Over the course of 13 years, porter Richard Pfocohuanca has hiked the Inca Trail, and worked 15+ hour days in the process, hundreds of times. But he’s never made it to Machu Picchu. James Shackell speaks with Richard to find out what it’s really like to be a porter.
Richard Pfocohuanca has hiked the Inca Trail more than most people on the planet, but he’s never seen Machu Picchu. “I really want to go,” he says over the phone from his home in Peru. “Travelers often tell me about it, and I’ve seen some pictures. It looks very beautiful.”
Richard has been a porter on the Inca Trail for 13 years. He’s climbed the 43-kilometer route hundreds of times, winding up through the Andes, all the way to the dreaded Dead Woman’s Pass (a lung-squeezing 4,215 meters above sea level), and on to the famous Sun Gate. But on the last day, while hikers and tourists push on to Machu Picchu, he and the other porters pack up the tents, clean the pots, load up supplies, and trudge back down to the valley floor. Ready to start again.
To mark comprehensive new research into porter welfare by The Intrepid Foundation, we sat down with Richard to chat climbing, cooking, and life as a porter on the Inca Trail.
Adventure.com: How did you become a porter?
Richard: I’m from the countryside. I grew up in a little village called Totora. It’s in Acha Alta, just near the Sacred Valley. I used to be self-sufficient, helping my family work the fields, but then the crops started to fail and we weren’t getting much money. I decided to try something different, so I became a porter. That was 13 years ago. Now the money I make goes to my family and my children, and my savings.
Do you like the job?
It’s a good job. I’ve been with PEAK [a destination management company owned by the Intrepid Group] now for about eight years. I enjoy it a lot. I like to work for travelers, cook them food and make them laugh. Even when I was young, I loved the mountains, and I love meeting people from the other side of the world. I’m proud to show them my country and my culture. Also my group, the other porters, we’re all from the same community, so it’s like working with your friends. We stay together, and do the hike together. That’s normal in Peru.
Is it hard being away from your kids?
Very hard. I have two faces really: I feel sad and worried when I leave, but I also know that I will be back, and when I get back, my children and wife will be waiting for me. They stand outside the door and watch for me. My children are already asking me about my job. They want to know what it’s like, and when they can join me in the mountains.
What’s a typical day like for porters on the Inca Trail?
Our day starts very early. I wake up at about 4.30am, when it’s still dark, and then we start waking up the hikers with hot herbal tea. We cook breakfast for ourselves first, then the travelers, maybe some chicken stew with rice or potatoes. After breakfast, we wash up and pack the bags. This takes some time, because each bag can only be 20 kilograms max. There are strict rules. So we have to weigh and adjust the packs all the time. The hikers set off, and we usually leave about 30 minutes later.
It takes hikers about four hours to reach the lunch stop, but we take about 1.5 hours. We overtake them on the trail. That means we can set up lunch and help the chefs get ready. If I’m carrying the tents for the night, I’ll keep going without lunch, all the way to the night stop, another two hours away. We cook and serve the hikers lunch, then clean the pots and pack again.
When we get to the final campsite, we cook dinner for ourselves, then the hikers. We pitch the tents, check the tent flies, make sure everything’s ready. We never stop. After dinner, once the hikers are all asleep, we go to bed. Usually around 9.30pm. We’re very tired—we’re not super heroes!—but we’re happy too.
That sounds tough. How’s your body holding up?
At the end of the Inca Trail, all porters have some muscle pains. The calves are usually very sore, they’re the most painful. Eventually, after a few Inca Trails (especially if they’re back-to-back) you start to feel it in your knees. Right now, I have some strange pain in my right knee. I think it’s because of 13 years doing the same trek, up and down the mountains.
Do you get any medical help or insurance?
PEAK insures us while we’re on the Trail, and in every village, we have a medical center, which is like a small local clinic. If we’re sore, we can go there and get basic medical attention, which is free. If the problem is worse, porters have to go to a bigger town or city like Cuzco. The private clinics there cost a lot of money, but in Peru we have public medical assistance for almost everybody, so people like me, who live in the country, can go to a public hospital in town and get medicine for free. The problem is that the public hospitals always take a long time. It’s very slow. And not everybody knows how to use the system.
Would you like to become a guide one day?
When I was younger, naturally my dream was to be a guide, but now I have children. I think it’s going to be much more difficult. About seven years ago, I became head porter, and right now I am also assistant cook, which I really like. In the future, I would love to become a chef. But we do have a lot of young porters who want to become guides. We have some in our team now—they’re studying English and trails and navigation. In Peru, to be a mountain guide, you have to study in technical schools or university. For a lot of those guys, guiding is the dream.
Do you think you will ever see Machu Picchu?
I hope so! I have not seen it yet, not in 13 years. As part of the Inca Trail regulations, porters cannot go to Machu Picchu. At the third camp site, we take a short cut down to the valley floor, then walk back to the train. But I do want to go one day. PEAK has started doing proper Machu Picchu tours just for porters, which is great. They hosted the first one in 2017. I’m hoping I can get on the next one. I will see Machu Picchu one day.
The Intrepid Foundation’s Step Up for Porters Challenge will run from 1-30 June 2019. You can participate by signing up, contributing a $25 donation to support porters, and tackling a range of ‘virtual’ treks around the world. All donations will go towards improving porter welfare around the world. Visit The Intrepid Foundation for more info.
James Shackell is a freelance journalist with words in The Huffington Post, Red Bull, Canadian Traveler and Smith Journal. One day, he'll be bumped to business class, and you'll never hear the end of it.