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WHO ARE THE PORTERS?
INCA TRAIL PORTERS ALONG THE HISTORY
The Inca trail is 45 km along the mountains to Machu Picchu. This is the most important attraction of Cusco which already been visited by thousands of tourists each year. We assume that all of them enjoyed it and brought unforgettable experiences home. However, most people aren't aware of how their porters are treated by the travel agencies. The Inca trails would not be possible without the help of our valuable porters who carry all our equipments, personal belongings, food and hiking gear. So the question is, who are the porters?
Porters are the indigenous Cuqueñian people who have lived here all their lives relying on the land of the Andes, 4000 meters high. Due to the economic problems, it is important for these local indigenous people to continue working on the mountains as they know, rather than give up their jobs in the country to move to the city. They prefer to stay in their local villages and support the education of their children by working as porters on the adventures tours.
Tourism activities such as the Inca trails started operating in the 1980's. At this time, the travel agencies required the porters to carry over 50kg or more because there were no regulations for the trail. Travelers could start the trail on the next day of their arrival to Cusco city. They were allowed to sPorter31tay for as long as they wanted and camp anywhere in the area even in the Inca ruins. Nobody looked after the trail! Travelers didn't even need porters or an operator. Eventually, some tour guides started organizing groups of tourist who needed to sign up even the day before departure. How much was the trail cost? The cost ranges from $ 80 to $ 150, if you wanted to have food. The groups consisted of 20 or 30 people and in some cases 40 people. During daytime they walked together but in the evenings the groups were divided in two: half boys and half girls. What used to be 5 girls or boys per tent have now become 2 people per tent. What about the porters? How did they cope with this appalling working condition? Unfortunately, they did not have tents or food. How did they manage to cook? And where?
Firstly, today most travel agencies take dinning tent, kitchen tent, tables, chairs and others stuff just missing cable TV. However, how was it before?
1.In 1980's travelers have to carry their own food and cook it themselves, therefore the Inca trail was badly treated as nobody had an idea of sustainable. There were a lot of trash and no one went there to clean up. Inca trail was cheap but not good for the wild life and the preservation of the Inca trail. In the city of Cusco, there were no accommodations, which left the travelers to stay in the party houses.
2.In 1990's, some people saw the tourism activity was growing and they could pay in US dollars, which is much stronger than Peruvian money. The local saw the potential of making some dollars therefore they offer accommodation in their houses. Eventually, places to stay started to emerge everywhere such as hotels, hostels and the most important for travelers are the tour operators, who started offering package tours for Machu Picchu and the Inca trail. It was great so far but the problem was who will carry the stuff? Of course some local people liked to work as porters but for how much? Just for as little as 50 soles for 4 days work which is still good for our economic situation. Even though they are used to carry more than 50 kg. as they always do that job in their villages. It has a massive impact on their health. One of the biggest problems for them was complication in their kidney, back and knees due to rigorous walking on the trail with heavy packs so ultimately they stopped working as porters. Travel agencies saw the hardship that these porters go through and by adding extra money to their salaries would hopefully convince them to keep working. Some porters continued to work but most of them didn't which left the others to carry the rest of the stuff.
Porters had to take with them gallons of kerosene to cook but they did not have kitchen tents so they had to climb to the hillsides to pick up some dry woods to continue cooking. What was it like during the rainy season? It was hard work, as they couldn't cook. Travelers had to have their snacks and drink water from the streams. Porters have to get used to sleeping in the caves if it is raining. It was completely atrocious and wet so they had to stay awake for the whole night and kept going until the next day with 50 kg. to 60 kg. to carry. It was rather sad especially for the porters who used to earn very little in hard labour job. But who were the main responsible for it? It is none other than our Peruvian government because their vegetables did not cost as much to give food or education to the kids and the government also did not control the trail and the travel agents.
3.In the year 2000 the tourism activities become very big so there were more hotels and travel operators. Furthermore, fortunately our most famous politic Cusqueñian gentlemen decided to do the Inca trail where he saw the real situation of the Inca trail and how the porters were treated. He decided to take the porters complain to the Peruvian government where they decided to regulate the Inca trail and set up check points along the Inca trail where the rangers weigh the bags of the porters. In these regulations, the travel agencies have to follow these rules.
- Just 500 people including porters start the trek per day.
- Travelers had to book for the Inca in advance at least 3 months before departure.
- Porters were banned from carrying more than 50 kg. and it was reduce to 25 kg. which is still very difficult to carry as the trek last for hours.
- Porters had to have a union where they had to decide their salary per day, which is about 40 soles per day and about 160 soles per trek.
- Porters did not have to carry any kerosene but instead all travel agencies had to provide a tank of gas, kitchen tent, dinning tent, tables and chairs.
- They made several campsites in several different places, so groups had to arrive in those places and did not camp any more in the Inca ruins.
- All trash that was generated by the groups had to be taken out from the national park and segregate out to different plastic bag of black, red, and green.
- Groups have to be organized with tour guides with a minimum of 2 people and a maximum of 16 members and two guides.
- The government set up a checkpoint for each day to weigh the pack of the porters so if they are carrying more than 25 kg. the company is given a fine.
Nowadays, we have 8000 porters registered in their union and they are properly registered with the Peruvian government. Most of the trekkers on the Inca Trail take a trek organized by a local tour operator, which includes everything such as the camping equipment (tents, dining tent, kitchen tent, tables, chairs, stove, gas bottle and food). The selected tough porters carry the heavy camping equipment on their back. The 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 the rates of porters' pay and conditions are 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 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 the tourists on the trek, then he is unlikely to work much longer!
PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT YOUR PORTERS ARE WELL TREATED AND THE MONEY THAT YOU PAID FOR YOUR TREK WOULD GO TO THEM AND THEIR FAMILY. IN THIS WAY EVERYONE IS HAPPY AND YOU WILL ENJOY THE TREK THAT YOU DESERVE.
Raul Ccolque Ccolque
An ex-porter, tour guide and the manager of the Alpaca Expedition travel agent in Peru.