by Clara Mokri
The camelid, more commonly known as the llama, is so deeply engrained in Peruvian culture that it is recognized as the country’s national animal. For starters, along with a quinoa plant and a cornucopia, the image of a vicuña completes the trifecta that makes up the Peruvian national crest. The second piece of evidence can be seen at the Plaza San Martín in the heart of Lima. According to legend, when ordering a statue from an Italian sculptor to commemorate General San Martín for freeing Peru and other countries in South America from the Spanish Empire, the translator requested a flame over Liberty’s head to represent the spread of decolonization throughout Latin America. Unfortunately for those in charge of production (but arguably fortunate for the people of Peru), the translator confused the Spanish words llama and lama (camelid vs. flame), and the architect built a statue with a llama sitting on top of Liberty’s head. With camelids playing such a prominent role Peruvian culture, one must be sure to know the different types that exist in the region before entering the country, or risk flat-out embarrassing themselves in casual conversation with locals (as I did).
While most humans and online forums aggregate all species of camelids together as ‘llamas’, each type of camelid possesses unique characteristics. Llamas, Alpacas, Guanacos and Vicuñas are all part of the same family, but each is unique. Llamas are domesticated camelids typically used as pack animals. Because they can weigh up to 400 pounds and measure up to 46 inches in length, they are capable of carrying heavy loads for long treks.
Llamas are far tamer and more independent than their skittish and spastic alpaca counterpart. Alpacas are also domesticated camelids that Peruvians herd in the southern Andes. They are essentially mini versions of llamas—alpacas have small and pointier ears (compared to the llama’s long, banana-shaped ears), weigh about 150 pounds, are about 10 inches smaller, and even appear to have squished faces. Historically, alpacas were bred for their fibers, and alpaca sweaters continue to be one of the most popular products sold in Cuzco—some of the highest quality garments made out of baby alpaca wool can cost up to $500. The reason that alpacas are the camelids of choice for clothing production is because their fibers are finer and thus more malleable. Alpaca coats also come in many different colors, which creates bountifully diverse possibilities for sweater designs.
At nearly every street corner in Cuzco city, one can find local women with their pet alpacas dressed in colorfully woven headpieces, offering a photo to every tourist that passes by. Alpacas are used as attractions for foreigners because of how prominent they are in Peruvian culture, and I fell into the trap. Within my first five minutes in Cuzco, three local women thrust a small baby animal in my face and I not only took a photo with a llama, but also with multiple goats. I was then subsequently asked to pay 50 Soles (the equivalent of 15 USD).
Both vicuñas and guanacos are wild camelids that live in the high alpine parts of the Andes, as opposed to the flatlands. Vicuñas are believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca, as they are similar in size and weight. Vicuñas also have desirable fine wool coats, but since they are wild animals, Incan royalties were historically the only people who could wear vicuña garments. Today, anyone can wear them, but they are quite pricey—a vicuña coat can cost up to $20,000. Vicuñas have the honor and privilege of carrying the distinction of being the national animal of Peru, as evidenced by the Peruvian Coat of Arms.
Guanacos are Peru’s least favorite camelid because they’re less attractive and have aggressive tendencies. They are similar in size and weight to their alpaca relatives, but their colors do not vary—guanacos are limited to a shade of brown that phases to white closer to their body). Guanacos live in herds composed of females, their children, and a dominant male. Bachelor males form separate herds and travel in groups of up to 50 guanacos. When these bachelors feel threatened, they alert the herd to flee with a piercingly high-pitched, bleating call that can deafen any passerby within auditory range.
I used to claim that llamas were one of my favorite animals, but after learning the differences between each type, I think I need to reevaluate. After purchasing a baby alpaca sweater in Cuzco (no animals are harmed in the making of these garments) and having not taken it off in days in spite of my allergies, those specific camelids have my heart.