Responsible tourism on the Inca Trail

When you start walking the Inca Trail it takes a while for it all to sink in. You are trying to concentrate on your hiking, pacing yourself, wondering if you should have brought that walking pole, or if it is too early to have that sneaky bit of snack bar. And then there is all the people watching as you join the other 499 people allocated permits that day. Not forgetting the forest covered Andes and clouds that envelop you. But really, the first thing you should do is bend down and touch the surface you are walking on. Whether you have opted for the Classic Inca, Lares or Salkantay Trek, these trailways are like ancient survivors that need to be treated with dignity and respect. Created by the Incas to link their cities, they were often used by messengers who ran great distances along these stones and paths to pass on strategic gems to their leaders. Today they are paths of peace, but there are several vital messages to take on your journey along the stones.

Remember: the Inca Trail is one of the very few international attractions to have introduced strict visitor quotas. It is a brave move by the government to curtail tourism and - potentially - income, and the result is that anyone who finds themselves hiking these roads is very privileged indeed. Here are a few to take on board and share with your fellow trail messengers, so that you can treat each step like the living museum piece that it is.

People & culture

Mountains to climb for porters' rights

It is most likely you will be using the services of a porter to carry supplies such as food, sleeping bags, tents, and so on, on the Inca Trail. Luckily, porters' rights are now protected by law in Peru; however, there are many companies that find ways of getting around the law, and are still exploiting the local porters, many of whom are farmers who do this work seasonally. The minimum wage is 45 Soles a day a little more than £10), but reports suggest that still only a small proportion pay this and even this amount is barely a living wage. A good, responsible tourism company will pay twice or three times this much. Same goes for the laws about the maximum weight they should carry. The law is 20kg max which includes 5kg for a porter's personal possessions (15kg max for female porters). There are weighing stations, but some companies spread the load to get through the stations and then drop the bags after the station for the porters to pick up. And then there are basics to adhere to, like making these porters are fed and clothed properly, are insured and given dry, warm sleeping areas.

What you can do:
Be wary, read up on porters' rights, and ask your trekking company endless questions about their ethical trekking policies. Looks out for red flags, like the price, too. If the trail fee is cheap, then you can be sure that it is the porters that are bearing not only your luggage, but also the brunt of your budget tour and being paid less than they should. Porters are people. Pay them well, chat with them, and get to know about their lives and their work.
One lovely option is to stay in your porters' village the night before the hike begins.
Simon Forster, from The Beyond Tourism Co., explains how and discusses other alternatives for spreading your much-needed tourism cash across some of the poorest regions of Peru:
"Abuses of porters' rights might not be as widespread as somewhere like Kilimanjaro, but it can still be pretty bad. A lot of companies don't really pay much attention because the porters on the Inca Trail are always portrayed as very well looked after. Normally, you spend a couple of nights in your hotel in Cuzco and then set off on the Inca Trail but we offer an extra day at the beginning in the porters' community. This generates more personal interaction between you and your porters, so you enjoy your trek more, but it also gives you a better understanding of the porters. The company we work with runs the tour in partnership with the porter community so we're strict with the weight carried and following the proper regulations.

We also work with a couple of family-owned coffee farms in the area so you can go and stay with a coffee farmer before or during the hike. We understand that the Inca Trail is a huge reason why people go to Peru, but there is much more to do both in Peru and even in the area around Machu Picchu."

Peru's female porters

One hugely positive step that has been taken for the Inca Trail porters is the employment, for the first time, of women. Astonishingly, until 2016, there were no women working on the trail, largely thanks to the more conservative - and often sexist - values of the traditional mountain communities. A local trekking company, that was already working to improve porters' rights along the trail, trained and hired local women, despite many men saying that they would not be able to do such a strenuous job.

Any traveler who has been to the Andes will not be surprised to learn that this was not the case. Quechua women can routinely be seen hauling huge loads on their back, while hiking up and down the mountains, and working the steep terraces; carrying hikers' backpacks to Machu Picchu is just another day's work for them. What's more, the female porters are hugely popular with travelers, so even though regulations state they may only carry 15kg (the men carry up to 20kg), hiring them has proved a wise business decision.

The benefits are many; as well as gaining stable employment, women who work as porters are better able to support their families, and command more respect in their households and communities. In time, it is hoped that the women can combine their work with studies, allowing them to become assistant guides or guides - with the higher pay and better conditions that this offers. Guides also speak with the trekkers, so for the first time, the foreigners hiking the Inca Trail may get to explore this region and its culture from a unique female perspective.

