Friday, November 22, 2013



The Golden Yarn; Peruvian highlanders round up wild vicunas, continuing a tradition of their Inca forebears.

Executive summary by darmansjah

I AM 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 vicunas-wild, long-necked cousins of llamas, alpacas, and guanacos-stampedes toward me. I should be better prepared. I’m thinking part in a chaccu, or roundup, of wild vicunas with more than 300 Andean herders. Vicunas 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 vicunas-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 after vicunas rebounded from near extinction.

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

Festively dressed Quechua women share a laugh in the Andean village of Chinchero.
Almost to 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 vicunas 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 vicuna 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.

Ruins of a fortified Inca settlement hold fast to the mountainsides around Ollantaytambo, once a stronghold of Inca resistance to Spanish conquest.

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 vicuna.”

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

“No,” she said sadly. “The vicunas 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 vicuna 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 vicuna 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 Quoricancha, a massive compound with exceptional Inca stone work. 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 Quencha as they work their backstrap looms, which are tied to a central wooden post. The women have braided back hair and wear clothes dyed various hues of red, blue, and ocher. I watch as their nimble fingers create intricate weaving from spools of dyed yarn.

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

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

“Why is that?”

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

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