to having their trek license withdrawn although this hasn't happened to any company to date. The list of companies that receive notifications is not made available publicly so it is difficult to identify those companies that regularly overload their porters. Most trekking companies state that since all the porters are weighed at the start of the trail, all the porters on the Inca Trail are carrying loads no more than 20kg. Just looking at the size of the load carried by the porter is no way to assess the weight. Some porters loaded high with sleeping bags and foam sleeping pads may only be carrying 15kg while porters carrying the stainless steel cutlery and gas bottle in a small pack may be carrying 35kg! Many companies have become expert at using the absolute minimum number of porters in the group. So how do they do this ? Basically in a group of over 8 trekkers companies must use 2 guides. These guides are not weighed at the start of the trail. They carry 30kg each across the check point and then drop the loads on the other side to be collected by the porters. Often trekkers who have paid extra to hire a personal porter to carry their bags are asked to carry their bags across the check point and dropped the other side !! The cook and assistant cook also have their loads weighed, each carrying 20kg through the weigh station. However when they reach the other side they often "lighten" their load by 5 or 10kg which is distributed amongst the remaining porters. Porters are seriously worried that when their loads are weighed they will be overweight and receive a notification which may lead to them being sacked. Although they are allowed to carry 5kg of their own personal belongings many porters rarely use their full allowance meaning that they take little warm clothing or bedding. Peru Treks has calculated the exact loads required for our various group sizes and employs the correct number of porters required to carry this load. For example, the camping equipment, food, gas and porter personal items for a group of 12 persons weighs about 295kg. We therefore employ 14 porters (14 x 20kg) plus a cook (15kg). The guide and assistant guide do not carry any of the camping equipment of food. Instead they carry just a day pack with first aid equipment and emergency oxygen.
04 clients + 1 guide + 1 cook + 09 porters
05 clients + 1 guide + 1 cook + 10 porters
06 clients + 1 guide + 1 cook + 10 porters
07 clients + 1 guide + 1 cook + 11 porters
08 clients + 1 guide + 1 cook + 11 porters
09 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 12 porters
10 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 13 porters
11 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 14 porters
12 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 14 porters
13 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 15 porters
14 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 16 porters
15 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 17 porters
16 clients + 1 guide + 1 assistant guide + 1 cook + 17 porters
The above numbers do NOT include extra personal porters hired by our clients to help carry their personal items. These extra porters are added to the numbers above.
It is the responsibility of our assistant guide to ensure that the loads are evenly distributed among our porters. He/she carries a spring balance to weigh the porters loads at several random locations along the trek itself. Although the porters start with the maximum weight this load obviously decreases along the trail as food is consumed. When clients hire the services of porters to help carry their personal items these porters are extra to the numbers calculated above.
All of our porters are issued with high quality sleeping bags free of charge. These are the same bags that we hire to our clients. After the bags had been rented out to our clients just 15 times (effectively covering the cost of purchase and cleaning) we allocate them for porter use. It is our company policy that every porter is issued with a good quality sleeping bag. All the bags are collected at the end of the trek and returned to our stores. The porters take turns to clean the bags on a weekly basis. The bags are provided free of charge to our porters. Unlike many companies we do not deduct the price for their sleeping bag from their wages. At night our porters sleep in the communal dining tent. After our clients have finished their meal we attach a waterproof floor to the tent (zipped or felcro) to provide accommodation that is both warm and waterproof. This sound like very basic measures but incredibly 50% of all trekking operators do not provide accommodation with a waterproof floor.
Providing plentiful food to the porters on the Inca Trail is not usually very costly. Most porters, by request, prefer simple meals that include vegetable soups and a main course with plenty of carbohydrates such as rice, pasta and potatoes with meat. Although these meals are cheap to buy (well within the budgets of even the cheapest agency) the big problem is the weight. Plentiful food means added weight and added weight means extra porters, extra wages, extra trek permits and sufficient accommodation which obviously costs extra money. Being able to reduce the number of porters in your group by 2 or 3 can be the difference between profit and loss. Since very few trekkers actually get to see their porters eating their meals, cutting back on the amount of food provided to the porters rarely leads to complaints from the trekkers. At Peru Treks we have included for plentiful nutritious meals for everyone in our group and that includes the porters. If you don't believe us we invite you to ask the guide on the trek to show you the portions being prepared by the cook or ask to read the trek reviews kept in out office from clients who have already witnessed the meals. Our porters do not rely on leftovers.
Rain ponchos - During the wet season (December - April) we issue heavy duty rain ponchos to all of our porters. The ponchos cost about US$23 each and are clearly marked with our company logo. From May to November the ponchos are issued only when asked for as there is less chance of rain. The ponchos issued free of charge and collected at the end of the trek. During the dry season we recommend that the porters take cheap plastic ponchos which cost just US$1 which is well within the budget of each porter.
Walking boots - The Porters Law requires trekking companies to provide their porters with adequate footwear. This is a somewhat loose requirement as many companies have their own definition as to what "adequate" means. Every year since 2006 Peru Treks has bought quality walking shoes for our porters, that's over 200 pairs. The shoes are similar to sports shoes and have a strong flexible sole. After consulting with the porters this was the type of shoe that they wanted. The porters agreed to pay a 20% contribution towards the cost of the shoe rather than settle for a completely free cheaper design. We were in agreement with since if they paid some of costs themselves then they would more likely look after the shoes. Although we have issued all of our porters with shoes we have not insisted that they use them at all times on the Inca Trail. This is because after many years of working in their farms wearing just rubber sandals some of the porters feet are quite splayed and too wide to fit into a standard walking shoe. Due to the thick skin on their feet their is a high risk of fungal infections if they use enclosed boots all the time where their feet become humid.
Backpacks - For the last 10 years backpacks have been provided to ALL of our porters, either the metal-framed type more suitable for heavy loads such as gas bottles or cutlery or a standard backpack similar to those used by most trekkers. Backpacks are renewed as necessary and at least every 2 years.
Having decided to pay a porter a fair wage it is important that a porter receives his payment on time. Peru Treks pay our porters on a weekly basis. Sometimes a porter is too busy on the Inca Trail to come to the office so we pay the porter's wife providing he has left us written instructions to do so. All porters must provide us with a proper receipt for the full amount paid. These receipts are kept in our office and are freely available to trekkers who want to check on the wages that we are paying.
Since 2006 Peru Treks has insured ALL of our porters for life & accident insurance. The insurance cover is 24 hrs all year round not just whilst on the Inca Trail itself. This has been something that we have been wanting to do for many years but a suitable insurance policy did not exists until the end of 2005. A new law came into effect in March 2006 that requires all trekking companies to provide such insurance cover and we are pleased to see that most trekking companies are now complying with this.
The information provided above is specific to Peru Treks and is original material. The work is subject to copyright and cannot be reproduced in part or in whole by any other company without specific written permission from Peru Treks.
Peru Treks & Adventure Tour Operator
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Specialists, working to help the community
Office Address: Avenida Pardo 540 (in the corner of the small park), Cusco, Peru