The Camelids of South America
Most of what we know about South American camelids is their hair.
The fleece of these animals contains no lanolin, so it is
hypoallergenic, and though not waterproof, it makes warm
lightweight garments. The llama and guanaco both have an outer
layer of coarser hair and an inner layer of softer hair. The alpaca
and vicuna have no outer layer. The softness of guanaco fleece is
between that of the alpaca and vicuna. Though one needn’t travel to
Argentina or schedule Peru tours to purchase a wonderful South
American camelid garment, you’ll find much lower prices if you do.
Peru exports 4,000 tons of alpaca fleece each year but only three
tons of vicuna fleece, both tiny amounts compared to how much
sheep’s wool is exported by other countries. Vicuna fleece is the
world’s most expensive and one of its softest natural fibers. It
sells for over $200 a pound raw and from $1,500 to $3,000 a yard as
fabric on the world market to be made into designer clothing. The
economics are easy to understand, considering the shearing of each
vicuna produces only up to a half-pound of wool, and shearing can
occur no more often than every two years.
The unique fleece of South America’s camelids allows them to
inhabit high elevation climates. Vicunas and guanacos are wild
animals, though they are herded and sheared in temporary captivity,
and efforts are underway in some places to hold and raise them. The
domesticated llama and alpaca species are raised commercially,
primarily in South America. All four species eat grasses. Llamas
and alpacas also receive hay from their owners, and the adult
guanaco is tall enough to add tree leaves to its diet. Guanacos are
the fastest of the South American camelids, capable of running up
to forty miles per hour. A vicuna can run about thirty miles per
Like camels, the South American camelids are known to spit, for a
variety of reasons, usually to express a sentiment in the realm of,
“Get lost, buster.” Pregnant llamas spit to inform males that they
are not interested in being wooed. Guanacos may spit when
threatened or when they attack. Alpacas sometimes spit to express
Mating causes the females to ovulate, and breeding takes place
again a few weeks after giving birth. A South American camelid’s
newborn is called a cria. In the guanaco species, the offspring is
referred to as a chulengo. The South American camelid habit of
giving birth in the early morning hours is a plus in the wild,
providing vicuna and guanaco newborns the best chance of survival
through their first precarious day before temperatures plunge at
night. These species live about twenty years and slightly longer in
It is far more likely that visitors who travel to Peru in the
Andean regions will see huacaya alpacas than suris. Of the two
varieties of alpacas, the huacaya is far more common, comprising
ninety to ninety-five percent of the world’s total alpaca
population. The two breeds may be distinguished by their coats.
Without crimp, the prized hair of the suri hangs straight down from
its body and feels like mohair. The huacaya’s coat appears fluffy
and fuller. Most suri alpacas are white and are sheared less often
than huacayas. Huacaya alpacas may be seen on Peru tours in almost
two dozen hues, including white, brown, gray, black, reddish brown
Alpacas congregate in small herds led by a male and tended by
herders. Each herder’s alpacas can be distinguished by the piece of
cloth tied to the animals’ ears. Instead of defecating in the same
area where they graze, alpacas use a separate, common area. Like
the vicuna, the alpaca communicates by making a variety of sounds
and has superior hearing and vision.
Alpacas are big business worldwide. Most of the alpaca’s value is
in its fleece, the narrower the strand of fleece, the softer and
more expensive the fiber. Most alpaca goods are purchased in the
United States. Lucky travelers on Peru tours will have a far wider
selection of alpaca garments from which to choose and much better
prices than at home.
Domesticated alpacas are exported both for pets and breeding,
commercial-quality alpacas fetching a five-digit price. It was only
in the last decade that Peru eased restrictions on the export of
live animals. Alpacas are sheared every other year, up to five
times during an animal’s life and slaughtered for meat at between
ages ten and fourteen. For a time, Peruvian law decreed that
alpacas could only be sheared, not slaughtered. Trade in alpaca
meat resumed in 1995. Low fat and high protein, alpaca was once a
popular meat in the Andean diet, though today most Peruvians prefer
alpaca in a dried, salted form. Though alpacas are not endangered,
population declines can lead to inbreeding which in turn reduces
the quality of the fleece.
