The sacred camel of the Incas: how the furry inhabitants of the Andes help out the Peruvians in everything

Where nature is strict with man, animals give him faith that everything will be fine. Lamas and their relatives supply the people of Peru with food, clothing and transportation. They also provide the protection of the gods

The Sacred Inca Camel: How the Furry Andeans Help the Peruvians in Everything

“No, señora! The car will not pass on this road. Go on foot!” – Indian woman goggles at aliens from another planet. A dusty Toyota among the plowed potato fields looks like a spaceship.

Altitude 3300 meters. I am in the heart of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. So guidebooks call the fertile plateau, hidden in the ring of snowy peaks of the Andean Cordillera. Here the Urubamba River feeds endless rows of fields and terraces created by the Incas and cultivated by their descendants, the Quechua Indians. The landscape is reminiscent of high Tuscany. Only instead of grapes, hundreds of varieties of potatoes and corn are grown here.

A copper-faced peasant woman in a blue woolen skirt and a hat that looks like a round table under an embroidered napkin is called Bertha. She is sitting on the side of the road, two llamas are resting behind her. Distant relatives of camels, domesticated thousands of years ago. It seems that nothing has changed since then. And Peru still does not need cars and other inventions of Western civilization.

The Andean Road

Google maps convince me that Ollantaytambo is 10 kilometers and 20 minutes away. There are the ruins of the Inca castle-fortress, which withstood the onslaught of the Spanish conquistadors, and the giant system of kolka barns, where the Incas stored strategic food supplies in case of a crop failure or an enemy siege.

No connection, no internet. Judging by Bertha's explanations, I need to turn back and look for a road “with red earth.” A winding serpentine will lead me to the river. “There's a good road to Ollantaytambo.” Bertha speaks slowly and calmly. As if every day she meets idiot tourists in the field. She lives somewhere nearby. And there is no road to her village either. “I don't need a car. I have llamas.”

Berta also goes to Ollantaytambo. She brings potatoes to the market. Each lamp has two bags. “How many kilograms can they carry?” – “I don't know. Lamas decide for themselves. If it’s hard, they will lie down on the ground and won’t go anywhere.” Now it is clear why the Indian also drags a homespun sack stuffed with something behind her back. In the Andes, lama and man are equal.

“Can I stroke her?” – “It's a boy. Girls don't carry loads,” Berta replies. “But he doesn't spit?” The Indian woman grins: “Lamas don't spit on people. Only on each other. White & nbsp; – the main one. If the redhead wants to go ahead, the white one will spit on him. Here's an alpaca spitting on people. Is it true”. Alpacas are cousins ​​to llamas. And at first glance it looks pretty similar. Only shaggy and shorter.

Berta says it's three hours to the market. I estimate the average speed: 3.5 km per hour. Not fast, but the Indian woman, unlike me, is sure that she will reach her destination in time. And on any road.

The Sacred Inca Camel: How the Furry Andeans Help the Peruvians Out

The sacred Inca camel: how fluffy Andeans rescue the Peruvians in everything

The Sacred Inca Camel: How Furry Andeans Help Peruvians Out of Everything

The Sacred Inca Camel: How the Furry Andeans Help the Peruvians Out

The sacred Inca camel: how fluffy Andeans rescue the Peruvians in everything

Llamas are local SUVs. Thanks to hardy animals, the Incas were able to conquer the most difficult landscape, where in the east the mountains scratch the sky at an altitude of 6000 meters, and in the west the mainland slides like giant dunes right into the cold depths of the Pacific Ocean. In this system of inhuman coordinates, the Incas built 40,000 km of roads, uniting the territory from modern Ecuador to Chile.

It was impossible to roll flat roads in a vertical landscape. From here, steps carved into the rocks, suspension bridges woven from local grass ichu (a relative of feather grass), fords and paths two palms wide running along the edge of the abyss. So what are the wheels? The country's economy was provided by thousands of caravans of llamas, who delivered food, goods, building materials to all parts of the empire.

