I’m struggling with the sun’s glare and thin mountain air at 3,600m and climbing, when a familiar shout comes from behind. PORTERS!!
We all know the drill by now. I shuffle to the side of the narrow ascending path and take a brief pause, as three guys nearly twice my age come stampeding past, each carrying 25kg on their backs. Once they’re clear, I resume my steady plodding with barely a quarter of that weight.
A few days have now passed since I completed the historic Inca Trail through Peruvian mountain and jungle, arriving exhausted but triumphant at Machu Picchu together with 13 brilliant teammates. (We actually had to trek a further 10km to make it back to Cusco – Lisa has written about that little unexpected escapade here.)
Much and more has been written about the magnificence of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – indeed, it rightly features as one of the seven modern wonders of the world. Not so often mentioned are the unsung heroes whose extraordinary exertions make the experience possible for so many people – the porters.
Our group of 14 trekkers and two guides was accompanied on the four-day, 45km journey by a team of around 25 porters. Outside of the dry season, these guys are mainly farmers that live and work in the surrounding region. Each week through the Peruvian winter, they take on the challenging route to help gringo tourists like me complete it in relative comfort.
A day in the life
Each day of the trail, we regular trekkers are awoken at 5am. By then, the porters have already been up for an hour, preparing breakfast, boiling water for our morning wash, packing up bags.
When we hit the trail at 6:30am, they stay behind to clean up our breakfast leftovers and pack down all the tents before setting off after us with their heavy loads.
It doesn’t take long for them to overtake us. By the time we reach the lunch stop, the porters have been there for some time – a large tent has been erected and lunch is ready. As we stagger in red-faced and weary, they form an orderly procession to applaud our morning’s achievement, and hand us each a drink and some clean water for a quick wash.
After lunch, the drill is the same. They clean everything up and take down the tent, and soon they are sauntering past us once again. When we reach camp for the night, there they are again to cheer us in, and dinner is ready. Finally we collapse into our tents by 8pm or so, but the porters are still going, cleaning up after dinner and preparing for tomorrow.
Rinse and repeat for four days.
On the penultimate night, our legendary lead guide Ray gathers everyone in the camp under a spectacular starry sky for a proper introduction. Each of the porters in turn tells us their name, age, what they are carrying, and a little bit about their family.
Felix and Alejandro are the oldest of the porters in our group, aged 65 and 64 respectively. Despite their 129 combined years, they are carrying eight of our bags between the two of them. Ray tells me later that he has known porters as old as 74 working on the trail.
Some of the porters are still teenagers. Raul, a strapping 22-year-old lad, has the all-important task of carrying the propane tank. With one of the heaviest loads, he has to be the first to arrive at camp every lunch and evening in order that our food can be prepared on time.
The next day, as our adventure together draws towards an end, the chefs among the team of porters present us with a giant freshly baked and decorated cake. How they managed to do this three days into the trail we have no idea.
That evening we have to say farewell to our inspirational trail companions. We present them with a donation in appreciation for all they’ve done, and then we take turns to shake hands with each of the porters and say “sulpayki wayki” – Quechua language for “thank you friend”.
The great race
As a group, it took us four full days of hard trekking to complete the 45km route, in the face of relentless climbs and descents, hours of sun exposure, the perils of high altitude, and a seeming eternity of stony steps.
Once every year, all of the Inca Trail porters – there are some 500 in total – race the route.
How long does it take them to do it? Three and a half hours.
Three. And. A. Half. Hours.
The record is in fact three hours and twenty-three minutes. This must be one of the world’s toughest marathons. As someone who now has the badge for completing the trail in the usual manner, it’s difficult to comprehend such a feat.
The Inca Trail porters are not always well treated. There was a time when they had to carry as much as 50kg each. Still today, many tour companies do not pay them properly and offer them scant benefits.
We were more than pleased to pay a bit more to do the trail with G Adventures, a company that does give the porters a fairer deal and endeavours to support the economies of the local communities, such as the women’s co-op we visited on the first day.
If you do decide to take on the Inca Trail one day, make sure that you consider the treatment and conditions of the local workers when selecting a tour company. You will see why.
Moments of magic
Our group did come away from the Inca Trail with a memory that very few can boast. Descending the ‘gringo killer’ on the final evening – hundreds of metres of downward steps into the jungle – the vanguard of our group heard a rustle in the undergrowth away from the track.
Quietly but excitedly, everyone gathered round. Our fearless leader Ray scrambled off a few metres into the trees, and suddenly let out a rasping whisper-shout: “Look! It’s a baby bear!”
Sure enough, it was: we only caught a few glimpses of it climbing about and ogling at us before it got scared and fled, but we were looking at a baby bear in the wild. Ray told us that in his 12 years and nearly 500 Inca Trails, it was the first time he had seen a bear.
Moments like this served to embellish what was already an incredible adventure. But among all of the breathtaking scenery, mountains, valleys, cloud jungles, lagoons, wildlife, stunning abandoned architecture and great stories of history, none of us will forget the people who supported us all the way through it.