It's wonderful when one story leads naturally to another. In this case, I followed a thread given to me by the hand spinner, Sue Sutherland, who I found ‘Spinning a gripping yarn’ (story still available online) in the Mercadinho in Loulé this summer. Sue spins her own wool for her wonderful woolly wares and happened to mention that she had friends in Monchique with alpacas and she had been experimenting with their wool.
“Oh, maybe that might make a good story?”, she said and proceeded to tell me more. But I’ll be honest, she needn’t have bothered, she had me at “alpacas”.
Her friends turned out to be a Dutch couple called Miralda and Jouri, who, impressed that I spelt their names right when I wrote a private message to their Facebook page (aptly named Monchique Alpacas), very kindly invited me around to meet them and their animals. Not needing to be asked twice, I drove up into the mountains and followed Google through some beautiful little mountain roads until I got to their gate.
While I waited to be let in, I excitedly peered over the fence and spotted similar (apparently I look a bit like an alpaca) faces peering curiously back at me.
Jouri let me in and I walked down to where I met Miralda and I was struck instantly by what kind and warm hearted people they were. To my delight, we immediately went to sit down and have coffee in the alpaca enclosure. As I sipped what I can’t resist calling my ‘alpacachino’, I attempted to conduct what has to be one of my most fun interviews ever.
Alpacas on Monchique
Surrounded by these adorable and inquisitive creatures who were also thrilled to see us (particularly as we had a bucket of carrots - the “candy of alpacas") we sat and chatted as these soft, sweet animals with their large gooey black eyes kept coming around to say hello.
Pointing out the elephant in the room, or indeed, the ‘alpaca in the Algarve’, I got right to it. “This is so random”, I said, laughing as the nosiest among them came in and nibbled my neck. “How did this happen?” Well, long story short, after Jouri’s parents sold the family business in Holland, they all decided to move somewhere green and peaceful where they could have animals and, in 2013, they moved here to this perfect place. Having seen and fallen in love with alpacas in Holland, the dream was always to get some.
This was a little tricky to start with and they contented themselves with some other equally adorable and unusual animals (that we will meet later). Eventually though, in 2016, they sourced some from a lady in Spain and got a ‘package’ of two males and two pregnant females (from different fathers). The clan has slowly been increasing in size ever since and they now have a total of 13, with the latest being a baby called Melosa who was born in July. They are probably going to stop breeding them soon, as alpacas can live up to 25 years and they want to make sure that they are around to look after them and make sure they all have a good life.
I thought that their haircuts were very funny as most of them had short hair on their bodies and a big ‘lion's mane’ up top. That is one of the things I learned that makes alpacas different from llamas (because, of course, I had no idea). Both from the camel family, llamas are a much bigger beast altogether with longer noses and ears. They are also a lot more prone to spitting (mainly at the people who use them for carrying things) and they can be found in the wild and shed their coat naturally.
Alpacas, like sheep, on the other hand, aren’t found in the wild and will just keep growing their hair until, well... They are one big fluff ball. So, they must be sheared and this, we joked, offers some wonderful opportunities for some great haircuts. Mohawk anyone?
I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have any llamas, but only because I was hoping to suggest that they could call one Dalai. Not to worry though, as they all have names already. I won’t name everybody here, but I'll pick out some of my favourites. There’s Rainbow, Shaggie (with a white face and brown body), a curly-haired chill dude called Domingo and beautiful Amurula, who, unlike all the others who have these big black doughy and reflective eyes, has blue ‘marble-like’ eyes.
Apparently, and this is another interesting thing Miralda told me, if a white one has blue eyes it means they are deaf. Luckily Amurula is mostly brown. There’s also Maple (Melosa's mother) who is big and black with a goofy smile and big bottom teeth. Apparently alpacas' are partial to a bit of moss and they use these large bottom teeth to scrape the green off rocks.
I asked them if keeping alpacas is hard work? To which they said no, not really… They are very hygienic animals and I learned something that, having chickens at home myself and knowing they don’t exercise any self-control whatsoever, really blew my mind. Alpacas have a bathroom and only do their business in that one spot. In fact, Jouri mused, being such a social animal they normally go together and quite often there's a ‘queue for the loo’. (I know, I wouldn’t have believed this either unless I had later seen it for myself.)
Of course, it's all a lot more work than they let on. Especially since, as I said earlier, it's not the only animal they keep. Walking around their house and taking in the truly breathtaking view, I met funky furry chickens (called Silkies) and a whole host of dogs and cats (some of which need medicine at exactly the same time every day). There were also two Vietnamese 'pot bellied’ pigs called Thelma and Louise who were meant to be small, but Miralda and Jouri laughed and said they turned out to grow much larger than they were expecting.
Next door with a super play-pen to practice their instinctive acrobatics they had some dwarf goats too (Dolce, Cabana and Burberry) and next door to that were two Falabella horses called Pina and Collada who were wearing special screens to keep all those pesky flies off their faces at this time of year. And, as if this isn't all enough to deal with already, they are hoping to get some peacocks soon. All these animals mean a lot of responsibility and make it very difficult to leave and do other things. However, as Miralda said, they love them all and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now, at this point, you might be thinking, “Well, this is all very well and I’m pleased you had a nice day out Jake... But I'd like to see an alpaca too!” Well, you can. And indeed groups from the nearby Monchique hotel regularly ‘al-paca picnic’ and come by on Sundays to eat it. But I should stress now that this isn’t a zoo or a commercial venture. Miralda and Jouri just love their animals and are proud to show them to people who ask them nicely. No payment is necessary (but you can bring carrots if you like).
Also, if you do go, word of warning. Although they are the most adorable and peaceful animals, they can still ‘al-paca punch’ (actually it's more of a sideways karate kick). So, watch out for that.
This last year they told me they have been busier than ever. What with lockdown and locals having more time to come on walks and being completely astonished to come face to face with these South Americans up here on their mountain. Word has been spreading around town and it's given Miralda and Jouri tremendous joy to be able to share their ‘alpaca love’ with the local community, and especially with children.
Because trust me, seeing them simply can’t fail to make your day.