Published on October 14th, 2014 | by Nick Dall


Know your Camelid! Is it a llama, alpaca, guanaco or vicuña?

Western kids are brought up knowing the differences between sheep and goats and ducks and geese, but show an adult American or European a picture of any of the four South American camelids and there’s a 99% chance he’ll say “Llama!” and pull a funny face. If you’re planning a trip to the Andean regions you owe it to your hosts to learn a bit about llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas before you go.

The camelid family

Although this blog is all about telling the differences between the four South American species it makes sense to look first at the similarities before we start revealing the differences.

All camelid species developed from a single ancestor in North America about forty million years ago. Around 3 million years ago migration began, which is a good thing because the North American population was wiped out in the last ice age. The animals which headed South evolved into guanacos, vicuñas, llamas and alpacas, while those which headed East became camels.

Llama at MP Jose M Orsini

Llama at Machu Picchu (Picture: Jose M Orsini)

Here are a few outward characteristics which all camelids share…

  • They don’t have horns
  • They don’t have hooves. Instead they have two-toed feet with toenails and soft foot pads.
  • Their upper lips are split in two and each part is separately mobile.
  • They walk by moving both legs on the same side simultaneously, in a sort of left-right-left march. That’s why they have such a distinctive sway when you ride them.
  • They do spit when they get angry, but they don’t often get angry at humans.

And now some internal anatomical characteristics…

  • They have three-chambered stomachs
  • They’re the only mammal species to have elliptical red blood cells.
  • They also possess a unique type of antibody which is currently being used for ground-breaking pharmaceutical research.


The easiest way to spot a llama is by its size. Llamas are far and away the largest South American camelid, attaining weights of as much as 440lb. Although Middle Eastern camels can weigh five times this, there’s nothing in South America which comes close to resembling an adult llama. The lifespan of a llama ranges from 15 to 30 years.

Llama Lago Colorado Bolivia Phil Whitehouse

A llama at Lago Colorado at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. (Picture: Phil Whitehouse)

Llamas are the domesticated form of the guanaco, and these two species share the same coarse hair which in Inca times was ‘only fit for commoners’ clothes’ (in reality the undercoat is extremely soft, although not as soft as alpaca wool). Ever since their domestication about 5000 years ago llamas have been used predominantly as pack animals, and in many parts of the Andes they are still the only form of transportation. They are also used for their meat and their wool and, interestingly, they also make pretty good guard animals.


Alpacas aren’t only a lot smaller than llamas, they are also much, much woolier. The only time you’ll ever confuse an alpaca with a llama is when an adolescent alpaca has just been sheared. The other obvious different between the two species lies in their ears: alpacas have symmetrical, pear-shaped ears, while llamas have longer, wonkier ears which look a bit like bananas. Alpacas usually have a ‘top knot’ hairdo and are quite often dressed up like prize poodles by their owners – especially in touristy areas. Alpacas weigh between 100 and 175lbs and can live as long as 25 years.

Alpacas Christophe Meneboeuf

A pair of Huacaya alpacas. (Picture: Christophe Meneboeuf)

Recent DNA testing has confirmed that alpacas are the domesticated form of the vicuña, which is where they get their incredible wool and nimble dimensions from. Alpaca wool is one of the most sought after fibers in the world. It’s hypo-allergenic and is warmer and softer than lambs’ wool and more hard-wearing and exclusive than cashmere. Check out this link to find out where to buy alpaca wool products in Peru. There are two subspecies of Alpaca: the fluffy, teddy-like Huacaya alpacas and the long-haired Suri alpacas.


A suri alpaca in all its shaggy glory.


Weighing in at 200lb, guanacos are much bigger than vicuñas (the other wild species of South American camelid) but they are a lot smaller than their domesticated form, the llama. The other major difference between guanacos and llamas is their color: llamas can be white, gray, brown, black or piebald but all guanacos have brownish backs, white underparts and grey faces with small straight ears.

