The only way to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is by going with a guided group. This is because prior to 1990, the trail was unregulated and not all hikers treated Pachamama (Mother Earth) with respect. The trail suffered from trash left behind and too much foot traffic so in an attempt to preserve it, the Peruvian government only issues 500 permits per day to access the trail. Most companies employ porters to carry your belongings and my hiking experience was made immensely easier thanks to the incredible team of porters that travelled with us during the 4 day trek. I made sure that I chose a company that treated their porters fairly and paid them competitive wages but despite this, I don’t think it is something I will do again.
On average it costs $650 for a 4 day/3 night hike on the Inca Trail. This includes everything you could possibly need: food and water, transportation from Cusco to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. You can find companies that offer the trek for less, but I had read that they cut costs by paying their guides and porters lower wages. It was a priority for me to find a company that had high standards for paying their staff. I went with Alpaca Expeditions and felt good about this choice especially after reading about their policies on porter treatment, including their wages and benefits such as health care and safe gear (hiking boots, warm clothing, etc.). Most of these porters come from farming communities in the Peruvian highlands, and Alpaca Expeditions also coordinates social projects that give back to these communities. It was evident throughout the hike that not all porters are treated so nicely by the companies they work for, and I really believe that AE does everything they can to make the experience safe and fair for their employees.
Our guide Herlín taught us the Quechua word chaski which means messenger, and out of respect for the job they do, this is how we referred to our team of porters. After driving for a few hours from Cusco on the morning of Day 1, we stopped in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis. This town is located closer to the farms where most of these men live, so this eliminates the need for them to travel hours to Cusco the night before a trek begins and stay overnight to travel with the group. Elio, the manager of the group, sat next to me for the remainder of the ride. He told me about the farms in the area and the crops that are grown there. I asked him to teach me how to say thank you in Quechua: sullpayki.
As soon as we arrived at the trailhead, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day. This included setting up tables and chairs, cooking eggs, making toast, boiling water for coffee and tea, preparing fruits, etc. Once we finished eating and were ready to hit the trail, the chaskis stayed behind to clean up and pack everything into their bags. I immediately realized how uncomfortable I was having a team of people working to make me comfortable.
An hour or so into our hike the chaskis passed us on the trail – something that would continue to happen every morning and afternoon after they had cleaned up from the meal they just prepared, packed everything up from the spot, and got on their way to beat us to the next stop. They always moved at a steady jog despite their enormous backpacks being almost twice their size!
Since the Inca Trail has such steep inclines and declines over the course of the 4 days, it is too dangerous to use animals to carry the heavy packs. This means it is human power that needs to bring everything up and down the mountains each day. Each hiker is allotted 7 kg (15 lb) of weight to be given to a chaski to carry for the duration of the trip. This isn’t a lot, but there were 10 people and 2 guides in our group. That meant that aside from a small day bag that we each carried ourselves, 16 people were carrying literally everything we would need for the 4 day trek, plus everything they would need as well. They carry tents (for sleeping, eating, and cooking), food, our belongings (clothes, toiletries, etc.), sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a portable bathroom tent and toilet, chairs, tables, pots, pans, plates, cups, napkins, utensils, all the trash produced throughout the hike…I’m sure there are things that I’m forgetting.
Peruvian law states that porters are not allowed to carry more than 25 kg (55 lb) each. Their packs are weighed at 2 separate checkpoints on the first day. I have read that some companies ask hikers to carry some things through these checkpoints, making the porter’s bags lighter, and then have the porters take the weight back into their bags after passing the inspections. According to the website and from what my guides told me, Alpaca Expeditions’ weight limit per chaski is 20 kg (about 45 lb) – 15 kg of gear/hiker’s belongings, and 5 kg of things each chaski needs for himself. Having just completed the Ausangate trek where I carried everything myself over difficult trails, I felt terrible watching this team of people work so hard for me.
I like to ask a lot of questions, so throughout my hike I made this a big topic of conversation with my guides, Herlín and Manolo. I asked about the chaski’s wages, how much weight they were carrying, and how they were treated by Alpaca Expeditions. The Peruvian government sets standards for wages, and on average they make 45 soles per day ($13.50 usd at the time of writing this post). That’s $54 for the 4 days! Companies can then provide added benefits such as health insurance and free gear that they need in order to safely hike. I also asked where they slept during the hike since our campsites didn’t seem to have enough tents for them. Once they finished cleaning up after dinner each night, they cleared out the tent where we ate and placed their sleeping pads and sleeping bags in a long line through that tent. This makes a lot of sense in terms of having less to carry, but of course it offers absolutely no privacy, and 16 men end up sleeping like sardines for 3 nights.
