In Search of the Perfect Llama in Argentina
by Paul Taylor
During an exploration of the Argentine altiplano in March of '98 we heard of an isolated area, reached only on foot or by mule, where hundreds of high-quality llamas could be found. Our guides on that trip had never seen this place in person, but they told us these animals were known to have large, strong bodies, much fine wool and very few genetic defects. Sally, and I have wasted much time and effort chasing rumors like this in the past, but this time the sources seemed more reliable and the chances of success more real.
This was in the northwest corner of Argentina, just across the border from the area in Chile where we had discovered a new and distinctly different strain of llamas a couple of years earlier. Whenever we asked the Chilean campesinos where we could find more of these beautiful big llamas they always pointed eastward, toward Argentina. Eventually, we began to call this new type of llama the Argentine type, though several hundred exist in Chile, too.
By January of '99 we were back in Argentina and ready to make the journey to find these special llamas in their isolated mountain valley. A few local campesinos who had visited the valley believed that it might be possible to travel there in our rented Toyota 4x4. This would save at least two days of difficult travel by mule. More importantly, we would have only one night of roughing it instead of three.
We stayed for several days in relative comfort at the headquarters of a provincial vicuña preserve at the 10,000ft level, sleeping on foam mats and enjoying a daily solar-heated shower. During these days we visited nearby llama herds, continuing the selection of quality llamas for the herd of our Argentine partners (a group of Buenos Aires businessmen who had formed a corporation called Llamichos). The manager for the Llamichos group, Guillermo Vila Melo, had made the arrangements for this current expedition, as he had for our past visits to the altiplano in Argentina.
Guillermo would accompany us on this trip to the hidden valley, as would Alfredo Ferraro (Director of the vicuña preserve) and a local guide named Tomas. At the last minute the owner of one of the llama herds in the isolated valley, a robust woman named Rita, asked to come along. She wanted to see her animals and visit with the relatives who acted as herdsmen for her during the summer months. That made six adults in a vehicle designed to carry four. We would take turns riding in the box behind the passenger compartment.
Tomas and Rita came by mule, arriving at the vicuña station just before dawn for the start of this attempt to cross the mountain in a motor vehicle. I was asked to drive because of my experience with off-road travel. Our vehicle was a little truck, with four doors and a short pickup box behind. It was far from new, but everything seemed to be in working order.
We bumped across the broad valley where the vicuña preserve was located. The sky was gradually turning a lighter and lighter shade of blue-gray. We began to be able to see occasional groups of three or four vicuñas. It seemed they were always running at top speed in a straight line from somewhere to somewhere else through the sparse brush.
As we approached the foot of the mountains on the far side of the valley we could see a large river flowing out of a deep notch with vertical sides. This river flowed out of the valley we wanted to reach, but it was too deep and swift for upstream travel and the walls of the gorge were too vertical for even a footpath. Only the river could pass through the mountains at this point. We would have to go up and over the top to reach our destination.
As we began the climb it seemed that the difficulty of the trip had been exaggerated. There were wagon tracks and the path was wide enough for two vehicles to pass. We moved steadily upward through the foothills until we came to a beautiful sloping vega (the Spanish word for meadow) at the base of the last steep grade before the pass. Crossing the two hundred yards or so of vega took almost an hour because of the soggy ground and large hummocks of coarse grass. Our guide walked ahead, choosing (we hoped) the best route. Several times we got stuck or high-centered, but finally we were out on the open slope again, moving toward the ridge.
The ground here was a mixture of sand and shale. As the slope became steeper the road, now just a wide trail, began making switchbacks which were increasingly difficult to navigate. Finally, not more than three or four hundred vertical feet below the crest of the ridge, we came to a switchback left turn that was too sharp for the Toyota to make in one pass. The long wheelbase of our vehicle had become a serious problem.
The uphill side of the trail above the switchback was a vertical rock face ten feet high and downhill was an uninterrupted steep slope all the way to the vega about a thousand feet below. If the little truck went over the edge, there would be no hope of controlling it. The word tumbling came to mind. I asked all the passengers to get out of the Toyota and there was a collective sigh of relief. I unhooked my seatbelt so I could bail out if something went wrong.
