When I was doing field research in Peru for my Master's thesis last year, I spent some time in a little village called Sibayo in the upper Colca Valley. Sibayo sits at 3,800 metres above sea level, but most of the surrounding district is above 4,000 metres, and, with a climate too harsh for agriculture, livelihoods are based on herding alpacas and llamas. There's a long tradition of weaving in alpaca fibre, which has recently seen a renaissance under the influence of NGOs and an unusually active municipal government. The local artisans have formed an association called Sumac Pallay (based on my intepretation of Quechua, this means something like "fine collection"). The association is in charge of quality control, sales and marketing of its members' products, which include fine hand-made scarves, gloves, and chullos (the classic "Andean" hat with ear covers).
Forty minutes walk away across the river from Sibayo, the more populous district of Callalli has its own artisans collective that has also received assistance from NGOs and has a wider range of products, extending to sweaters as well as scarves and hats in more mainstream styles that are made on small machines. The micro-industrial character of the craft association's commercial outlet has seen it dubbed the "Maquicentro" (from the Spanish maquina for machine).
Last year, I bought a few things in Sibayo as presents for people back home, including a hand-made scarf that delighted my mother. When visiting Callalli's maquicentro with an NGO from Chivay, I was unable to resist getting myself one of their premium double-layered chullos: warm and beautifully designed with a soft inner lining of baby alpaca.
Although both Sibayo and Callalli have had intermittent success selling to tourists and have even filled some export orders, they struggle to maintain links to markets and obtain the value their products merit. This is partly because their high-quality, hand made crafts get drowned in the sea of cheap mass-produced "alpaca" items sold in thousands of stores and galleries throughout Peru. A shop in the provincial capital of Chivay which the Sibayo municipality subsidized for the craft association proved a disappointment: in addition to its low visibility at the back of a narrow gallery, it was surrounded by numerous other stalls selling hats and gloves, mostly made in Puno factories and any alpaca blended with synthetic fabric, llama and sheep's wool. Casual tourists mostly aren't able to tell the difference.
As reported previously on this blog, this February I climbed Cerro Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes. Included in my extensive gear collection were two warm hats: a fleece North Face beanie, and my Callalli-sourced alpaca chullo. Beyond about base camp, I found the alpaca hat to be much warmer than the fleece beanie, and as we progressed towards the summit I barely took it off. It was also so comfortable and breathed so well that I found I was still wearing it on the way out on the other side of the mountain, as the temperature ticked back up towards 20 degrees Celsis.
As we rode out the snowstorms while heading up the mountain, it occurred to me that I ought to see if I could generate some free publicity for the artisans of the Colca Valley. Not that I'm making myself out as a model, but a gringo swearing by their product as he tackled the continent's highest mountain might be worth something. In a spare moment at Camp 1, I got my tent mate to shoot a few photos (there's a whole other amusing story about what's going on the background).
After the mountain climbing was over, I headed from Argentina back to Peru for about three weeks. One of my first tasks on arriving in Arequipa was to visit Geovanna, the co-ordinator of the rural community tourism programme in the regional government's tourism office. As well as providing an overview of my thesis, I explained about my endorsement of Colca Valley headwear and gave her copies of the photos.
From there, I spent a couple of weeks in the Colca Valley, trekking, visiting NGO contacts, reporting back on my thesis findings and doing a bit of additional research. On the last Wednesday before I had to go back to Arequipa, I made a day trip from Chivay to Sibayo to catch up with some people and see how the tourism project had advanced since last year. I also wanted to buy some things from the crafts shop to take back to New Zealand. With not a tourist seen since the start of the year, the shop was closed, and it took a while to track down someone to open it up. In the end, I left with a decent haul of chullos and some excellent hand made scarves.
Later I walked the half hour or so across to Callalli and found my way to the Maquicentro. It was closed, and deserted apart from an NGO worker from Arequipa occupying an adjacent office. He was more than happy to find someone to open the Maquicentro, but it took us a few trips around the block before we found someone who had a key (my image from this: the traditionally-dressed señora in sombrero and skirts standing in a muddy corral conversing into a late-model cell phone as she tracked down her comadre). Eventually another señora appeared and opened up the shop for me. She explained about the trials of the wet season looking after the alpacas up in the estancia as I picked out another haul of items to complement the ones I had bought in Sibayo. Among them were another couple of versions of the hat I wore on Aconcagua, which I have officially dubbed the super-chullo.
I returned to Chivay in the usual dilapidated overcrowded minivan with my overflowing backpack squashed between my knees. After a couple more days there, I headed back to Arequipa for my last weekend before returning to New Zealand. On Monday I went to make my final reports and say farewell to Geovanna. She told me she had been in Callalli the previous Friday -- two days after me -- and had given a presentation to the artisans association. In one of her Powerpoint slides she included one of the photos I had given her of the Callalli chullo on Aconcagua. She explained that the photo had been provided by a foreign traveller who had found the hat to be exceptionally warm and comfortable in extreme conditions.
From the audience a woman got to her feet excitedly. "I sold to him!", she announced. (Nice to know she recognised me even though all gringos look alike and I had definitely shaved since that photo was taken).
Geovanna said that the artisans were thrilled with the feedback and it seemed to help drive home to them that they really do have premium products capable of being a hit in international markets. So, even if my academic research is of no practical use to people in the Colca Valley, maybe I've at least provided some useful encouragement.