If you ever go hiking in the western United States, you may be surprised to see a procession of pack llamas, heads held proudly, prancing delicately across the California foothills or along the rocky shoulder of a Colorado mountain ridge.

You would expect such a caravan in Bolivia, Argentina, or Peru, where for centuries a part of the wealth of the Incas was in their llama herds. But until a few years ago, llamas in the United States were considered to be rare zoo animals or exotic pets of movie stars. Today North American mountaineers are finding these adaptable animals to be ideal backpacking companions. Alert and gentle, these “cousins” of the camel will carry burdens weighing up to ninety pounds (40.5 kg) over any sort of terrain, in any kind of climate, as far as twenty-five miles a day.

Llamas stand about 6 feet (5.4 m) tall at the head when fully grown. A long, slender neck, doe-like eyes with long lashes, and erect ears give them a look of calm dignity. The Spaniards called them “little camels of the Andes,” and although they resemble camels in certain respects, llamas differ from them in many ways. The weight of an adult llama is about 400 pounds (180 kg), whereas camels often weigh 1600 (720 kg) or more. A llama does not have a hump on its back, but, like the camel, it can travel with little food and without water for several days. Camels can carry as much as 1,000 pounds (450 kg), but llamas will lie down and refuse to move if they are loaded with more than 95 pounds (43 kg).

Both the llama and the camel have a split-toed foot, divided by a deep cleft. The front of each toe is covered with a hard nail, and the underside is similar in texture to the pads of a dog’s foot. The llama’s foot is particularly suited for walking on sandy or rocky surfaces, and it is less damaging to fragile terrain than the hooves of other pack animals.

Curious and social by nature, llamas rarely bite, kick, or spit. However, they occasionally spit at each other when displeased and will spit at humans if teased or treated unkindly.

Llamas are so quiet that you seldom hear them make a noise. But if you come close to a herd of llamas grazing in a mountain meadow, you may hear a soft, high, humming sound, a little like a harp string reverberating. Younger llamas, especially, hum when contented. In Peru the sound of shepherds’ reed flutes combine with the llamas’ humming to make pleasant, soothing music.

In the ancient Inca civilization, the llama was used for many purposes besides carrying burdens. Leather sandals were made from its hides, and garments were made from its shorn fleece. The llama’s long, outer hair was spun into rope, its milk made into yogurt and cheese, its droppings dried and burned as fuel, its fat made into candles, and its meat used for food. Although some people believe that the Incas had no wheels, no written language, and no iron, they did have llamas to help them develop a powerful empire. Over the high Andes Mountains the llamas carried materials for building Inca temples, highways, and vast irrigation systems. A thick, woolly coat protected the llama from icy winds and snow.

Llama fleece is composed of an inner layer of fine wool and a sparse outer layer of strong, silky hair. Today, as in ancient times, the wool of the female is spun into yarn and woven into a warm, lightweight fabric. Males are left unshorn, however, because their layers of wool serve as natural cushions for the packs that they carry on their backs. Llamas have become so valuable as pack animals that now, even in South America, they are seldom used for food.

The llamas in a pack herd walk in front of the herder and seem to move along as they please. But moving a bit closer, you can hear the herder making odd wheezing sounds. When he wants the pack to stop quickly, he makes a certain hissing sound that brings them to an abrupt halt. A hiss in another tone signals the llamas to turn around and come back to him. A peculiar, low sigh will make the entire group come to a gradual stop.

Halters and lead ropes are used with pack llamas in the United States. Young llamas quickly learn to be led, even by small children, and to “kush,” or kneel, upon command. Because they are so gentle, llamas are often used as pets for children. They can be trained for riding and for pulling a lightweight cart.

Llamas require little care compared to other animals. They forage for their own food, which can include grass, leaves, nuts, tree bark, and pine needles. Modern mountaineers also carry along alfalfa pellets to supplement the llamas’ grazing when hiking high above the timberline where vegetation is scarce. When traveling, llamas are given regular rest periods to allow them to eat along the way. They do not eat at night, because that is when they chew their cud. And they have three stomachs, which aid their digestion of food.

Although it has not been possible to import llamas into the United States since 1932 because of United States Department of Agriculture restrictions, today there are approximately 2,500 llamas thriving in the United States, where their numbers are rapidly increasing.

Illustrated by Doug Roy