The Ship, The Lady and the Lake

An extraordinary account of one woman’s single-minded campaign to restore a Victorian steamship to her former glory.

“This lively account of the origin of her interest in the ship, and the subsequent frustrations and triumphs in the course of acquiring and restoring her makes a very good read.”

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh KG KT


The History of the Ship

Part I – Birth of the Yavari

In 1861, the Peruvian Government of Ramon Castilla, ordered two small cargo-passenger “gunboats” for Lake Titicaca. Already enjoying the wealth from the guano industry on the coast, the Government looked to exploit the natural resources of the southern highlands or altiplano region around Lake Titicaca. Here lay the potential for trading Peruvian copper, silver, minerals and wool and timber and riches of the rainforest from Bolivia with manufactured goods from Europe. Through the agency of Anthony Gibbs & Sons, the Government commissioned the JAMES WATT FOUNDRY in Birmingham, England (where steam was first harnessed for industrial use) to build the ships that would collect goods from around the lake. Without a rail link to the lake at that time, all cargo had to be carried up on mule back. Therefore, the ships were built in kit form, with no piece weighing more than 3 ½ cwts, the maximum carrying capacity of a mule.

THE THAMES IRONWORKS AND SHIPBUILDING were sub-contracted to build the iron hulls of the YAVARI and the Yapura. The ironworks were also founders of Londn’s Premier League, West Ham United Football Club. Their nickname of “The Hammers” comes from their days of hammering rivets and is still used today.

On 15th October 1862, the “Mayola”, bearing the two ships and eight British engineers from London, having rounded the Horn, docked at Arica – a Peruvian port before the War of the Pacific – and discharged the packing cases and pieces of the YAVARI and the Yapura. The Peruvian Navy then faced the daunting task of getting 2,766 pieces and two crankshafts transported to Lake Titicaca, 12,500 ft. (3,810ms) above sea level.

Part II – The Great Trek

From Arica to Tacna 186ft.(550 ms) above sea level, the packing cases travelled the 40 miles (64 kms.) on one of the oldest stretches of railway in South America. In Tacna the 2,766 pieces weighing a total of 210 tons were unpacked and arranged in order of how they should arrive at Puno on the Lake. Local muleteers and porters, who were to carry the crankshafts, competed for the work.

The route, though only 350 kms in length, would take them through the Atacama moonscape, the world’s driest desert, mountain passes higher than the highest European peaks and the sub-zero windswept wastes of the altiplano. Notwithstanding, the quoted delivery date given was six months. Buoyed by this prospect, the British engineers who were to help re-assemble the ships, went on ahead to build a jetty, slipway and machine shops in preparation.

Six months later, the contractor, hopelessly defeated by the task, was fired, leaving pieces of ship scattered between Tacna and Puno. Outside events seemed to conspire against the project as grumbling muleteers, an earthquake, a ‘peasants revolt’ and the threat of a second invasion of Peru by the Spanish, brought the expedition to a halt. Five years on it received fresh impetus. Requests were sent out for more muleteers and “1000 Indians” to help with the task and by 1st January 1869 enough pieces had arrived for the keel of the YAVARI to be laid.

Despite fatalities within the team, the British engineers and local workers painstakingly rebuilt the YAVARI, bit by bit. At 3pm on Christmas Day 1870 the First Lady of the Lake was launched. The amazing journey from the heart of Empire Britain to the spiritual heart of the Inca Empire was finally complete. The Yapura since renamed BAP Puno followed in 1873.

The YAVARI, then 100ft long was powered by a 60 horse power (HP) two cylinder, steam engine which, for want of more conventional fuel, was fired by dried llama dung…. She was also equipped as a two-masted sailer.

Part III – Her Working Life

Part III – Her Working Life
By 1890, the cost of the War of the Pacific and the construction of some of the world’s greatest railways had impoverished Peru. In lieu of a debt repayment, The Peruvian Corporation was formed as a British company to run the trains and Lake Steamers. The YAVARI continued her vital service providing transport for the region’s exports and as a link between lakeside communities.
Known as “la Peruvian”, the Corporation extended the hull of the YAVARI to increase cargo space and in 1914 replaced the steam engine with a Swedish BOLINDER 4 cylinder hot bulb semi-diesel developing 320 bhp at 225 rpm. The oldest and largest of its kind in the world, this engine is a collectors piece, and with sponsorship from Volvo, Peru, SSS,A, and Atlas Copco, SA has been restored and is now fully operational.
The YAVARI had undergone several changes by the time The Peruvian Corporation was nationalized in 1975. At that time she passed via the State Railways (ENAFER) to the Peruvian Navy, who, for lack of resources and preferring the Yapura, allowed her to lapse into disuse.

