Alpacas are camelids — cousins to camels, llamas, guanacos, and vicunas. They are smaller than llamas and guanacos, but larger than vicunas. Alpacas are about half the size of llamas.
The alpaca is found indigenously only in South America — especially along the west-central part of the continent — the countries of Peru, Chili, and Bolivia.
Alpacas were a cherished treasure of the ancient Incan civilization and played a central role in the Incan culture that was located on the high Andean Plateau and mountains of South America (Peru, Bolivia and Chile). Alpacas provided fiber for clothing that was a sign of social status and was used by high-ranking officials and nobility. When the Spaniards arrived in 1531 the alpaca was almost exterminated to make room for European domestic animals (horses, cows, sheep). The highland inhabitants managed to move higher into the mountains ultimately saving the alpaca from extinction.
The lifespan of the alpaca is about 20 years and gestation is 11.5 months. Alpacas eat grasses and chew a cud. Adult alpacas are about 36” tall at the withers and generally weigh between 100 and 200 pounds. They are gentle and easy to handle. Alpacas don’t have incisors, horns, hooves, or claws.
Cleanup is easy since alpacas deposit droppings in only a few places in the paddock. They can be pastured at 5 to 10 alpacas per acre.
Alpacas produce one of the world’s finest and most luxurious natural fibers. The beautiful fiber is in high demand because of the low supply of these rare animals. The fleece is clipped from the animal annually without causing it injury. Soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter, and stronger than wool, it comes in approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends that can be easily dyed.
There are two types of alpacas—the Huacaya (pronounced wah-KI’-ya) and the Suri (pronounced sir’ee). The Huacaya is the “teddy bear” alpaca, whose full coat presents a round woolly appearance. The Huacaya fleece is crimped and very dense. Huacayas account for approximately 90 percent of alpacas in the U.S. The Suri is the alpaca with dreadlocks. In full coat, these long, non-crimped, lustrous “pencils” grow downward, creating a layered and majestic appearance. Suris are very rare.
Even if you don’t have the land and are committed to a full-time career, you can still begin your alpaca adventure by purchasing and boarding at a nearby alpaca farm or ranch.
Of all livestock you can own, the alpaca is one of the easiest and most inexpensive to maintain. This factor contributes significantly to their overall investment value and the quality of life of those who care for them. Small wonder that the alpaca is now considered the world’s finest livestock investment.