Of Peruvian highlanders, wild vicuñas and an Inca tradition
True, travel is all about the experiences you have and the conversations you hold close to yourself. These are tales that can surface from anywhere starting from the hostel bed you share backpacking across Laos or a small conversation that you have with a cab driver. Sometimes however, the experiences blow out of proportions and show you a glimpse of the much larger world that we live in. Something that makes The Wall Street Journal ask, “Why Does a Vicuña Jacket Cost $21,000?”
It is this kind of an experience that you have running through a field at 15,000 feet in the remote Punto Province in Peru’s southern Andes with the jagged mountains and glaciers as a distant backdrop, trying to herd in a group of 30 vicuñas. These long-necked cousins of llamas and guanacos stampede over the brown mountain top and takes more than 300 Andean herders to round them up, forming a human circle around them. You are in a chaccu.
A chaccu or the rounding up of wild vicuñas is still done in the same way it was done thousands of years ago. The vicuña wool, considered one of the first natural fibre in the world is called the “Andean gold.” The method is simple – surround the hundreds of vicunas with an enormous human circle, then draw the loop tighter as the day wanes, slowly, taking care not to stress them out. It’s a method of capture that was used by the Inca and has resurfaced along with the vicuñas from near extinction. Often just over the human circle are festively dressed Quechua women sharing a laugh who come in from the Andean village of Chinchero, the ruins of a fortified Inca settlement that held fast to the mountainsides around Ollantaytambo offering the Inca resistance to the Spanish conquest.
It’s a tricky art though, no sooner the cinnamon-colored animals notice the slightest of gaps, they rush at it, giving the men precious seconds to plug the way. At 15,000 feet, it’s no easy task, having to suck in what you can from the thin Andean air while avoiding to trip over thick yellow tufts of ichu grass. Every now and then, a young local woman in long pleated skirt, her black hair gathered in two braids, flashes you a smile that makes it worth the effort.
The desire for vicuña wool is easily acquired if you are into all things rare and beautiful. About two decades ago, the traditional weaving techniques – handed down through generations for hundreds of years – were rapidly dying out. In a small store in Cusco, looking through stack of weavings, you just might stumble upon a connoisseur tell you that while the Inca wore clothes made with alpaca wool, the Inca emperors only wore vicuña. Until recently, the vicuñas had almost completely disappeared because of hunting and no one had woven anything in decades. However, when news of a resurrection comes about, so does the need to plan a trip.
The journey inevitably should start in Cusco, easily one of my favourite cities in the world, perched at of 11,200 feet and dusted with some of the finest historic ruins in South America. It pays to walk down one of Cusco’s narrow stone-paved streets, hand drifting over an Inca wall which was made ages ago; the smooth blocks placed so perfectly that even after five centuries, you will be hard-pressed to slip a pin between them.
Even in Cusco, it’s easy enough to call in a headache from the altitude. For the perfect cure, forgo coffee and instead, try mate-e-coca, a tea made with an infusion of coca leaves – the same from which cocaine is produced (the infusion releases only a small amount of the stimulant in into the tea).
Down a cup or two and you good to walk down the sun-splattered Saturday craft market. Maybe this is where you can find that one old-timer who will convince you to go on that wild vicuña chase. Here vendors sell armadillo-shell charangos (small guitars), carved gourds, and reproductions of Inca vases in rusts, browns charcoals, and reds. Textiles however are few and far between and for those, you will have to find your way to the Center for Traditional Textiles.
Close by, beside the Inca sun temple of Qoricancha, is a massive compound with exceptional Inca stone-work. But it’s not the artwork on the stones alone that is captivating. Enter the large room, and you will most likely find weavings piled on shelves and hanging from walls. In the rear women sitting on the floor conversing in Quechua as they work their backstrap looms, which are tied to a central wooden post. The women have braided black hair and wear clothes dyed various hues of read, blue, and ocher while their nimble fingers create intricate weavings from spools of dyed yarn. It’s beautiful but no Vicuña wool to be found here. It’s too expensive to make it down till Cusco.
The trail of the vicuñas will take you farther. An hour long bus ride will take you to the northwest settlement of Chinchero, known for its textiles and where is also the region’s Weaving Cooperative (there are nine in total spread across Peru). The bus route meanders through fields of potato plantations. If you are in the right season, you can catch the local women harvest the region’s primary variety – the lilac-colored potatoes that are almost as wrinkled as old farmers’ hands. These are the chuno.
When travel finds you, there’s a story at every turn. Potatoes were first grown here in the Andes around eight thousand years ago and the region cultivates over five thousand varieties. Chunos, for instance, are popular as ingredients for soup or as sides to roasted guinea pigs. Essentially, these are potatoes have been left outside to freeze repeatedly, before being dried under the sun.
Chinchero greets with old Inca walls and the colonial town center framed by white-washed buildings and tiled roofs. The path into the town itself runs through an open-air market, where women in colorful skirts, shawls, and broad-rimmed hats set out their weavings and wares for sale waiting to set off a bargain with soft murmurings in Quechua mills in the background. Not far off, down a narrow alley a sign post on a double door announces the cooperative. Once inside, and if your timing is right, you will find a demonstration of weaving being given in Spanish-accented English to those who want to learn the art. Out of the window, is the Urubamba with its ice capped jagged peaks. Somewhere below that is the holy river of the Incas.
Bundles of spun white alpaca wool are placed into a metal vat bubbling with hot black dye made from a fungus. The black dye has its own story of resurrection being rescued only recently by the coordinator of the textile center from a remote community she visited in the Andes. The art was nearly forgotten when she found one last elderly who could still remember it. On weaving days such as this, the air is like that of a large family union with the colorful locals milling around the drably dressed visitors. There’s good food (often of roasted guinea pigs with a side of chuno potatoes) and even better conversations. While the pig is known to be great, it also is full of small bones. Where is the elusive vicuña but? Turns out its to expensive to wind itself down till Chinchero as well and the only way you can get your hands on some is to go where the wool is sourced – join a chaccu high up in the Andes.
This is how, if you were to continue on the path, that you will find yourself rounding up vicuñas up in the Andes near a remote southern Peru village of Picotan. Men and women in ponchos and sandals made of tire rubber capture the vicuñas one by one and lead them into an enclosure; most of the men sport a bulge of coca leaf in their cheeks. Around two million vicuñas lived in the Andes at the time of the Inca empire. Then the Spanish arrived started to hunt them down for meat. By the 1960’s perhaps only six thousand of them were left in these high mountains. It took a lot of effort; some strict laws against hunting, creation of a large reserve, and a ban on exporting vicuña wool have have brought about a dramatic comeback. By 1981, Peru’s treasure grew to 75,000 and today there are nearly 190,000 vicuñas. In 2003, the state declared a National Chaccu Week to be held every june and nearly 200 chaccus are carried out each year since then.
The shorn vicuñas come out of the enclosure looking almost naked without their fleece. The animals are let go and bound directly for the brown hills, they are free again. Back inside, the vicuñas fleece are rolled up and carefully weighed. The entire fleeces from a single vicuñas weigh barely seven ounces. The community sells the fleece, but the price is so high that local weavers can hardly afford it. There are only very few funded weaving stations that use these. The prices are moon-shots; entire dresses or coats are nearly $7000, shawls for over $1000 and the scarves for around $600. These prices triple outside of Peru.
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