The female porters of Evolution Treks carrying their packs along the Inca Trail. Photo by Somos Peru.
The following is a guest post by Lucia Merclajuly Vela Sosa. Lucia, now a professional guide, was among the first female porters on the Inca Trail. She works for Evolution Treks Peru, a company whose ethical stance has attracted attention from the likes of Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and National Geographic. This post was originally written in Spanish and translated for New Peruvian by Tony Dunnell.
Once again I finish the four-day Inca trail as a porter, lining up and watching my friend and adventure companion Sarita — and now Silvia, too – fight for a seat on the 5:45 pm Peru Rail train ¡Que niña más vivaz! She fights for respect and a place among the group of men, and we’re just three women on this trip, among 200 male porters.
It was a long race down from Wiñayhuana to the station at kilometer 107, and of course we cheated by leaving earlier so we could beat the men, who have an unmatched skill descending the mountain. We wait for the train to go back to Ollantaytambo. Between noise, jokes, compliments, and the excitement of having concluded the trek, my mind looks back….
On the Inca Trail
I remember my first trip to Machu Picchu as a student in October 2015. I thought that if I didn’t go, I would die, and I no longer remember how I got the money to pay for this trip, but it was wonderful. I don’t remember how much muscle pain I felt or if I walked with my shoes completely soaked for the whole trip because it rained three of the four days.
But what did leave a lasting lump in my throat were the Inca porters, the beasts of burden with tremendous backpacks, most wearing the typical red ponchos of the Patacancha community. Some were elderly men. I just looked at them. What could I do, and to be honest I had no idea how this trip worked.
Two years later, while doing an internship in an agency, my friend Sarita arrived with a proposal to enter the Inca Trail as a porter. What? A female porter! Was it even possible that there were already women on that trail, as porters? I didn’t think twice; if I wanted to go it was my opportunity to learn so many things in situ.
We were guided by Miguel [Miguel Angel Gongora, one of the co-founders of Evolution Treks Peru] and Rudi to do the Inca Trail course, to get our licenses. There was nothing unusual there: women and men of all ages. Until then I hadn’t talked with anyone about all this because I didn’t want to hear negative things like “you won’t be able to” or “it’s dangerous” or “this is not for you” — or worse, “this is work for men.”
Then the day came when we really had to face so many doubts and insecurities, which since we were born had been implanted in us like daily prayers. I even remember having dreams before the trip, and I think we were looking forward to it nervously.
Photo by Somos Peru.
Finally we arrived at km 81 at Piscacucho, the starting point of the Inca Trail. We were introduced to our travel companions, with our chef Guillermo and guide Rudi, and our passengers: a family of two parents, both writers, and their two daughters between 16 and 18 years.
We passed through the control point and it was so different from the training courses. It was a world of men who wore uniforms, and I no longer saw any of the traditional red ponchos. They were surprised to see us there with our backpacks and work implements. Some seemed to see it as a joke, while others gave us condolences, saying that the road is very difficult: Can you cope?
But I already knew what the trail was like. What I didn’t know was how to do it with 15 kilos on my back, but whatever happened, uphill and down, I was there to kill my doubts. To know what I was made of. Up to that moment it was just about me, my limitations, of knowing what I was capable of, and what I wanted to do. What I didn’t know was that here, on this trail, I would learn things that I would probably not have learned anywhere else.
Another problem I had were the guys at the SERNAP control post [SERNAP is Peru’s National Protected Areas Service]. They did not believe, or perhaps did not want to understand, that we were entering as porters. They always gave us problems, thinking we were entering as massage therapists. Such things may have happened in the past, but that was certainly not our case.
Another thing that surprised me was my work partner and friend Sarita. I had always seen her as a delicate girl and at the beginning of the Inca Trail I felt responsible for her. But soon she showed that she was even stronger than me.
The Inca Trail Porters
Once you’re on the Inca Trail, you see that the promotional videos don’t show everything. On the trail, you see all the beautiful landscapes but you also see the pain and misery of our people. The porters are not treated like you see in the videos: the uniforms are just uniforms, the working conditions are subhuman and nobody says or does anything.
Tourists do not see them because they have to walk quickly to reach the camp in advance to get everything ready for the arrival of the visitors with the guide. Many of them carry up to 40 kilos and some – at times with an innocent smile, sometimes a little proud — say that they once carried 50 kilos.
I know because on the trail, during the rest periods, there is always a curious guy asking what I’m doing there, or a kinder person asking if I’m okay, and chatting for a while. “And you, how much do you get paid?” Many times I thought that was an indiscreet question, I don’t know why, but my friend Sarita always asked and some answered 190 or 220 soles. Another told me that he earned 235 soles but they deducted 5 soles for the gear, referring to the matra (sleeping mat) that he slept on.
A tourist pays all that money for an Inca Trail trek, and then his porters are treated in this way? Where the uniform is just a way to advertise the company, and the matra you use to sleep is so uncomfortable and incomparable with your bed at home, no matter how humble you are when you leave it to go to work.
Who benefits most from this job? The porter or the company? There are so many indignant questions….
When night arrives the only thing you want on this trail is to sleep. And my peaceful tent awaited me. But not everyone is so fortunate. The cold of the night, and sometimes rain, is a punishment for those who do not have adequate camping equipment.
Where do the porters sleep? Some in the kitchen tent, where they pray that the rain won’t make a river run right under them. Others seek refuge in the bathrooms, protected from the rain but not the cold. Huddled beneath sheets of plastic or a sleeping bag or a rough manta blanket.
What are we?
For breakfast, lunch and dinner the cook and his assistant do their best to surprise the guests, and I have learned to cook many delicious things. On the trip they have surprised me by making an ice cream cake without a refrigerator, it was great. And I learned to make pizza without an oven.
But what does the porter eat? They eat before or after the visitors and it’s simply a soup with noodles and some other things. Often it’s just water, salt and noodles, and some kind of tea or other infusion in the morning. That’s why the porters always carry a bag of biscuits. And, of course, some of them carry cañazo [aguardiente, or sugar cane moonshine], the only thing that pushes them on, hungry and lacking sleep. I’ve heard some guides criticize them and say that they are like that because they want to be that way. But for some porters it’s just a cheap way to endure the poor conditions along the trail.
And perhaps the coldest thing is the language barrier between porters and visitors. An Inca Trail guide should be a mediator and a connector as an ambassador of our culture, but it’s not always like that. On our first trip as porters I think we broke that gap, but only in our small group.
At the end of my first Inca Trail experience as a porter, and already on the train, my friend and I looked at each other and I, laughing, said “We did it!” But we weren’t totally sure we’d made it. We had traveled about 65 km for four days as porters and it was still a challenge to enter the train. They didn’t want to let us get into the carriage of the porters. But they had never seen women porters before, so it was understandable.
Photo by Somos Peru.
The Future of Female Porters and Porter Welfare on the Inca Trail
Now I have completed about 25 Inca Trail treks and we are all more accustomed to seeing each other. There are now more female porters on the trail, and there have been many good and bad changes.
When we first started working along the trail, many doubted us. There were guides who checked our loads to make sure they were real, or if it was all just volume with no weight. But my heavy backpack always gave them a kick in their male egos.
But although always in a subtle way, the treatment we received was mostly courteous.
Today, however, the treatment we receive has turned into harassment. Like an invitation to retire from the trail, or a subtle threat or warning that this work should only be done by men. The male porters have turned against us, there are no longer any words of encouragement. Some do not even look at us, and we no longer sit down to talk like before. We have become a nuisance.
But why? Are we to blame? Did we do something wrong? Do women not have the right to want to work and earn money like them? Why do they reject us? Is it their machismo or is there a greater reason…?
We were a great novelty at the beginning, something new and inclusive that attracted the attention of the media. And everyone wants fame and publicity I guess, no matter how they get it. Other companies began to take photos and make videos of their female porters on the Inca Trail, but all just for the “photo for the Face” movie, as I have baptized it.
But they were doing it with no principles of inclusion, equality, sustainability, teamwork or, most importantly, companionship. They were just making videos of the female porters for social media, and this has generated discontent among the male porters.
We, within our team, have also had problems and discontent. As Miguel once said, “We have to learn from trial and error. We are doing something that did not exist before, and there is no scheme for the new. We have to be inventive and many things will have to change to make it work, and we will have losses and more problems.”
And that’s how it is. We continue to discover and confront errors and problems. My work team is not just one of co-workers. We are friends, we protect ourselves, we help each other, at times we annoy each other but we talk and most importantly we have only one vision: “Change, inclusion, equality and improvement of working conditions for porters, not only for ourselves but for all.”
The change is happening slowly and painfully, and in a certain way there is at least a growing concern for providing sleeping tents for porters. And somehow more women have entered the trail. Now we just need to regulate and set rules that benefit everyone equally. There should be no difference in salary between men and women. And mutual respect should be universal, whether you’re the owner of the company or a porter.
And our mission now is also to break the gap that separates us from our visitors because of the language barrier. We want to share anecdotes, jokes and our culture with our visitors, with the help of our mediator and guide. But that should not be the work of our one little team alone. All visitors, guides and porters in general need to know that it is no longer just about “me” — now it’s about everyone.
2023 Update. The new porter’s law implemented in early 2023 has created an opportunity for porters to get working conditions but due to the political crisis of early 2023, some tour operators have exacerbated the mistreatment of porters in general and the exclusion of women as the supply of porters far exceeds the demand for them. We highly encourage people to do exhaustive research on the way porters are treated and invite everyone to read about the best Inca trail tour companies of 2023.
The female porters of Evolution Treks, the first to work along the Inca Trail. Lucia is at the front. Photo by Somos Peru.