The Peruvian Navy took a chance in 1861. It ordered two huge iron gunboats—the Yavarí and the Yapura—for patrolling Lake Titicaca, which at 3,838 meters is the world’s highest navigable lake.
‘Navigable’ is often added as there are smaller, higher lakes elsewhere in the Andes, but these are more isolated and lack the requisite depth for larger ships.
But that’s not the case for the 100-mile long Lake Titicaca, the largest fresh-water body on the South American continent proper* and the mythical cradle of the Inca civilization. It was here that the Sun was born and the first Inca descended from the heavens to create the Inca Empire.
But protecting this magnificent lake with modern ships was no simple matter. There were no ship-building facilities and one of the world’s largest mountain ranges, the Andes, lay in-between the Pacific Ocean port of Arica—where the boats were to be received piecemeal from England—and the lake which they were supposed to patrol.
Nobody really knew how long it would take to get the boats up and over the mountains and onto Lake Titicaca’s waters. But these logistical issues had to be surmounted. War was brewing with Chile and it was imperative for Peru to assert some kind of military presence on the 100-mile long freshwater body that formed part of its border.
The Peruvian Navy had only an armored frigate and a monitor, plus four lesser ships, to defend the Pacific coastline, so new ships had to be ordered for protecting its “eastern coast”.
The best laid plans…
At first things went relatively smoothly. Within two years, the Thames Iron Works and Ship Building Company in London had the gunboats shipped, in crates, around Cape Horn to Arica—then a Peruvian port.
From the desert coast, with the Andes looming before them, porters hefted the crankshafts to their shoulders, while mules stood, knees quivering, under the weight of hull sections and crates containing more than 2,766 ship parts.
The 466-kilometer journey wound up steep and treacherous trails, including a pass at 4,700 meters. The route took the porters across the moonscape of the driest desert in the world, passes higher than the tallest European peaks, and the sub-zero windswept wastes of the Altiplano.
Six months later, the contractor, hopelessly overwhelmed by the task, was fired, leaving pieces of ship scattered between the Pacific ports and Puno, the largest city on the Peruvian side of Titicaca.
Outside events conspired against the project as grumbling muleteers, an earthquake, a peasants’ revolt, and war (this time with Spain over some guano-rich** coastal islands, brought the project to a halt numerous times.
Five years on, new requests were sent out for more muleteers and 1,000 local Indians to help with the task. By January 1869, enough pieces had arrived for the keel of the ship to be laid in Puno.
And despite some unfortunate deaths within the team, including building site accidents and drowning, British engineers and local workers managed to painstakingly rebuild the ships, bit-by-bit, beginning with the Yavarí.
Finally, on Christmas Day 1870, the Yavarí was the first to slide into the clear blue waters of Lake Titicaca. It took three more years for its sister-ship, the Yapura, to follow.
Fueled by llama shit
Because of a lack of coal, the Peruvian Navy began shoveling a more abundant local fuel source into the ship’s boilers: dried llama dung. More space was needed, however, to accommodate the manure piles.
The Yavarí was cut in half in order to add 12 meters to her hold, bringing her to a total length of 50 meters. It was not until 1914 that her steam engine was replaced by a Swedish-made Bolinder engine, a four-cylinder that ran on normal diesel.
The many problems with getting the ships assembled and functioning seemed to have taken attention away from their initial purpose, and so the mounting of guns on both ships were delayed again and again before ultimately being abandoned.
Steamships lost and found
Without guns, the Yavarí continued her service as a cargo-ship and the Yapura as a hospital ship, but, by the 1970s the Yavarí was rusting on the lake shore.
In 1984, the sight of the abandoned ship moved an Englishwoman to action. Meriel Larken launched the Yavarí Association to save the old steamer, even getting a donation from Prince Phillip. Fifteen years later, with the help of contributors and a lot of hard work, the ship opened for tourists.
The Yapura is still used by the Peruvian Navy, last I checked, but it is not entirely clear to what purpose. According to a local guide I talked to this autumn, it was no longer a hospital ship and each time I’ve been in Puno it has been docked at the same mooring, looking somewhat forlorn.
I have visited the Yavarí, though, which has been restored very well. If you are intrigued as I am by the steamship-era she represents, or just fascinated by the odd story of her journey across the mountains, then she’s definitely a sight worth seeing.
* Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela is larger, but is usually not regarded as a ‘real’ lake, since it is connected directly to the sea.
** Guano is excrement from seabirds, cave-dwelling bats and seals. An important nitrate-rich source for gunpowder
The Yavarí project’s home page: http://www.yavari.org
Christopher Marcus is a writer, illustrator, and inner city shaman (his secret identity). You can read his free short stories about how to survive a variety of life’s situations at www.shadeofthemorningsun.com - including one that guest stars the Yavari. He is also an avid traveler and loves to read and write about many things, including Andean history and odd historical events.
Picture credits: Charlotte B. Frederiksen at www.rejse-historier.dk. Please ask permission before use.