Don’t know your alpaca from your llama? Still confused over which ones you might eat as a steak and which one’s fur you might wear as a pair of gloves? Fear not, we’re here to assist with a quick guide to the most famous camelids of Peru and the differences between llamas, alpacas and vicuñas.
Ever seen a picture of Machu Picchu with animals in the foreground? Animals that resemble a cross between a woolly sheep and a camel? That will be a llama. The domesticated South American camelid has been used in Peru as a pack animal for some 5,000 years. And it’s an animal that you’ll bump into countless times on a visit to the country.
They grow to heights of up to 1.8 metres tall at the top of the head with a weight of between 130 to 200 kg. Looking at a llama front on you’ll notice that their ears are curved, like the shape of a banana. It’s an easy way of telling them apart from their cousins that have straighter shaped ears.
Llamas also have longer faces than alpacas and vicuñas, best demonstrated from the side. Another distinguishing feature is their coarse outer coats that cover a softer second coat underneath. This gives them a shaggy appearance similar to a sheep.
Llamas are still used as pack animals today thanks to their larger size. Their wool is sometimes used for textiles and clothing. Their meat may also appear on the odd restaurant menu but it’s mostly used for charqui, the Quechua word that gave rise to the English word ‘jerky’ – dried and salted meat.
Like llamas, alpacas have also been domesticated for centuries but for a very different purpose. Thanks to their one fine single coat, alpacas have been bred specifically to produce wool. Their wool fibres are used to create a variety of goods from blankets to jumpers, gloves to ponchos – a favourite among travellers in Peru.
Alpaca wool produces extremely soft and luxurious fleece. It’s what also makes the animals look like fluffy teddy bears. Alpaca fibre is world-renowned for its quality and can fetch exorbitant prices internationally. It’s a top buy in Peru where prices are far more reasonable. Baby alpaca wool provides the softest touch and earns the highest prices.
Much smaller than their counterparts, alpacas only reach heights of up to 1.5 metres tall at the ears. Their ears are also much smaller than a llama’s and shaped like a triangular spear-head. The physical difference between an alpaca and a llama is even more noticeable from the side – alpacas have a much flatter face with a tiny snout.
Wool is not the only purpose alpacas serve. Their meat is one of the healthiest around with very little fat and low cholesterol levels. You’ll find it on menus throughout Peru whether in the form of steak, grilled skewers or served as a hamburger. Carnivores will no doubt agree it’s a tender and succulent meat packed with flavour.
One of two wild camelids in South America, the vicuña is the smallest of the bunch. They reach a maximum height of 0.85 metres and weigh in at just 35 to 59 kg. Living in the windswept high alpine regions of Peru, the vicuña were almost hunted to extinction during colonial rule. Recently they have reached a much healthier population thanks to local conservation efforts.
Vicuña wool is extremely fine and soft but it’s a rare commodity and some of the most expensive wool in the world. This is due to the fact that they have to be caught from the wild and can only be shorn every three years. So it’s unlikely you’ll encounter any vicuña blankets as you haggle your way through Peru’s tourist markets.
Nor will you find them on the menu. And you may not even see one as you travel around Peru. These are shy creatures that are easily perturbed by humans and the unknown threat they present thanks to their remarkable hearing. But at least now you know what they look like, just in case you do bump into one.
Browse our full range of Peru tours if you want to meet these camelids in their native country.