Head porters, chefs, toilet porters and guides - oh my! The Inca Trail trek, like any supported backcountry trip, has a large cast of characters who ensure that you as a trekker are encouraged, enriched, well-fed and safe throughout your journey. These individuals work very hard, literally engaging in 'back breaking' labor for a seemingly puny salary by our standards, and they rely on tips from trekkers as a portion of their compensation.
The polite thing to say is that 'gratuities are at your discretion,' but in reality if you are trekking the Inca Trail in Peru, you should budget porter, guide and support staff tips into the overall cost of your trip. Here are my recommendations for 'how-much' and 'how-to' when it comes to divvying up tips on the Inca Trail.
This varies greatly based on the number of people in your trekking group, but at a minimum, each porter should receive $40 at the end of a trek. This amounts to $10/porter/day for the four day trek and when you see how hard they work, you'll agree the tip is merited
Within the larger porter group there is the head porter (who rounds up the other porters from his village and oversees camp set-up, break-down each day, etc.) and the toilet porter. The latter fellow does the honorable but undesirable job of carrying the toilet, toilet supplies, and yes, your waste, along the trail until it can be properly disposed of. These individuals go above and beyond just carrying weight along the trail and should be tipped accordingly; $50 minimum for the toilet porter and about $60 for the head porter.
On our Inca Trail Trek you are provided with three hot, nutritious and delicious meals each day, complete with (real!!) coffee or tea and several courses. Our chefs are gourmet backcountry wizards who take a lot of pride in their craft. The chef on your trek should receive between of $80-100 for a group of 4. Larger groups should compensate accordingly.
A head guide is generally with you from arrival in Cusco until your tour of Machu Picchu and return to Cusco. For a group of 4, good service merits $30-$40/day total as tips so after 7 days together, have somewhere between $200-$300 set aside for your head guide.
A tip is a way of saying thank you and you want your porters and trek staff to know that you appreciate them. Though it can be awkward (and sometimes a little confusing), I find it best to hand the tips directly to your porters and team on the last morning of the Inca Trail Trek. This is the last time that you are all together and typically after breakfast the porters will line up to say goodbye to you as they take a different route to Machu Picchu to drop your luggage at the hotel.
Have one person from your group present each porter with their tip directly, along with a handshake or a hug. Porters typically don't speak Spanish or English. They are almost all from Quechua-speaking villages and appreciate any effort to use their language. Shake hands and use the Quechua word for thank you - Sulpayki (sool-pai-kee) - , followed by the the proper way to say 'brother.' A man saying brother to a man says: wawke-y (literally, brother-I). A woman would say: turi-y.
Your main guide will stay with you through your tour of Machu Picchu and can be tipped after this last tour. Guides can also foster distribution of tips among the porters but I recommend taking over this task yourself as it cements a personal relationship with the people who made your trek to Machu Picchu possible.
Also - if you run into your porters in the town of Aguas Calientes while they are waiting for their train back to the valley, invite them for a cerveza or chica! Nothing says 'sulpayki' quite like a round of cold ones on you!
Your trek savvy Peru specialist,