In July 2017, the leaders of the union of porters met with the representatives of the Peruvian government and Inca Trail tour operators to present a list of grievances.
As a result of this meeting, a non-binding agreement concerning the porter’s wages was made between the Inca trail tour operators and the representatives of the porters. It is worth mentioning that porters receive an average of USD $72 for a 4-day trek.
The poor working conditions of the porters on the Inca trail are nothing new. They have been previously reported by Peruvian media outlets, as well as conscious travelers in TripAdvisor reviews, but these reports did not have the impact expected as neither the Peruvian government nor travel companies have been willing to bring forth changes.
What are demands of the porters and why do they matter? Is the adjustment of wages a satisfying outcome or just a Band-Aid solution to a long list of problems that need to be seriously addressed?
1. Excess weight
The Peruvian government rules for porters establishes that the maximum weight a porter can carry is 20kg; however, porters explain that they carry an average of 25 to 35kg, no matter what company they are working with. Such situations highlight the abuse of travel operators who continue to display contempt for the government’s rules and the inefficiency of the park rangers at the Inca trail checkpoints to expose the exploitation of the porters. Tourists might not be aware of the extent of the situation, as some very renowned travel operators purposely mislead their clients by assuring them that the maximum weight that porters carry is 25kg. Watch this video (from 1:30 to 2:30) of a “regular checkup” carried out by officials of the Ministry of Labor of Peru on the Inca trail and see for yourself the real weight that porters carry on a daily basis.
2. Lack of proper resting conditions
Porters on the Inca Trail are the first people to get up in the morning and the last ones to go to sleep. Despite all of this, they do not receive proper camping tents, let alone sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Porters sleep in the dining tents that tourists use for dining. These tents do not have a waterproof floor and their roofs leak when the rains are heavy or when it rains for longer than a couple of hours. To make up for the lack of a waterproof floor, they spread a tarp on the floor that might keep them dry, but most of the time they would have to stay awake during the night, sleep sitting up, or find an unusual shelter in the park’s bathrooms.
3. Poor food, no food, or eating leftovers
Porters carry out one of the most important jobs on the Inca trail. If they fail to carry out their jobs effectively, tourists are directly affected. As such, eating a diet based on rice, noodles, and potatoes is not enough. The severity of this type of work demands that people are properly fed, but on the Inca Trail porters rely on scraps left by tourists. Such situations show the little concern tour operators have about these people and their health.
4. Cleaning bathrooms manually and exposing porters and fellow travelers to health hazards
Bathrooms on the Inca Trail are dirty and far from eco-friendly. To improve this situation, a few travel companies offer their clients portable “biodegradable” toilets as part of their tour packages. What future travelers to the Inca Trail need to know is that biodegradable toilets imply that the waste either needs to be buried or transported out. Tour operators supply toilets in the form of buckets that need to be emptied out manually, a job that porters are forced to do by hand and without any personal protective equipment such as gloves or masks, exposing them to serious health risks.
What these terrible things can teach us about conscious traveling is that leaving the responsibility of sustainable travel practices to tour operators themselves only exacerbates the miserable conditions of their workers. Every year, more than seventy thousand people hike the Inca Trail, millions of dollars in revenue is made by tour operators, both foreign and local, but things as essential as food and shelter for the ones who perform the hardest work are completely ignored.
The 2018 Inca trail reservations have started already, and it is very important for travelers to choose wisely which tour operators they use for their Inca Trail adventure. The choice they make can improve the working conditions of the porters. Some locals have established alternative forms of businesses that will treat the porters fairly and protect the environment. Check them out here.