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Over The Andes In 2,766 Pieces – Guest Post By Christopher Marcus

The strange story of the gunboats which came to patrol the world’s highest lake – without guns.

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.

About David Gaughran

David lives in Dublin, where it rains every day and conversation is a sport. He writes historical adventures and has helped thousands of authors to self-publish through his workshops, books, and this here blog.


5 thoughts on “Over The Andes In 2,766 Pieces – Guest Post By Christopher Marcus

  1. Christopher,

    I would like to thank you for that fascinating guest post – you are welcome back any time.

    I saw Lake Titicaca in 2005, but only the Bolivian side. Lake Titicaca is pretty much split down the middle between Peru and Bolivia, but the Bolivian side as the big tourist draws of the Uros Reed Islands and the famous Incan sites on Isla del Sol. As such, the Bolivians like to joke that they got all the Titi, and Peru got all the caca!

    When I do get a chance to see the Peruvian side, I will certainly pay a visit.


    Posted by davidgaughran | October 30, 2011, 1:39 pm
  2. Haha – yeah, I heard that joke, too … and I do think there’s some truth to it. The Bolivian side has spectacular sights.

    My girlfriend and I have lived on Isla del Sol, in Bolivia, so personally it means the most to us, of course, to go there – to the Bolivian side.

    But the Reed Islands outside Puno are really sights that are unique and very memorable – if one can just filter out the touristy kitsch a little. It’s a good income source for the locals, though, so I definitely understand the Uros people who have opted to open their islands for visitors and ‘adapt’ them to accomodate us curious gringos.

    If you get the chance, when you get there – (and this is a general recommendation to anyone reading!) – do go to stay a night on the reed islands. There are a few families who offer accomodation.

    My girlfriend did so last year, on two occasions, and both were definitely very enjoyable for her. She said that you get a much more ‘real’ experience of the islands and the people, because, obviously, you take longer to just ‘be’ there … and watch local life unfold after the tour boats have gone home.

    But I guess it’s much like this for any much-visited community-based tourist attraction, all over the world.

    Anyway, thank you for having me at your blog. It was fun doing the Yavari-story and I feel good about helping to spread the word about the project to take care of old ship.

    And I probably won’t be able to resist writing some more about quirky historic moments from this wonderful and always interesting continent

    … Did you know that there are also ‘fake’ reed islands on the Bolivian side, but that the famous Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, when looking for reed-boat building experts for the Ra and Tigris, crafts, chose to work with families from the Bolivian island of Suriqui?

    Well, better stop now, before I run off on another tangent. But that’s what this continent does to you 🙂



    Posted by Christopher Marcus | October 30, 2011, 3:25 pm
  3. Oh My Gooses… that story totally ticked my funny bone. You’d thing, having lived in the US and knowing about the great lakes, that I wouldn’t be so taken by gun(less) ships being put on an inland lake for defense… then again we’ve never been at war with Canada so *shrug*

    Still what an awesome little story. I’m now going to distract myself with that link on the Yavarí project.

    :} Elorithryn

    Posted by Cathryn Leigh | November 2, 2011, 8:44 pm
    • Catheryn I think you might want to check your History, you “USof A” have been at war with Canada , 1812 ring a 200 year old bell. The Canadians/ British burned the White House.

      Posted by Dean Waddle | September 13, 2012, 8:12 am
      • Actually, now that you mention it, I seem to remember a story of a group of Irish horsemen from New York and Philly who decided (after a long night setting the world to rights) to invade then-British-owned Canada and attempt to trade it for Irish independence. I think they got about half-way to the border, sobered up, and thought better of it.

        Posted by davidgaughran | September 13, 2012, 9:35 am

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