During an introduction ceremony that we had on our first night together, I learned that our team ranged in aged tom 21 to 59. I asked our guides what other opportunities they would have if they weren’t working as a chaski. What I learned is that although it’s not a very good job, it is a decent one in terms of the cost of living in rural Peru, and it allows their children to go to school. The majority of these men are farmers from the Sacred Valley.
When I arrived at our first campsite, the team was working hard to set up our tents and get dinner cooking. I asked if there was anything I could do to help but they insisted that there wasn’t. After a few minutes of aimlessly walking around the campsite, I asked again but the answer was still no. After asking a 3rd time (it was really difficult watching them do everything and doing literally nothing myself), one of them finally let me finish blowing up some sleeping pads with an air pump. I had an entire tent to myself, which was a real luxury and not intentional. You can pay more for your own tent, but I was fine being placed in a tent with someone else in my group. Originally there were supposed to be 11 people in our group but one dropped out at the last minute. There was a miscommunication about how many tents to bring, so instead of sharing one with the 9th person, he and I each had our own tent. I felt terrible knowing that an extra tent was schlepped up that mountain for me when I would have easily shared. I also didn’t like having so much space to myself after learning where the chaskis slept. Although it was a service I was paying for, deep down it did not make me feel good.
Our amazing team stayed at each campsite and lunch spot after we had left in order to clean and pack up. They somehow scurried by us somewhere along the trail in order to arrive before us to set up at the next campsite. Each time we arrived at the next spot, they stood in a line to applaud us for making it. At each campsite and lunch spot they provided each of us with warm water in a small basin for us to wash our hands and face. (I felt so clean that I almost forgot I wasn’t showering this whole time!) They boiled, purified, and then cooled all the water that we drank throughout the hike. They kept a portable toilet clean and at our service in another tent. After dinner they stayed up later than us to clean and organize, and in the mornings they woke up earlier and provided hot tea ready at our tent as a wake up call. Not to mention they also hiked the same exhausting trail we did while carrying much more weight. I’m sure the experience of the beautiful nature and breathtaking views is much less enjoyable after hiking it day in and day out for years while working hard for other people.
On our last night we had another small ceremony to thank the chaskis for everything they did. This is the time where it’s customary to give them tips for their service. Thankfully these tips are not factored into their wages. We each got a chance to thank them in our own words for all that they had done. I was happy to be able to speak to them in Spanish without a translator, however, it was so challenging to find words to express the immense gratitude I felt toward these men. To close the ceremony, we were taught the Quechua word haylli meaning happiness with nature. It’s tradition to chant this 3 times together at the end of all Andean celebrations as a way of saying sullpayki – thank you.
I’ve thought a lot about this aspect of hiking the Inca trail in the days and months after my trip. When people ask me about the experience, it’s hard to express how I felt about hiking with porters without sounding like I don’t appreciate their work, or the fact that I got to have the experience in the first place. I want to be clear that the hike, the Inca sites, the incredible nature, the history – everything about the experience was amazing and I am so lucky to have experienced it. However, observing how hard the chaskis work was a very important part of this experience for me, and I did not feel proud to be participating in an industry that employs humans to do such physical labor for the benefit of my vacation.
Having now completed this hike, I am interested in other hikes of this caliber in other parts of the word – mainly hiking to Mt. Kilimanjaro or maybe even Everest base camp someday. I don’t know if these are possible without the help of porters. I am aware that as a participant in an experience like this, I am contributing to the fact that these people have jobs and opportunities to support their families. This does help me feel better, but I’m conflicted as to whether I would feel comfortable hiking in this way again.
If you’re thinking of hiking the Inca Trail, I highly recommend booking your trek with Alpaca Expeditions. They are a wonderful company and having lived the experience with them, I can say that I do believe they are one of the better companies available in Peru. Here are a few other recommendations I have from my experience:
Inform yourself: Research is so important when it comes to traveling, and this is the perfect example as to why. When I first thought about hiking the Inca Trail, I wasn’t considering the lives of the people that would be working to make it possible for me. Go with a company that has high standards for how they treat their employees. It’s hard work out there!
Ask questions: Even after doing my own research and feeling good about the choice I made, I still asked my guides lots of questions because I wanted to know if what I had read was true. Luckily I didn’t find out anything that I didn’t want to hear.
Say thank you: Better yet, say gracias. Although these people are working, they are also human, and they are doing everything in their power to make this experience comfortable for you. Thank them for what they’re doing, and for goodness sake, say it in THEIR language. It made me so angry to hear people thanking them in English.
Talk to them: You’re in Peru surrounded by locals! Learn from their culture, listen to their stories. Although they’re working, there’s downtime at the campsites and I did my best to make small talk with them when it seemed appropriate.
Offer to help: maybe this is just me, but I don’t like being doted on. I liked helping out when I could, although they were very reluctant to accept. I suppose it’s possible they’re not supposed to let paying customers help with their work but it made me feel better to try.