Guanaco Jan Reurink

The distinctive color patterns of the guanaco. (Picture: Jan Reurink)

The guanaco is an extremely versatile animal, and its territory ranges from Ecuador and Colombia in the North to Patagonia and even Tierra del Fuego in the South. Guanacos can live at extremely high altitudes, and they can also survive on very little water, as is evidenced by the populations in the Atacama desert. Guanaco wool is better than llama wool (especially the soft undercoat) but is considered inferior to alpaca or vicuña wool.


The sleek, delicate vicuña is my favourite Andean animal, but if it hadn’t been for a concerted conservation effort in the second half of the twentieth century I may never have gotten to see one. The vicuña’s charming, slender form (they weigh under 150lb) and soft, heavenly wool are also its greatest enemies. Vicuñas only produce about a pound of wool every year: that’s not a lot of wool, especially when you take into account the fact that their life expectancy is only 20 years.

Vicuna Alessando Caproni

The elegant vicuña. (Picture: Alessandro Caponi)

During Inca times the vicuña was a protected species, and only royalty were allowed to wear clothing made from its wool, but when the Spanish arrived vicuña hunting was deregulated. This situation continued until 1964, when the global population reached an all-time low of around 6000. Nowadays there are around 350,000 animals in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and the northern parts of Argentina and Chile, but the vicuña remains an endangered species. To prevent poaching, wild vicuñas are caught and sheared every year. Their wool can fetch prices of $3,000 and is even more desirable than alpaca wool.

In case you were wondering, the cover picture of this post shows a silhouetted guanaco. It was taken by Justin Jensen.

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About the Author

Nick is a nomadic freelance writer with a particular passion for Latin America. He has lived in Argentina and Bolivia and traveled just about everywhere else. He gets excited about wine, language, literature, trout and cheese.

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    Nick Stanziano is next in our #saexpeditionsuniverse series that introduces all the people around the world that allow us to build life changing experiences.

    Nick began life in a small town, on a

    Nick sees himself as part of a wave of human endeavor that accelerated 600 years ago, in renaissance Europe, as artists, scientists and merchants began to utilize reason to understand the physical and psychological frontiers of humanity. By the 17th century, traveling purely for curiosity arose when Englishman Richard Lassel gave advice that all “young lords” take “the Grand Tour” to better understand their world and prepare for their role in it. It was later in the 21st century that one could not only travel for curiosity, but also build a business around it and name it SA Expeditions.

    Nick is a dreamer, a thinker, someone that will always wonder at what lies beyond. It’s why he conceptualizes his position as Chief Explorer, a role that feeds the soul of our organization with adventure and curiosity. His most recent and most ambitious exploration yet will bring the world on a 2,000 walk across the Andes along the great Inca Road, known as the Qhapaq Nan. He will be taking his grand tour of that faraway place, to better understand our world and how our clients can play a role in it.

    Cheers to Nick! The #saexpeditionsuniverse looks forward to continuing our journey of enlightenment through travel with you. See more

    3 months ago

    6 women to thank every time you fly

    March 8th 2017 is International Women’s Day. Here are six women to thank every time you fly.
    #internationalwomensday #trendsetters #aviation #changemakers

    Thought aviation was a man’s world? Think again. These six women transformed the way you fly today

    3 months ago

    CLIENT REVIEW: Trip planned by destination expert Staci Steele.

    “My husband and I just returned from an absolutely spectacular trip to Chile and Argentina planned by SA Luxury Expeditions. Not only

    The thing that really blew me away, though, was the crescendo of the trip. While everything we did and everywhere we stayed was top-notch, each successive stop and activity just got a little more wonderful than the last. The result was a truly fantastic week and a half that we’ll always cherish. I highly recommend SA Luxury Expeditions to anyone looking to travel in South America, whether you’re looking for a low-key trip or an action-packed adventure. We got a wonderful mix of both and enjoyed every second of it!”
    #chile #argentina #patagonia See more

    3 months ago

    ‘We are rewriting the textbooks’: first dives to Amazon coral reef stun scientists


