Finding the source of Peru’s alpaca in Puno

Mauricia Surco knits a sweater in the fields near her home while her children tend to their flock of sheep nearby. (All photos by Meghan Jones)  See slide show.

By Meghan Jones

Have you ever wondered where exactly that hand-made ceramic llama you purchased at the Mercado del Incas in Lima came from? Or the delicately knit, hand-spun alpaca ponchos? As I strolled through one of the various tourist shops in Miraflores, I became very curious about all of these intricate and beautifully hand-made objects: where do the people live who create them, what process goes into the making of each unique product and, more importantly, how well are the artisans compensated for their work? I decided that I would travel to meet some Peruvian artisans and find out the answers to these questions for myself.

In Peru, the majority of hand-made ceramics and alpaca garments come from artisans living in small communities in the south. Many of the artisans who create these fine crafts live in rural communities outside the city limits of Juliaca. This is where my journey would eventually lead me.

After doing some research I made contact with Lima-based Minka Fair Trade, a non-profit, non-government organization which offers fair wages to impoverished artisans in Peru. They also offer fair trade tours, allowing tourists to integrate visits to Andean artisanal communities into their travels.

Sunset in Collasuyo.
A female alpaca, Chacas Lagoon in the background.
See slide show of a homestay near Juliaca, Puno.

The majority of handicraft artisans in Peru are paid very low wages for their work in the traditional market. As a result, most live in conditions of extreme poverty. Fair trade offers artisans an economically viable alternative to the traditional market, giving them greater opportunities for themselves and their families. The price for goods is higher but you know that the artisan has received a fair wage in return.

After teaming up with Minka my plans were set and with my suitcase in hand, I began my journey to Juliaca. I boarded a plane in Lima, and upon arrival to the airport in Juliaca, my group was met by our host, Pedro. 

As the commercial center of southern Peru, Juliaca is an industrial town and not the most visually appealing. Beyond the city limits, however, lie a vast array of villages and small communities, rich with culture and stunning scenery.

One such area is Collasuyo, a small community which surrounds Chacas Lagoon, approximately 30 minutes outside of Juliaca, and an hour north of Puno. For generations, the locals here have made a living creating unique Peruvian artisanal crafts. For the past decade, artisans in this community have also been offering fair-trade tours in partnership with Minka. This allows travelers to learn about traditional Peruvian handicrafts and gives them the opportunity to explore the nearby countryside.

During my visit, I stayed with Pedro and Mauricia Surco and their family who have been spinning alpaca fibres and knitting alpaca garments for generations. As soon as I arrived, they prepared a delicious lunch for us. They cooked it in their house on a wood fire using fresh local produce, most of which came from their own agricultural lands. As is typical for the region, they served me a steaming bowl of quinoa soup; a highly nutritional meal prepared with chicken broth mixed with fresh carrots, celery, onions, quinoa, and parsley along with freshly-picked local herbs. Partnered with a side of pan de trigo, it was a local delight to satisfy any hungry traveller.

After lunch, the family gave us a detailed demonstration of how raw alpaca fibres are transformed into unique, and beautiful sweaters, hats, ponchos, and such. I was even give an opportunity to try my hand at spinning natural fibres into yarn; although the result was nothing short of comical. Considering that these artisans begin learning how to do everything at the age of seven, I gave myself brownie points for effort. 

That night, I feel asleep in the family’s guest house, listening to the gentle whispers of the wind and the soft baying of newborn lambs.

On Sundays in Juliaca there is a market, La Dominical, which takes place in the center of the city and spans the distance of many city blocks. It is the trading epicentre of the south, with people arriving from Puno, Arequipa, and even Bolivia. Although not a typical destination for foreigners, we convinced Pedro to take us there so that we could see the sites.

It was absolute but organized chaos. In every direction there were endless stalls selling almost everything and anything imaginable; from automobiles to fruit, live animals to wool, and local foods to hand knit garments. For those travellers interested in seeing a true Peruvian market, this is the largest and most extensive in Southern Peru and well worth the visit. However, it should be noted that great precaution should be taken to protect your valuables. The safest option is to attend the market with a local and leave bags, wallets and expensive cameras back at your hotel.

In the afternoon, we returned to Collaysuyo for a walk along the shores of Chacas Lagoon, where the dark blue waters were a sharp contrast to the soft pink of flamingos at the shore and the mottled browns of the soil, the colours of the dry season. We continued on to explore some of the surrounding farmland, and enjoyed the opportunity to get up close and personal with alpaca’s. But not too close — they spit!

After a warm goodbye, my journey was over. I returned to Lima with fresh knowledge and a suitcase packed tight with recently purchased treasures — a hand-spun alpaca sweater and hats, mittens and scarves to send back home for the cold, winter season. It was an unforgettable experience.