Don’t Look a Camelid in the Mouth
The most honored gift, and most common form of tribute, among the Inca was not gold, but finely woven garments of alpaca or, even better, vicuña wool. A relative of the camel, the llama was also the Inca’s only beast of burden and their primary source of meat. These high-altitude camelids made the Inca empire possible.
Arequipa, surrounded by high-altitude grasslands, has been the center of Peru’s lucrative wool industry since colonial times and even before. Some of Arequipa’s main wool exporters—such as Grupo Inca and Michell—occasionally lead tours up to highland alpaca ranches. Participants help round up and shear wild vicuñas and learn how to spin wool and loom-weave.
The finest fiber of any wool-producing animal comes from the vicuña, which was brought back from the verge of extinction in the 1960s. Each of these camelids is sheared every three or four years and only yields a mere 250 grams of wool. Shearing vicuñas was only made legal again in 1995, and the wool remains highly regulated.
Clothing made from vicuña wool, considered the world’s most luxurious animal fiber, can cost several thousand dollars. The Incas would have been pleased—they only let nobles wear vicuña clothing.
The vicuña herds typically consist of one male who walks in front of a harem of up to six females, though it is not uncommon to see mixed herds of up to 50 vicuña. A good place to see them in herds is Pampa Cañahua, en route to Colca Canyon from Arequipa.
The largest camelid, with fiber nearly as fine as the vicuña’s (around 16 microns), is the guanaco. Like the vicuña, it is difficult to domesticate and has a thin, orange brown wool of incredible fineness. There are only 500,000 guanacos, mostly in the highlands of Chile and Argentina, and their wool is highly regulated on the international market.
The alpaca is a whole other animal. For starters, there are more than 10 million alpacas in the world—more than three-quarters of which are in Peru. Their wool has a delightful range of browns, blacks, whites, and grays. The wool fiber also has a dramatic range of fineness, which is carefully measured by merchants in determining the value of the wool.
All over Peru’s highlands, women can be seen weaving in fields as they tend a flock of grazing alpacas, which have a sheeplike abundance of wool that fluffs up even around their eyes. The suris (long-haired alpacas) can produce over three kilograms of wool every two years! On the other hand, grilled alpaca meat has been popping up in restaurants around Peru, overtaking llama as the meat of choice.
Because llamas have much coarser wool than alpacas, they are generally used for their meat and as pack animals. Llamas and alpacas can intermingle—the result is called a huarizo—and can be difficult to tell apart. But llamas generally are larger, have much less hair, and have a small tail that sticks out in the back. Dried llama meat, a traditional Andean food, is called charqui—perhaps the only Quechuan word to make its way into the English lexicon (as beef “jerky”).
A final word of caution: Llamas and alpacas, even the ones with pink tassels tied on their ears, are not friendly creatures. They have a well-deserved reputation for spitting grass loogies at anyone who comes too close. If the cheeks puff out, and the ears flatten, back off!
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition