Let’s talk about camels. Not the ones with humps on their backs, but their Peruvian cousins. You’ve probably heard of llamas and alpacas, common throughout Peru, which are domesticated versions of vicuñas (vi-koo-nyas) and guanacos (gwa-nah-kos). These animals of the Andean landscapes are known by the family name, Camelid, of which also includes camels. In the mountains of Peru you can witness packs of llamas and alpacas together eating, playing, and walking with their herders. These beautiful animals are an integral part of Peruvian family and community life. Peru is one of the best places to see llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicuñas, though these animals are mostly limited to the Andes region, large populations of guanacos can also be found throughout the Patagonia Region in Argentina and Chile.
Widely used as a meat and pack animal by those living in the Andean countryside. Their wool is not as refined alpaca fleece and their heads aren’t quite as furry. Llamas are more independent and typically less jumpy than their smaller cousins. Because they tend to be more aggressive, they are sometimes used as guard animals for alpacas, sheep, and other livestock. Two ways to tell a llama from an alpaca are their banana-shaped ears and larger bodies, weighing up to 400 lbs.
For more than 5,000 years alpacas have been bred for their wool, renowned for its quality and softness. They have also been bred for their meat, so alpaca-based dishes can be found throughout Peru. Being herd animals, they are comfortable in a community. Their short ears, flatter snouts and smaller frames distinguish them from llamas.
Vicuñas are the national animal of Peru and appear on the Peruvian coat-of-arms. They can be found throughout Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, where their population is highest. Their wool is extremely fine and expensive, owing to the fact they can only be shorn once every three years. Only royalty are permitted to wear clothes made of vicuña wool.
Llamas and alpacas are an incredible joy to behold. They are dignified, elegant, and graceful. The fleece of the alpaca is most delicate and can be found in many forms in both Peru and Bolivia – scarves, sweaters, jackets, even socks! It is not itchy as sheep wool can be and it very soft and warm. Of course it is meant to keep alpacas warm in the high altitude regions of the Andes!
If you are very interested in seeing these creatures then head to the Cusco Region and the central Andes, where they walk amongst the countryside and the towns. If you want to see large herds of alpacas or llamas you will have a great opportunity to see them while trekking, for example while on the Lares Trek and Ausangate trek, during trips to Arequipa and Puno, while trekking around Huancayo, and even in Cusco City and in Machu Picchu where you can snap a selfie with one! I wish you many meetings with llamas and alpacas on the road, because they have made my trail walking that much more interesting and beautiful during my time in Peru.
Around Huaraz, where the mountains are even higher than near Cusco, you won’t find llamas and alpacas. Instead, this Andean landscape is populated by cows. So only if you trek in the surroundings of Cusco will you be able to see Peruvian llamas and alpacas. In Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca be prepared for cows! The mountains are full of them.