I'm running through a field 4572 metres up 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 (roundup) of wild vicuñas with more than 300 Andean herders. Vicuñas are valued for their precious wool, considered one of the finest natural fibres 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, I’m not here to capture a vicuña myself. I’m after the soft textiles that are crafted by local weavers using vicuña wool.
Almost too late, I notice that a big gap has opened in the line, and that a herd of the cinnamon-coloured animals is racing for it. I look around and realise 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 my trips. While exploring Peru in the 1980s, I learned that high-quality handcrafted weaving techniques 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 favourite cities in the world, sits at an altitude of 3410 metres. 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 colonised 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.
This is an excerpt from the Autumn 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (Australia & New Zealand). Read more when you buy our app or the magazine: natgeotraveller.com.au/subscribe