think llamas are new kids on the block but that is hardly the case. Llamas, or more
exactly, the camelidae family of mammals of which llamas are a member, can trace their
existence back 50,000,000 years. That is roughly twice the time horses and cows have been
here. And they started right here in New Mexico and existed here until about 12,000 years
ago when they disappeared... probably hunted into extinction by our favorite two legged
animal. Some where back in time, the camelids migrated to Asia
over temporary land bridges and evolved into the two
types of camels that exist today. Others migrated to South America and evolved into
Guanacos and Vicuñas which still exist today as wild animals. Approximately 5,000 years
ago, the native humans living in the Andes domesticated Guanacos and through selective
breeding produced what is today called the alpaca and the llama. Alpacas are raised for
their wool and are too small to be used for packing. Llamas are raised to be work animals,
i.e., packers. And that brings us to the present day. Llamas are still used by the
peasants in the Andes because they are easy to raise, eat little and can exist quite well
on the poor browse of the Andes, and with the possible exception of the Yak, will
outperform all other pack animals at high altitudes.
The llama pictured here with my grandson, Josh, is
Dakota. Dakota is a 12 year old, 420 pound male llama. One of his distinctions is that he
is the alphallama, which means that he reigns supreme in his herd. What
it is that makes a llama the alpha llama is difficult to describe. To me, it is that
Dakota has more of the energy that makes a llama a llama. All the other llamas recognize
it and give him his due. When packing, he is one of the herd and behaves with intelligence,
confidence and politeness like all the other llamas. He is calm,
cool and collected and has
been led by a three year old ( with adult supervision ).
...a llama must be part of a
El Paseo LLama has a herd of 17
male llamas...we call them "the boys". Of this number, 10 are fully trained
packers, 3 are in training, 2 are pets and 2 are retired. A herd such as this is called a
bachelor herd. This is a natural occurrence for Guanacos in the wild. Until the young male
Guanacos can assemble their own herd of females and stake out a territory, they band
together. Llamas, having been domesticated for only 5,000 years, still retain many of the
instincts of their antecedents. It's in the genes. One of these instincts is the herd
instinct. A llama must be part of a herd.
...well developed territorial and
dominance instincts make a good packer...
In a llama herd, there is a definite social order in
which each of the boys knows his place and social standing. Therefore we have Dakota at
the top and the other boys arranged below him in social order. The more dominant llamas
keep the less dominant llamas in their place but also act as mentors teaching the
youngsters all the skills that they will need to survive in a llama's world. While there
is only one alpha llama, all male llamas develop territorial skills and dominance factors.
This can be interrupted by gelding at an early age. This results in a llama with little or
no interest in dominance or social standing and a boy that won't be a good packer but will
make a wonderful pet. It follows that the llamas that have well developed territorial and
dominance instincts make the best packers. The other factor that makes a good packer is
what we call "body style". As with humans, an athletic body style predisposes
the llama to outperform llamas with other body styles when carrying a load on a trail.
Packing llamas are athletes in every sense of the word.
...the llama has to develop a
relationship with humans...
Llamas reach puberty in their second year and herd
positioning starts. Many llama owners call this fighting but in a herd with a well
positioned alpha leader, it is more like jousting with a lot of dust, and noise with
little if any damage. This is all driven by hormones and if there are no females to fight
over, it all settles out during the third or fourth year when the llama finds his place in
The llama that is going to be a packer has to
develop a relationship with humans as well as with his herd mates. During the first two
years, the youngster learns to trust humans in close proximity and learns to be haltered,
led, groomed and touched. He learns to let his human lift his feet to have his foot pads
inspected and to readily climb into a trailer. The llama matures physically at the
beginning of his third year and this is when the training reaches the packing phase. The
young llama learns to wear a saddle and panniers, walk with other llamas in a string and
is with some fine tuning of earlier training is ready to go out on the trail for graduate
This part involves getting experience. He will learn
to walk on a trail, handle obstacles, bushwhack and to recognize loose dogs, mountain
bikes, horses, elk, grouse and other new developments as non-threatening. The length of
this process depends on the llama's personality and the rate at which he is exposed to new
stimuli. It can be as short as a month for a "natural" or two seasons for a more
"cautious" boy. At the end of this period, the llama is a mature experienced
packer. Not all llamas are the same. Training is the factor that makes the
difference in your experience with your trail buddy. An El Paseo LLama packer is an
excellent packer PERIOD!
...50,000,003 years later the
llama is ready for you to lead him...
So after 50,000,003 or so years, the llama is ready
for you to lead him on your expedition. What can you expect? Probably the first thing you
will have to do is shed a few preconceived ideas. For one, anything you learned about
horses and mules you can forget. El Paseo LLama packers don't kick, bite
or spook. They won't panic at the sight of some new animal and run off down the trail.
