Ethical trekking: Support porter welfare in Peru

As a responsible traveler, it’s your initiative to ask the right questions and work with a trekking company that treats its porters fairly.
by Britt Fracolli

As a responsible traveler, it’s your initiative to ask the right questions and work with a trekking company that treats its porters fairly. As Peru’s most sought after trek, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu does not permit pack animals, so local porters are contracted to carry the camping equipment and personal belongings of each trekking group. Unfortunately, licensed companies still fall short of satisfying legal standards to protect porter welfare and “too good to be true” prices come at the expense of unfairly low wages.

Porter welfare at a glance

Choosing a reputable tour operator for your Inca Trail adventure begins with an understanding of the unfair treatment and work conditions experienced by some porters.

The Peruvian government introduced the Porter Law in 2003 that set work standards. Among these legal requirements, porters should carry a load weighing no more than 44 pounds and receive a minimum wage of S/. 45 (US$16) per day.

To enforce Porter Law standards, the pack of each porter is weighed at the beginning of the Inca Trail and again at a second checkpoint. If the pack exceeds 44 pounds, the tour operator receives a fine and too many notifications will result in the company losing their license for the Inca Trail. Some operators cut expenses by using fewer porters, resulting in unfair treatment. These companies might ask trekkers to carry their own bags across the checkpoints so that their pack weight isn’t considered: after the checkpoint the trekker’s pack weight is distributed and loaded to the bags of the porters whose own bags temporarily satisfied regulation. Additionally, of the 44 pounds of pack weight, 11 pounds are permitted by law for the personal equipment of the porter. Companies can also limit the personal weight of each porter so that there’s room for more group camping equipment: such action often results in porters not having adequate clothing and personal gear to keep them warm at such high altitudes.

Many porters are also landowners who farm crops or raise animals and earn money working the Inca Trail to support their families. By law they should earn at least S/. 45 a day, an amount slightly higher than Peru’s legal minimum wage. Licensed tour operators sometimes reward the hard work of their porters with higher wages, but porters are often paid much less. Many porters don’t complain and settle for wages as low as S/.30 per day while signing payment receipts for  S/. 45 because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

porters, Inca Trail, Peru For LessHiking the Inca Trail would be brutal without the help of porters.
Photo by by Greg Headley/Flickr

Find a reputable tour operator

Every year the Peruvian government grants or renews a certain number of Peruvian-owned trekking companies with licenses to take groups on the Inca Trail. Just because a company has a license doesn’t mean they treat their porters fairly.

As you narrow down your Inca Trail options, apply your knowledge of Peru’s Porter Law to judge a company’s ethical practices. Compare tour operator websites and read for any mention of legal standards and involvement with local Andean communities. Read client testimonials from additional online sources and ask seasoned Inca Trail trekkers about their own experience and recommendations.

Of the companies licensed to work the Inca Trail, Peru For Less is a proud partner of Wayki Trek, a reputable tour operator formed by a group of professional and experienced Andean trekking guides. Wayki Trek is a pioneer of sustainable tourism in Peru that prides itself in working with rural communities so that local businesses benefit directly. Among many social projects, the Wayki team has established communal libraries, workshops that help preserve local identity and culture, and a medical center that serves a remote Andean village.

Inca Trail, Peru For LessPorters ensure that your tents are set-up at each stop along the Inca Trail.
Photo from Dreamstime

Questions to consider

Consider the following details to ensure porter welfare before booking your reservations for the Inca Trail:

Why is this price so much lower? “Too good to be true prices” are a red flag for porter welfare. Often companies offering severely reduced prices do so because they cut corners with weight restrictions and pay their porters very low wages. It’s unlikely that porter welfare is high on a company’s list if they charge under US$500 for a 4 day Inca Trail trek.

How many porters will be accompanying your group on the Inca Trail? The number of porters on a trek depends on the size of the group. Responsible tour operators generally use about 3 porters for every 2 trekkers.

Who are you booking your Inca Trail tour with? A limited number of Peruvian-owned trekking companies can lead groups on the Inca Trail. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for tour companies selling package deals and customized trips to partner with these licenses trekking companies when offering travelers the Inca Trail trek. Tell a tour company representative that porter welfare is important to you.  Inquire about the accommodations the trekking company provides its porters on the Inca Trail and ask how they comply with legal standards.

Thank your porters

Porters are a trekkers best friend on the Inca Trail and showing your appreciation is important.

During the trek: Interact with the porters on your trek. Take the initiative to spark up a conversation and learn about their life in the Andes. If you don’t speak Spanish, a smile and simple gracias will show your gratitude for their help.

After the trek: Tipping is a nice way to thank your porter for a job well done. The amount is up to your discretion, but most Inca Trail operators suggest a collective S/. 50 – S/.60 sole tip for each porter from the group. This may not seem like much by Western standards, but the amount should be seen in perspective to country standards. Tipping too much might encourage some porters to celebrate by spend their additional cash on drinks after the trek. This obviously is not the case for all porters, but it does happen.  Donations, such as clothing and school supplies, are universally useful and a nice way to thank your porters in addition to a standard tip.

Inca Trail, Peru For LessHiking the Inca Trail is a very rewarding experience: don’t forget who helped you along the way.
Photo from Dreamstime

Ethical trekking is becoming an increasingly important issue in Peru. Support these important efforts by looking out for porter welfare and choose a reputable tour operator for your adventurous trek on the Inca Trail.

Read more Green Path: How to trek responsibly on our blog.