Located high in the Andes in the Ayacucho region of Peru, the Pampas Galeras national reserve protects the high-altitude habitat of the threatened vicuña, the timid and elegant relative of the alpaca and llama. If you’re lucky enough to see one of these adorable, delicate creatures in the wild, it’s easy to understand why the Incas considered them sacred.
Though there were some 2 million vicuña roaming in the mountains at the height of the Incan Empire, the cinnamon-colored animals were almost hunted to extinction after the arrival of the Spanish. The conquistadors were after their extremely valuable wool coat—the luxuriously soft and warm fleece of the vicuña is one of the finest and most expensive natural fibers in the world.
During the Incan Empire it was forbidden to kill the vicuña, so the wool was gathered in a humane shearing ritual known as chaccu, and the silky fleece was only worn by nobility. Unfortunately, the Spanish conquistadors used guns to hunt the lucrative animals, a practice that lasted for centuries until the vicuña was designated an endangered species in the 1970s.
Today, Pampas Galeras is one of the largest sanctuaries working to protect this lovely creature. About 5,000 vicuña live within the boundaries of the reserve at altitudes of over 10,000 feet. The national reserve also helps support the rural Andean communities that live in harmony with the regional wildlife. One successful conservation method has been to give the local villages a stake in the vicuñas’ protection by bringing back the centuries-old chaccu shearing ceremony. Each June, the villagers corral the vicuña, shear the wool without harming the animals, and release them back into the wild. The shearing is often followed by a traditional feast with music, drinking, and dancing. This ritual benefits the isolated mountain communities by giving them the right to sell the animals’ expensive fleece, with the added benefit of deterring would-be poachers.
Thankfully, the vicuña population has rebounded, and the animals are once again thriving in the windy Andean plateau. With the largest vicuña population in the world, Pampas Galera is one of the best places to see these graceful animals, as well as other native high-altitude fauna such as the guanaco, Andean foxes, Pampas cats, and many others.