Part of the joy of travel is discovering the social context of your destination. It’s important to understand the background of the place you’re visiting, and the impact your presence will inevitably have.

This is especially important in a largely indigenous area such as the Peruvian Andes, where a long and often turbulent political and colonial history has reverberations that still echo today.

Peru’s problematic industry

Like much of the Andes, Cusco and Huaraz are relatively poor regions with significant poverty in rural areas. Livelihoods, food security and basic healthcare and education are all in short supply. In this context, a booming tourism industry can have a pronounced impact, both for the good and the bad. On the plus side, it means new employment opportunities: more trekking means more demand for porters and guides, as well as hotels, restaurants and other services in the cities.

The downside is that much of this new employment is low-level service work for international companies, with little wealth remaining in the local area. It can also mean disruption for traditional livelihoods and farming, as people leave rural areas for more lucrative tourism work, causing a further knock-on effect on maintaining indigenous cultures and languages, traditional livelihoods, agricultural production, and the fragile economic balance within families and villages.

By asking the right questions you can understand – and improve – your role in this complex picture.

Find out how many locals are employed by your operator, and whether it has any employee-ownership structures. The best tourism businesses are ones that give local people a stake in their success.

Ask about responsible recruitment practices; trekking outfitters should have longstanding relationships with the communities they recruit from and should be aware of the impact that their recruitment has on rural families.

Ask about their wildlife and environmental practices. There should be a zero litter policy–all litter should be packed off the trail and toilet waste should be properly disposed of. The best agencies now also have a zero single-use plastic policy.

The best operators all proactively support community welfare, education and employment projects in rural areas. Ask your operator if and how they support and give back to their local community.

Porters vs. Horses

The Inca Trail from KM82 to Machu Picchu is among the most coveted treks on earth. However, considering the restrictive permit system, many people opt for alternative treks. On all other trails, your camping gear and food will be carried by pack horses or mules. Feel free to ask how much weight each horse carries and how many rest days they get between treks.

It is important to note that only the Inca Trail requires human porters. This is because parts of the trail consist of original stone laid during Inca times. Allowing horses or mules on the trail would destroy it within a day. Everything from tents to food to the porta-potty is carried up and over steep mountain passes by Quechua-speaking indigenous Peruvians.

Ask to see your operator’s porter welfare policy. They must abide by regulations limiting the weight each person carries and porters should receive adequate food, accommodation (their own tents and sleeping bags), and equipment (especially hiking boots) while on the trail. They should receive fair wages, be paid on time and have full life/accident insurance.

Horses vs. llamas

Before Europeans brought horses to South America, all cargo was carried by llamas. Though mules are the most commonly used pack animal in Peru today, there are many advantages to going with llamas. The most important is that llamas have smaller feet with soft pads instead of hooves, which cause much less damage to trails. Llamas also have a significantly lower environmental impact.

Over the past several centuries, the breeding and training of pack llamas has declined. A few organisations, like the Llama Pack Project, are trying to change that. If your trek requires pack animals, look for trekking agencies that offer llamas rather than mules.

Tipping guides and porters

There’s no doubt that portering is an arduous occupation but, with a good employer and proper welfare policies, it can also be an enjoyable and financially rewarding job. Andean people are tough and thrive in the thin air–you’ll be amazed by their physical strength and stamina!

One of the many highlights of your trek will be getting to know your guide, cook and porters. You’ll be astonished by the minor miracles they work each day to get your gear, equipment and provisions up and down those mountain passes, with camp and a hot meal always ready and waiting for your arrival.

Showing your gratitude for their superhuman efforts is an important element to the overall experience. Towards the end of the journey, your guide will probably organise a group gathering to give you an opportunity to say thanks and present the support staff with a tip.

The suggested range is $10-15 per porter/guide per day. You can pool your tips as a group and they’ll split it out between them. There is often a head porter who is used to dividing tips equally amongst the group.

The tip isn’t considered mandatory, especially if service has been below expectations, but it is highly expected and makes a huge impact on the take-home pay for a group of extremely dedicated workers.

Be a respectful visitor

If your trekking operator is involved with community or education projects in the Cusco region, they may appreciate gifts or donations to help support their work.

Some trekking routes wind their way through Andean communities and you may even spend a night in a local village. They’ll be well accustomed to foreigners passing through and you’re bound to catch a shy but friendly smile or two. Many trekkers enjoy bringing gifts to hand out to the local kids–try to think about what would be most beneficial. Avoid teeth-rotting sweets and opt for practical things that won’t quickly become plastic trash on the mountain: pens, paper, colouring books, etc. Less tasty but much more useful in the long run!

Keep in mind that you’re visiting a socially conservative and reserved part of the world. Be mindful of your attire and how much skin you’re revealing (although with the cold and strong solar radiation at altitude, you might want to cover up anyway). Ask for permission before taking photos of people or their children, show courtesy and respect for your hosts, and generally aim to behave in a way that you’d expect from visitors to your home turf.

About the author

Responsible Trekking In Peru

Heather Jasper

Based in Cusco, Peru, Heather is an expert on travel to Peru and South America. Heather writes on tourism, trekking, and social issues in Peru for publications including BBC Travel, Fodor’s Travel, Matador Network, Thrifty Nomads, World Nomads, Frommer's, Flashpack, and more. Heather co-founded the Covid Relief Project with Henry Quintano Loaiza to assist vulnerable families in the Cusco region.

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