If you are strolling through the streets of Cusco or perhaps visiting Machu Picchu, you are certain to spot a llama or alpaca. But which one are you looking at?
To tell the difference between llama and alpaca, there are several physical features to look at: their size, face, ear shape, and wool texture and color. Their differences also go beyond physical features, with llamas and alpacas differing in purpose, temperament, distribution and origin. Read more about these key differences below.
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Last updated by Melissa Dreffs in November 2020.
The first thing you will notice when comparing an alpaca and a llama is their size difference. Llamas are significantly bigger than alpacas.
In regards to their height, llamas are taller, reaching 42 to 46 inches (106 to 117 cm) on average. Alpacas measure between 34 to 36 inches (86 to 92 cm) on average.
However, the weight difference between these two animals is even more significant. On average, llamas weigh between 280 and 450 pounds (127 to 204 kg). That is quite a lot compared to the 106 to 185-pound (48 to 84 kg) average weight range for alpacas.
Llamas have a longer face with a larger muzzle. Alpacas, on the other hand, have round, smooshed faces. They also have fluffy fur on their face, especially on their foreheads. Llamas tend to have short and thin fur around their face.
Alpacas have softer facial features than llamas. Because of this, many people believe alpacas are the cuter of the two.
3. Ear Shape
Llama ears are tall and long. They stand up in a shape that looks like a banana. Alpacas have shorter, pointy ears. Their fuzziness continues onto their ears, whereas llamas tend to have smoother and straighter fur around their ears.
The wool of alpacas can vary from white to lighter tones of yellow and brown. Their whole bodies, even their faces, are covered in fluffy, fine fur. They tend to only have one color of wool covering their whole body. In contrast, llamas usually grow more coarse wool and tend to have unique spotting and multicolored fur ranging from shades of white, brown, black and red.
When it comes to textiles, alpaca wool produces a much finer fiber than llamas. A lot of garments and clothes you can buy in Cusco use alpaca wool. There is an even more luxurious wool known as baby alpaca, made from the alpacas first shear. It is softer and more durable than the later shears. Llama wool is not as soft but can be used to make rugs, ropes or other items.
Llamas are larger animals that have been bred mostly to be a pack-carrying animal. This purpose dates back to the Inca Empire. During the Spanish conquest, the llamas became pack animals in mines, bringing ore down from the mountains. To a lesser extent, their wool has been used to make textiles and their meat is occasionally eaten.
Alpacas, on the other hand, are much smaller and therefore don’t make very good pack animals. Instead, they have a very fine, silky coat that can create soft and warm textiles. They are sheared once per year. You can find plenty of alpaca textiles for sale in markets across the Andes. Additionally, indigenous groups like the Inca frequently ate alpaca meat, a lean, almost sweet source of protein. Today, you can find alpaca meat in many restaurants across the Peruvian Andes. Alpaca meat is also gaining popularity globally, with alpaca farms in the US and Australia making a name for themselves.
Alpacas tend to be gentle and shy, needing more protection and care from humans. They prefer being in herds as they are very social animals. Llamas, however, are more independent. Due to their size, they are better able to protect themselves.
Both animals have the ability to spit, but spitting at humans is less common than you think. Llamas tend to spit at other llamas when they feel threatened, as a form of discipline or to gain control. Alpacas, however, only spit as a last resort.
In general, their temperament depends on the individual animal’s socialization and training, with plenty of friendly llamas and alpacas. If you come across either, be sure to keep your distance to not frighten or threaten the animal. They are very curious creatures, and if they feel comfortable around you, they may approach you. Keep your cameras ready to capture a cute selfie!
While llamas and alpacas are domestic animals and do not live in the wild anymore, both certainly thrive in their native region, the Andes Mountains of South America. In comparing the difference between llamas and alpacas, it is important to note that llamas thrive in a greater variety of climates.
Therefore, the range of llamas is larger than that of alpacas. Llamas thrive all across the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. They are rugged creatures that can survive on cold, dry mountaintops in harsh conditions. Additionally, about thirty llamas live at Machu Picchu, making them some of the most famous llamas in Peru. You can spot the llamas at Machu Picchu grazing freely throughout the archaeological site during your tour!
While the majority of alpacas live in the mountainous region of Peru, their range extends into Ecuador, western Bolivia, northwestern Argentina and northeastern Chile. Alpacas always prefer to stay in temperate climates within an approximate altitude of 11,480 to 16,400 feet (3,500 to 5,000 meters) above sea level.
While llamas and alpacas are similar creatures, their origin stories are rather different. Llamas originated in the central plains of North America and migrated south during the Great American Interchange. Alpacas, however, descended from their wild relative, the South American vicuña.
Bonus: Other Camelids in South America
While alpacas and llamas are the most common camelids in Peru and across the Andes, two others live in this area as well. The vicuña and guanaco are the wild counterparts of the alpaca and llama respectively.
Exclusive to the central Andes, vicuñas, the wild counterpart to the alpaca, are also an important animal in Peru. The unofficial Peruvian national animal, they even make an appearance on the Peruvian coat of arms! Commonly spotted in the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve between Arequipa and Colca Canyon, many travelers will get a chance to see this animal while visiting Peru. Additionally, vicuña wool is considered one of the finest in the world. Although expensive, vicuña textiles make lovely souvenirs from Peru.
Guanacos, the wild counterpart to the llama, live in the altiplano, or high plains, of the Andes and in Patagonia. While they appear similar to the llama, they tend to be smaller with specific coloration. Gray faces, white bellies, and light brown or rusty red wool coats can help you spot a guanaco. For the best chance of spotting them, head to Argentinean Patagonia.
Now that you know the difference between llama and alpaca, it’s time to see them for yourself in the Andes! Are you ready to strike a pose with a llama at Machu Picchu? Contact us for a customized itinerary to Peru.
Born and raised in Lima, Andres joined our team after finishing his university degree. He is a creative type who is very passionate about illustration, and we’re grateful for all the Peru know-how he shares with us and our travelers.