Know Your Andean Camelids

Sydnie Schell is a student at the University of Kentucky and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is studying abroad with ISA in Lima, Peru.

Cusco, Peru
A baby alpaca

Occasionally you get this feeling when you travel of being totally and completely clueless. You no longer have home country advantage. The common knowledge, the common language – everything changes. Suddenly every 6 year old is much smarter than you.

This becomes particularly evident when it comes to local animals. Before traveling to South America, it may be best to know the difference between what are known as the Andean camelids- the alpaca, llama, vicuña, and guanaco. Before you get an eye roll from the locals for squealing “Alpaca!” the first time you see a cuddly baby llama, here is a quick crash course of what each of these animals looks like and what they are used for here in Peru.


Cusco, Peru
Making friends with an Alpaca

The alpaca was first domesticated about 6,000 years ago by the Quechua Indians and bred to be fiber producers. Their hair is used for making a number of woven and knitted products and almost all of the handmade clothing in South American markets are made with their fiber. They are much shorter and fluffier than llamas and their ears are not as large as a llamas’. Alpaca are occasionally used for food, and you can order alpaca in many traditional Peruvian restaurants.

Cusco, Peru
Feeding Alpacas at a Llama and Alpaca Sanctuary


Photo taken by Becky Casto, another ISA student

Llamas were domesticated around the same time as alpacas. Unlike alpacas, llamas were bred to serve as pack animals and can carry over one fourth of their body weight. Anyone who has walked the Inca trail or hiked in the Andes Mountains can see why pack animals would be essential in rugged terrain. The Inca culture thrived thanks to these creatures who were able to transport supplies and products from every corner of the empire. To easily spot a llama, look at the ears. Llama have curved, almost banana shaped ears. They are also about twice the size of alpaca and have course hair, which is usually shorter.

 A llama with the distinctive banana shaped ears
A llama with the distinctive banana shaped ears


A vicuña
A vicuña

Unlike llama and alpaca, ‪vicuña and guanaco were never domesticated. These wild animals are small, almost deer like creatures that roam the highlands of Peru and Bolivia. They are more closely related to the alpaca and produce a fine fur that is one of the most valuable fibers in the world. Due to their endangered species status, they cannot be killed for their fur but the Peruvian government allows for a certain number of the animals to be caught, shaved, and let go unharmed. The fur gathered during this process can cost thousands of dollars per yard.


These wild animals look very similar to llamas due to the fact that they are closely related and share a common ancestor. Guanacos are very common in the Andes of Chile and Argentina. Economically they do not have as much importance as the fiber that alpacas provide or the strength and transportation that llamas provide. They continue to live in a completely wild state.

Want to hang with alpacas, llamas, vicuñas, and guanacos like Sydnie? Of course you do. Learn how you can study and participate in service-learning in Lima, Peru.