There are no South American camels but there are certain species in South America that are closely related to camels.
Interestingly camelids first evolved in North America and then spread out to various areas despite the strong association with the Middle East and Africa, this occurred some 45 million years ago. While the camels migrated across the Bering Strait to Asia and from there to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa all the camelids died out in North America.
At present the only ones in North America are the llamas and alpacas which are raised domestically. But if you travel further south, this increases to four types of camels in South America: Llama, Alpaca, Vicuña and Guanaco.
These lovely animals from the Andes can be spotted in various countries in South America, in Peru you can find all four of them. There is a growing trend of taking selfies with a llama or an alpaca; visitors to the New 7 Wonder of the World: Machu Picchu are often taking pictures of llamas in the ruins and in general people find these animals very instagrammable.
The two wild camelids:
The guanacos are one of the two wild camels in South America. They are the largest mammals (wild camelids) standing at approx. 1 to 1.2mt tall and weighing between 90 to 100 Kg. They can be found at altitudes ranging from sea level to 5,200 meters of altitude, in the Andean foothills of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Since 2003 you can spot them in Paraguay too.
These animals have short light reddish-brown to cinnamon with white underside fur, a grey face and small ears. Its wool is of good quality, prized higher than that of the alpaca. Guanacos live in small or big herds consisting of a dominant male and various females and their young calves.
You can spot guanacos in your trips to Patagonia, Chile’s most famous wilderness area as well as in the Atacama Desert.
This is the smallest camel from South America, they can be found anywhere from the mountains of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile to northern Argentina, with the vast majority of them living in Peru. These species live in the highlands, more than 3,200 meters above sea level in the cold and dry weather of the Punas.
The typical fur of the vicuña is brown cinnamon on the dorsal and lateral part of the body.
The chest, belly and lower part of the head are white and an adult can reach 36 to 50 kilos.
Vicuña fibre is considered amongst the finest in the world and measures 15 microns in diameter which is superior to Cashmere. Vicuña wool is in short supply and they can only be sheared every 2 years, making it the most expensive wool. The animal protected by law in Peru, was even protected at the time of the Incas, it was illegal for anyone except the Inca to wear vicuña wool.
The animal is of great importance to Peru; following the battles of Junin and Ayacucho in 1824, Simon Bolivar – the Liberator convened congress with a new design of the national coat of arms. This is divided in 3 fields, one of them features the vicuña representing the fauna of Peru.
The two domesticated
The most popular and the biggest of all South-American camelids. This animal was domesticated centuries ago, since the times of the Inca empire. This animal is mainly used to carry goods, being able to load 20 kilos on a long stretch and up to 35 kilos on a short stretch. Packs of Llamas move large amounts of goods over rough terrain of the Andes and the Inca times, Llamas used to transport goods around their whole empire.
The animals stand at approx. 1.7 to 1.8mt tall and weighing between 100 to 130 kilos, they can be found in the highlands of Peru (80% of the population is found here), Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Llama fur is not as sophisticated as the Alpaca and its wool is used for ropes, rugs and fabrics. You can distinguish them by their long legs and their ears are curved and longer than those of the alpaca, which are shorter, straighter with more pointy ears.
They are often confused with the llama. However Alpacas are smaller than Llamas and they have a soft fluffy fleece.
The alpaca weighs around 70 kilos and measures no more than 90cm. Their babies known as ‘cria’ are very cute!.
There are two types of Alpacas:
The Huacaya, its wool is very dense and curly
The Suri has longer and wavy wool
The alpaca is not often bred for its meat but for its wool, thicker than that of the Llama. Alpacas are bred for the luxury fibre it produces, it has a uniform coat colour. At the times of the Inca empire, alpaca’s wool was harder to knit than the Llama, it was mostly used for the people while the aristocracy (Incas) preferred vicuña’s much finer wool. But today Alpaca wool is appreciated as one of the most exclusive for its silky texture.
These camels often spit when they feel disturbed. But not everyone does, it depends on the character of each. These animals are emblematic of South American fauna, little known and greater appreciated than the camels.
Whilst you are travelling in South America, through the highlands of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile or Argentina keep your eyes on the sides of the road as you might find any of the above animals, and certainly in places like Machu Picchu there will be a photo opportunity. In the meantime whilst we wait until it is safe to travel to Latin America, why not visit the Unicorn Alpaca Walks in Suffolk, they arrange Alpaca walking experiences where you will be partnered with your ‘Alpaca chum’ before starting your walk!