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Shopping in Ecuador

Andean Life With Llamas

-By E. A. Nelson
Spring 2004

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Shopping with these animals is so common that larger markets even have llama parking lots.

At six o'clock in the morning the sun begins to edge over the 17,000 foot snow-capped peak of Iliniza Sur. By the time it reaches the thatched cottages of Chugchilan, Ecuador, smoke is already curling into the early dawn light. Women heat water for breakfast. Children prepare for an hour-long hike to school, each carrying a piece of firewood and perhaps a vegetable for their school lunch, and the few men who have not left for higher paying Jobs in the cities work in the fields, tending their crops and small herds. The women will join them shortly.
The village of Chugchilan lies close to the equator, 10,500 feet above sea level. Most of the people are small landowners, herders and farmers who maximize their small plots by combining symbiotic crops like corn, peas and squash. The herds of between 10-40 sheep are rotated daily to different patches of land to graze and fertilize.

In North America, llamas have been valued primarily for their fiber and as a herd guardian. Llama trekking is gaining popularity, especially for hikers who want to spend time in remote areas without carrying their own gear. Llamas will carry two or three times more weight than the average hiker, their feet are padded and have little impact on trails, and they are easily trained.

In South America, llamas have a practical function. It is estimated that 3.5 million llamas live in South America, most in Peru and Bolivia, but also in Columbia, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador. Two different breeds are recognized: Ch'aku, with thick, heavy fleeces, and Q'ara, which have a thin, light fleece and are used for carrying burdens.

In some of the Andean range, all parts of the llama are used. Ch’aku are shorn every 1-2 years, down to about 1 inch from the skin, leaving a protective layer against freezing conditions at elevations that reach up to 13,000 feet. Their fiber is spun into clothing and rugs. Hides are tanned for leather, and bones can be carved into weaving tools. Dung is used as cooking and heating fuel and many people enjoy the lean, tender meat.

Where tourism is becoming more popular, hand-made items are sold for a relatively large sum of money. Fiber products such as sweaters and ponchos are drawing increasing foreign interest. Currently, sheep are the main fiber animal, but the rarity and resultant economic benefits of llama and alpaca fiber are causing an increase in herd numbers. Although international fiber-markets are spurring breeding and management programs for llamas (and alpacas), less than half of all South American llamas are raised for fiber. Instead, most are prized for their strength, trainability and temperament for use as pack animals.

The Real Llama: Part defensive line, part truck
Llamas have strong protective instincts. Although their fiber is not highly valued in all parts of the Andes, wool from sheep is. Sheep, like other livestock, are considered a form of currency: the more animals a farmer owns, the wealthier he is. And when cash is required, animals are bartered or sold. Roaming dogs, puma and other predators are a serious problem in some areas. The loss of even a single livestock animal has great economic impact on a family. Adding a llama to a herd of sheep greatly improves their chances of survival.

Despite this benefit, however, the importance of llamas in Chugchilan comes directly from their abilities as pack animals. Because farming is so important, llamas are frequently utilized to transport fertilizer, seeds, and produce to and from fields. They will also carry the day's firewood, not an inconsequential job when heating and cooking are done with an open flame or woodstove.

In areas of the Andes Mountains where land is communal, llamas accompany shepherds moving flocks into the hills for fresh graze. They protect the flock, and carry water and herders' belongings. Equally important, llamas can be loaded down with market goods. There is a small shop in Chugchilan, but most commerce is at open-air markets. Markets are of great importance. They allow people to find the best prices, sell their own goods and hand-made items, and socialize with people they might not otherwise see. Markets are held each day in different villages so that everyone has access. But with only five trucks in Chugchilan, there are few people who can drive to market. While this might not pose a huge problem for those who live close to a town, many people walk several hours to buy or sell their goods, most accompanied by llamas.

At one time, the staple food in Chugchilan was roasted barley. Improved highways have made other options more obtainable and people now buy fruit and sugar locally. Even though people don't stock large amounts of food, hauling supplies home through the mountains would be a great challenge. Llamas can carry most goods to and from the market. They even carry small children that are too tired to walk. Shopping with these animals is so common that larger markets even have llama parking lots.

Days are long for those living hand to-mouth. By the time the sun sinks back into the mountains at 6pm, backs ache from hours of tending crops. Children too young to attend school have spent much of the day with the herd, joined in the afternoon by their older siblings. Laundry has been hand-washed and hung to dry, firewood gathered and chopped. Perhaps there was even a long hike to the Zumbahua market, two and a half hours away. Much of the day's hard labor will have been done with the llama working alongside.

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Last updated: September 21st, 2009