Watercraft of Titicaca

I’m a big fan of ships, boats, and being on the water (those two nights in the Galapagos notwithstanding). I’m also fascinated by the logistics of human settlement and life in remote or difficult-to-access places. Titicaca is a confluence of these two interests.

Some context:

Lake Titicaca is known as the highest navigable lake in the world*. “Navigable” is a poorly-defined term, but for this purpose it means “big enough for a ship.” “Ship” is also a poorly-defined term, so we’ll use a definition from my father (whose qualifications include former naval officer and current crewmember of a sailing ship on the Great Lakes): a ship is a vessel big enough to carry a boat. Since ships are fairly large, a lake navigable by ship must be quite large.

Lake Titicaca is one of the 20 largest lakes in the world. It’s about 110 miles long and up to 50 miles wide, with a surface area twice as large as Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Relative to Earth’s other big lakes Titicaca is really high. At almost 2.5 miles above sea level, it’s a mile and a half higher than Denver!

Chart of the altitude of Earth's 20 largest lakes

Relative to Earth’s other high-altitude lakes, Titicaca is really big. Most other high-altitude lakes cover only a few acres, and only a handful cover more than a square mile:

Chart of the area + altitude of the Earth's highest-altitude lakes

Clearly Titicaca is an outlier!

The watercraft:

Reed boats have been used on Titicaca for centuries. The reeds grow locally, and are used for everything from boats to food (they’re edible!) to housing. While a renewable resource, they are time-consuming to build and maintain. These days they are decorated for the tourist trade. Locals prefer fiberglass boats with outboard motors!

Reed boats on Lake Titicaca

After the area was conquered by the Spanish in the 1500’s, there were apparently wooden sailing ships on the lake. I don’t know much about them.

During the 1860s there was enough economic activity on and around Titicaca that the Peruvian government commissioned a pair of steamships – the SS Yavari and SS Yapura – to be built in the UK and brought to the lake. Since there was no railroad to the lake, the ships were broken down into nearly 3000 pieces, transported by ship to the port of Arica, carried by mule over the deserts and mountain passes, and reassembled at the lake like a giant Lego set. Sounds like a logistical nightmare to me, and I suppose it was – it took nearly 8 years to transport, put together, and launch the Yavari!

The Yavari is still afloat and being refurbished as a museum and bed and breakfast. Sadly it wasn’t open during our visit to Puno – otherwise we would have stayed on it! I didn’t get to go aboard, but did see the Yavari nestled in among other boats at the main dock in Puno.

In the 1970’s the Yavari’s sister ship Yapura was renamed BAP Puno. It’s is also still in service, as a floating hospital for the Peruvian Navy.

As trade grew, larger and larger ships were built for the lake including SS Inca (which was scrapped in 1994) and the SS Coya, which is beached several miles outside of Puno and now serves as a restaurant. We only saw the Coya from afar, as a smudge on the shore.

The largest steamship on the lake, SS Ollanta, is 260 feet long. Built in England, she was shipped in kit form to the lake and launched in 1931. By this time the railroad reached Puno, so the mule train was not necessary.

SS Ollanta at the pier in Puno
SS Ollanta at the pier

Today the largest vessel on Titicaca is the Manco Cápac, a ferry that shuttles railroad cars back and forth to Bolivia. Or it used to – apparently it hasn’t run in years. It’s slightly larger than SS Ollanta.

From L-R: SS Ollanta, the pier, Manco Cápac, and BAP Puno. Yavari and several naval patrol boats are just visible to the left of SS Ollanta.

Puno’s pier is also home to this bizzare-looking contraption, a steam-powered dredge used to ensure the channels near the port stay deep enough for shipping:

Steam-powered dredge on Lake Titicaca

Less-impressive but far more active on the lake today are the various tourist boats, used for tours to the various islands (including the reed islands):

Tourist boats tied up on Lake Titicaca
Pedal boats on Lake Titicaca
Pedal boats

There are also ferries that travel between Puno and the Bolivian side of the lake. These leave early in the morning, and we were late risers – so no pictures!

* Since I am a bit of a pedant: Lake Namtso in Tibet is higher than Titicaca, and both large enough (43 miles x 19 miles; 740 sq miles total) and deep enough (averaging 100+ ft) to support significant shipping. By comparison Lake Champlain in VT is smaller and shallower than Namtso, and nonetheless supported steamships in excess of 200′ long. While both Namtso and Titicaca are sacred to indigenous peoples, only Namtso has been protected from shipping. So perhaps Titicaca is the highest navigated body of water in the world, while Namtso should hold the title of highest navigable body of water.

2 replies on “Watercraft of Titicaca”

you all are great writers. Steve I loved learning that a ship is large enough to carry a boat, and Lauren’s
description of being banged around inside the confines of a boat. I would have gotten off that boat too.
love the epicurean delights. Thanks for bring me along with you Sharon


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