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Responsible travel on the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail to dead Woman's Pass © Emma FieldIn 2003 the number of people admitted to the Inca Trail each day was limited to 500 under Peruvian law. That total includes porters, who make up around 300 of the allotted trekkers. Since then the trail has really cleaned up its act. Horror stories of a path lined with litter and human waste are in the past. Camping is strictly controlled, hiking poles must have rubber tips and lower numbers of trekkers means less erosion to the trail.

Pay the price
One of the less positive side effects of the Inca Trail cleaning up its act is that it now costs more to do the trek. On first inspection it would seem sensible to trek with the cheapest Inca Trail tour operator. After all, some quick research will tell you that they all promise a similar experience: transport to and from Cusco, tour guide, camping equipment, porters, entry to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, water and food. The price also covers trail and campsite maintenance.

Some companies offer the trek for as little as US$300; at that price they’re probably cutting corners. It’s not you, the trekker, who’s likely to notice the difference though. It’s the porters and the environment. Pay the absolute minimum and you’ll likely find your porters are underpaid, ill equipped and carrying far too much weight. They may also be underfed and sleeping on the ground.

Choose your tour operator carefully
The single most important decision you can make when doing the Inca Trail is which company you do it with.

The 2003 law mandates that all porters are paid a minimum of US$15 per day and carry a maximum weight of 25kg. Before 2003, weights of up to 65kg were commonplace. Porters’ bags are now weighed at the start of the trail. Today, whilst, most companies adhere to the law, there are rumours of porters being paid only US$9 per day and tour operators bribing the weigh-in staff to pass bags heavier than 25kg. Some companies have been known to dismiss porters who talk publicly about unfair wages and working conditions.

I was shocked to see that the porters of one well-known international company weren’t even wearing proper shoes. The Inca Trail is not an easy path; it gets very steep, slippery, has an uneven surface and at times narrows to just a couple of feet with a sheer drop to one side. Reliable footwear is essential, particularly when carrying a heavy pack.

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Overland Traveller copyright © Emma Field 2010