Trekking to Machu Picchu, especially by the Salkantay trek route is one of the most exciting and yet challenging ways to get there. The trail itself offers the unique chance to enter Machu Picchu and visit the Sun Gate (if you’re taking the Inca trail, you’ll also have to climb thousands of ancient steps), while at the same time, it will allow you to witness some spectacular sights and scenery throughout – the perfect Machu Picchu combination!
In order for you to get the full experience, there’s a hardworking group of people following you around that anyone rarely talks about – the porters! Without them, your trip just wouldn’t be the same because they take care of all the important things many take for granted. Having a warm drink and a welcoming tent wait for you when you reach campsite will mean a lot during the hike!
Unfortunately, porters are not always treated with the respect they most certainly deserve and are often paid way less than what would be considered appropriate. If you want to make a difference but you’re not quite sure how to proceed, here is some information that may help you out along the way.
Porters are there to make the whole trip easier and more enjoyable for you. They carry the camping equipment and everything else you’ll need during the trip: all of the tents, sleeping bags often accompanied with some thicker blankets, cooking gear, tables, chairs, and so on. You will be carrying your day pack, which constitutes only a part of your packing list for the trek . Imagine carrying all of that on your back – it’ll take you weeks to reach Machu Picchu!
The crew gets ready for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. Photo by Remy
The job of the porters is not limited to the carrying, but they also have to rush ahead and set up the camp; then, cook food for the group so meals are ready when you get there. After the group is done for the night, they stay behind to pick up the camp and then rush ahead of you to do all of those things over again, all the time while carrying extra weight on their backs!
Since horses, mules, and llamas are banned from the trails, the porters are the only one who can carry your equipment and gear. You certainly don’t need to hire one and some people don’t. However, you might regret that decision sooner or later when you’ll have to worry about setting up a tent or hauling your 30-pound rucksack instead of enjoying the incredibly dazzling surroundings of the trail. The trail is also not clearly marked at many points on the many routes to Machu Picchu , which makes getting lost a high possibility.
Porters carrying loads on the difficult terrain on the trek to Machu Picchu. Photo by Harvey
Based on the things they have to do during the trip, you’d expect porters to be paid well. The truth is far from it – they mostly rely on tips for the biggest part of their earnings! According to the Porters’ Law, which was introduced by the Peruvian government and aimed to provide better protection for the porters, each porter needs to be paid a minimum of 43 soles (approx. $13) per day. Unfortunately, trekking companies mostly don’t pay their porters that amount even if tour prices are pretty high. Another worrying thing is the fact that you wouldn’t be able to get information on this even if you asked porters themselves. Some are instructed to say they earn more than what they actually do and are scared that they might get sacked if they tell you the truth. Others, on the other hand, might lie and tell you a lower price just so you’d tip them better. No one can tell for sure!
Agencies may also manipulate with the weight restrictions that are enforced with the Porters’ Law. Porters are only allowed to carry a maximum of 44 pounds (20kg) and out of that weight, 4-5kg (approx. 10 pounds) should be left for their personal items. To make sure this is respected, porters are weighed at the beginning of the trail and at Wayllabamba (on the Inca trail), which is at the beginning of the second day.
However, even strict laws don’t prevent agencies from treating the porters poorly and they’ve figured out multiple ways to go around the regulations. Porters are often made to carry much more than those 44 pounds. Some guides and assistants only help the porters with the load temporarily while passing the weighing points. Sometimes they even ask tourists to carry the bags through those checkpoints themselves so the porters seem like they’re carrying less than what they actually are. Even though you will have trained for the Salkantay trek , the extra weight really ups the difficulty of the climb. The worst companies take out the porters’ personal weight allowance, thus preventing them from packing enough warm blankets and clothes they’ll very much need during the nights.
The trek passes through high altitudes and warm clothes are essential on this trek. Photo by Laura
As far as the sleeping conditions are concerned, the porters share the dining tent to sleep in, as to minimize the load they have to carry, which is not that bad. However, those tents oftentimes don’t have the necessary insulation on the floor and porters end up sleeping on the ground. It is understandable that they need to pack enough warm blankets and clothing to counter the weather on the Salkantay trek !
Also, keep in mind that any responsible company will look after its porters and make sure they’re well fed while on the trail. The Inca Trail requires a lot of energy to finish. Porters wait for the group to finish eating first and then share the leftovers, which sometimes may leave them hungry. The decent agencies will never leave their porters hungry!
Considering all of that information, you and every single visitor can make a huge difference in improving not only the working conditions of the porters but their lives as well just by following a few tips and advice!
Jagged mountains come into view on the Salkantay trek. Photo by McKay
Guide taking a rest on the Salkantay trek, wearing a traditional Andean-style hat. Photo by McKay
When you’re planning your trip, deciding the routes, reading books on Peru, and calculating all of your trip costs, make sure to plan the tipping costs as well. As stated above, porters rely on the tips to make the biggest part of their earnings. The general rule goes that each porter in your group should get around 30-35 soles (approx. $10) from the whole group.
However, it’s for the best to bring a lot of small change and give them the tips yourself. Don’t rely on others to share the tips, such as giving it all to the guide – it may not be shared at all! If you give them the tips yourself, you can be sure that the money will be going where it’s actually intended.
Some people feel the need to over-tip when they hear and read about the working conditions of the porters. Even though you may feel tempted to give out generous tips, know that you might not be doing them a favor at all. Actually, quite the opposite may happen – it’s also been known that porters can drink up all of the money after the tour is done if they receive large tips!
If you really want to make a change with a larger amount of money, then consider making a donation to some of the porter welfare projects when you reach Cusco (before or after your trek).
Last but certainly not least, if you happen to witness events of porter neglect, you should report them after finishing with your trip. Contact not only the agency you’ve booked your trip with but also other major organizations that may help. By doing that, you’ll help raise awareness and improve the working and living conditions for those responsible for your amazing trip!