The strange story of the Yavari, Peru's warship on Lake Titicaca

By Rachel Chase

On Peru’s Lake Titicaca, a 150-year-old warship has found new a purpose.

The strange story of the Yavari, Peru's warship on Lake Titicaca

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The saga of the Yavari reads like something out of a Latin American magical realism novel. A gunship commissioned in years of unexpected prosperity in 19th-century Peru, the Yavarí now floats atop Lake Titicaca, open for visits by tourists. How she got there, however, is nothing short of surreal.

Built in 1862 by the Thames Ironworks in England, the Yavari and her sister ship, the Yapura, were commissioned by the Peruvian government to be used on Lake Titicaca. According to El Comercio, the two ships cost the Peruvian government £8,000, a weighty sum at the time.

As Lake Titicaca is an inland lake, the Yavari couldn’t be sailed to her final destination. Rather, workers in the shipyards of England disassembled the warships for transport. The ships had been specially designed so that they could be disassembled into pieces, none of which weighed more than 200 kilograms, the maximum weight a mule could carry. Mules, as we shall see, had to play a difficult role in the story of the Yavari.

Upon arrival in Peru, the story took a slightly absurd turn: to transport the ships, now in thousands of manageable pieces, to Lake Titicaca, several steps had to be taken. First, according to the history of the Yavar as published on the ship’s website, they were transported as far as Tacna by train. But 350 kilometers of punishing trek between Tacna and the ships’ intended destination of Puno remained.

The only feasible way to carry the 2,766 pieces— which, by the way, weighed a total of 210 tons—from Tacna to Puno was on the backs of (literally) put-upon mules. It was an almost insurmountable feat— the first attempt to get the pieces to Puno failed, and political strife prevented the project from being restarted for another five years. Finally, in 1870, the Yavari was launched on Lake Titicaca.

According to El Comercio, once launched, the Yavari served as an important water link for transporting wool, minerals, and textiles between Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.

Economic crisis set in in the 1890s, and the two sister ships were sold by the government. Years after purchase by a private company, the ships were re-nationalized during the Velasco administration of the early 1970s. They were eventually abandoned, and left to rust on the lake.

In 1987, however, Englishwoman Mariel Larken swept in and gave the Yavari new life. After purchasing the Yavarí for US$5,000, El Comercio reports that she began to seek funds for its restoration. Today, the Yavarí is open daily, and visitors can explore the onboard museum. One can also arrange to spend the night on the Yavari, Titicaca’s only floating bed and breakfast.

It’s an artifact that was rescued from abandon, and has been remade into a piece of history that travelers can experience in a very personal way. In a land of historical wonders and archaeological attractions, the Yavari stands out. It has indeed been a long, strange journey for the Lady of the Lake, but it seems she’s arrived at her proper destination.

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