The women porters making history on Peru’s Inca Trail

Until recently, only men were porters on the trail to Machu Picchu. Now, women are finding new opportunities – and equality – on the famed trek.
In the darkness of her small bedroom in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, Sara Qquehuarucho Zamalloa packed her bag, thoughts racing: Would the weather be good? Would the team be friendly? Would she encounter park rangers with bad attitudes toward women? Would her mum, who suffers from chronic pain, be okay while she was gone?

She pushed aside the ruminations. She was headed out the next morning as an assistant guide on the Inca Trail, the precipitous pathway leading to the famous 15th-Century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. She loved the job. It paid more than anything else she could be doing, and, perhaps most importantly, it empowered her in Peru’s patriarchal society. Knowing she could tackle the Inca Trail – both physically and mentally – as a guide made her feel like she could accomplish anything she set her mind to.

Why do you love the world?

“Because living in the world is an adventure. One day can be up, and the next can be down. But we learn and grow. That’s what the world is about.” – Sara Qquehuarucho Zamalloa, guide

More Reasons to Love the World

She double checked to make sure she had her guiding ID and her water bottle, and ensured her pack was not too heavy (every kilogram counts on the trail), then went to say farewell to her mother in the house’s other room. Zamalloa slipped her mother some money, noticing how their roles had changed since childhood, and crawled into bed for six hours of solid sleep. She always slept well the night before a trek.

Zamalloa’s boldest hope as a child in the village of San Martin, located in the cloud forests high above the Amazon jungle, was to become an administrative assistant, a job that in Peru would have landed her in a male-dominated office with no hope of upward mobility.

“In my community, not a lot of people finished education,” Zamalloa told me, sitting around a kitchen table in Cusco with her trekking coworkers. “Our school was a three-hour walk there and a three-hour walk back. Parents made children marry when they were 13 years old. I wanted to change all of those injustices.”

With a sense of adventure that would serve her well, eight-year-old Zamalloa joined her mother on the 15-hour bus ride to move to Calca, near Cusco City, to sell vegetables at the local market. As she got older, she sought out jobs, attended high school and studied tourism for three years at college. The Inca Trail and a whole new world of possibility weren’t even on her radar until 2016, when she met Miguel Angel Góngora, the co-owner of Evolution Treks Peru, a Cusco-based trekking company, who invited her to join a new programme for women porters on the Inca Trail.

Originally, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was a path for the royal emperor, who honoured the mountains and peaks on his pilgrimage (Credit: Mac99/Getty Images)
Originally, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was a path for the royal emperor, who honoured the mountains and peaks on his pilgrimage (Credit: Mac99/Getty Images)

“I remember the date of my first trek very well. 27 March 2018,” she said. “That was the start of a different life for me.”

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is part of a vast network of trails in Latin America that integrated Tahuantinsuyo – the Inca Empire – which ruled in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Only the Inca, the royal emperor, was allowed on this portion of the trail, as he pilgrimaged to the sacred site of Machu Picchu, honouring the mountains and peaks along the way. American archaeologist Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu in the early 1900s brought worldwide attention to the trail previously unknown to the Western world. Intrepid trekkers in the following decades used locally drawn maps to find their way to the legendary “Lost City of Gold”.

In the 1970s, tour operators began hiring men from the villages of the Sacred Valley as porters to lead hikers along the route. Initially, given the unstable political situation that ravaged Peru at that time, few tourists dared visit the Inca Trail, making porter jobs limited. But after the defeat of the far-left guerrilla group Shining Path in the early 1990s, visitors flocked to the trail. In 2001, new Inca Trail regulations required permits for trekkers as well as porters; today, 300 porters and guides support 200 tourists daily. But until recently, only men were hired for the job.

“In our country, harassment and discrimination are often normalized,” said Peruvian journalist and television producer Sonaly Tuesta, who is producing a documentary about women porters on the Inca Trail entitled Sinchichasqua Warmi [powerful women]. She found that the women porters continually struggle as they clash with the patriarchal system that ignores, invades, and violates them. “Recognizing the work of women, providing them with tools to regain self-esteem and generate activism in them, seems to me essential to start changing things.”