Wheels and horses were brought by the Spanish conquistadors. The horses quickly smashed the “primer” and stonework of the Incas with their hooves. The Spaniards had to build new roads. But at extreme heights, where nature is stronger than technology, everything remains the same.

Bertha gets up. Two llamas rise like a shadow behind her. I look after them and turn the car in the opposite direction. To get to Ollantaytambo, I have to make a detour of 50 kilometers. The big question is which of us will get there faster.


Lama Glama

The Sacred Inca Camel: How Furry Andeans Help the Peruvians Out

Class — mammals
Order — artiodactyls
Suborder — calluses
Family —camelids
Genus — llamas

The wild ancestors of the llama, the guanaco, live in the highlands. The height of an adult male llama at the withers is about 120 cm. Weight is 150–180 kg. The neck is thin, the head is small, the ears are high and pointed. The optimal load weight is 1/5 of the animal's weight, 30–40 kg. In one day, the llama is able to cover a distance of up to 25 km. Instead of hooves on the legs, there are two corn pads. They help to maintain balance on mountain trails. Wool does not contain lanolin, so it does not attract insects. The life expectancy of llamas is approximately 20 years.


Lama Pacos

The Sacred Inca Camel: How the Furry Andes Help the Peruvians Out of Everything

Squad – artiodactyls
Suborder – calluses
Family – camelids
Gen – vicuñas

< p>The wild ancestors of the alpaca, the vicuñas, live in the highlands. Alpacas are grown for their wool. There are two main breeds: Huacaya and Suri. Huakaya give a shorter coat, suri – long and smoother to the touch. Among the Peruvian alpacas – 90% Huacaya. Alpaca wool has 23 natural shades. When the animal is 8-10 years old, the hair thins and it is no longer sheared. The average height of an alpaca at the withers is 90 cm. Weight is 50–65 kg. Life expectancy – 20 years.

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Soft currency< /h2>

Cusco is located just two hours from the fields of the Sacred Valley and the stone barns of Ollantaytambo. But this is a different world. The former capital of the Incas, about which all the Spanish chroniclers wrote only with enthusiastic words, retains the gloss and entourage of the imperial city. On the streets of Cusco you will not meet a llama loaded with a sack of potatoes. Lama here is a popular tourist product.

Shampooed animals stand in crowded squares. Dressed up Indian women nearby: embroidered vests, layered skirts with lace hems, intricate hats. Many Quechua who live in Cusco earn money by taking photos with a llama or alpaca.

All the approaches to the covered building of the central market of San Pedro are crammed with colorful goods. Purple, red, yellow, black, white, spotted and multi-colored tubers and cobs in bags look harmoniously against the background of stacks of the same bright ponchos, hats and bags. San Pedro is a food market, but at least a third of its space is occupied by shops with alpaca wool products.

The Sacred Inca Camel: How Furry Andeans Help the Peruvians Out

“Don't even think about buying from street vendors! They mix synthetics with natural wool. Dyed with artificial dyes. And they sell it cheap,” Sasha, a Ukrainian saleswoman who has been living in Peru for 20 years, advises me. “My great-grandmother had a house near Nizhyn, goats and a spinning wheel,” says Sasha. “I helped her to roll wool, she spun and knitted mittens. It's a rarity now, but it's a common thing here. The Indians in Peru themselves shear animals, spin wool, weave and knit.

Sasha lays out bedspreads, scarves and ponchos. Almost everything is made from alpaca wool. Lama, both in the past and today, is designed to carry goods. But the alpaca was domesticated for the sake of wool, which is thinner and better than that of the llama. Therefore, as a rule, the Indians give all the alpaca wool for sale, and keep the llama wool for themselves.

“Sometimes we go to the villages and buy things from artisans. These people live at an altitude of 4000 meters. Plus five degrees at night. And they sleep in stone sheds with grass roofs. Without electricity and heating. On the bed is a llama skin. And a llama wool blanket. All. No one would have survived here without the llama!”