Source: National Geographic

Homestays - the way to stay

We gave the famous Peruvian Paddington a home and now Peru is returning the welcome, with homestays a plenty. As this country is so vast, and the terrain not always negotiable, this is not only the best way to put money straight into a very local economy, but it also gets you right out onto those hiking trails and remote communities. When you hike into the heart of the mountains, it makes you admire these people who live here all year round even more. You will be greeted warmly in Peru, as local people thrive on sharing their homes with guests. And that is how you are made to feel, especially in the highland villages.

What you can do:
Seek out a Peru vacation that includes a night or two in a homestay if possible. If you are planning on visiting remote villages, gifts from home are always welcome, but ensure they are useful. Don't go too over the top, as reciprocating is part of rural Peruvian culture, or ayni, meaning "today for me, tomorrow for you". Excess gift giving waters down this ethos with time if people feel they can't reciprocate.

Responsible tourism tips

Appreciate the privilege of being on the trail. Giving back along the way and spending money on crafts or supplies in local communities increases the benefits of tourism many times over. As well as helping local people, it is an important way to encourage the authorities to maintain the permit system - and to demonstrate to other countries that introducing permits does not reduce income, but rather creates a healthier tourism industry. If you leave it until the last minute to buy a trekking package in Cuzco, you are unlikely to get a responsible tourism adventure or trekking company. These sellers are about packing in the masses and often sold by intermediaries, not people who really know the potential impacts on the environment or local communities. In general, you are best to do your research well in advance. Note that you are only allowed poles with rubber tips on the Inca Trail to protect the landscape and stones.Where possible, avoid buying endless plastic water bottles. You can bring water purification tablets, or invest in a filtering bottle, such as LifeStraw, so that you can refill in rivers and other sources along the way. For the hike, bring planet safe, paraben free soaps and detergents with you, as well as eco-friendly sun creams, and biodegradeable bags and tissue for when you need to do what Paddington, the original Peruvian bear, does best in the woods. Although ideally all waste should be carried out. A good hiking company will provide all of this, so ask in advance so that you can get to see if they are practising what they preach. Leave no trace - it has survived for thousands of years without having butts and bottles dropped on it, so please don't start now. And anyway, it is said that he who drops a Mars Bar packet will forever be haunted by Incas. If you are good with languages, try dabbling in Quechua, the language of the Incas and still the mother tongue of most of the porters. Most speak Spanish, but a little Quechua goes a long way. Retail rewards for hiking the Inca Trail are a must. Alpaca is the big seller but beware of fakes. Alpaca is expensive, so if you are offered something cheap it is most likely to be acrylic or a mix. Real Alpaca feels a little greasy to touch and loses its shape a little if stretched. If it's smelly when wet - it's likely llama. And if you are offered mahogany or feathers, think rainforest, its flora and fauna, and say no thank you. The source is nearly always illegal. Those boots that are made for walking will also be in need of cleaning, and shoe shining is a popular way for children living in poverty to earn money in Cuzco. There are various views on this, as some children are sent out to work by their parents and actually they are not street children at all. This is a common sense thing. If a child looks like they are in need, then have your shoes shone and give them a few quid. But even better, help a respected Cuzco based charity working with street children, such as Yanapay, which also has a restaurant in Ruinas 415, the proceeds of which go towards social projects in Cuzco. Top shopping tip: Steering away from unsustainable woods, you'll find souvenirs made of balsa or Brazil nuts, which encourages people to keep the trees alive. While you are waiting and acclimatising for your hike in Cuzco, you might want to check out some alternative market options. The big San Pedro market has been tidied up a bit for tourists, and is still brilliant, but if you want a flavour of how they used to be, a bit rough but totally real round the edges, check out the old school market Rosaspata. You can read more about the alternative food scene in this lovely blog Cuzco Eats. You are probably only going to go once, so the chances are you're going into super gear mode. This is your opportunity to buy sustainable hiking gear. Usually made by small independent companies, support them, tell your mates, and show them off in your selfies. You can also hire all sorts of gear in Cuzco, which is a very sustainable way to go. Quick shout for a couple of favourites. I don't go anywhere without my cashmere snood and gloves from Turtle Doves. A UK company, they make everything out of recycled cashmere - you can even send in a moth eaten old jumper and they will make some fingerless gloves for your trip. Yew might also be for you, Howies is always cool.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Giacomo Buzzao] [Porters Rights: Chris Feser] [Brazil nut salesman: Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA]