Traveling the backcountry, llama style


Bob Shapiro’s llamas are friendly, eager to serve and spit-free.


In the course of his travels with nomadic tribes, Bob Shapiro rode an elephant across Thailand, a camel over the Sahara desert and a donkey through Afghanistan, all the while living and eating with the itinerant cultures.

He said those nomadic experiences brought forth his dream to start Deli Llama Wilderness Adventures, a guided pack-llama service Shapiro and wife Marianne operate in the summer.

Deli Llama takes groups of varying sizes through the North Cascades National Park and the Northeastern Cascade Pasayten wilderness. The trips usually range from four to seven days. Shapiro said often his clientele are people who used to backpack but may not have the endurance to do it anymore, thus pack llamas aid the travelers, affording more carrying capacity, flexibility, and personality.

“Plus llamas are pretty cute,” said Shapiro, who is a group therapist and tai-chi instructor in the wintertime.

Looking rather stout with a neatly trimmed beard and deep-set eyes, Shapiro stands at an unnamed lookout on Anderson Mountain in Skagit County. He’s taken the llamas out for a training exercise before the busy summer season begins. He usually leads six to seven trips between May and September. He has no set schedule or specific routes; he’ll tailor his journey to the group.

“Someone will say to me, ‘I want to see high-country wildflowers,’” Shapiro said, gazing out from the lookout point. “I’ll plan the trip and put it together, I’ll take them to the flowers.”

Shapiro said the idea for the company came from his own wanderings. After studying economics in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, Shapiro traveled across the Balkans, down through the Middle East, then to Southeast Asia. After returning home and finishing college, he went to Africa, winding his way through the northwestern reaches of the continent. Often times he would link up with nomadic tribes, traveling with them on whatever regional pack animal they employed.

After returning home, he was working as a community organizer in Seattle when one night, out celebrating a particular social victory, the idea came to him.

“Basically, I was drunk at a party and a friend asked me, ‘Well, Bob, what’s the next fight?’ And I said, ‘I’m done with this. I’m going to get some llamas and take people into the mountains.’ And I really liked the sound of that idea.”

Despite admittedly not knowing technically what a llama was, Shapiro focused on getting the idea off the ground. Instilled with his memories of traveling with those nomadic tribes, he obtained his first animals after overhearing a man complain in a Denny’s restaurant that he never had any time for his llamas. Shapiro bought three from him on the spot.

But it was a few more years before the project got off the ground, and the first few seasons of business were a little rough. Shapiro said word-of-mouth and reputation were needed to turn Deli Llama into a gainful job – after all, Shapiro was offering the only commercial llama service in the North Cascades. But within a few years, Shapiro’s dreamy outburst was experiencing fruition. He and Marianne now own 11 llamas, and 25 years later he’s able to spend his entire summer out of his office and in the mountains with his llamas.

“The llama dream came out of the context of those [nomadic] experiences,” he explains. “We’re trying to be nomadic in the context of being North American.”

Shapiro’s taste for authentic foreign food developed out of the context of those nomadic experiences as well. Having pack llamas means being able to bring more food on a journey. This way, Shapiro will have enough supplies that over a six day trip he can cook up Moroccan lamb, Thai curries, Peruvian dishes, soups, chilies – “nomadic food” as he calls it, meals reminiscent of his travel experiences.

Little food needs to be packed for the llamas, they are largely self-sufficient. Bred by Incas to be used as pack animals in the Andes, llamas are intuitive animals that will generally feast on local vegetation. As an example of the llamas’ self-sustainability, Shapiro mentions the time his llama, Mac, got lost on a hike in the Pasayten wilderness and survived in the wild for three months before being discovered. Shapiro also said llamas have a good sense of direction, mentioning the time he lost a llama on a trail, only to find it waiting for him back at his truck two hours later.

Plus, Shapiro said, they’re obedient.

“It takes a lot to get animals to do what humans want them to do,” Shapiro said. “But llamas will do it.”

Shapiro and his wife first met on a guided llama hike 19 years ago. Marianne had seen him at a few parties and got herself invited on a llama hike, and by the end of the trip he had asked her to dinner.

“Bob is my exotic Africa, India and Asia,” Marianne said. “He helps to bring the wilderness and much that is different from my civilized, middle-class American heritage to me.”

Shapiro, has no plans to quit the llama business. He said it’s looking like he’ll have a pretty full summer, and the llama thing seems to be keeping him at peace. Their Web site,, is helping with business, and Shapiro said they’re getting clients in from Germany and Japan.

They just want a sample of that nomadic life.

Related Stories