Have you even been to Peru if you haven’t got an alpaca jumper?
Leaving Peru with an alpaca souvenir is a right of passage, on par with trekking to Machu Picchu or soaring over the Nasca Lines. Everywhere you go you will see tourists in colourful sweaters, most of which are brought for next to nothing on the local markets. Not only are products made from alpaca fibre in abundance all over the country but they also boast some of the lowest prices.
What is so special about alpaca wool?
Peru is home to four species of Camelid, llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas. Of these mammals, the first two kinds have been domesticated. The guanacos and the vicuñas live wild and are aggressive towards humans.
The wool of all of these animals is used and is valued (from best to worst) in this order:
- Alpaca (Baby Alpaca is best)
The Vicuña produces the softest wool and therefore comes with the heftiest price tag. According to The Indian Express, products made from vicuña fibre can be as expensive as $18,595!
For those of us without eighteen grand burning a hole in our pocket, what is the best affordable alternative?
Guanaco is still super expensive and very difficult to come by owing to their depleted numbers. (Guanacos were hunted relentlessly which left few in the wild.)
Llama fibre is readily available but their overcoat is more coarse. This means the wool is better suited for making blankets and throws instead of clothes.
This only leaves the wool of the alpaca. The highest quality of alpaca wool comes from the baby alpaca. The texture is softer and therefore is better suited to creating clothing.
It is actually a common misconception that baby alpaca wool is obtained by shaving a baby alpaca. This type of wool actually comes from the first shave in an alpaca’s life.
Alpaca wool is great for keeping you warm and is on par with the softness of cashmere. It also still insulates when wet which is why it is the top choice for many Andean people.
Where should I buy alpaca products in Peru?
It is possible to buy alpaca products all over South America. In Peru specifically, the best cities in which to purchase alpaca wool products are Lima, Arequipa and Cusco. Both Arequipa and Cusco are cities located high in the Andes, which is where alpaca products are traditionally made.
Top tips for purchasing alpaca products in Peru
If it seems to good to be true, it probably is
When you swing by any market in Peru, you won’t be able to breathe for the number of vendors approaching you, all claiming to sell baby alpaca products for a steal of a price.
One thing to bear in mind is that the market is saturated with fakes. Plenty of shops and vendors claim that their product is 100% baby alpaca but if they are willing to sell the item to you for 50 soles, it is highly unlikely the item is of this quality.
100% baby alpaca is hard to come by on markets
Most of the cheap jumpers on the markets will be a blend of alpaca wool and synthetic fibres. These are the products you will be able to get for a very good price. You should expect to pay at least $50USD for a 100% baby alpaca jumper, a big difference to the prices being pushed on the markets!
Not every traveller in Peru is going to be able to afford a 100% baby alpaca jumper. For me, I wanted a traditional Peruvian pattern but was less concerned with the alpaca wool content. (What can I say? I’m a cheapskate.) That is why I only paid around $16USD for my jumper. It is a mix of synthetic materials with a low alpaca wool content.
Whether you want high quality or a market cheapie, it is important to know how to tell what is genuine and what is fake. It is only then that you will be able to tell whether you got the bargain of the century or were the victim of the ultimate rip-off!
Baby alpaca is always more expensive
Baby alpaca products will always be more costly than standard alpaca wool products. This is because the fibre is so much softer but also because you can only get baby alpaca wool once in the animal’s lifetime.
Alpaca wool is cold to the touch
If someone is promising you that a product is made from baby alpaca wool, touch it to test. Real alpaca wool is cold to the touch and extra smooth. The best way to familiarise yourself with the real thing is to head to the upmarket shops.
Walk around the stores and give all the 100% baby alpaca stuff a good stroke. By knowing what the real thing feels like, you’ll find it much easier to weed out the fakes and assess the worth of the product you are buying.
Machine vs. handmade
Many of the ‘traditional’ Peruvian jumpers that you will see are all very similar. This is because they are made in factories to be mass-produced. These will be much cheaper to buy compared to handmade goods. Traditional weaving by indigenous communities is precise but slow work and a poncho can take as long as three weeks to create!
As a result, handmade goods will fetch a much higher price than mass-produced clothing, even if they both use alpaca fibre.
Try clothes on
Alpaca wool is of high quality and should feel as such. It should be soft to the touch and there should be no itching. If the product makes your skin itch, chances are it is a very low blend of alpaca, or more likely, not alpaca at all.
Don’t fall into the trap of feeling too awkward to negotiate the price. These vendors expect you to haggle and suggest their first price based on this assumption.
Use everything you have learnt in this article to asses the quality of what you are buying. If you are wanting to get a mass-produced, alpaca mix, you should haggle the price down low as these items aren’t worth much.
If you are haggling for something of a higher quality, bear in mind that you will get to a point where the vendor will refuse to come down in price. If it is genuine baby alpaca and is handmade, they won’t be able to afford to let it go for less than it’s worth.
If you’re looking to get something authentic and you are still afraid of getting shafted a fake, head to one of the more expensive shops and prepare to part with your cash. It’ll be expensive but at least you know what you’re getting.
In regards to specific shop/market recommendations, this really depends on what you are looking for. Those searching for 100% alpaca should make their way to upmarket stores whereas those going for fashion over quality may find a trip to the market suffices.
Mundo Alpaca – Arequipa
Good for authentic products of a high quality. They actually have their own alpacas which live inside the grounds.
San Pedro Market – Cusco
Mostly mass-produced clothing that is a blend of alpaca. Good if you are looking for a cheap and cheerful souvenir. Always haggle.
Kuna – Lima, Miraflores
One of the most famous suppliers of alpaca products. It is expensive but hey, you get what you pay for!
Have you bought anything made from alpaca wool in Peru?
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