Anyone who has been to Cusco will still have the vendor’s sales pitch of “baby alpaca” ringing in their ears.
So what is baby alpaca? Do they take the doe eyed little babies and rob them of their fleece? Not exactly – so called “baby alpaca” is the first shearing of an adolescent alpaca. We’d been interested in learning about this for some time and so had organized with our Lares region muleteer, Fortunato to see a first shearing. They shear in the wet season because the animals will supposedly grow fleeces faster after the shearing.
Our hosts, Grimaldina Sinchi & Fortunato Quispe
We’d set Wednesday as the date and I’d gotten a number of worried phone calls from Fortunato the Sunday before, wanting to know if we could leave earlier, and if we could bring a “dispatch” with us for the ceremony for the earth. (As it turned out we couldn’t…)
We met a still nervous Fortunato in the village of Patacancha, as he took a worried look at Kelsey’s parents who had just flown in from Lima the day before and obviously feeling the effects of the altitude. But off we went – not knowing that Fortunato’s community was 2.5 hours climb straight up. Slow and sure always gets you there, and after a nice freezing Andean shower of rain I personally never felt happier than to arrive at Fortunato’s house in Ipsaycocha (altitude 4250m). While obviously still an Andean house, with dirt floors with cuy (guinea pigs) running about, animal skins in the lofts and filled with smoke from the dung fire, Fortunato’s experience with tourists showed. A thermos with cups of tea was set out on a tablecloth on his table and food was served to us with ceremony. (Quite different than a lot of houses that don’t have tables).
Reinvigorated - we found out that we still had a good half hours walk uphill to where the alpacas were pastured – spectacular craggy peaks, with clouds swirling about and the Ipsayccasa Pass (4500m) to our left… breathtaking because of its altitude but also the sheer remoteness.
Ipsaycocha community is an outlying community that pertains to Patacancha – many families in the Andes have their communally owned land in the main village and then also have their ‘estancia’ which is where they graze their animals. Six families live in Ipsaycocha and we gathered that they were all related to Fortunato - his father, sisters and brothers. Combined they have around 150 alpacas – a veritable economic powerhouse in the Andes! (Many families would have less than 20 alpacas…!)
As we got closer to the herd, men in red ponchos emerged from the landscape as they ran, circling the alpacas… we could hardly breath let alone run… from behind us came Fortunato’s young wife Grimaldina, with their 3 month old baby girl, Magaly on her back. From here on, Grimaldina kept the entire herd in order as the men went about making the offering to the Apus. As it’s going to be the first shearing of the alpacas, its important that the earth is properly respected.
As Norman was still coming with the “despatch” - ingredients for a proper ‘payment’ to the earth, Fortunato said we could just do the payment to the Apus using the ingredients that they had on hand – huayruro (the red seed from the jungle), kanichiwa, various herbs, and dried blossoms. (A full dispatch has a very wide range of items, including a dried llama foetus). Let by Fortunato’s father, the men made kintus (three coca leaves) and blew on them, asking the blessings of the gods. Later, they filled conch shells with wine and threw the wine at the alpacas. We followed suit like a bunch of ignorant gringos allowed to participate in an ancient ceremony.
Then – time for the shearing! Reminiscent of a rodeo the men entered the herd and deftly lassoed the first alpaca, who struggled and fought until three men had sufficiently tamed it and then tied it up. Then the shears previously sharpened on rocks were put to work with the soft fluffy fleece… whilst a couple more men went to work catching a white alpaca which screamed (in a high pitched call) the whole way through the process.
The men worked in two’s with intensity… Fortunato was still worried about us, as he thought rain or snow was coming in over the pass – and he wanted to get the alpacas shorn and us back to his house. Once the shearing was complete – the alpacas amulet (which is put on the truly ‘baby’ alpaca around Easter time of each year) was refastened around its neck and a blessed stone was run over its body – so that the fleece grows well in the next year.
The fleeces were bundled away and we were shepherded back down the hill where a lunch of guinea pig and trout (caught in nearby Ipsaycocha) was proudly served up to us. As we were eating, Norman arrived (with the despatch & more gifts of food for the family), accompanied by Fortunato’s nieces and nephews which were returning from school. (Yes, they walk some 1.5 hours in difficult terrain daily, just to reach school). In all, a fascinating and spiritual day – and now we know a little more about ‘baby alpaca! And special thanks to Kelsey’s parents for their fortitude given they had just arrived in Peru!
The finished product! The 'screamer' alpaca makes a disoriented getaway in the rapidly failing light.