The Golden Yarn

The mountains of Peru hold an Andean treasure—the gossamer wool of the vicuña.

From the May 2013 issue of Traveler magazine

I’m running through a field at 15,000 feet in the remote Puno Province in Peru’s southern Andes. Craggy mountains and blue glaciers fill the distance. Suddenly, a group of 30 vicuñas—wild, long-necked cousins of llamas, alpacas, and guanacos—stampedes toward me. I should be better prepared.

I’m taking part in a chaccu, or roundup, of wild vicuñas with more than 300 Andean herders. Vicuñas are valued for their precious wool, considered one of the finest natural fibers in the world and sometimes referred to as “Andean gold.” The plan is to surround the vicuñas—hundreds of them—with an enormous human circle, then draw the loop tight to slowly corral them, taking care to not stress them. It’s a method of capture that was used by the Inca centuries ago and reintroduced recently after vicuñas rebounded from near extinction.

Although I’m helping with the roundup, I am not here to capture a vicuña myself. I’m after the soft textiles that are crafted with vicuña wool by local weavers.

Almost too late, I notice that a big gap has opened in the line—and that a herd of the cinnamon-colored animals is racing for it. I look around and realize I’m the only person to plug it. Instinctively, I raise my hands and run forward along the steep terrain, tripping over thick yellow tufts of ichu grass and sucking in what little oxygen I can from the thin Andean air. Just as I arrive at the gap, the vicuñas veer off in the opposite direction. A local woman in a long pleated skirt, her black hair gathered in two braids, flashes me a smile. I now am a link in a human chain that stretches for several miles across the Andes.

My desire for vicuña wool took hold a quarter of a century ago in the old Inca town of Cusco, high in the Andes. I am an anthropologist and, by nature, a collector; my house in Colorado is decorated with bows and arrows from the Amazon, hand- carved masks from Papua New Guinea, and silk woven in Laos—all acquired on trips I took. While exploring Peru in the 1980s, I learned that high-quality handcrafted weavings were made only 20 or 30 years earlier. Traditional weaving techniques—handed down through generations for hundreds of years—were rapidly dying out.

One evening, in a small store in Cusco, I was looking through a stack of weavings when the woman who owned the store said quietly, “The Inca wore clothes made with alpaca wool, but the Inca emperor, who was considered a god, wore vicuña.”

“Do you have anything made with vicuña wool?” I immediately asked.

“No,” she said sadly. “The vicuñas have almost disappeared because of hunting. No one has woven anything with their wool in decades.”

Ever since that exchange I have wanted to find a weaving made with vicuña wool. So imagine my delight when I heard from a friend not only that traditional weaving has been revived in Peru but also that the vicuña population has rebounded. It was time to make a return journey.

CUSCO, ONE OF MY FAVORITE cities in the world, sits at an altitude of 11,200 feet. It is studded with some of the finest Inca ruins in South America, thanks to having been the capital of the Inca Empire—before Spanish conquistadores appropriated and colonized the lands of Peru. I walk down one of Cusco’s narrow stone-paved streets, my hand drifting over an Inca wall. The smooth blocks are so tightly fitted that even 500 years after they were put in place you can’t slip a pin between them.

I stop in a café, winded and with a mild headache from the high altitude. The lady behind the counter persuades me to forgo coffee and instead try mate de coca, a tea made with an infusion of coca leaves—the same leaves from which cocaine is produced (the infusion releases only a small amount of the stimulant into the tea).

“If you have an altitude headache,” she says with concern, “this is the best thing.” I down one cup, then another. Soon I feel good enough to wander the sun-splattered Saturday craft market, where vendors are selling armadillo-shell charangos (small guitars), carved gourds, and reproductions of Inca vases in rusts, browns, charcoals, and reds. Textiles are few here, however; for those I will need to find my way to Cusco’s celebrated Center for Traditional Textiles.

I discover it down Avenida del Sol, by the Inca sun temple of Qoricancha, a massive compound with exceptional Inca stonework. Entering a large room, I see weavings piled on shelves and hanging from walls. In the rear I notice six 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 red, blue, and ocher. I watch as their nimble fingers create intricate weavings from spools of dyed yarn.

“Do you have any weavings made with vicuña wool?” I ask the attendant.

“No. Everything in here is woven from alpaca or sheep’s wool.”

“Why is that?”

“Because,” she explains, “vicuña wool is so expensive.”

