Hint: It's not the Inca Ruins.
Hint: It's not the cloud forests.
Hint: It's not the crazy steep terrain or majestic mountain scenery.
Hint: It's not a thing either.
It's the Porters.
Here's the new math of the Inca Trail. It takes twenty-three Porters to man haul the camping requirements of seventeen paying Gringos and three guides for a three night-four day Machu Picchu journey.
At the completion of Day One's meander, Alex announced there would be a "Meet and Greet" with these extraordinary men.
After dinner we assembled in a circle: North Americans in one hemisphere, Peruvian Porters in the other and three guides straddling the Equator between the two.
Alex told us about the Porters in his melodic way of speaking English. Here's the gist of what I heard: (Some of this information came from Mary Lou, an employee of Valencia Travel.)
The Porters live at 12,000' in remote villages. Many are subsistence farmers. Some of their homes lack electricity or running water. Valencia Travel is one of the few tour companies who provides health insurance while the Porters are on the Inca Trail. The Shining Path guerrillas made life even more difficult for them. When the Porters are on the job they each carry fifty-five pounds of gear. Chewing coca leaves is as much a part of their culture as drinking four glasses of wine during a Passover Seder is for Jews. They speak a language that is passed on by word of mouth-Quechuan. They work hard so they may one day earn enough money for their children to get a proper education. Tip money from us Gringos is a major source of their yearly revenue.
While Alex was speaking, I looked across the 20' gap separating the vacationers from the employees. Despite the fact we were all Homo Sapiens, to me it felt like a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" moment. I couldn't fathom what it would be like to wake up hungry or with no source of real income. For us softies from North America, a bad day is when Starbucks pours soy milk instead of real milk into our morning coffee. Our cultural, economic and physical differences were light years apart.
Yet, I admired them for their endurance, toughness and boundless energy. Their ages ran from 18-60. Their skin tones covered the spectrum of cafe con leche to burnt mahogany wood. A few sported a snaggletooth grin. Some stood in a supplicant posture. (That bothered me.) Every one of these human transporters were shorter and weighed less than me. I'm 5'4" and tilt the scales at about a $1.38.
They practically ran up the passes bearing their cumbersome loads. Once in camp, their work day would begin again. Set up the tents, fluff up the sleeping pads and bags, heat water for tea, boil water for drinking, distribute warm water for washing up, cook meals, wait tables and clean up the whole mess. Repeat until the last camp three days later.
I saw them eat once. At that day's end, the cook prepared a huge white meal for them. Their bowls were piled high mostly with carbohydrates. I never saw any of them drink water. Coca Colas and a yellow liquid called Inca Kola was the only fluids I noticed them quaffing. On Day One local women provided them with a juice-like drink at one of their infrequent rest stops. They wore blue uniforms with the prominent Valencia Travel logo imprinted upon them. They were hustling advertisements for their employer. The rest of their clothes were a mish mash of hand-me-downs from former guests. Whether or not the footwear fit their tiny feet was problematic.
There's an hierarchy within their ranks. There's a Head Porter, one Chef, an Assistant Chef and one Waiter. I don't use the word Chef lightly. The meals which were created within that humble cooking tent was fine cuisine compared to most of the grub I ingested in South America. Lots of thought and hard work went into those feeds.
Of course, there's the new guys. They had the unenviable tasks of hauling five gallons of sloshing water (41.5 pounds) up the staircase I mentioned in the following blog. http://jeffsambur.blogspot.com/2016/02/day-four-it-jungle-out.html
In other words, they performed the stupid hard jobs in order to prove their mettle.
So the bottom line, what did these Mighty Mights make for their gargantuan efforts? Valencia Travel suggested a 100 Soles tip/Porter (About 28.75 USD). They wrote that this would be a very generous gratuity. That's what we handed them.
Isn't that crazy?
I'm on my way to Saint Pete's Beach to find a nice bar to watch the Super Bowl. It'll cost me more than $28.75 to drink and eat there.
PS. One Porter photo was provided by Oliver.