The women in the Marcapata district of Peru have a singular sense of style. This is no coincidence, since they live in a remote region of the Andes that got its first paved highway only about a decade ago. Their isolation forces them to be self-sufficient, which is incredibly difficult at high altitudes where only alpacas and potatoes thrive. But it also helps them preserve traditions, knowlege and skills that are being diluted and lost elsewhere.
Eufemia Esperilla Leon, 29, is president of Tres Alpaquitas, a Heifer-supported woman's group that produces knitted and felted goods from locally raised alpaca fiber. She grew up in the village of Chumpi Marcarani, a seven-hour walk from the small city of Marcapata where she now lives. Having lived for a while in cosmopolitan Cusco, Leon has largely put aside the traditional skirts, called polleras, that she wore daily in her youth. Pants keep her warmer, she said. But on special occasions, Leon will still wear polleras, along with a draping montera hat and the bolero-like jacket stitched with white buttons, called a juyuna.
Single women interested in attracting a husband use a special trick, layering three or four skirts to look curvier. Leon stays busy working and caring for her 5-year-old daughter and younger siblings, leaving her little time for dating. So she wears only one or two polleras at a time.
But Leon does cave in to vanity when it comes to her hair. The women of Marcapata all sport thick, glossy hair with no sign of grays or frizz. Good genes probably deserve most of the credit, but Leon shared this tip: Soak a few snapped aloe vera leaves in water until the gel seeps out, then use the water as a rinse.
You can learn more about Leon and other members of Tres Alpaquitas in the Holiday issue of World Ark magazine, coming out this fall. The magazine will include a small catalog of their work, just in time for the gift-giving season. In the meantime, you can learn more about the group's work and their plans to share traditional Andean crafts with the world by visiting their website or Facebook page.
All images by Lily Piel, World Ark contributor