Home Egalitarianism Is Evolution Trek’s All-Women Machu Picchu Tour Just a Publicity Stunt?

Is Evolution Trek’s All-Women Machu Picchu Tour Just a Publicity Stunt?

by Matthew

According to some tour participants and organizer Evolution Treks Peru, an All-Women trek to Machu Picchu represents a breakthrough for gender equality. 

The event was planned for March 30, 2021, and the groundbreaking expedition’s purported goals included:

  • Breaking gender stereotypes
  • Supporting women’s fight against discrimination 
  • Giving women the opportunity to earn a fair income
  • Providing acceptable living conditions while on the trail

According to Lonely Planet writer Barbara Noe Kennedy’s 2021 article titled A Historic All-Women Trek to Machu Picchu will Take Place, the event marks the first time an all-woman group of guides, porters and clients will make their way through the sacred Andes Mountains, ultimately ending up at one of the world’s most awe inspiring attractions. 

Until Evolution Treks Peru began employing women just a few years ago, mountain portering was the exclusive domain of men.

The Logistics

Image: Living in Peru

Comprised exclusively of women – most indiginous Quechua – two tour guides will lead clients and between eight and ten porters, the latter of who will haul 33-pound packs of food, camping gear and cooking equipment on the nearly 50-mile round trip to Machu Picchu almost 8,000 feet above sea level. 

Thanks to COVID-19 restrictions and the recent closing of Inca Trail, the team will have to traverse an alternate route, but they’ll perform the same tasks as their male counterparts for which they’ll be paid several dollars more per day than the average male porter in Peru – $87 plus tips for a five-day trek.

In a country where people generally earn $10 a day or less, it’s a huge increase. But if they’ll work for tour operators other than Evolution Treks Peru in the future, it raises the following questions: 

  • Will they be expected to work the same hours and carry the same loads as men? 
  • Will they be paid the same wages? 
  • Will women porters be treated the same way men formerly were?

The People

“It’s not just about being a porter,” claims one female Evolution Treks Peru guide participating in the excursion. 

In 2017 she and another local woman were the first female porters on the Inca Trail, and both went on to attend and graduate from tourism school and become full-fledged guides. 

Evolution Treks Peru’s co-founder Miguel Angel Góngora Meza said the company has plans for all-female trips twice monthly in 2021, and as frequently as every week the following year. 

Guide Lucia Merclajuly Vela Sosa who’ll also be participating in the historic event said: 

“I’m excited because a pure women’s group means things are changing. We are proving we can do it without men.” 

Lucia Merclajuly Vela Sosa

Did anyone doubt they could? And really, why the desire to completely remove men, rather than creating a healthier environment of equal cooperation and cohesion? 

Female Machu Picchu Porters: The Whole Story

But according to another Lonely Planet article titled Responsible Trekking in Peru: What You Should Know About Workers’ Rights for Porters, it may not be all fuzzy bunnies and rainbow sherbet on Peru’s trails for female porters. 

A law passed in 2001 aimed to protect porters by: 

  • Limiting the loads they carry to 44 pounds (25% more than Evolution Treks Peru’s female guides), with a quarter of that reserved for personal items
  • Providing warm clothing and comfortable accommodation
  • Ensuring appropriate rest, sleep and sufficient food
  • Offering both life and accident insurance  

These are all things that have been lacking for all male porters up until then.

Image: NBC News

Since then, Regional Federation of Porters (RFP) representatives have periodically met with government officials from a number of agencies as well as the Inca Trail’s three largest tour operator associations to discuss the law’s strengths, weaknesses, and enforcement. 

But not surprisingly, enforcement is lax and many tour companies put profits before ethics by adhering to the rules selectively. 

As the second article puts it: 

This situation is creating friction to the point of explosion.” 

RFP President Alberto Huaman said that in addition to downward wage pressure (most likely caused by increased competition), many companies are insisting that porters carry heavier and heavier loads (possibly reducing the number of porters needed), and in some cases forcing them to work 16 hours a day, and sometimes more. 

In 2019, the RFP again requested meetings with the tour operators’ association and government officials, but when both failed to turn up, they staged a 500-strong demonstration at the Inca Trail’s entrance. 

Sadly, many tour companies set off the night before to avoid delays and ugly public scenes.

Since then, Alberto Huaman claims to have received multiple threats.

Legal actions initiated by the Peruvian Service for Natural Protected Areas are pending as well, and if convicted, Huaman could face up to 20 years in prison. 

While Evolution Treks all-female trek is a great publicity stunt, it doesn’t reflect the general conditions that porters in Peru normally face. Both male and female porters face an entirely different environment. Namely, much heavier loads, and less pay.

Is Portering a Zero Sum Game? 

Assuming tourism levels remain static, the demand for porters regardless of gender may be fixed.

And one might ask, why are female porters offered such better conditions than the male porters were? Why were men required to carry so much more weight, for less money?

According to the Lump of Labor Fallacy, employment opportunities aren’t finite. So the men displaced by Evolution Treks will likely be able to find other portering jobs; but they won’t be able to expect the same special treatment these women have received.

And they certainly won’t be able to receive the same fair wages. And assuming they have families, will they, their children, and their spouses be better or worse off?    

Unfortunately, for men or women in the area, there really aren’t any other opportunities. If there were, it’s probably safe to say that they would already be doing them rather than lugging extremely heavy packs up treacherous mountains in low oxygen conditions for peanuts.

Freedom, Opportunity, Competition and Equality

In the end, who are we to say whether all-female expeditions to Machu Picchu promote gender equality and women’s rights?

Freedom, opportunity, and healthy competition will promote good jobs and pay for everyone, regardless.  Evolution Treks may be able to get western women to pay far higher prices for a trek marketed as “all women”.

However, most other hikers looking for adventures in Machu Picchu will likely shop around for the better bargain.

And those adventure companies that can pay lower wages for male porters who are willing to carry heavier loads, they will also be able to offer lower prices to their customers. Meaning, Evolution Treks business model, while politically trite and “feel-good”, likely won’t be sustainable unless they hold their female porters to the same standards and the same pay as male porters at other companies.

Or, they work to improve conditions for all Quechua workers in the area, not only women.

But in a world so hellbent on egalitarianism, why are dividing lines between men and women continually drawn with such fervor in the first place? 

Perhaps porter Miguel Mayta summed it up best when he said – 

“We want to make changes for the better for the porters. We want people to see that we are human beings, not animals.”

Human beings – as in women and men. Why doesn’t Evolution Treks work to improve conditions for the local Quechua porters, rather than exploiting Quechua women for a publicity stunt?

That said, if the women porters feel empowered, fairly treated and thankful for their new opportunity despite its inherent hardships and treatment, then at the very least they’re better off than they were before. At least for this one trek, and with this one company.

But for the men they’re competing against for scarce jobs, treated inhumanely throughout the rest of the industry, that certainly isn’t the case. But Evolution Treks doesn’t care about them.

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