Llama and alpaca wool are surprisingly warm. The hairs are thinner than those of a sheep or goat, but they grow very densely, so air is well retained between them. Get air pockets. “The effect is similar to climate control,” Sasha explains. “It’s not hot in the heat, it’s not cold in the cold. And clothes made from alpaca wool are lighter than those made from sheep.”

I run my hand over the baby alpaca scarf. This is delicate wool from an animal that was sheared for the first time – at a year and a half. Sasha says that usually for baby alpacathey give out standard quality wool to sell at a higher price: “Only professionals will see the difference. Another thing is vicuña wool. If you touch it at least once, you won’t confuse it with anything.”

Signs “Caution: vicuñas!” you meet in Peru on the highest passes, where not only people, but also the car engine suffocate. Only there you can see flocks of graceful amber-colored creatures. These are the wild freedom-loving ancestors of the alpaca, which neither the Incas nor the Spaniards managed to tame.

“You can't buy vicuña in the market. Too expensive. Look for boutiques in the center,” Sasha says. Kuna, one of the most famous Peruvian brands in the luxury wool category, has taken over five-star hotels and downtown squares. Quiet ethnic music plays in the store on Regosiho Square, it smells of expensive perfume, the sellers are dressed in classic two-piece suits, there are no bright colors on the shelves, only natural shades of white, black, and beige. Clothing made from vicuña wool is presented in a separate room. Each scarf is in a personal wooden box. The small price tag is hidden in the folds. $6,990.

“This is a cape. There are also smaller scarves,” says salesman David. I nod and ask: “Why is it so expensive?” “This is the best wool in the world. Softer and thinner than cashmere. In Inca times, vicunas were worn by emperors and members of the royal family. David invites me to touch the precious cape. Weightless, smooth as silk. Only warmer and softer to the touch.

The Sacred Inca Camel: How Furry Andeans Help Peruvians Out of Everything

In the Inca Empire, there was a strict ban. Except for the Great Inca and his inner circle, no one could wear vicuña. The Spaniards who came to Peru spit on the laws of the defeated nation and killed animals without counting for the sake of a valuable skin. It is said that vicuña fur was sent to Spain to decorate royal furniture sets.

As a result of uncontrolled hunting for centuries, by the 1960s, local residents had practically exterminated the entire population. When 5,000 individuals remained in the country, the Peruvian government developed a plan to save the species. A ban on hunting, high fines, the organization of nature reserves, but most importantly, the revival of the ancient Inca tradition of chakku.

“Imagine a rope several kilometers long,” says David. “Dozens of people hold the rope. The idea is to drive the shy vicuñas inside and gradually close the ring. After that, the animals are sheared and set free. The next haircut will be in two years.”

I am ironing a cape worthy of the Great Inca. I sigh and ask to show something for mere mortals. David offers a scarf: baby alpaca wool mixed with silk. The price drops 30 times. And the properties, says David, are the same as those of the vicuña. There is no ultrathinness and softness, but there is everything that the Andean “camels” are valued for.

“This wool saves animals from cold, sun, hail, rain, wind. It has such a natural level of UV protection that it won't fade in the sun. It's like high tech stuff. Only natural.

Statistics: not only valuable fur

30–40 kg, or 1/5 of its own weight, – the optimal load that llama can carry.

12 microns  is the natural diameter of a vicuña hair. Approximately 8 times thinner than the average human hair. The average hair diameter of cashmere goats is 15 microns.

$600 costs 1 kg of the highest quality vicuña wool on the world market (in 2019. — Note .

250 grams of wool can be obtained from one vicuña every two years.

See also

The Edible Economy

In Cuzco, high Peruvian fashion is several meters away from high Peruvian cuisine. Restaurant “Chicha”, whose name refers to the folk “brazhka” based on corn, is located door to door with an expensive scarf shop.

