March 8 – Fiesta of San Juan de Dios

Posted on March 8, 2016

This fiesta honors a Portuguese man who was a soldier for Spain. In 1536, his troop disbanded, and he ended up becoming a shepherd, but he had a sort of mid-life crisis, wondering what he should do with his life. He decided to devote his life to helping people who were sick or poor or both. He established a house in Granada, Spain, to care for such people. Because of his good deeds, many people consider Juan the patron saint of hospitals.

Puno, Peru, celebrates this Portuguese-born Spaniard, even though San Juan de Dios never went to the “New World.” 

The fiesta lasts two days: Yesterday llamas laden with firewood made a sort of parade coming into town while people played flutes and drums. Last night there were huge bonfires. Today is the actual feast day, and the more formal procession features the saint's image being carried all through the town as dancers and musicians create a festival atmosphere.

A few months ago, I wrote about Puno, Peru. This city lies between Lake Titicaca and the Andes Mountains, and some people live on floating islands in the lake. 

Since llamas are an important part of the fiesta celebrations, and of Puno's economy, I thought I would talk a bit about llamas and their relatives.

One of the important ideas of biology is both simple and complex: all plants and animals and other organisms are related, and they evolved to survive in specific environments. Llamas and alpacas are domesticated creatures native to South America; they are most closely related to vicuñas and guanacos, wild creatures from South America. This entire llama animal group is most closely related to camels.

But camels live in the Middle East and the “Horn of Africa” (dromedaries, or 1-humped camels) and Central Asia (2-humped camels). That's pretty far from South America – how did these animal relatives end up so far from one another?

This early camelid is called a
It turns out that “camelids” – the animal group that includes 1- and 2-humped camels, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos – first evolved on the plains of North America. As various populations of early camels wandered apart into different parts of the continent, the populations got cut off from one another and evolved in different ways. Eventually, the early camels had evolved into many different species in many different locations.

Of course, some populations migrated so far from the others, they ended up in other continents. Some of the camelids ended up in South America, some had crossed the land bridge into Asia, and some went as far as the Middle East and even Africa.

About 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, the camelid species living in North America all died out. But camelids living elsewhere continued to thrive and, in many cases, became domesticated by people.

This little guy's mama is a llama!
For many centuries, lamas have been used for their meat and wool, and most importantly as pack animals, by the various peoples living in the Andes Mountains. Adults can be almost six feet tall and weigh between 290 and 440 pounds. They can carry a fourth to a third of their body weight for five to eight miles.

Alpacas are much smaller and have not been used as beasts of burden. Instead, they were specially bred for their wool, which is used to make both knitted and woven items. It is lustrous and silky, softer and warmer than sheep's wool. It doesn't have lanolin, which means it doesn't repel water – but which also means that it is hypoallergenic. It is naturally flame resistant. Peruvians classify alpaca wool into more than 52 natural colors.


Guanacos stand between three and four feet tall and vary little in color (as opposed to llamas and alpacas, probably because the latter have been carefully bred to vary in color). 


Vicuñas are smaller than guanacos and are considered more graceful. Even though they remain wild creatures, a round-up is held every year, and vicuñas with hair longer than 2.5 centimeters are shorn. This practice is to prevent poaching. The wool from vicuñas is so fine and so highly valued, the creatures became endangered. In 1974, there were only about 6,000 left! Now, with protection under the law, there are about 350,000 – but efforts must be ongoing to keep their numbers up.

Did you know...?

The Incas valued vicuñas for their wool so much that it was against the law for anyone but royalty to wear garments made from it!

Wool was so valued by the Incas, it was used as currency (money)!

The vicuña is the national animal of Peru and is depicted on the nation's coat of arms.

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International Women's Day

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