I'd be willing to bet you a bottle of Escudo that virtually all non-Andean foreigners who travel to this part of the world experience some degree of fascination with llamas. And, honestly, how couldn't we? They grunt, spit and have enormous, Jersey-cow eyes. They and their stunted rabbit ears thrive at celestial altitudes. Perhaps most of all, it's thrilling for us gringos to finally behold in the flesh the "Ll" square from our elementary school Spanish alphabet charts.
This explains why I took my first llama encounter a bit too far. It was three and a half years ago. After stumbling through our first few days in the Southern Hemisphere, my fellow exchange students and I piled onto a bus bound for the beach in the middle of winter. After spending a few days bundled up beneath the slate-gray skies of La Serena, we ventured inland to a town called Vicuña. I was immediately enamored of the flowers sprouting everywhere and the snow-capped mountains that served as a backdrop. I soon found even more to be enamored of: There were llamas in Vicuña.
A word of caution: It is an extremely bad idea to set a gaggle of overstimulated gringo exchange students loose in a field with llamas. They will coo at the llamas, touch the llamas, and gather around the llamas for group photos. The llamas, in turn, will put up with only so much before they snap and sink their teeth into the closest living thing--in this case, me.
Looking back, the llama was perfectly justified in biting me. My companions and I had rudely invaded its space, and I was wearing an extremely unflattering sweater.
Fortunately for my safety, one doesn't come across many llamas in Santiago. In fact, the only llamas I've seen in this city have been sporting colorful pom-pom hats while being led around by people who offer to sell you a Polaroid of you and their exotic Andean specimen. At least the llamas are alive, which is more than can be said for the stuffed, costumed horse that some guy in the Plaza de Armas tries to convince you is a photo-worthy curiosity. He even proudly displays a poster in which the horse appears pictured in front of an handful of Chilean landmarks.
Hey, to each his or her own. A 2006 trip to an Ecuadorian zoo convinced me of the truth of this platitude. The zoo's cages housed a variety of animals that ranged from hyper monkeys to a (rightfully) dejected condor. About halfway through our visit, nearby commotion distracted my friends and me from our guilt-ridden voyeurism. A cluster of net-wielding zoo employees were gathered around a hose, blasting water into a tree. When we asked what the problem was, they gravely informed us one of the squirrels was trying to escape. My North American friends and I were awestruck, finding it difficult to fathom that anyone anywhere would ever consider a squirrel exotic enough to hose out of a tree. Especially when there were llamas at the petting zoo down the path.
Nevertheless, given that squirrels apparently are just as fascinating for some as llamas are for gringos, I'd like to issue an open invitation to all Ecuadorians: In the unfortunate event that all the squirrels at the Guayllabamba zoo escape, you're welcome to come to my backyard in Minnesota and watch handfuls of them frolic in their natural habitat.