Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hike: How women transformed it

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Inca Trail to Machu Pichu hike
Photo from Evolution Treks Peru; used with permission.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hike in Peru is a leading destination in South America. Before the pandemic, 500 people per day walked along this magnificent path located in the southern Peruvian mountains. Let’s talk more about how women have redefined this popular travel site in this post that includes exclusive interviews with female porters.

Porters were originally men only

For over three decades, since organized excursions began operating tours to this destination, porters have been instrumental in helping travelers succeed at reaching Machu Picchu via the hiking trail. They carry heavy 45+ pounds of food, camping gear, and other things that travelers need during the four days that this trek takes place.

For over three decades, the job of portering was the exclusive domain of men. These hard-working people performed their jobs under some of the most exploitative conditions of the travel industry, eating leftovers or not eating at all, sleeping in caves, and facing racial discrimination because of their indigenous heritage.

In 2018, things changed dramatically on the Inca Trail. Women began working as porters for the first time.

Inca Trail hike
Photo from Evolution Treks Peru; used with permission.

The first women porters of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hike

Lucia Vela and Sara Quehuarucho were both students of the school of professional tour guides. They took the challenge of being the first two women porters of the Inca Trail.

“In the beginning, men thought we were there as massage therapists or to please the male tour guides sexually. Little did they imagine that we were here to stay and work as porters,” explains Lucia. She is a single mother of two who now leads tours as a professional tour guide.

Things were not easy for these two women. They were not readily accepted in this workplace.

They had to withstand waves of insults, catcalling, and the rejection of their male colleagues. But they understood that all of it was just part of a big process.

‘We knew that we were dealing with many things, not just the heavy loads that we had to carry, but the deeply entrenched ‘machismo’ of the men’ explains Sara, a young woman, whom together with Lucia, was one of the first women porters.

On change and equality of women porters

“The presence of these women signified a change in the Inca trail porters’ working conditions.” Explains Amelia Huaraya, co-founder of Evolution Treks Peru, a worker-owned tour operator on the Inca Trail to Machu Piccho hike.

“We decided to hire women as porters. We also decided to give them all the necessary camping gear that would ensure that they perform at their best under such difficult environmental conditions.”

“Porters were seen as beasts of burden, never before they were given a chance to share a bowl of food next to their clients, let alone to have a tent, sleeping pad or sleeping bag of the same quality of the tourists…until we did it,” adds Amelia Huaraya.

Working as activists, Evolution Treks Peru and the women porters popularized amongst porters the necessity that all porters should receive these same new working conditions. Here is when they began earning the men’s respect as they became fierce critics and activists against the porters’ poor working conditions. It was a revolutionary moment on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hike.

Group on Inca Trail
Photo from Evolution Treks Peru; used with permission.

The example set by Lucia and Sara

Very soon, the male porters, through their union, began demanding these improvements from their employers. Their demands were first met with resistance, then little by little, and dragging their feet; some operators began hiring women porters and improving their porters’ working conditions.

Lucia and Sara set an example that opened the doors for other women to become porters. In 2018, they were the only two women porters in the Inca Trail. In 2020, almost 200 women had registered to work on the Inca Trail, one of the must-see tourist stops in Peru.

Their resilience and thirst to do more did not stop there. In 2019, Lucia and Sara became professional tour guides after completing a three-year college-level career at a local school. That has inspired many more women to follow their steps.

Females redefining the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hike

Sometimes, it takes just a little bit of determination to tear down the walls of prejudice and tradition. The next goal of the women porters is to lead the porter’s union of the Inca Trail.

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