CHAPTER VI. The Vilcanota Country and the Peruvian Highlanders
In the northernmost part of the Titicaca Basin are the grassy foothills of the Cordillera Vilcanota, where large herds of alpacas thrive on the sweet, tender pasturage. Santa Rosa is the principal town. Here wool-buyers come to bid for the clip. The high prices which alpaca fleece commands have brought prosperity. Excellent blankets, renowned in southern Peru for their weight and texture, are made here on hand looms. Notwithstanding the altitude - nearly as great as the top of Pike's Peak - the stocky inhabitants of Santa Rosa are hardy, vigorous, and energetic. Ricardo Charaja, the best Quichua assistant we ever had, came from Santa Rosa. Nearly all the citizens are of pure Indian stock.
They own many fine llamas. There is abundant pasturage and the llamas are well cared for by the Indians, who become personally attached to their flocks and are loath to part with any of the individuals. Once I attempted through a Cuzco acquaintance to secure the skin and skeleton of a fine llama for the Yale Museum. My friend was favorably known and spoke the Quichua language fluently. He offered a good price and obtained from various llama owners promises to bring the hide and bones of one of their "camels" for shipment; but they never did. Apparently they regarded it as unlucky to kill a llama, and none happened to die at the right time. The llamas never show affection for their masters, as horses often do. On the other hand I have never seen a llama kick or bite at his owner.
The llama was the only beast of burden known in either North or South America before Columbus. It was found by the Spaniards in all parts of Inca Land. Its small two-toed feet, with their rough pads, enable it to walk easily on slopes too rough or steep for even a nimble-footed, mountain-bred mule. It has the reputation of being an unpleasant pet, due to its ability to sneeze or spit for a considerable distance a small quantity of acrid saliva. When I was in college Barnum's Circus came to town. The menagerie included a dozen llamas, whose supercilious expression, inoffensive looks, and small size - they are only three feet high at the shoulder
tempted some little urchins to tease them. When the llamas felt that the time had come for reprisals, their aim was straight and the result a precipitate retreat. Their tormentors, howling and rubbing their eyes, had to run home and wash their faces. Curiously enough, in the two years which I have spent in the Peruvian highlands I have never seen a llama so attack a single human being. On the other hand, when I was in Santa Rosa in 1915 some one had a tame vicuna which was perfectly willing to sneeze straight at any stranger who came within twenty feet of it, even if one's motive was nothing more annoying than scientific curiosity. The vicuna is the smallest American "camel," yet its long, slender neck, small head, long legs, and small body, from which hangs long, feathery fleece, make it look more like an ostrich than a camel.
In the churchyard of Santa Rosa are two or three gnarled trees which have been carefully preserved for centuries as objects of respect and veneration. Some travelers have thought that 14,000 feet is above the tree line, but the presence of these trees at Santa Rosa would seem to show that the use of the words "tree line" is a misnomer in the Andes. Mr. Cook believes that the Peruvian plateau, with the exception of the coastal deserts, was once well covered with forests. When man first came into the Andes, everything except rocky ledges, snow fields, and glaciers was covered with forest growth. Although many districts are now entirely treeless, Mr. Cook found that the conditions of light, heat, and moisture, even at the highest elevations, are sufficient to support the growth of trees; also that there is ample fertility of soil. His theories are well substantiated by several isolated tracts of forests which I found growing alongside of glaciers at very high elevations. One forest in particular, on the slopes of Mt. Soiroccocha, has been accurately determined by Mr. Bumstead to be over 15,000 feet above sea level. It is cut off from the inhabited valley by rock falls and precipices, so it has not been available for fuel. Virgin forests are not known to exist in the Peruvian highlands on any lands which could have been cultivated. A certain amount of natural reforestation with native trees is taking place on abandoned agricultural terraces in some of the high valleys. Although these trees belong to many different species and families, Mr. Cook found that they all have this striking peculiarity - when cut down they sprout readily from the stumps and are able to survive repeated pollarding; remarkable evidence of the fact that the primeval forests of Peru were long ago cut down for fuel or burned over for agriculture.