The Sacred Inca Camel: How Furry Andeans Help Peruvians Out of Everything

Chicha is owned by Gaston Acurio, Peru's most famous chef and chief ambassador of Peruvian cuisine in the world. Acurio was the first modern chef to pay attention to the unique regional products and elevated them to the rank of the country's gold reserves. And he was right. Today Peru is the gastronomic center of South America. And Acurio himself is a symbol of modern Peruvian cuisine.

“We cook Andean cuisine,” says Don Julio Cesar Calderon, one of the chefs of the restaurant. “Therefore, there are a lot of vegetables and meat on the menu. The Indians in the mountains always ate alpaca and llama meat. But mostly on holidays. Until now, at the wedding, the groom's family is obliged to slaughter an alpaca and cook a roast-asado for guests. When we opened Chichu, foreigners ordered alpaca steak. And the Peruvians, especially Limeños, the inhabitants of Lima, unfamiliar with highland cuisine, turned their noses away. They thought it was meat for the poor. Hard and smelly. Now alpaca steak is one of the most popular dishes among both foreign tourists and locals.

Lean, but juicy meat, with a bright, venison-like taste. Garnish with quinoa, an andinistic cereal that can grow at an altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level. The taste of meat and quinoa, however, like all other products, seems to be multiplied by ten compared to the same products from a Russian store.

The Sacred Inca Camel: How Furry Andeans Help the Peruvians Out

Perhaps the intensity of the taste is the result of Inca research, which my guide Thomas told me about, leading a tour of the ruins of an Inca agricultural laboratory in the Sacred Valley. Thomas said that the Incas were seriously working on the selection of llamas and alpacas, and they also created plant varieties that were ideally suited to the conditions not just of the valley, but of each specific field. If Western civilizations developed by improving technology, then the Incas built a prosperous empire on intensive agriculture and animal husbandry, solving the problem of hunger in a borderline climate and not the best soil.

“We have a strong connection to the earth and nature,” says Quechua history student Klibert. “My grandfather won't plant potatoes until he makes an offering to the land goddess Pachamama. You have probably seen dried llama embryos in the markets. If you want a good harvest or just good luck in any endeavor, you need to buy a llama, burn it, and bury the ashes in the ground.

I met Clibert on Kolkampat Hill. There, on the site of the palace of the first ruler of the Incas, Manco Capac, there is an observation deck, overshadowed by the crosses of the church of San Cristobal. Klibert works at the church as a volunteer and tells tourists the history of the temple and the city. In the evening, he closes the church with a key and goes out into the square. Romantic couples are already taking their seats to watch the stars light up in the sky.

“For the Incas, the Milky Way was a river of life, from where sacred animals drink water and gain strength. Our world: Cusco, the Sacred Valley and the Urubamba River are just a reflection of the heavenly. If we are lucky, we will see the llama constellation. One of the most important in Inca mythology. As long as the llama drinks water from the river, everything will be fine.”


The Sacred Inca Camel: How Furry Andeans Help Peruvians Out of Everything

Area 1,285,216 km² (19th place in the world)
Population~ 32,440,000 people (46th place)
Population density 23 persons/km²

SIGHTSgeoglyphs of the Nazca Desert, Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley of the Incas, Cusco, Lake Titicaca.
TRADITIONAL DISHES tiradito (raw fish slices in spicy sauce); lomo saltado – roast beef with potatoes and rice; fried guinea pig; anticuchos skewers.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS pisco (grape distillate), chicha morada (based on purple corn with spices), coca leaf tea.
SOUVENIRS home-woven textiles, a chullo hat and other products made of llama and alpaca wool.

DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Lima ~ 12,600 km (from 16 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIMEbehind Moscow by 8 hours
VISARussians do not need
CURRENCYPeruvian Nuevo Sol (1 PEN ~ 0 ,28 USD)


Material published in Vokrug Sveta magazine No. 9, September 2019, partially updated in July 2023

Marina Mironova

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