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Lake Titicaca’s 150-year Old Steamship That Runs on Dung

BAP Puno

The BAP Puno. Photo credit: Peruvian Navy.

Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, is situated high up in the Andes on the borders of Peru and Bolivia. The water body occupies a deep valley in the mountains some 190 kilometers long and 80 kilometers across at its widest point. Located at an elevation of over 3,800 meters, Lake Titicaca carries the distinction of being the highest navigable lake in the world because of all the commercial vessels that ply between the Peruvian and Bolivian sides carrying passengers and cargo.

Since prehistoric times, the indigenous people living around Lake Titicaca have navigated the lake using boats made of totora—a reed that grows in abundance on the lake. Totora reeds are also fashioned into small floating islands where the Uru people of the lake have lived for thousands of years. During European colonization, the Spanish introduced wooden sailing boats and in the 19th century came iron steamship. One of these boats, the Yapura, now called BAP Puno, is still used by the Peruvian Navy.

Yapura and her sister ship Yavari was commissioned by the Peruvian government in 1861. Both ships were built by Thames Ironworks on the River Thames under contract to the James Watt Foundry of Birmingham. The ships were built in “knock down” form, where they were assembled with bolts and nuts at the shipyard, dismantled into thousands of parts small enough to transport, and shipped to the final destination where they were assembled back to the final form. Each piece was designed such that a mule could carry, because the railway from Pacific Ocean port of Arica went only 40 miles, as far as Tacna. From there pack mules carried the remaining 220 miles to Puno on the lake.

The winning contractor initially quoted an optimistic delivery date of six months, but the task of unpacking 210 tons of metal, arranging them in the correct order of how they should arrive at the Lake, and transporting the same by mules and porters to an elevation of 3,810 meters, became such a logistical nightmare that in six months only a small number of pieces had been delivered to the Lake and hundreds of pieces of the ship lay scattered between Tacna and Puno. Outside events brought further delays. There was an earthquake, a peasants revolt, and the Spanish threatened a second invasion of Peru. Eight years later, in 1869, enough pieces arrived for the keel of the Yavari to be laid. On Christmas Day 1870, the first ship was launched. Yapura was launched fifteen months later, in 1872.

BAP Puno

The BAP Puno. Photo credit: Hugh Llewelyn/Wikimedia

Both ships were identical in design—100 feet long, and powered by a 60 horsepower, two-cylinder steam engine, that ran on dried llama dung, which is commonly used as fuel by the locals. Yavari underwent an upgrade in 1914. It’s hull was enlarged and it was fitted with a new engine. But when the Peruvian Navy ran out of funds to operate the ships, it decommissioned Yavari and converted Yapura into a hospital ship. Now renamed BAP Puno, she still serves the local communities living on the lake’s shores providing them with medical service.

In 1987, Yavari was bought by a non-profit organization and turned into a museum. She is now moored at Puno Bay.

The Yavari.

The Yavari. Photo credit: Ghislain Cottat/Wikimedia

The Yavari.

The Yavari. Photo credit: paula soler-moya/Flickr

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