Llamas prefer high grassland habitats at elevations from 7,000 to
13,000 feet where visitors on Peru tours and other destinations
will see them in herds. Domesticated llamas are less social than if
they inhabited the wild and have adapted to the status of novelty
farm animal and family pet far from their traditional roots in the
harsh, cold highlands. The llama reaches maturity at about three
years of age. Offspring are born surrounded by a protective group
of females after a gestation of a bit less than a year. Some 2.5
million llamas inhabit the Andes, making them a common sight on
South America tours, especially in Bolivia. The llama is not
Llamas may be various shades of white, black, brown, gray, red or a
multi-colored hue. The animal’s fleece is far coarser than that of
the alpaca or vicuna and therefore less expensive, yet suitable for
a wider range of uses. The animal’s coarser outer-layer of fleece
is made into durable woven products, from rugs to ropes, and the
softer under-layer is made into clothing, usually outerwear
garments such as scarves, hats, jackets and sweaters that make
popular souvenirs of travel to Peru. Llama fleece may be obtained
by brushing, shearing or clipping.
Two varieties of llamas exist, the kara and the chacos. The kara
llama has the characteristic double coat of the llama but the
chacos (or wooly) llama has only one coat from which a mixture of
fibers is derived. Most llamas that visitors will see during their
Peru tours and other Andean locations are the kara variety. Bred
for its fleece, the huarizo is a hybrid species of a llama and an
Low fat and mild tasting, llama meat is traditionally prepared by
drying and salting it, called charque. The animal’s excrement is
used as fertilizer and when dried, burned as fire fuel.
Vicunas live in semi-arid grasslands of the Andes on or near
hillsides at 11,000 to 19,000 feet in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina,
Chile and Ecuador in a range that has shrunk over the past several
centuries. They can survive the extremes of temperatures found at
these elevations thanks to soft fleece that traps warm air against
their bodies. The vicuna uses its speed and exceptional eyesight to
protect itself from its predators, the puma and Magellan fox, and
communicates with its herd by emitting sounds appropriate to the
Vicunas live in small herds overseen by one male in a fifteen to
seventy-five acre area, delineated by the odor of dung deposited on
the perimeter of their territory. Vicunas breed in March and April,
giving birth after about eleven months of gestation. This makes
February and March prime months to see frolicking newborns during
your travel to Peru or Argentina tours. At about a year of age,
young vicunas are forced out of the group to find another with
which to mate and bond, forming singles groups in the interim.
Vicunas are various shades of golden brown to cinnamon with a white
face and underside. Long hunted for its soft and lucrative fleece,
South America’s vicuna populations are increasing from near
extinction. According to the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), about half of
the world’s 350,000 vicunas inhabit Peru. Between 72,000 and
127,000 are found in Argentina, 63,000 in Bolivia, 17,000 in Chile
and 2,700 in Ecuador. The herds of vicunas that once inhabited
South America elsewhere have more or less been wiped out.
Unlike their larger relatives, vicunas can only be sheared once
every two to three years. Neither do they take well to captivity.
These two commercial inconveniences have led business enterprises
to breed a hybrid between the domesticated alpaca and the vicuna,
just as thousands of years ago the alpaca was bred from the vicuna.
Called a paco-vicuna (or pacuna), the new species combines the two
qualities that vicunas lack, a laid-back attitude and fleece that
can be sheared annually. This mixing of nature and commerce is not
appreciated by environmental scientists who fear that hybridization
will further dilute the genetic purity of the remaining vicuna
After the Spanish invasion of guanaco habitat centuries ago, the
specie’s population shrank from millions to thousands. Most of the
continent’s remaining guanacos are found in the southerly regions,
making them a much more common sight during travel to Patagonia
than Peru Tours. According to the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), of South
America’s remaining 400,000 and 600,000 guanacos, almost all are
found in Argentina with about 66,000 in Chile. Visitors to Torres
del Paine National Park during their Chile tours and Tierra del
Fuego National Park during travel to Argentina can expect to see
Spotting a herd of guanacos is a very special experience for
visitors on Peru tours since it is believed that only 3,500 to
5,000 still inhabit the country. Though few guanacos are left in
Bolivia and Paraguay, efforts are underway to re-populate the
species in the Chaco ecosystem that borders the three countries.
Guanacos once also inhabited Brazil and Uruguay.
Inhabiting puna, steppe, grasslands and shrub lands as well as
Andean forests, guanacos can survive at elevations as high as
15,000 feet in more northerly countries and as low as sea level in
Patagonia. Guanacos can withstand long periods of drought,
surviving by deriving moisture from plants they eat, licking
leaves, and by tolerating saltier water than most land species.
