If the tourists in Cusco were wearing anymore alpaca, they would be clomping around on all fours, chewing on grass.
Cusco was once the Inca capital of Peru, until the Spanish arrived and replaced most of it with churches (a familiar tale throughout South America). It's now the country's most popular tourist destination, a baroque hive of travel agents offering treks to nearby famous landmarks like Manchu Pichu and Rainbow Mountain.
Every third shop in Cusco sells supposedly pure alpaca clothing--slippers, socks, scarves, ponchos and fleeces, available in dizzying a variety of shapes and sizes. In practice, most of what's on sale is at least partially synthetic, and nothing marks you out as a tourist more than wearing a giant alpaca fleece, decorated with little alpaca patterns. But it's still impossible to leave the city without buying at least something with an alpaca label on it. Buying alpaca is what you do in Cusco, if you're visiting.
You can even meet some in person. A quick walk around the city will reveal plenty of the animals, working the curb.
The most common touts in Cusco are the Alpaca Ladies.
These are women colourfully dressed in traditional Quechuan garb, who rove Cusco's cobbled streets dragging alpacas (and occasionally small llamas) behind them on leashes. The beasts tolerate this with resolutely wry expressions, as if they are quietly in on some top-secret joke--even as they're hauled before tourist groups to serve as portable photo opportunities.
'You pay what you like,' these Ladies will say, offering travellers the chance to have their picture taken with the animals. This is usually quickly followed by: 'American dollars okay.'
Sometimes, the Alpaca Ladies will carry baby alpacas in their arms (ridiculous creatures which resemble cuddly toys). They'll press these babes onto tourists to hug and hold. If the amount of cash the tourists offer in return is not considered sufficient, the women become insistent on receiving more--if given less than 10 or 20 Soles ($3-$6), they are likely to beg plaintively, or else become aggressively demanding.
It's how they earn their living, after all.
Alpacas, souviners and shopping.
Travelling South America without knowing a word of Spanish is a recipe for comic misunderstanding, so I've stopped in Cusco for a couple of weeks to attend a local language school. Called 'Amauta,' the school is located just beside Plaza de Armas, the city's historic centre. Most of its students are either backpackers hoping to brush up on their holas, or young professionals who think Spanish might be useful in their careers. And naturally, most of them have added at least one alpaca garment to their wardrobe.
One morning, on the way to classes, a fellow student told me a worrying story about the Alpaca Ladies. Apparently, many of these women snatch baby alpacas from their mothers at a young age (much to mother and baby's distress), and keep them in poor conditions, without proper nourishment. It's enough of an issue that some Cusco citizens have begun advocating for the Ladies to be banned.
In a bustling tourist destination it's hardly surprising that some touts would mistreat their charges, but it feels especially unfortunate in Cusco. After all, this is a city that generates a huge amount of money from silly camelids with flippant expressions. Everywhere you look, tourists are dropping serious Soles in shops to take a little alpaca fur home to snuggle with.
Getting up close with alpacas is what you do in Cusco.
But it may be a good idea to think twice, before you have your picture taken with one.
> Cusco has another notable street animal: the dogs. Ownerless mutts patrol the city in packs, wagging their tales and scavenging in garbage, weaving through traffic like fish in water. These dogs seem relatively docile in their attitude, but it's still a bad idea to pet them.
> Peru passed a major law banning animal abuse in 2015, though curiously, this law deems cockfights and bullfights permissible as they are considered part of Peruvian culture.
> I brought alpaca socks and gloves, in case you were wondering.
> You can also eat alpaca in Cusco. It's delicious. It also fills one with guilt, like eating a Dr. Suess character.