Ladies and Llamas on the Inca Trail
Enormous clouds cling to the peaks of snow-capped mountains. Winking prickly pears and violet wildflowers greet us on either side of a path that looks as if it were opened up by the gods. It’s early afternoon, the sun is low in the sky, and our bellies are full to the brim with Peruvian avocados, potatoes and rice, ready for the four days ahead.
The hike on the Inca Trail is more luxurious than I expected. We are half a day in and I feel like royalty. Our tour leader Rudi and his team of cooks, porters and guides have thought of everything, from scrumptious food made from local ingredients to bowls of hot water and face cloths after the end of each day’s walk.
Along the way, Rudi enlightens us about the hike’s history, ecology, flora, fauna, language and ancient mythology. He explains that the Incas lived in harmony with pachamama (Mother Earth) as they constructed an awe-inspiring empire spanning the Andes mountains. The Incas built hillside terraces, palaces of stone jigsaw and structures to capture the natural beauty of the sun. The roads that connected these sites, known today as the Inca Trail, were uncovered in 1911 by American academic Hiram Bingham after being left untouched for almost 500 years.
Today, the Inca Trail is not only for history buffs though. Travellers are here for many different reasons – the physical challenge, the beautiful mountains, the hawks and hummingbirds, the llamas and alpacas and the lovely local people. Some even come in search of spiritual awakening.
By late 1990, however, mass uncontrolled tourism was starting to wreak some pretty terrible effects with this living museum of cultural heritage. Ten years on, a whopping 1500 hikers were entering the track every day, leaving their footprints, rubbish and destruction everywhere. The Peruvian government decided to interfere to protect the country’s best preserved cultural treasure.
They insisted on the use of guides and a limited number of entrants into the track each day, and replaced mules and horses with human porters who would be less damaging to the environment. But with all this well-intentioned reform, one thing was overlooked. The welfare of porters.
While most companies provided their employees with decent meals, fair pay and reasonable pack weights, others were less scrupulous. Unethical companies tried to cut costs by overloading porters, feeding them leftovers and paying them a pittance.
But on this hike, Rudi, who we engaged because of his commitment to ethical practices, introduces us to two employees of his, Sara and Sartorlina.
“These strong women,” my guide says, “are in fact, the first to ever work as female porters on the Inca Trail.”
This was a historic moment. These were the frontierswomen of this long-standing male-dominated profession, and I was there to witness it.
Over a cup of chicha morada, a drink that tastes a bit like Ribena cordial with a hint of cinnamon, but is made from fermenting the ever-abundant Andean purple corn, I ask Sara how she felt about her historic role.
She is an affable woman, humble, yet determined.
“I am 26. I have just finished my course in tourism and coming on the Inca Trail as a porter seemed like the next logical step,” she tells me.
Sara explains that she speaks four languages – Spanish, English, Quechua and French – and that the course has confirmed her existing knowledge of the region’s history, ecology and culture. She is also knowledgeable in basic first aid and the mechanics and economics of trekking in South America.
The next woman I meet, Sartorlina, is 50 years older. Her home is a concrete farm house at the bottom of the first big mountain we climb, which she left to join us for the next three days of the trek. Dressed in a brightly-coloured traditional skirt, alpaca legwarmers and felt hat, she has two plaits hanging down her back, signifying her married status (one plait, on the other hand, indicates a Quechan woman is single).
There is no need for her to speak English, nor does she speak Spanish. She only speaks Quechua, the traditional language of Indigenous people who live in the Andes.
Rudi explains that this is Sartorlina’s first time walking the Inca Trail despite living at the bottom of it her whole life. She is excited to be helping by carrying a tent for the group. Her life before this has focussed on raising a family and making traditional crafts from weaving, which she sold at markets in town.
This elderly newcomer to the group immediately became a mentor to the younger women on the trail.
On our last night, as we gather around a magnificent cake made by our chef, Rambo, in a tent over a small single-burner stove, we are lucky enough to hear what Sartorlina thinks about the hike.
As we all cut each other slices of cake and pass around cast-iron cups of tea for each other, the more experienced male porters share words of pride, gratitude and amazement for their female counterparts. But everyone wants to hear what Sartorlina, already revered as the wise, grandma figure of the group, has to say.
Thanks to a three-way translation from Quechua to Spanish to English, we become privy to her thoughts:
“My whole life I have wondered why people want to put themselves through hiking over these mountain ranges. I now see it is beautiful.”
After a pause, however, she adds, “But I’m totally exhausted now. I miss my little house at the bottom of the hill. I’m glad I got to see the other side.”
Her honesty is a relief. We are all probably thinking how bloody hard the trek had been and hearing the biggest trooper of the group have a whinge gave us permission to admit it had almost killed us!
We all collapse in laughter after the final translation is done.
Sartorlina, a woman who has lived a lot of her life already, and Sara, whose adult life is just beginning, now have something in common: opportunity. Whether it blossoms into a full-blown career or simply allows them a glimpse at the other side of a mountain, it’s the fact that these women now have a choice that’s important.
Thanks to these pioneering ladies and their far-sighted leader and employer, more women will have the opportunity in the future to reap the economic and cultural benefits of working as porters, guides and cultural ambassadors for their countries. I’m just glad I got to witness it first-hand.
Photos by the author