Guanacos are found in areas that have been converted to ranchland
and so must share their territory and food supply with the millions
of sheep raised in Patagonia and with cattle elsewhere. Guanacos
get the leftovers, though farmers who must deal with the wild
species inhabiting their fields would beg to differ. Some herds of
guanacos migrate to warmer wetter climes. In many places, the
guanaco also shares its habitat with pumas, its predator. Once an
important source of protein for indigenous populations, guanacos
today may only be slaughtered with government permission. The
abundance of guanacos today makes the trade of guanaco fiber legal
if the exporting country can certify that the source of the fiber
Except for winter when herds mix, guanaco groups consisting of one
male and as many as two dozen females and their young, inhabit a
territory of about 100 square miles. Young guanacos get kicked out
of the herd after about a year and join up with others in the same
boat, forming single gender groups. Older males travel solo. When
guanacos mate and give birth depends on where the live. Gestation
is about eleven months.
Though many reserves have been created in South America to protect
the dwindling guanaco populations, guanacos will likely continue to
face extinction in countries where their numbers are low since
poaching is still a problem. Mortality of guanacos is also high
because so few newborns survive to adulthood.
South America’s Camelids of Yore
Over the years, various evolutionary theories have been put forth.
Because the guanaco appeared first in the fossil record, some
believe that llamas, alpacas and vicunas all evolved from that
species. Scientists believe that between ten and perhaps more than
thirty million guanacos once roamed various regions of South
America from northern Peru to Patagonia.
Indigenous tribes dating back to 4000 BC began domesticating the
species. Llamas were either a mix between a vicuna and guanaco or
were bred from guanacos. Scientists have theorized that the alpaca
evolved from the llama or was bred as a mix between a vicuna and a
llama after it was domesticated. It wasn’t until recently that DNA
research enabled scientists to determine with certainty that the
alpaca evolved from the vicuna.
All four species played an integral role in indigenous life
throughout the Andes in both the practical and spiritual realms as
will be apparent to visitors on Peru tours and those who travel to
Argentina and other high-elevation destinations on the continent.
Until Inca times, vicunas were hunted and killed. In the absence of
sophisticated equipment, rounding up animals for slaughter was most
easily accomplished by surrounding them and driving them off a
cliff. The Incas declared the vicuna sacred, allowing the animals
to be sheared but not killed. Aymara and Inca legends held that the
indigestible material in camelid stomachs called bezoar was capable
of warding off disease, could neutralize poison and bring good
luck. Pelts were turned into various items, including shoes, tarps
and coats. The meat of the camelids was eaten either cooked or
dried and salted. Their dung was used as fuel. Llamas and alpacas
were sacrificed during religious ceremonies. Llamas were buried
alive with royalty like the rest of their prized possessions for
use in the afterworld.
Man’s relationship with the South American camelids changed
dramatically when the Spanish arrived on the continent in the 16th
century. Colonists fenced range land to raise sheep, pushing the
wild vicunas and guanacos out. To make use of vicuna fleece,
colonists chose the expeditious route to profit from these wild,
soft-haired creatures—slaughter. Populations of the wild camelid
species began their precipitous declines. Modern governments have
been working over the past half-century to undo the colonial
history of the continent’s camelids, restoring and protecting the
species, and finding ways to integrate the animals back into the
lives of human populations. Thanks to these efforts, visitors who
travel to Peru will see vicunas in abundance and many guanacos on
Far from the shoppers combing through alpaca merchandise in Lima
and elsewhere during their travel to Peru, come February, the
alpaca herders give thanks, thanks for their livelihood, thanks for
their herds, thanks for the species. Rooted in indigenous
traditions, the Hayarisqa ceremony is an annual event that takes
place in the Andean herder communities.
According to the Aymara and Quechuan legends, the weavers of the
Pacomarca Kingdom possessed the greatest weaving and embroidery
skills. When the quality of the fleece began to deteriorate
mysteriously, it is told that the Lord of Pacomarca took steps to
separate the alpacas from the llamas to soften the alpaca fleece.
The people believed that they would be rewarded or punished for how
well they took care of their alpacas.
Consisting of much singing and imbibing, Hayarisqa begins in the
evening and continues into the next day. The centerpiece of the
event is the unveiling of sacred objects held by each family, among
them, alpaca fleece, shells symbolizing the importance of water to
the herds, and stones representing fertility and vitality. Coca is
enjoyed by all members of the family as the ceremony progresses. By
daybreak, the items in the sacred bundle have been reassembled, and
the focus of Hayarisqa shifts to dancing, dining and drinking.
