Most people have heard of llamas and alpacas, but the South American Andes are home to four types of camelids: the llama, alpaca, vicuña and guanaco. Many people confuse them with one another, even though they have some distinct features.
In our article, we’ll help you know the difference between a llama and an alpaca, and the difference between a vicuña and a guanaco.
The llama is native to South America, having been domesticated 5000 years ago by the local people as a pack animal. The biggest difference between a llama and an alpaca is their size. Llamas can grow up to 4 feet (1.25 meters) at the shoulder or 6 feet (1.83 meters) at the top of the head. An adult llama can have a weight between 300 and 450 pounds (135 to 205 kilograms).
Llamas are domesticated like the alpaca, and these two species have the same type of wool – which has been used since the Inca times. As they needed little water and were resistant to climbing mountains, the Inca people used them as a method of transport. Even to this day, llamas are the only way of getting around in some parts of the Andes.
Unlike the guanaco and vicuña, the llama’s coat also comes in different colors (including white, brown, grey, and black, either solid or spotted). It also has a longer face and neck and distinctive curved ears that set it apart from its cousins.
The wool is used for making ropes, rugs and other items, while the meat serves as jerky or steak.
Similar to the llama, the alpaca is a smaller domesticated camelid of South America. Alpacas descend from wild vicuñas, inheriting their incredible wool and small dimensions. While it can be raised as a pack animal high in the Peruvian Andes moutains, Ecuador and Northern Chile, it can be trained as a pet due to its friendly nature.
Another big difference between a llama and an alpaca is that the latter has very fluffy fleece. The alpaca is usually bred for its high-quality wool, which can come in 22 colors. Alpaca wool is hypo-allergenic, warmer and softer than lambs’ wool and has a longer durability than cashmere. The other noticeable difference between the two species is their ears, as alpacas have smaller, pear-shaped ears. They also have shorter snouts and flatter faces.
Alpaca has two breeds: Huacaya alpacas, with dense, fluffy wool, and Suri alpacas, with long, straight wool.
Here is a short video of one of the biggest vendors of alpaca garments in Peru (Source: YouTube – Inkari Alpaca).
The vicuña is one of the unofficial national symbols of Peru (seen on the country’s coat of arms) and, while it seems to be a deer-like Alpaca, this species is actually classified as a wild animal. The vicuña is the smallest and most delicate from the camelid family. They can grow up to be around 2.5 and 2.8 feet (0.75 to 0.85 meters) at the shoulder, weighing around 77 to 130 pounds (35 to 59 kilograms).
They have similar ears to those of the guanaco, and they both have similar colorations for their coats, with light brown on the back and white fleece on the throat, belly, and legs.
Vicuñas are endangered and, as such, they are protected in Peru, Bolivia, as well as in Ecuador, Northern Chile and the Northwest of Argentina. Vicuña wool is the softest and most qualitative of all the camelids’ wool, making it the most expensive in the world. The wool is known as the “Fiber of the Gods” or “The Golden Fleece”. To prevent poachers from killing them, vicuñas are caught and sheared every three years. The herding and shearing of vicuñas in Peru are controlled by a government-backed chacu, a collective herding system which has been used since the Incans ruled.
Here is a very interesting video on the history of the vicuña (Source: YouTube – The Luxury Channel) and how they are now protected from being killed for their very valuable wool.
The guanaco can grow up to around 4 feet and is smaller than the llama and bigger than the alpaca. Guanacos bear a striking resemblance to llamas, but there are some differences. Llamas come in a wide range of colors, but all guanacos are brownish with white underparts and grey faces, ears, and necks. They also have small, straight ears.
Their wool is of higher quality than the llama’s, but it does not match alpaca’s or vicuña’s wool. The protected species can live in very arid environments, at extremely high altitudes, thriving in places such as the Atacama Desert.
Therefore, if you are going on a trip to South America, you now know that the difference between a llama and an alpaca and how to tell them apart from their wild cousins, the guanaco and vicuña.