THE NEXT MORNING I BOARD a bus for an hour-long ride northwest to Chinchero, an Inca settlement famous for its textiles, where I am to ask for Nilda Callañaupa Álvarez, the Textile Center’s founder. Today she is at the center’s Chinchero weaving cooperative (the center now works in nine communities). She will know where I can find vicuña weavings. The bus winds past fields where farmers still slice the earth with wooden plows pulled by oxen. It’s potato-planting season, and the fields are brown with furrows. A woman seated across from me clutches a bag of small, lilac-colored potatoes that are almost as wrinkled as her hands. I ask her what kind they are. I know that potatoes were first cultivated in the Andes some 8,000 years ago—and that the region grows a mind-numbing 5,000 varieties. But I have almost no ability to distinguish between them.

“Chuños,” she says smiling, revealing two gold-capped upper teeth. “For soup.” Chuños are potatoes that have been left outside to freeze repeatedly, then are dried under the sun. Freeze-drying, in fact, was likely invented in the Andes. The woman hands me a three-inch-long chuño. It’s as light as a piece of Styrofoam.

A half hour later we pull into Chinchero. Old Inca walls punctuated with trapezoidal alcoves line the colonial town center, which is framed by whitewashed buildings and tiled roofs. I make my way through a portal to the open-air market, where women in colorful skirts, shawls, and broad-rimmed hats have set out their weavings and wares. They sit patiently beside their offerings, ready to bargain. Visitors mill about, some haggling, others walking off with brightly embroidered bags or square weavings called llicllas in Quechua.

A few blocks away, down a narrow road, I spot a sign by a double door announcing the cooperative. Inside I find Callañaupa giving a weaving demonstration to a large group of foreign weavers. In the distance, the Urubamba mountain range—some of its jagged peaks capped by ice—rises from the Sacred Valley of the Inca, which is watered by a river the Inca considered holy.

“You can create a dye in any quantity you like,” Callañaupa, who is Quechua and was born in Chinchero, is telling her audience in Spanish-accented English. “But be certain to use the same proportions. Once the dye is heated, it’s ready.”

I watch her place bundles of spun white alpaca wool into a metal vat now bubbling with hot black dye made from a fungus. The guest weavers take notes or use their video recorders to film the scene. As Callañaupa stirs the vat, she tells the story of how she rescued the knowledge of this black dye from a remote community she visited in the Andes.

“There was only one elderly man who remembered how this dye was made,” she narrates, churning the black brew with a long wooden stake. “He took me into the jungle and showed me a plant. I noticed it had a black fungus growing on it. They had not used that fungus for dye in years.”

A spry Canadian attendee named Judith Crosbie notices that I’m taking notes and nudges me. In a low voice she says, “Nilda really has rescued ancient Andean weaving techniques. She saved these old methods. Every weaving on sale here is handmade from natural materials. And designed with traditional patterns.”

Out in the courtyard, the women from the cooperative begin serving lunch. One, wearing a red-and-black outfit typical of Chinchero, hands me a plate of roasted guinea pig with a side of small, freeze-dried chuño potatoes; guinea pigs and chuño are to Andean Peru what cheeseburgers and fries are to the United States.

“Would you like a mate de coca?” she asks.

I nod, and she returns with a steaming cup and a big smile. The feeling here is of a large family reunion, the colorfully attired local women milling around drably dressed gringos like me.

The guinea pig is tasty but full of small bones. As I pick through them, Tim Wells, a lean American artist from California, takes a seat next to me.

“I began coming here in the late 1990s,” he shares. “Back then, younger weavers were producing synthetic weavings because the tourists mostly couldn’t tell the difference. Those weavers were able to turn out in a few days something a traditional weaver might spend a month on. Then Nilda showed up.”

Working carefully on his guinea pig, he fills me in on Callañaupa.

“When Nilda was younger she met an American anthropologist and his wife who were living here, and agreed to teach them how to weave. She would later be the first woman from Chinchero to finish university. I met her at a workshop she was attending in San Francisco.”

He puts his fork down.

“She’s a powerhouse. She has founded cooperatives in a number of communities and they have more business than they know what to do with.”

Eager to see more, I wander through the cooperative’s store, marveling at the textile patterns and rich, natural dyes, the interlaced warps and woofs of painstakingly woven threads. I purchase a large piece that was made in the community of Accha Alta. It’s a tightly woven lliclla of matching geometrical patterns in reds, pinks, burnt ambers, and leaf-colored greens. I know just where in my house I’ll display it. But as fine as the weaving is, I still covet the sort of weaving that was made for Inca emperors. A weaving made with vicuña wool.

I locate Callañaupa and blurt out my question.

“What about vicuña wool—are any of your weavers using it?”

“I wish we did, but it’s too expensive,” she says. “You will have to go where the vicuñas are. You will have to join a chaccu.”

