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The Andes Mountains are breathtaking: the iconic history, the rugged alpine vistas, the air thinner than a whisper. It’s a landscape that demands you work to earn its beauty. And on Peru’s Inca Trail, porters do the lion’s share of the work.
Though some peaks in the Andes reach four miles above sea level, the range’s average is about a mile lower, at 13,000 feet. Atmospheric oxygen concentration is consistent regardless of altitude, but low air pressure at Andean elevations makes oxygen feel 40% less concentrated than at sea level.
Photograph by Jeff Heimsath
When tourists book guided hikes, they’re accompanied by locals who haul the food, tents, and gear up the trail for them. Lugging heavy packs over challenging terrain an average of 13,000 feet above sea level is an arduous job. Though the industry-average rate of about $72 per four-day trek lingers a little below the national living wage, porting is still one of the most reliable ways to make a living in remote mountain areas.
But until 2016, it was a living made by men only.
“[Ours] hasn’t always been a social change company,” says Miguel Ángel Góngora Meza, director and cofounder of Evolution Treks Peru. “But it became frustrating that nothing would change. That was why we started this project. We wanted to put forth a different side of tourism.”
“We” includes Amelia Huaraya Palomino, Evolution cofounder and general manager. The duo faced a threefold issue: They saw the sexism excluding women from lucrative porting work, but also the mistreatment of male porters by travel agencies, and the poverty of the remote mountain villages that lie along expedition routes.
“Agencies, the only thing they want is to profit, profit, profit; it doesn’t matter how,” says Huaraya. “The saddest thing is that the male porters are really mistreated. They don’t get paid what they should.”
But while providing fair conditions to men and offering jobs to villagers along the trail are both part of Evolution’s ethos, supporting women remains its most difficult challenge. As Huaraya’s brand-new company struggled to get off the ground in 2015, she partnered with Góngora to confront these injustices. A year later, the Evolution co-op became the first Peruvian travel agency to hire women porters.
Porters rest near a mountain peak. Despite intense criticism, women porters have become so successful that male porters’ scorn has shifted to resentment and fear that women will take their jobs. Evolution remains the only agency to send women on the Inca Trail.
Photograph by Jeff Heimsath
The country’s entrenched misogyny paints women as “weak” and “fragile,” unsuited to rigorous work, and not meant to earn a living, say Góngora and Huaraya. Peru is ranked third in the world for gender violence by the World Health Organization.
“When we say that women work for us, some say, ‘Very good.’ Others say, ‘They’re going to die. They’re not going to achieve it,’” says Góngora. “[The women porters] have destroyed this myth.”
Discrimination isn’t the only hurdle they face. They often do their work in defiance of concerned or disapproving families and partners. And regulations agreed upon by an association of travel agencies stipulate that women may only port 15 kilograms (33 pounds), while men may carry 20 kilograms (44 pounds). The discrepancy makes hiring women seem a poor business decision—especially when Evolution’s commitment to providing employees with food, tents, and sleeping mats of the same high quality as clients’ necessitates the expense of splitting more weight among more people.
But Evolution is staying the course. The months they don’t break even are matched by months they profit, Góngora says, and Huaraya points out that they’re still a young company in a very competitive market.
“We believe there’s no such thing as sustainable travel if you don’t include women,” says Góngora. “And if you don’t include women because it wouldn’t make money for your company, then don’t call yourself sustainable.”
About 24 women work across Evolution’s three locations, the vast majority of them indigenous Quechua women from outlying pueblos whose previous income consisted of trying to sell handicrafts in markets or stands along the Inca Trail.
“We’ve seen that what we created, what we always wanted, has been realized without having to force people,” Huaraya says. “Now, when we have expeditions, women call to see when it’s going and how they can be useful in the group.”
Women porters climb an Andean trail. “[We] feel good, because we see it hasn’t been in vain, that they want to do it, that it’s been a success,” says Huaraya. “There’s more women every time.”
Photograph by Jeff Heimsath
Other agencies have begun hiring women. But Evolution is still the only one to send women on the Inca Trail, one of Peru’s most storied and most challenging routes.
For some women, porting isn’t just a job, but the first step in a career. Porters often move up the ranks to become guides, who, depending on their expertise and the number of clients they lead, can bring home up to $80 a day—over four times porters’ daily rate. Guide students earn certification at institutes where trail time is combined with instruction in English, history, and navigation.
Twenty-four-year-old porter Sara Qqehuarahucho Zamalloa is one such student. A scholarship allows her to split her time between studying and working as an assistant guide, charged with bringing up the rear on the trail. In a few years, she’ll be a lead guide herself.
Her advice is simple.
“When you put something before yourself,” she says, “You accomplish it. You do it.”
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