    Scientists have discovered the river reef is far bigger, and more important, than first thought – a biodiversity hotspot on a par with the Great Barrier Reef. Now they face a race to protect it See more

    3 months ago

    Timeline Photos

    The Copacabana neighborhood is located in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is known for its 2.5 miles Balneario Beach, one of the most famous in the world. During the 2016 Olympics in See more

    3 months ago

    Timeline Photos

    Ecuador, traditionally a prominant South American producer of cacao is stepping into a new light as its chocolateers are gaining noteriety on the world stage.
    #chocolate #ecuador #pacari See more

    3 months ago

    Friday February 24th marked the start of Carnival 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The lively celebration which includes live music, street performances, dancing, floats and costumes, attracts

    The word Carnival originates from the Portuguese ‘Carne Vale’, interpreted as ‘Farewell to meat’. The phrase refers to the Carnival as being the ultimate celebration before a period of abstinence from alcohol, meat and pleasure during Lent. Brazil’s Carnival began in the 1830s as a continuation of the Portuguese tradition, though, Rio’s Carnival has a unique style, which is mainly attributed to the influence of African immigrant slaves, famous for their spectacular musical abilities which gave life to the first samba rhythms.

    #Rio #Carnival #Samba #Brazil See more

    4 months ago

    The science behind why you should spend money on family holidays instead of toys

    #familyvacation #happychild #giveexperiences

    Parents have been wasting hundreds of pounds on toys, according to one of Britain’s leading child psychologists and should be spending their money on holidays instead.

    4 months ago

    One of our favorite travel testimonial comes from Danielle Vogel of Virginia. Her trip to Argentina and Chile was planned by our destination expert Staci Steele.

    “My husband and I

    The thing that really blew me away, though, was the crescendo of the trip. While everything we did and everywhere we stayed was top-notch, each successive stop and activity just got a little more wonderful than the last. The result was a truly fantastic week and a half that we’ll always cherish. I highly recommend SA Luxury Expeditions to anyone looking to travel in South America, whether you’re looking for a low-key trip or an action-packed adventure. We got a wonderful mix of both and enjoyed every second of it!”
    – Danielle V
    #chile #argentina See more

    4 months ago

    Jaguar vs. Giant Anteater

    ‘Insane’ camera-trap video captures rare battle in the Amazon.
    Jaguar vs. Giant Anteater. Anteater wins!
    #amazon #jaguar #anteater #moveoverhoneybadger

    4 months ago

    Chilean dreams of rescuing box camera photography

    No need to pack the selfie stick if you’re headed for Santiago, Chile
    #santiago #chile #boxcamera

    Luis Maldonado is the last remaining photographer in the main square of the Chilean capital still using a wooden box camera.

    4 months ago

    Timeline Photos

    “Jeanie: Our trip was absolutely magical thanks to all the great organization, preparation, wonderful suggestions and impeccable professional services we received from SA…starting

    Our hotels were fantastic… the food was fantastic…. even though there were unforeseen circumstances such as a protest that shut down all tourist roads throughout the Sacred Valley, SA Expeditions reacted with quickly. I cannot say enough about the drivers (Louis especially) and all the guides who were with us. They were knowledgeable, gracious, always willing to go the extra distance and warm lovely friends. We loved them all. The horse back/hiking trip to Choquechaca was an experience we will never forget. It was Peter’s 65th birthday in Cusco and SA even arranged to have the meal paid for by our thoughtful children.

    In short, it was the best trip we have experienced and we look forward to many more!

    Thanks so much for creating a truly memorable experience…we only regret we did not get to meet you in Lima!

    Thanks again,
    Pam and Peter”

    #peru #peruvianfood #machupicchu #sacredvalley #choquechaca #cicciolina #birthdaytrip See more

    4 months ago

    Timeline Photos

    Laguna Colorada is a 15,000-acre shallow (less than 3 feet deep) salt lake located in southwest Bolivia. The lake is is tinted dark red due to a variety of algae which thrive in the salt water. The See more

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