THAT IS HOW, A WEEK LATER, I find myself rounding up vicuñas in the Andes near the remote southern Peru village of Picotani. Within an hour of plugging the wall in our human circle, I watch as the vicuñas press together like cattle and turn surprisingly calm. They are herded easily into corrals arranged farther down the valley.

The following morning I rise early to see the shearing of the vicuñas for their soft wool. Men in woven ponchos and sandals soled with 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, a sort of mild pick-me-up. I approach Juan José Vega Quispe, the gregarious regional director of agriculture, who is shaking hands with everyone. As the men trim the two-inch-thick fleece from each of the animals with electric shears, pulling the wool away as if stripping insulation from a wall, Vega shares some vicuña facts.

“It is estimated that around two million vicuñas lived in the Andes at the time of the Inca Empire; they were protected. Then the Spaniards arrived and started to hunt them down for their meat.”

Vega steps forward suddenly to help two men bring a vicuña to the ground and hold it still. Over his shoulder he continues, “By the 1960s, perhaps 6,000 vicuñas were left in these high mountains.”

Since that time, strict laws against hunting, the creation of a large reserve, and a ban on exporting vicuña wool have allowed vicuñas to stage a dramatic comeback.

“By 1981, Peru had 75,000 vicuñas,” Vega says. “Today, we have nearly 190,000. It’s a miracle,” he exclaims, helping lift the newly shorn vicuña back to its feet.

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The vicuñas rebounded so much, Vega tells me, that in 2003 Peru declared a national chaccu week to be held every June. As a result, nearly 200 chaccus are carried out each year.

Vega and I walk around the side of the shearing house as men working in pairs bring out shorn vicuñas that look almost naked without their fleece. The animals are let go one by one and bound directly for the brown hills, free again.

Back inside the enclosure I watch as a vicuña fleece is rolled up, placed in a plastic bag, labeled, and carefully weighed. I pick up another bag. It feels as light as gossamer; an entire vicuña fleece will weigh barely seven ounces.

“What do they do with it now?” I ask.

“These people are herders, not weavers,” Vega reminds me. “The community sells the fleece, but the price is so high that local weavers can’t afford it.” Only a few places, Vega adds, have mastered the process of weaving vicuña wool on machines.

“If you want to find clothes made with vicuña wool, you should visit Arequipa. That’s where a lot of it ends up.”

A few days later, following his advice, I arrive in Arequipa, a colonial city in Peru’s southern Andes. Ringed by active volcanoes, Arequipa is constructed almost entirely of white volcanic stone.

Near the main square, Plaza de Armas, I spot Kuna, an upscale store that sells high-quality alpaca clothing and, I’ve been told, clothing crafted with vicuña wool. Amid stacks of shawls and sweaters woven with alpaca wool I discover an alcove displaying what I’ve traveled thousands of miles to see: garments made with premium cinnamon-colored vicuña wool.

I eye vicuña-wool capes that are going for nearly $7,000, shawls going for $1,000, and scarves going for $600. These prices are a third of what I would pay outside Peru.

I finger one garment; it feels like feather down. Irresistible. I choose a scarf displayed in a wooden box. With it comes a card that confirms the wool’s provenance and charts the recent resurgence of the vicuña.

That night, I dine in a rustic restaurant called Sonccollay—a Quechua word loosely meaning “from the heart”—which looks out on Arequipa’s 17th-century white stone cathedral and the landscaped Plaza de Armas. The restaurant bills itself as serving Inca and pre-Inca dishes. Its owner and chef, Walter Bustamante Cano, reminds me of the Spanish actor Javier Bardem.

“Everything we serve here is prepared the Inca way,” says Bustamante, who clearly enjoys mingling with his customers. “We cook meat on lava stones using local herbs and spices.” When I ask him how he learned these Inca cooking traditions, he fixes his dark-eyed gaze on me. “By studying Inca methods that are described in colonial Spanish chronicles, by traveling all over Peru, and by asking the farmers in the countryside.”

I have my doubts about what meat cooked on lava stones will taste like, but on digging into an entrada of native pepper stuffed with corn compote, followed by a slab of alpaca meat served up with a side of roasted potatoes and squash, I realize that the Inca—at least the elite class—may have eaten quite well. The food is absolutely delicious.

Gazing out over the Plaza de Armas from my table, I open the wooden box that contains my new vicuña scarf—a scarf that any Inca emperor surely would have admired. And I cannot help but be thankful that the transformation of vicuña wool into textiles, along with other vanishing Andean traditions, has been so patiently rescued from the past. The world, I have no doubt, is richer for them.

Writer and anthropologist KIM MACQUARRIE is the author of The Last Days of the Incas. Photographer BETH WALD has traveled and shot extensively in South America.

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