Alpaca Expeditions Trains Women to Work as Porters in the High Andes
The aim is to empower women by creating opportunities for financial autonomy.
When hiking at 16,000 feet in the Andes mountains, many a traveler relies on porters to set up and break camp, lug supplies up steep inclines and hike ahead fast enough to make the next night’s camp. The job has long been thought to be too physically demanding for women, who, in the Andes, traditionally stay at home and care for the family in surrounding highland villages.
That is until Cusco-based tour operator Alpaca Expeditions began training women to work as porters in 2018. Since then, 35 women have gone on to climb some of the country’s highest routes, such as the Inca Trail, Salkantay and Lares Trek. The women’s duties are the same as the men’s: they remain at camp after guests begin their hike, clean up, take down tents, load gear and carry it past the guests, setting up lunch posts and campsites.
“Men carry 20 kilos [45 pounds] and women carry 15 kilos [33 pounds],” explains Alpaca Expeditions founder Raul Ccolque. “This is the main difference... [but] everyone respects each other as coworkers.”
Ccolque’s aim has been to empower women by creating opportunities for financial autonomy. He grew up in a Cusco farming village at 10,000 feet, and he vividly recalls his mother carrying farm goods to sell at the market to help support the family.
He believes if there had been an opportunity for his mother to be a porter, she would have signed up and excelled. “She loaded a 20-kilogram bag of onions on her back and then my baby brother on top of that and walked to the market,” he recalls. “It seems impressive, but it was just life to us.”
Wearing Alpaca Expeditions' green jersey and skirt, a porter makes her way to the next campsite.
Inspired by his mother, Ccolque knew women were more than capable of carrying heavy loads over rugged terrain for many miles. Now all the company’s treks are composed of coed teams of guides and porters. Every February, the men and women train side-by-side and learn not only the ins and outs of the job, but how to work together.
Now that the word is out, more and more women are signing up to be porters at Alpaca Expeditions. Some are mothers and daughters who work together, and some are students. But Ccolque says that most women seek out the work to improve life for their children, as the salary allows them to better provide food, education and medical care. For many women, it’s also the first time they’ve traveled outside the general area of their home village.
Ccolque is particularly pleased with one young employee, Dina, who is the first female porter to take the next professional step and become a guide, after recently graduating from tourism school. He’s not the only one who’s beaming. “Her mother feels really proud—her daughter is now a tour guide, a professional person. She feels this is exceptional.”