At first we tried to seesaw back and forth to make the turn, but the sandy soil didn't give us enough traction to move straight uphill from a standing start. A group of three men on mules came down the trail from above and they helped by pushing the front of the truck to the left while the people from our party tried to push the back in the opposite direction. At one point we almost got the rear wheels over the edge, so we gave up and everybody pushed in the opposite direction to return us to our original position.
We were faced with aborting this attempt, and our schedule would not permit another journey by mule. Just backing down the trail the way we had come seemed a very dangerous prospect at that point anyway, so I decided to have one more run at the switchback and try to slide around it. This would require a good head of steam to succeed, but if I went in with too much momentum the front of the truck would hit the rock face on the uphill side of the switchback.
Sally and I had done a lot of off-road travel when we were younger, getting stuck and unstuck just for the fun of it. That was a long time ago, but one of the strategies we learned then would be of use now. When a 4x4 vehicle is pointed uphill on a steep slope you can get more traction for the front wheels if one person is lying across the hood. This puts more weight where you need it, and in our present situation it could be a decisive advantage.
I didn't feel there was enough time to explain all this to my Argentine companions, even if I could find the words in Spanish, so I asked Sally if she was up to giving it a try. She understood what was at stake here and didn't like the chances of us being able to back the truck all the way down to where it would be possible to turn around. Besides, if anything went wrong, if the truck went over the edge, she would be in a much better position on the hood than I was inside.
I backed down from the switchback about fifty feet to get a run at it. Sally sprawled across the hood and hung on as best she could. Engine revving and all wheels throwing sand and rock, I gunned into the turn, braking just before the right front fender hit the rock wall. The back of the truck slid out to the right, as advertised, and we were around the corner.
In recounting this incident I should try to explain why we would have taken such a chance. Aside from the risk of personal injury, we might easily have wrecked the truck and had to walk the ten miles or so back to the vicuna station. Still, you don't go into this kind of an exploration without some sense of adventure. Sally's brush with breast cancer the previous year had made us even more aware that life is short and full of hazard even for those who try to play it safe. We didn't have children to think about and, yes, we wanted to see this valley where the great llamas were hidden.
The three men led their mules past the Toyota grinning. All our passengers climbed back into the truck and we made the final steep traverse to the ridge without further incident. We stopped the truck and looked around. Up here on top was a small shallow valley, only a mile or so across. It was a beautiful scene, with vivid green grass and a small lake. A few flamingos walked around in the shallow water at the edge of the lake. This would be the highest point in our journey to find the hidden llama herds, at about 14,000 feet above sea level.
We drove on across this open bowl and through a notch at the far side. We began a gradual descent into a huge valley. I was reminded of the legend of Shangri-la, the mythical high valley in the mountains of Tibet. This place was beautiful, and its isolation and inaccessibility added to the sense of unreality that we often feel at high elevation in the Andes.
There was far more water here than in other valleys we had visited in this area. We could see several smaller streams joining together to form the large river that entered the crevice leading through the mountains. As we drove out onto the valley floor there was no sign of a road or even a trail. I asked Rita how often people made this trip in 4x4 vehicles. She thought for a moment and said, "Cinco." Five. Five what? Five times a year? Five times a month? "No, solo cinco." Five times ever.
We drove on, sometimes following a footpath, sometimes simply going line-of-sight from one landmark to another. Occasionally we saw small groups of llamas, seemingly unattended. Some of these animals were quite beautiful, but our time was limited so settled for a look through the binoculars and went on. For five or ten miles we followed along a shallow stream, crossing often when one bank was impassable and sometimes driving right up the middle. There were big patches of brush, similar to the sagebrush in the western US. Usually our guide would insist that we drive right straight through this stuff, which was pretty hard on the paint of our rented truck, but we were beyond worrying much about superficial damage.
By 3 in the afternoon we were in sight of the small village. As we came nearer we could see about ten low huts of adobe and stone. There were no people visible and no smoke from any of the houses. We entered the village and began looking for someone, anyone, to talk to. Nobody was there. The largest building, the school, was padlocked, but the doors to all the huts were unlocked and many of them were left open.
Our four Argentine companions held a short conference and decided that the people of the village must have gone to find the herds, to help the herdsmen bring the animals together. We huddled in an old hut with no roof while we ate a meal of bread and cheese. At least we were out of the unrelenting Andean wind.
