Sunday, February 2, 2014

Riding a Llama

Here I am riding a llama like it's the most natural thing in the world.

Me riding a llama
The smile can't disguise the fact I'm clinging on for dear life
Of course it was the least natural thing in the world. The poor, old llama was very kind about it all but that did little to assuage my guilt as his back creaked under the strain.

The llama (pronounced Jah-mah not as in Dalai Lama) is the animal most closely associated with the Andes - more so than the condor. It is not to be confused with its woollier cousin, the alpaca.

An alpaca... completely different from a llama
The first lesson you learn about the llama is it spits like a camel. Plenty of tourists have had themselves and their cameras covered in llama gob as they've attempted to frame that perfect portrait.

Indians still use llamas as important pack animals. An adult llama can carry about a quarter of its body weight for up to 12 miles. Not bad going considering the steep chaquinans (footpaths) in the oxygen-starved Andean highlands.

I weigh 75kg and the llama didn't seem too bothered lugging me about the farm. Riding on his back, I could feel all of his bones moving and sensed just how strong he was. My biggest problem was my height and at 6' 4" (195cm) my feet dragged ungainly along the ground. Of course, my height is a constant talking point over here, people even stop me in the street to ask how tall I am. Living in Ecuador, I feel like Gandalf when he visited the Shire - they're all hobbits to my eyes.

Llamas aren't just pack animals, they're also harvested for their wool to make toasty ponchos, perfect for cold nights on the paramo. You can even eat their meat... of course, I'm vegetarian and would never eat a llamita but I can't imagine it's a tender steak (old boots spring to mind).

Lucy also rode a llama and with hilarious consequences.

The hacienda we were staying at in Tigua had an enormous St Bernard dog called Benjamin, who was half-bear on his mother's side. Benjamin was young, boisterous and it's fair to say he never really clicked with the llama. As Lucy spent her first nervous moments adjusting herself on the llama's back, Benjamin launched his attack. He bit the llama on the bum and ran off with a poncho's worth of arse wool in his jaws. Naturally, the llama went bat-shit mental and only the calming presence of the experienced farmer stopped the poor beast bolting for the hills with Lucy clinging to its neck for dear life.

All smiles now, but just a moment later Benjamin launched his attack
I should have written this blog all about the adventures of Benjamin... it's obvious to me now he's the best character.

There were hundreds of chickens on the hacienda with free range to roam. I asked Benjamin's owner if his dog had ever eaten a chicken (I had my old, chicken-slaying, Springer Spaniel Gravel in mind).

"No, of course not," he said. "But he's eaten a few lambs before... and a calf once."

Que monstruo!
Nervous sheep and cows
If you're ever on a tour of the Quilotoa Loop I couldn't recommend a night at Posada de Tigua highly enough. This working hacienda has rooms for guests, but it's more like stopping over with old friends and, what's more, it's got Benjamin the cow-guzzling dog monster. Just make sure you lock your door at night in case he's feeling peckish.

Indian milk girl
A young Indian milk maid at Posada de Tigua

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