When in Peru, beware the alpacas.
Not because they’re dangerous. You have nothing to fear from a creature with such a sweet temperament and which communicates by humming (yes, that’s just as cute as it sounds). Just being around one is going to bring your blood-pressure down, like they’re a meditation retreat covered in fur...
Trust me: you’ll be just fine hanging out with an alpaca.
But if you visit Peru (as we’re doing for two weeks next year), or if you take a trip to one of its South American neighbours, at some point you’re probably going to see an alpaca, point it out to a travelling companion, and yell, “Oh wow, look. A LLAMA!”
This is nothing to be embarrassed about. For most visitors, they’re tricky to tell apart, if you’re from a place where these marvellously weird beasts are uncommon (although they’re increasingly everywhere these days - more on that later). And they’re all part of the same family, Camelidae, the only living branch of the suborder Tylopoda, which must have been a truly bizarre branch of the animal kingdom when it was around in full.
If you didn’t know the family name of alpacas & llamas but guessed they’re all relations of camels - yes, full marks awarded. But for northern-hemisphere-living folk like us there’s still a lot to learn here...and therefore a lot that’s easy to get wrong.
First, they’re not the only like-camels-but-obviously-not-camels at work in these parts. There are actually four species you’ll find in any trip around Peru: the domesticated llama and alpaca, and the generally wilder vicuña and guanaco. A way to think about them: a llama is a guanaco that loves humans, and an alpaca is a vicuña that...tolerates them.
Here is a difference you can’t miss. Llamas, like camels, are much more comfortable around humans than alpacas. As I said earlier, the latter aren’t unfriendly as such, but they’re certainly less at ease.
Llamas have a wonderful sociability that crosses species, so if they’re around a group of different animals for any length of time they tend to befriend them as a new pack, or even as a form of “adoption”: like camels, llamas make excellent friends (or “parents”) who won’t hesitate to stick up for you in a fight. This is helped along by how smart they are: a llama will generally be able to tell the difference between a domesticated dog trying to say hello, and a wild coyote looking for something tasty to attack and drag away.
Llamas also look the part. They’re bigger, a full 30cms higher than alpacas, with a longer face, longer ears and a more “don’t mess with me” appearance. In comparison, alpacas have faces that look like Pixar-style plushie caricatures of llamas: a more squashed snout, a wider face with chubbier cheeks, fluffier fur and generally a more compact, rounded look.
You’ll probably find alpacas more appealing-looking than llamas, and pay a little more attention to them as a result - meaning, you’re going to notice them a lot. Peru contains around three-quarters of the world’s population of alpacas.
But it’s llamas that will make more of an effort to be friendly. In the words of a farm-owner: "Alpacas are more like cats, while llamas are more like dogs."
You can also feel the difference by running your hand through the animal’s fleece. (Both of them will let you.) An alpaca’s is by far the softer, which is why it’s so popular for making the famous Peruvian poncho.
However, any camelid wool connoisseur will tell you to go for a luxury wool made from the fleece of a vicuña: partly because it’s the most intensely Peruvian fiber you’ll get (vicuñas are the national animal) - and partly because the Inca prized vicuña wool so much that only royalty could wear garments made from it. But hey, also because it’s just better - and pricier, as a result of that.
Ponchos are serious business in Peru, by the way. If you’re in the market for a good one, don’t expect it to be as cheap you’re used to with other garments, because it’s the work of hundreds of hours of spinning, dyeing and weaving, and that it’s so important to Peruvian culture that many wear the poncho they formally receive upon reaching adulthood for the rest of their life.
As for llama hair, you’ll find it’s coarser, hardier, more workmanlike. It’s like llamas are saying Sure, you can take a bit of my coat if you like, but we’re growing this stuff primarily so we can use it. The history of llamas isn’t about providing kings with material for their robes - it’s of keeping their kingdom running by carrying their trade goods thousands of miles.
Llamas are well-suited to harsh environments, and are sure-footed enough to cover treacherously rocky terrain with ease. Being vegetarians they’re easy to feed (just an acre of grassland can sustain up to four llamas indefinitely), and they’re able to withstand a wide range of temperatures, and if you’re trekking with llamas you can even dry their poop and throw it on your fire for an almost entirely odour-free source of fuel. They’re a powerhouse of sustainability.
Llamas are also quietly conquering the world right now. My first sighting of a llama wasn’t in South America - it was in northern England, where a farm of them had just opened. (They seemed beautifully adjusted to the climate. To my eyes, those llamas couldn’t have looked happier, even though it was a cool, dreary day with rain on the way.)
They’ve also been a big hit during the pandemic: this farm in California made the news by offering one-to-one meetups with their llamas over Zoom, and many other farms, like this one in Edinburgh, have leapt onto the trend with enthusiasm.
But perhaps the llama’s greatest gift to humanity going forward will come from how marvellously-well they’re constructed. Scientists have been fascinated for a while with how llamas and alpacas seem to be resistant to insulin, yet don’t suffer the considerable medical issues that human diabetics have to deal with. Their secret seems to be related to a hormone released in their gut after eating a meal - and researchers are now investigating further, in the hope of discovering a new treatment to help diabetics worldwide.
Then there’s COVID-19. The immune systems of camelids produce “nanobodies,” a physically smaller form of antibody that has the ability to sink deeper into tissue. Tests have shown that synthesized nanobodies created from combining those from llamas and alpacas has the ability to attack the spike protein of COVID-19, potentially paving the way towards a new drug used to treat infected patients or bolster immunity of anyone currently free of the virus…
So, even if you don’t know exactly what camelid you’re looking at, go in and say hi. We’ve been good friends for thousands of years - and that definitely won’t be changing anytime soon.