At dusk people began to return from the surrounding hills. One woman had a young boy with her and he was fascinated by Sally and me. At five or six years of age he had never seen white-skinned people before. While his mother talked with Alfredo the boy stood close against us, using us for protection from the wind while he stared up at us. As darkness came the temperature was dropping fast.
Eventually about a dozen people returned to the village. Several others had stayed overnight with the distant herds and would help the herdsmen bring the animals in the next morning. We were offered the shelter of a hut. Rita would stay in the house of her cousins, but the rest of us were to sleep on mattresses of stacked llama skins in one stone room about 7 feet by 10 feet. Sally and I had brought sleeping bags, so we decided to sleep outside, in the bed of our little truck. We put the tailgate down, blew up our lightweight air mattresses and made our beds. We put a plastic tarp over the bags for protection from the wind.
We went back into the hut for a last bite to eat, cheese and dried meat, by the light of a small gas lantern. Then in pitch black and with the temperature now well below freezing in the middle of summer, we crawled into our sleeping bags for one of the coldest, most miserable nights we have ever spent.
In the morning the three Argentine men in our party assured us that we had got the best of the deal. Each accused the others of snoring, and they all agreed that the air inside the closed hut was quite stuffy and stinky. The campesinos burn the woody brush and llama pellets for heat and for cooking inside these huts, and the result is a very pungent smoke. Even with no fire last night the atmosphere inside the closed hut was pretty thick.
We ran the truck motor for a short while, using the heater to get some of the stiffness out of our bones. Sally provided a breakfast of hot cereal and mate (pronounced mah-tay), a very strong Argentine tea. We each ate an orange and began to wash up and get organized for the day.
There was a large corral made of stones about half a mile from the village, and this is where the herdsmen of the valley would bring their llamas for us to see. The corral was built against a vertical stone face, and by climbing up to the top of this cliff I could see for several miles in all directions.
Finally about 10 o'clock a cloud of dust appeared in the distance. Within minutes there were at least three separate dust clouds in different directions indicating the approach of three large herds of llamas. As they drew nearer Sally joined me at the top of the cliff and we began to scan the nearest herd through binoculars.
When we are selecting llamas on the altiplano we try to eliminate the ordinary or poorer-quality animals as quickly as possible so we can focus on the top animals, the finalistas, for closer examination and purchases. Otherwise, we can be held up for hours looking at just one herd. Today, we were told, there would be six major rebaños (rebaño is the Spanish word for herd). Besides looking at llamas, we still had to travel back the way we had come the day before, making it all the way back to the vicuña station if we wanted shelter and a bed that night.
We checked the animals from the first group as they entered the stone corral. There were many good ones and very few with genetic defects. We divided the animals into two groups inside the corral. The smaller group was comprised of all the most attractive and interesting llamas and we soon focussed our attention on these and began looking at them very critically, one by one. Guillermo has developed a very good eye for quality in llamas and also has learned the defects we thought were important enough to eliminate an animal from further consideration.
We watched the animals closely for a few minutes, removing any that showed problems of any kind. Only then did we begin the process of catching the finalists one by one and checking their teeth, body condition, number of teats on females and testicles on males. From this first group of one hundred or so we eliminated all but seven. Two of these, we learned, were owned by families not present in the valley today, and so they could not be sold.
Many times we have been forced to walk away from beautiful, impressive llamas simply because the campesinos could not represent a friend or relative in making a deal. No matter if the absent owner needed the money and surely would want to sell the animal in question. No matter if we offered double the normal price. If the owner was not present the animal was simply unavailable. Maybe next year. In this case Guillermo was able to purchase three great females to add to the Llamichos herd in Buenos Aires Province.
The owner of two of the finalists had demanded a very high price, almost $400, and paying it would have set a very bad precedent for the transactions to come. The prices had a way of working their way higher as we negotiated with the owners of more and more herds in a given area. The owners knew what had been paid for top animals in earlier deals and expected to receive that amount for all the llamas they sold to us. Then, if there was a very special animal we would have to offer even more.
