Visiting an Alpaca Farm in Peru
The landscapes of the Peruvian Andes are riddled with wild vicuñas, roaming llamas and domesticated alpaca. It is not uncommon to pass alpaca farms where locals breed these camelids for their coveted hypoallergenic fibers used for everything from high fashion apparel to local hats and ponchos.
If you have time during your exploration of the endless wonders of Peru, it is well worth a quick visit to a farm to learn about this growing textile industry. There are farms now specifically geared towards international visitors and most have at least one person on staff that speaks English.
Upon arrival, you tour is most likely to start with an introduction about the animals. You will be told the differences between camels, llamas, vicuñas and alpacas. Camelids originated in North America. Unfortunately now these animals only naturally inhabit the Andean region of the Americas, the MENA region and Australia. Despite prior belief, alpacas have recently been proven to be genetic descendants of the vicuña, not the llama. This has led to a recent change in scientific family of the camelids. Unlike their wild ancestors, alpaca have been domesticated for thousands of years for their wool and meat and do not fare well in the wild.
As your guide walks you through the farm, it is common to have the opportunity to feed the animals their standard diet of grasses and/or hay. Although alpaca and llamas are cute, they are not the most lovable ‘pets’. They are not particularly keen on being touched, especially by strangers. Beware of being spat on by the animals. The acidic saliva has a rancid smell that does not come out of clothes easily.
After feeding the animals, you will have the opportunity to see the spinning, dying and weaving areas of the farm. This process is very similar to that of sheep’s wool as alpaca wool has many of the same properties. Alpaca fibers are also flame resistant and very warm. Unlike sheep’s wool, there are no lanolins, so the wool is not naturally waterproof, but this is also the reason that their coats are hypoallergenic.
Alpacas are particularly important sources of income for these farmers due to the rising demand for their fleeces, which are silkier and softer than sheep’s wool. Peru alone has 52 classified natural colors on the market, almost triple what the US offers. Vicuñas have even softer and finer coats, but the yield during the sheering season is remarkably less and thus much more expensive. Although alpaca meat was once considered a delicacy in the Andes, it is now more lucrative for farmers to raise the animals for their coats.
Even if you do not buy from the farm, you will most likely want to buy alpaca products while traveling in Peru. Don’t be fooled by synthetic and sheep’s wool imposters and do your best to purchase from companies that support fair wages. If you can’t make up your mind, there are companies that sell well priced fair trade products in the United States and they will deliver straight to your doorstep!