The chacu is an Inca tradition that has been resurrected in recent
times, as a means to the temporarily capture the wild vicunas that
roam free on the Andean hillsides of South America. Chacus are
gaining in popularity as a return to indigenous ways. In
conjunction with the chacu, some communities also hold events that
attract visitors on Peru tours who might not otherwise travel to
these small villages in out-of-the-way places. What began as an
experiment in a few communities has today turned into hundreds of
chacus taking place annually in Peru’s highland villages. Far fewer
occur in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Communities have evolved their own distinctive ceremonies around
the chacu that express gratitude for the vicunas. During Inca
times, to give thanks to Mother Earth (Pachamama) for providing
vicuna fleece, a vicuna was sacrificed at the beginning of the
chacu. Today, chacu ceremonies spare the animal. Some are preceded
by a fertility ritual consisting of a symbolic wedding of two
vicunas in which two animals must drink a mixture of each other’s
blood before releasing the animals. Participants may present
Most chacus in Peru take place between November and May. In
Lucanas, near the Pampa Galeras-Barbara D’Achille National Reserve,
an International Vicuna Festival is held in June. Visitors on Peru
tours here may watch the wild vicuna round-up that precedes the
shearing and then participate in a celebration of music, dance and
revelry that surrounds the event. Among the locations where chacus
take place in Peru are: Huancayo, Ondores, Picotani, Rancas, Tambo
Canahuas, Tupala and Tocra.
Fleece Crafts in Andean Cultures
In the Andes, gender roles in the knitting and weaving professions
vary by culture and village. In some communities, as visitors who
travel to Lake Titicaca will observe, the weavers are primarily
men. Travelers on Machu Picchu tours who visit the hill town of
Huilloc will see the woolen handicrafts of women. In many
communities, the whole family learns to knit, often using bicycle
spokes for needles. Children usually gain proficiency by age ten.
This family occupation is a valued segment of the indigenous
economy, passed down through generations.
The spinning of camelid fleece into yarn is ubiquitous in Andean
cultures. Visitors on Peru tours in these mountainous villages will
see first-hand the ingenuity and efficiency of those involved in
these trades. Held under the spinner’s arm or tucked into clothing,
the fleece is twirled into yarn on a small spindle. This step is
accomplished while tending flocks, walking home from work or
chatting with friends. It is also common to see villagers knitting
throughout the day between high-activity seasons such as planting
or the harvest.
The yarns, colors and patterns of alpaca handicrafts in the Andean
countries vary geographically and culturally. Designs, some with
special meaning, may depict flora, fauna and human figures. A dog
motif knitted into a satchel is meant to prevent the money one may
be carrying from being stolen. The chakana, the Inca cross, is a
common design. Some designs show where a knitter is from or where
the item was made. When the yarn is twisted in a certain way, in
some villages, there is a belief that it can ward off evil spirits.
This is why visitors during their travel to Peru in the Andes may
see yarn worn around the wrist or ankle of pregnant women or church
Some patterns knitted into a woolen item have mythical meanings, of
Gods, rebirth and what is sacred about the natural world. Visitors
on Peru tours may be thinking about aesthetics as they pour over
knitwear designs in a village market, but to local consumers, the
zigzags or wavy lines may represent a passage in life’s voyage, its
beginning or its end. In ancient times, knitted symbols were a form
Protecting the Vicunas of Chile
Three of the protected vicuna areas are located in the far northerly province of Parinacota. UNESCO designated the areas as the Lauca Biosphere Reserve in 1981. First to be established was Lauca National Park in 1970. Ninety miles east of the city of Arica, the park is contiguous to Bolivia’s oldest national park, 247,599-acre Sajama National Park, altiplano habitat, and site of Mt. Sajama, Bolivia’s tallest peak. Here the population of vicunas has grown from hundreds to thousands. South of Lauca National Park is Las Vicunas National Reserve, established in 1983. Part of this reserve is adjacent to the third protected area of the biosphere reserve, Salar de Surire Natural Monument, where visitors on Chile tours will also get to observe three species of flamingos.
Further south, the Los Flamencos National Reserve was established in 1990. One of its seven sections, the Salar de Tara, is a five hour drive by car east of San Pedro de Atacama almost to the Bolivian border, is vicuna habitat. The sprightly vicunas and colorful flamingos that inhabit the territory are a vivid contrast to the stark landscape, making very photogenic subjects for photographers who travel to Chile in this region.
