The peoples of the Andes have survived in an ungenerous environment since pre-Inca times thanks to the meat, leather and fiber (wool) of the South American camelids. They domesticated the llama and the alpaca 5,000 years ago, letting the guanaco and vicuña run wild. Of these four species, the star is the little vicuña, which produces the finest and most prized fiber in the world. During the short period that the Inca hegemony lasted (1200-1532 AD) in a large part of South America, that fiber was destined exclusively to clothing the ruling class. It was obtained by means of a chaku, a traditional vicuña roundup and corralling done on foot for shearing purposes. Hundreds of residents of various settlements participated in these well-organized roundups that took place every three years – the time that it takes a vicuña to produce 200 grams of fiber.
When the Spaniards colonized the Americas, the vicuña herds were hunted in an indiscriminant manner in all areas of the Andes. Finally, in 1969, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina signed a vicuña conservation agreement that was fundamental in avoid the animals’ extinction. The sale of fiber from sustainably managed vicuña herds has been legal since 2002. The governments have turned over the management of these herds to the indigenous communities, giving them as payment part of the fiber, which they may use to weave items that they later sell.
In the Argentine provinces of Salta and Jujuy, a handful of small undertakings raise and shear vicuñas. In the Catamarca Puna, Laguna Blanca, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, protects a large population of vicuñas, and the four Indian villages that share it can allow themselves the luxury of staging an Inca-style chacu every year. In recent years they have begun to invite tourists to watch how they do it.
This weekend, (Nov. 7 and 8), one of these vicuña roundups will take place in the village of Laguna Blanca, which lies at 4,000 meters above sea level. Tourists who wish to play an active role in this activity may join in. It has also been announced that they can help shear the animals. Whoever decides to accept this offer should remember that vicuñas, like all camelids, spit when they are frightened or irritated. And a wild vicuña that has never undergone shearing can become so frightened that it suffers a heart attack. But the locals know how to treat these animals so that this doesn’t happen. It is in their interest; vicuña fiber is worth a lot of money.
With regard to the altitude of the Puna, it is best to go to the area a few days before the event in order to adapt to the thinner oxygen. Ascending from sea level to 4,000 meters above it in a day is not recommendable for anyone, especially for someone who is going to indulge in physical exertion.
PHOTO CREDITS: the roundup of vicuñas out on the range, men closing in on the animals in the corral, and a detail of the shearing, all from Catamarca Tourism Secretariat / Iggy.