Scientific name: Lama guanicoe
Trips: EcoCamp Patagonia Wildlife Safari & Patagonia Unbound Tours
Likelihood of sightings: High to Moderate (depending on season and tour)
One of the most charismatic of South America’s native camelids is the guanaco, found across the Pampas plains, mountains and altiplano of Peru, Bolivia and Patagonia (Chile and Argentina). They are related to vicuñas, alpacas and llamas (as well as camels), with all having a fairly calm and docile nature. But unlike domestic llamas, the color of guanacos varies little, with gray faces, a light brown to dark cinnamon on top and a white underbelly.
Guanacos are usually found at high altitudes up to around 4,000 meters and to combat the low oxygen levels, they have evolved around four times the red blood cells of a human. But in Patagonia, where ice and snow cover these altitudes, they are pushed down to lower elevations that make them easier to spot.
There are healthy populations of guanaco in both Torres del Paine National Park and Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego where you have the best chance of sightings, with both destinations having limited grazing competition from other animals. Herds normally comprise around 10 females and their young (known as chulengos), as well as a dominant male. Male chulengos are chased away from the herd after just a year with their mother, forming bachelor herds of up to around 50 males.
Guanacos have thick skin around their necks to help protect them against predators, as well as soft and sensitive lips to forage amidst the thorny undergrowth to find food. Their split upper lip helps them guide food into their mouths and (like camels) they can retain and store moisture from plants to survive in arid conditions. Their thick eyelashes help to protect their eyes from dust and the harsh winds of Patagonia, while two padded toes on each foot enable them to negotiate rocky paths and slopes with ease.
Guanacos only have one natural predator - the puma - and if threatened, will let out a high-pitched bleating sound that can be interpreted as a harsh laugh. They are also known to spit if vulnerable and can run up to 35 miles per hour over steep and rocky terrain, with the male usually running at the back to defend the herd.
Guanacos were once hunted for their soft, woolly coats (which is valued second only to that of the vicuña), with the nomadic Tehuelches people relying on their meat and wool for survival. It is believed that there were up to around 50 million guanacos in South America prior to European arrival, with only around half a million today. The sharp decline in numbers is not only due to hunting, but also the introduction of domestic sheep who compete for grazing lands in Patagonia.