Since you are not riding the animal, there is no danger of being thrown and injured. Past
clients who have had experience with horses marvel at the gentleness of our llamas and how
effortless and safe it is to hike a trail with a llama following close behind.
...llamas do spit ...at each
Probably the most common misconception concerning
llamas is that they will spit at you. I have found that people who have never seen a llama
believe this. Llamas do spit... at each other. It is a form of communication between
llamas which means back off, get away, you're too close, this is my food, etc. Since the
llama doesn't like the taste of the "spit", he will more likely make a spitting
sound then actually spit. When the situation calls for the real thing, the spit is not
saliva but partially digested grass. As I pointed out earlier, the trained llama develops
a working relationship with humans and since we are not
competing for their food, they have no reason to spit at us. No one on an
El Paseo LLama expedition gets spit at by a llama. In
nine years of
handling and training llamas I have been spit at a few times and those times were
because I was training and pushed the envelope, so to speak. I have learned that there are
many warning signs when a llama is stressed and I don't get spit at anymore. Once a llama
is trained, he is used to being with humans and is not threatened.
Gaucho is a handsome boy.
Well-trained llamas are gentle, cooperative, polite,
easy going, calm under stress, and love to go on expeditions. They will carry their loads
all day long without complaining. Depending on the size of the packer, their usual loads
range from 75 to 100 pounds. In a pinch, they will carry a heavier load but not as far.
Llamas don't have hooves. Their evolution in the Andes led to the development of a two
toed foot which has pads like those of a dog only larger. This gives them several
advantages. The soft pad doesn't tear at the earth and their passing leaves no more sign
then the family dog. El Paseo LLama follows the leave no trace
ethic on all its hikes and expeditions. Llamas are perfect for this. When we
leave a campsite, the only trace is scattered llama manure which very closely resembles
that of deer.
...elk are fascinated with this
new creature in the forest...
Now an elk is a
pretty crafty creature with lots of woods smarts. This is especially true of
the old bulls. After all, they didn't get to be an old bull without avoiding
hunters and surviving all the hazards of living the wild life. A couple of
years ago, I took three of the llamas on an end of season trek (a busman's
holiday) up into the upper reaches of Placer Fork. It was early October and
the rutting season was still on and there was a sizable herd of elk in the
forest past the meadow where we were camped. They couldn't be missed even
though they were avoiding us as they were making quite a racket running
through the trees up and down the canyon. Neither the llamas or I paid a whole
lot of attention as this level of activity is not uncommon in the back woods
at this time of the year. In the evening of the second day, I was sitting in
the growing dusk, just relaxing and waiting for dark to start the campfire,
when I happen to look at the llamas. All three had their noses, eyes and ears
pointing in the same direction. One thing about llamas, if they all are
focused in the same direction, there is something there. They were looking out
across the meadow, so I looked. There was a big old spruce blocking my view,
so I leaned to my right to see around it. I darn near fell off the log as not
fifty feet away was a big old bull elk with a rack that was so broad, my jaw
dropped and I got goose bumps. He had walked up to our camp to see the llamas
and couldn't see me because of the spruce and the semi darkness. But there he
stood, as magnificent as they come. My kingdom for a camera! He was the alpha
bull for the herd we had heard all day and was checking out these new
creatures in his territory. He and the llamas stood there for an eternity just
looking and looking. Neither seemed perturbed by the presence of the other and
I sat soaking up the beauty of the scene. After what seemed like a long time,
the old bull calmly turned and sauntered back across the meadow and
disappeared into the darkness under the trees and the llamas went back to
grazing. I was beside myself and kept muttering "did you see that?"
Llamas are quiet and alert, constantly surveying
their surroundings with their radar like hearing, eyesight and sense of smell. They alert
us to events that we would normally miss. On another expedition, as I was checking the boys
before retiring, I noticed that they were all staring at a line of trees. I could see
nothing, so I climbed a knoll from where I could see past the trees. As I stood there,
three bull elk emerged from the forest and started to cross the clearing. The llamas could
not see the elk but could hear them so one let out the alarm call. The elk were astonished
and confused because they had never heard that cry before. After a few moments, discretion
won out over valor and the elk vanished back into the forest. Events such as this
interaction are not uncommon. Elk are fascinated with this new creature in the forest and
have come close to camp to get a better look.
...guests love to feed the
One of the camp chores that guests love to do is
feed the llamas. This twice daily event is looked forward to by young and old as it is fun
and helps nurture the bond between you and the llamas.
On your expedition, you will learn firsthand just
how wonderful this unique and intelligent creature is. The thumbnail sketch provided here
will be enlarged by your interaction with the boys and I'll tell you stories and answer
your questions. One of the nicest aspects of llama trekking are the llamas.