There are five species of South American camelids: alpaca, llama, vicuña, guanaco, and huarizo. They are found throughout the Andes mountains in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia. Unlike the camel though, the South American camelids thrive at high altitudes. Alpaca wool, as well as vicuña, only have the luminosity and shine when the animals are raised at altitudes of 3,500 to 5,000 meters. This is why alpaca wool that was raised in the Andes is much more valuable than the wool of alpacas that were raised in Australia or the United States.
The Five Types of South American Camelids
The llama is the largest and hardest working South American camelid. Like the camel, these are pack animals that can travel longs distances. It’s fur is not valuable like the others, but it is prized for its traveling and carrying abilities. It is South America’s favorite Beast of Burden.
The alpaca is the most commonly seen camelid in South America. Its fur is highly prized and used to make everything from sweaters and scarves to blankets and gloves. You will see herds making their way up steep mountain tracks throughout the Andes, often marked with a brightly colored ribbon in their ear. Alpaca meat, which is fat- and cholesterol-free and tender like steak, is common on dinner tables and restaurants in Peru and Ecuador. The alpaca has been domesticated for more than two thousand years, with ancient civilizations in Peru such as the Moche and later the Incas, all incorporating the animal into their daily lives.
The vicuña is the thinnest of the camelids and seemingly the one with the biggest eyes. The soft features of its face are reminiscent of a cartoon deer such as Bambi. The vicuña is rarer than other camelids and its fur is the most expensive because of its softness and quality.
The fur of the guanaco is slightly less fine and less full than that of the alpaca. Its fur tends to be a lighter brown with a white belly and gray face. Patagonia and Torres del Paine in the very south of the continent are the most common habitats for guanacos, where they tend to roam in large groups.
The Huarizo is the least likely of the South American camelids you will encounter. The offspring of a male llama and a female alpaca, the animal is bred for its fleece and as a pet.
–Buying Alpaca and Vicuña Fiber in South America
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.