This type of alpaca, with wooly, crimped-like hair is called the Huacaya alpaca. // © 2014 Zorianna Kit
Feature image (above): Yarn spun from alpaca fibers at Awana Kancha. // © 2014 Zorianna Kit
Just when your eyes are about to glaze over at seeing your umpteenth Inca ruin in the Cusco area of Peru, along comes Awana Kancha. This refreshing pit stop is certain to perk you up even more than a cup of coffee. And best of all, it’s completely free to the public.
Awana Kancha is at once a petting zoo, a cultural learning center and a gift store. Visitors begin the tour by the animal corrals and immediately experience live encounters with the camelid species. Wondering what a camelid is? At Awana Kancha, you’ll get to see with your own eyes those in residence: alpacas, llamas, guanacos and vicunas. Many even have their own subdivisions within the breed.
The most common animal at Awana Kancha is the alpaca. Peru actually has 90 percent of the world’s alpaca population. Alpacas are known for having padded hooves gentle enough on the ground that they do not erode the soil. Additionally, feeding an alpaca is practical and economical for the locals because the animals tend to browse rather than graze on food. This means that their mouths “cut” the grass instead of pulling it out by the root.
At Awana Kancha, the alpacas get very excited when humans come by. To them, our presence indicates they’ll soon get to feast on the huge pile of greenery set aside by the facility in designated areas.
If you step into the corral, they will immediately surround you. Though slightly overwhelming, the photo ops here are terrific — my alpaca selfies still make me smile every time I look at them, especially the ones with the Suri alpaca (whose long dreadlock-like hair makes them look like Rastas).
Awana Kancha also features traditionally dressed women weaving and coloring their textiles. In fact, “Awana Kancha” means “Palace of the Weavers” in Quechua , an indigenous language. The women showed me how to spin alpaca fibers, using natural dye from plants and minerals to color the yarn and then boiling it. There are no factory assembly lines and fake dyes here; everything is 100 percent authentic. The weavers also taught me how to spot a fake alpaca-made product, which many street vendors in the urban cities will try to pass off as original.
I also learned that of all the alpacas whose hair is shorn and used to make clothing and accessories, the hair of a 14-month-old baby alpaca is softest to the touch. No one could explain why they are so soft, or how their ancestors knew this, but having touched their fur — and I can personally attest, there is nothing softer than baby alpaca fur — the “why” doesn’t really matter. Of course, no animals are ever harmed while making these fabrics; these alpacas just get a lifetime of free haircuts.
As I continued to make my way through the grounds, I passed displays of corn and potatoes and learned that Peru grows 600 different types of potatoes and 120 varieties of corn with an assemblage of shapes, sizes and coloring.
The tour ends, as many do, in the gift shop. Awana Kancha’s is a large, split-level store where just about everything inside is made of Alpaca hair. I saw (and touched) gorgeous jackets, sweaters, hats, scarves and boots. If you want an original alpaca product — woven and colored by hand by experienced weavers, rather than mass produced in a factory — Awana Kancha is the place to get it. Though nothing was cheap, everything was still less expensive than the same items sold at a boutique in town or at the airport. You won’t need to shop anywhere else for the duration of your trip.
Awana Kancha is a living museum that caters to animal lovers, to those who appreciate artful handmade clothing and to those who just want to get a taste of Andean culture — it’s a welcome change of pace in a daily sightseeing adventure.