The second group had arrived while we were still making final decisions about the first. We saw two more groups approaching and began to feel pressure to hurry up. The three females purchased from the first rebaño were tied with a soft rope looped around the fetlock on one back leg, then brought inside the stifle, over the back and down to catch the fetlock on the other back leg. This effectively kept them down and prevented them from running off with their herd as it moved out of the corral and back toward the grazing land in the distance. These three animals were carried bodily into the shade of the cliff by half a dozen of the herdsmen present and the second group was brought in.
From each group we selected the few best animals and purchased those that were available. There was one group of 50 or so llamas that looked very promising as they approached the corral, very tall, almost all solid red in color and many with pretty faces and good ears, but they turned out to be fine-boned. The owner apparently had selected and bred for this body style, so we were not interested to buy any of his animals. Guillermo was authorized to pay the herdsman $50 in this case, for his trouble in bringing the animals in for us to see.
The selection process continued throughout the middle part of the day without a break. From one very special rebaño of almost 150 llamas, the herd owned by Rita, we bought seven beautiful females and one young male. By 2:00pm we had nearly thirty animals tied and waiting.
In the very last group there was a big black male with suri wool. He came as close to perfection as any llama we have seen on the altiplano in South America. He must have been nearly 46" at the withers, with heavy bone and great presence. His wool was true black, very fine and it hung in dreadlocks. Usually when we see a great looking male on the altiplano he is a gelding, but this one was intact and had no defects. Guillermo tried his best to buy this animal, but the owner was gone from the valley for a few days. We would have to try again next year.
All the purchased animals were tied to prevent them from escaping to join with their herds, now receding into the distance in several different directions. In a few more minutes the campesinos responsible for herding our group out of the valley to the vicuña station would untie these and begin moving them toward the pass.
It was time for us to depart. It would be very dark by the time we reached the station tonight, and we had two more small rebaños to see on the way home. We ate some cheese and llama jerky (supplied by the women of the village), and piled back into the little Toyota truck.
We found a few more great llamas, including one very special young male, in the last two groups and left instructions with their owners to join them with the herd of newly purchased llamas that would be coming along in an hour or so. One of the women at the last rebaño offered to sell us a sash that was obviously made of vicuña wool. We were interested to buy it, but trade in any part of these endangered animals is forbidden. The woman was breaking the law by having such an item and by trying to sell it. Alfredo, who did double-duty as a game warden, was obliged to scold her severely. He confiscated the beautiful sash, even while Guillermo was negotiating to buy one of her animals.
The approach to the pass from this side was quite easy. We said goodbye to the beautiful hidden valley of great llamas and started down the other side, all of us silently contemplating the first swithchback. Coming down was not nearly as difficult as going up. I just cut the corner and let the little truck drag its belly over the step between upper and lower levels. I put the transmission in its lowest gear, but still we had to depend heavily on the brakes in this situation. Everyone was very relieved to reach the bottom of the steep section. Although it was getting dark we made it across the soggy vega in about twenty minutes, assisted by gravity and our experience from the day before.
We agreed to drop Rita and Tomas off at their village, Corral Blanco, about ten miles from the vicuña station. It was past midnight when we dragged ourselves into the station, but each of us still wanted a quick shower after two days out. The foam mats and llama-wool blankets were more luxurious than any Hilton bed could ever be.
The following morning we said goodbye to Alfredo Ferraro and his daughter, Flor, who had taken care of the station during Alfredo's absence. Guillermo would arrange for a full-sized truck to come here the next day to pick up the purchased llamas and take them to the Llamichos herd near Buenos Aires, a three day trip. This was the most stressful part of the journey for the llamas, but Guillermo had hired experienced llama handlers for this job so we hoped all would reach their new home in good condition.
After the 8 hour drive back to Salta we had some explaining to do at the truck rental agency. These vehicles were often rented for explorations by employees of the mining companies in this region, so our abuse of the little truck was not unusual. Still, we had to pay a little extra for the accumulated damage. The truck would be cleaned up and serviced and made ready for us to take out again in a few more days.
We stayed in the Hotel Salta that night, in the bridal suite, watching the impeachment hearings in Spanish on TV. The next morning we began preparations for a crossing of the Andes into Chile on dirt roads, still searching for great llamas. But, that is another story.