Shopping with these animals is so common that larger markets even
have llama parking lots.
At six o'clock in the morning the sun begins to edge over the 17,000 foot
snow-capped peak of Iliniza Sur. By the time it reaches the thatched
cottages of Chugchilan, Ecuador, smoke is already curling into the early
dawn light. Women heat water for breakfast. Children prepare for an
hour-long hike to school, each carrying a piece of firewood and perhaps a
vegetable for their school lunch, and the few men who have not left for
higher paying Jobs in the cities work in the fields, tending their crops
and small herds. The women will join them shortly.
The village of Chugchilan lies close to the equator, 10,500 feet above sea
level. Most of the people are small landowners, herders and farmers who
maximize their small plots by combining symbiotic crops like corn, peas
and squash. The herds of between 10-40 sheep are rotated daily to
different patches of land to graze and fertilize.
In North America, llamas have been valued primarily for their fiber and as
a herd guardian. Llama trekking is gaining popularity, especially for
hikers who want to spend time in remote areas without carrying their own
gear. Llamas will carry two or three times more weight than the average
hiker, their feet are padded and have little impact on trails, and they
are easily trained.
In South America, llamas have a practical function.
It is estimated that 3.5 million llamas live in South America, most in
Peru and Bolivia, but also in Columbia, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador. Two
different breeds are recognized: Ch'aku, with thick, heavy fleeces, and
Q'ara, which have a thin, light fleece and are used for carrying burdens.
In some of the Andean range, all parts of the llama are used. Ch’aku are
shorn every 1-2 years, down to about 1 inch from the skin, leaving a
protective layer against freezing conditions at elevations that reach up
to 13,000 feet. Their fiber is spun into clothing and rugs. Hides are
tanned for leather, and bones can be carved into weaving tools. Dung is
used as cooking and heating fuel and many people enjoy the lean, tender
Where tourism is becoming more popular, hand-made items are sold for a
relatively large sum of money. Fiber products such as sweaters and ponchos
are drawing increasing foreign interest. Currently, sheep are the main
fiber animal, but the rarity and resultant economic benefits of llama and
alpaca fiber are causing an increase in herd numbers. Although
international fiber-markets are spurring breeding and management programs
for llamas (and alpacas), less than half of all South American llamas are
raised for fiber. Instead, most are prized for their strength,
trainability and temperament for use as pack animals.
The Real Llama: Part defensive line, part truck
Llamas have strong protective instincts. Although their fiber is not
highly valued in all parts of the Andes, wool from sheep is. Sheep, like
other livestock, are considered a form of currency: the more animals a
farmer owns, the wealthier he is. And when cash is required, animals are
bartered or sold. Roaming dogs, puma and other predators are a serious
problem in some areas. The loss of even a single livestock animal has
great economic impact on a family. Adding a llama to a herd of sheep
greatly improves their chances of survival.
Despite this benefit, however, the importance of llamas in Chugchilan
comes directly from their abilities as pack animals. Because farming is so
important, llamas are frequently utilized to transport fertilizer, seeds,
and produce to and from fields. They will also carry the day's firewood,
not an inconsequential job when heating and cooking are done with an open
flame or woodstove.
In areas of the Andes Mountains where land is communal, llamas accompany
shepherds moving flocks into the hills for fresh graze. They protect the
flock, and carry water and herders' belongings. Equally important, llamas
can be loaded down with market goods. There is a small shop in Chugchilan,
but most commerce is at open-air markets. Markets are of great importance.
They allow people to find the best prices, sell their own goods and
hand-made items, and socialize with people they might not otherwise see.
Markets are held each day in different villages so that everyone has
access. But with only five trucks in Chugchilan, there are few people who
can drive to market. While this might not pose a huge problem for those
who live close to a town, many people walk several hours to buy or sell
their goods, most accompanied by llamas.
At one time, the staple food in Chugchilan was roasted barley. Improved
highways have made other options more obtainable and people now buy fruit
and sugar locally. Even though people don't stock large amounts of food,
hauling supplies home through the mountains would be a great challenge.
Llamas can carry most goods to and from the market. They even carry small
children that are too tired to walk. Shopping with these animals is so
common that larger markets even have llama parking lots.
Days are long for those living hand to-mouth. By the time the sun sinks
back into the mountains at 6pm, backs ache from hours of tending crops.
Children too young to attend school have spent much of the day with the
herd, joined in the afternoon by their older siblings. Laundry has been
hand-washed and hung to dry, firewood gathered and chopped. Perhaps there
was even a long hike to the Zumbahua market, two and a half hours away.
Much of the day's hard labor will have been done with the llama working
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