Exclusive: The inside story of how the Inca Trail porters have never actually seen Machu Picchu

As many as 20 porters accompany a group of 12 clients
As many as 20 porters accompany a group of 12 clients Credit: olly pemberton

Hundreds of porters that carry the heavy luggage of tourists along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu have never been inside the ruined city, Telegraph Travel can reveal. 

The workers, often born and raised locally in the Peruvian mountains, each carry as much as 30kg over four days at altitude, including tents and gas stoves, for holidaymakers. 

Twenty porters typically accompany 12 tourists, but before reaching the Sun Gate – the entrance to the ancient Incan ruins, for which an additional permit is required – they peel off and return to base camp to assist the next group. 

The realisation prompted Surrey-based tour operator Exodus Travel to commit to ensuring that every porter it uses has had a guided tour of Machu Picchu in their Quechuan dialect. 

Filmmaker Olly Pemberton, working with the operator, made the discovery in 2017 when making a film about the lives of porters. 

Filmed and directed by Olly Pemberton

“While on the trek we were talking about Machu Picchu and there were lots of blank faces and shrugs, and we were like, ‘what, seriously?’” he said. “For clients, it’s the climax of the Inca Trail; for these guys, it’s such a huge part of their heritage.”

“We just thought, we need to address this, we need to get these guys in. They had heard of Machu Picchu, this big thing that tourists want to go and see, but for them it was just a job.

“The porters make the experience as comfortable as possible for the clients. It’s unbelievable what they do, and this is up at altitude, at pace. It’s incredible the speed they operate and the way they do everything with a smile.”

Machu Picchu is believed to have been built as an estate for Incan emperor Pachacuti in the 15th century. It is one of South America’s most popular attractions and requires permits bought well in advance for entry. 

The trail is arduous at points Credit: Olly Pemberton

Pemberton said the porters were aware that the citadel had some significance. 

He said: “They walk past a lot of Inca sites, and they knew that Machu Picchu bore some importance to their lives, some significance, but when they’re not being porters, they are farmers, and they don’t have the opportunity to delve into their own past. It’s a crying shame that they perhaps did not know what the ruins represented.”

The initial reason for Pemberton’s trip to Peru was to film Irish traveller Jarlath McHale experiencing the life of a porter, but they quickly became distracted by the issue. He says the oversight came down to time, cost and the need for additional permits. 

“We made a lot of calls and were able to bring up the first ever tour of Machu Picchu for Peruvian porters in Quechuan,” he said. “They were able to have a tour as if they were a tourist. They were walking around the site with a knowledgeable tour guide and he brought it to life for them.

“They were so engaged, it was fascinating. Their ancestors built this site and they had not been able to see it. When the guards saw the porters having the tour they were clapping and cheering.

“It’s a small gesture, but it brings them a bit closer to their own heritage.”

The first group of porters on their tour of Machu Picchu Credit: olly pemberton

Exodus has now given the 104 porters it employs a guided tour of Machu Picchu. 

Modesto, one of the porters, said he had worked on the Inca Trail for years without seeing the ruins. 

“All my friends and I are so happy and proud to know Machu Picchu,” he said. “We never had the opportunity to come here. [Now] we were able to visit all of the city of Machu Picchu, what our ancestor Incas left us as heritage.”

Kasia Morgan, head of sustainability at Exodus Travels, said the porters were at the heart of its Machu Picchu trips. 

“We felt it was paramount that they themselves had the opportunity to view Machu Picchu and to understand why so many thousands of tourists travel many miles to see it,” she said. 

“We are delighted that all of our porters have now visited Machu Picchu with a Quechuan-speaking guide and we have committed to ensure that any new porters also have the opportunity to experience this site that was built by their forefathers and which is such an important part of their history.”

The full documentary, Carried Away: A Porter’s Story, is available to watch . 

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