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Llamas, Vicunas and Alpacas

Llamas, vicuñas, guanacos, and alpacas roam the highlands of Peru, but unfortunately not in the great herds of pre-Inca times. However, there are always a few around, especially the domesticated llama and alpaca. The sly vicuña, like the guanaco, refuses domestication. Here's a primer on how to tell them apart.

The alpaca is the cute and cuddly one, especially while still a baby. It grows a luxurious, long wool coat that comes in as many as 20 colors, and its wool is used in knitting sweaters and weaving rugs and wall hangings. Its finest wool is from the first shearing, and is called "baby alpaca." When full-grown it's close to 1½ meters (5 feet) tall and weighs about 48 kg (106 pounds). Its size and the shortness of its neck distinguish it from the llama. There are two types of alpaca: the common huancayo with short thick legs; and the less-predominant suri, which is a bit taller, and also nicknamed the Bob Marley for its shaggy curly dreadlocks that grow around its face and chest.

The guanaco, a cousin of the delicate vicuña, is a thin-legged, wild endangered camelid, with a coarse reddish-brown coat and a soft white underbelly. Its hair is challenging to weave on its own, so often it's mixed with other fibers, like alpaca. The guanaco weighs about 200 pounds and can be up to 5 feet long and 3–4 feet high. Eighty percent of guanacos live in Patagonia, but the other 20% are scattered across the altiplano of southern Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. It's the only camelid that can live both at sea level and in the high-altitude Andes.

The llama is the pack animal with a coarse coat in as many as 50 colors, though one that's unsuitable for weavings or fine wearing apparel. It can reach almost 2 meters (6 feet) from its hoofs to the top of its elongated neck and long, curved ears. It can carry 40-60 kilograms (88-132 pounds), depending on the length of the trip. It can also have some nasty habits, like spitting in your eye or kicking you if you get too close to its hind legs.

The vicuña has a more delicate appearance. It will hold still (with help) for shearing, and its wool is the most desirable. It's protected by the Peruvian government, as it was almost killed off by unrestricted hunting. It's the smallest of the Andean camelids, at 1.3 meters (4 feet), and weighs about 40 kg (88 pounds) at maturity. It's found mostly at altitudes over 3,600 meters (12,000 feet).

—By Joan Gonzalez

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