In a few places, visitors on Chile tours will find vicunas and guanacos inhabiting the same area along the border with Argentina. These include 432,000-acre Isluga Volcano National Park, south of the Salar de Surie Natural Monument (where visitors on Chile tours will also see llamas and alpacas on these hillsides); 663,898-acre Llullailloco National Park, 170 miles southeast of the coastal city of Antofagasta; and 145,992-acre Nevado Tres Cruces National Park. Tres Cruces is divided into two sections, and visitors on Chile tours will see vicunas in both areas. The vicunas (as well as flamingos) are attracted to the park’s Laguna Santa Rosa and Laguna del Negro Francisco. The park is located sixty miles north of Argentina’s largest vicuna reserve, San Guillermo National Park.
With its total population of vicunas stabilized and growing, in the 1990s, Chile began developing sustainable management plans to enable rural populations to profit from the sale of vicuna fleece as its neighbors had done. The work began in the 1990s with a cooperative pilot project between the government and the indigenous Aymara population in the Tarapaca region of Parinacota province. The government initiative allowed the villagers to hold vicunas in temporary captivity in order to shear their fleece, and has continued at sites elsewhere. These chacus in Chile often use motorized vehicles or a combination of humans and vehicles to herd the vicunas. The government of Chile also has experimented with breeding the species in enclosures, a practice that remains controversial, is not supported by environmental scientists and is no longer being promoted.
Protecting the Guanacos of Chile
Almost all of the land that the government has set aside for guanacos is located where the largest populations inhabit, in Chile Patagonia. This conservation effort has been aided by other governments as well as international environmental organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservacion Patagonica, an American environmental organization. Thanks to these cooperative efforts, the amount of land protected in this region, important to the survival of the guanacos, has been able to expand.
With funding from the European Commission, a joint project between the governments of Chile and Great Britain has been underway since 2000 to study and further the cause of sustainable management in five protected areas of the Aisen region: Laguna Rafael National Park and the national reserves of Lago Jeinmeni, Lago Cochrane, Las Guaitecas and Katalalixar. Conservacion Patagonica is working in the same area to establish a new Patagonia National Park, part of which is territory purchased by an American businessman that Chile designated as Pumalin National Park in 1997.
Thanks to a 2004 donation by the American corporation, Goldman Sachs, the Karukinka Reserve protects the 1,156 square miles on the Grande Isla of Tierra del Fuego where most of the region’s guanacos are located. With ongoing funding from Goldman Sachs, scientists are conducting research on the species here.
Though hunting of guanacos was outlawed in Chile in 1972, poaching remains a problem. The total population of Chile’s guanacos has increased sufficiently over the past four decades that the status of the species has been reclassified from endangered to vulnerable. Some are calling for Chile to develop a national policy to manage its protected wildlife and habitat. The action is necessary they say to ensure that the country’s established objectives are met and to coordinate conservation efforts undertaken within its borders by private entities and provincial governments. Such coordination is especially important in areas where protected areas abut ranch lands in private hands where wildlife policies are viewed differently by environmentalists and ranchers. To make the most of private investments that have been made in Chile to protect its ecosystems, private-public collaboration is essential.
Guanaco Reserves of Chile
Though today most of Chile’s guanacos inhabit the country’s most southerly regions, some national parks in the north also protect them. Guanacos are found in three coastal parks in the Norte Chico region, primarily 118,000-acre coastal Llanos de Challes National Park in the Atacama Desert; Fray Jorge National Park to the south and 96,000-acre Pan de Azucar National Park to the north. Guanacos are even found as far north as Lauca National Park in the Tarapaca region, where visitors on Chile tours are expecting to see vicunas.
Below the Lake District, vast Chile Patagonia is divided into the more northerly Aisen region, the Magallanes region to the south and at its most southerly tip, what is called the country’s Antarctic region. Guanacos are found in some areas of Aisen such as 294,800-acre Cerro Castillo National Reserve where the government has imported the species to part of the reserve. It is in the Magallanes region that visitors on Patagonia tours will observe the most guanacos during their travel to Chile where large areas protect the species.
Established in 1970 to protect the lenga forests, Torres del Paine National Park is the most spectacular of Chile’s national parks. It contains numerous areas where guanacos thrive and the population is increasing. On the border with Argentina just north of Tierra del Fuego, herds of guanacos have found a protected home in Chile’s 12,430-acre Pali Aike National Park.