Part IV – Yavari Rediscovered

It was eight years on, in 1983, when, believing the YAVARI to have been built by Yarrows, the yard founded by her great grandfather, Alfred Yarrow, Meriel Larken, already a Peruphile, discovered the old iron Lady slowly dying in a corner of Puno port. Although, in fact, the YAVARI was not a Yarrow ship, the vessel’s historic value and potential for attracting revenue to one of the most depressed regions of Peru were obvious. Larken commissioned a Lloyds Condition Survey which found that being in fresh water at high altitude, the iron hull was in excellent condition and it was deemed worthy of restoration. By 1987, The YAVARI Project (Registered Charity No.298904) and la Asociación Yavari (non-profit making NGO) had been formed and on 17th February the YAVARI was bought from the Peruvian Navy.
At first work was slow due in part to Peru’s political instability and economic decline but in 1990 a change of government brought with it a rapid turnaround in the country’s fortunes. Since then we were able to make steady progress on the YAVARI due entirely to the many friends, sponsors and volunteers she has attracted.
Today the YAVARI is open to the public daily. Free admission and guided tours. Donations on board are welcome!
For the enthusiast we love to start up the mighty 1914 Bolinder 4-cylinder hot bulb engine. The sight, sound and smell of a bygone era make this an unforgettable experience! Advance notice is required.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca at 12,500 ft. (3,810ms.) above sea level and the highest navigable waterway in the world, was left behind after the last Ice Age. It is 100 miles (176kms.) long, 30 miles (50kms.) across and fed by eight rivers to a maximum depth of 1000 ft (304 ms.) and straddles the Peru Bolivia border. Its name, deeply significant in local mythology, derives from “ titi ” Aymara for cat and “ Caca ” Quechua for The Sacred Rock on the Island of the Sun. Around the Lake, cave paintings suggest the pre-historic coexistence of man and camelid – vicuna, llama and alpaca. There is evidence, too, of the early Colla, Lupaka and Pukara cultures but one of the most important archaeological sites in South America is that of Tiwanaku (400-1000AD).

Known also as The Sacred Lake, Titicaca later became the legendary birthplace of the Incas for, it is said, that the great God Viracocha emerged from its depths to create Manco Inca and Mama Ocllo on the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) one of its 30 islands.

In its dark blue waters are beds of totora reed provide a home or temporary resting place for 60 species of native and migratory birds, 18 species of amphibians and 12 varieties of aquatic plants.

 Along the water’s edge grow the purple potato flower and ruby red quinoa, while up on the empty expanses of the altiplano, the only splash of colour, intensified in the luminescent light, is the psychedelic pink and green clothing of campesino women guarding their herds of llamas and alpacas. Beyond them rise the dramatic snow peaks of the Cordillera Real (6000ms+), and at night the stars, like a ceiling of diamonds, sparkle in the unpolluted air. Markets and livestock fairs are commonplace amongst the Aymara and Quechua communities and somewhere there is always a Fiesta!

For all its great beauty, the altiplano is not for the weak hearted. Life can be harsh to the native people who must eke out a subsistence level existence from the Lake or the land. For many, a seasonal drought or the weather phenomenon, El Niño, will destroy their livelihood and drive them into Puno looking for work. Unemployment in Peru runs at eight percent and this is no better in Puno.

So many Puneños move away from the sierra to add to the misery of the shanty towns which surround the larger towns. Any project which offers employment and generates revenue around Lake Titicaca is helping to arrest this negative trend. In addition, this project is proactively promoting the region. If you visit us, you will be helping to alleviate some of the hardships endured by these uncomplaining people – and to unlock the potential of the Lake.

Lake Steamers – Pre 1900

Since pre-history until today, the Lake people have fished or navigated Lake Titicaca using totora reed boats. In the 16th century wooden sailing boats were introduced by the Spanish and in the 19th century came the introduction of the iron steamship. First the YAVARI (launched 1870) followed by the YAPURA in 1873.


In 1892, The Peruvian Corporation commissioned the COYA Built by Denny’s of Dumbarton.

Length: 170ft (51.82 metres).

Beam: 26ft (7.93 meters).

Gross tonnage: 546 tons.

COYA was run aground in the floods of 1984 and subsequently left high and dry when the waters receded. Rescued in 2001, the COYA has undergone a workover and is now operating as a restaurant.

The Lake Steamers – Post 1900

The INCA’s fate was far worse than that of the COYA.

Built by Earle’s of Hull in 1905.

Length: 220 ft (67 metres).

Beam: 30 ft (9.14 metres).

Gross tonnage: 1809 tons.

This beautiful ship was scrapped in 1994 when still in excellent condition.

The OLLANTA, also by Earle’s joined the Fleet in 1930.

Length: 260 ft (79.25 metres).

Beam: 35.6 ft (10.85 metres).

She has accommodation for 70 passengers. Currently waiting for being refurbished to carry 70 passengers.

The Pioneers

On the 28th June 1862, a team of eight intrepid engineers, including iron ship builders and boilermakers sailed forth from the River Thames on the “Mayola” bound for Peru and the Andean highlands. Their job was to supervise the building of a jetty, slipway and machine shop before assembling the YAVARI and Yapura.

Only a handful of western explorers and scientists had been there before them. They were pioneers on a four-year contract and after them came others, some never to return.

Let us know

Also, we are most interested in hearing from anyone who believes they have had a relative who worked with or on any of the steamships that plied the waters of Lake Titicaca.

If you recognise any of these names, or could be a descendent, please e-mail:


Team 1

William Partridge.- Engine erector, 33 from Harborne, Birmingham. Married to Ann from Bilston. Four daughters, two sons from Birmingham.

J.B. Astbur

A. Dyer

Charles William Scott

John Baukham

George Blaxland.- Brother of Ann from Bromley, Kent. son of Sarah from Strood, Kent. Boiler-maker, born Milton-next Sittingbourne, Kent, late of Poplar, E.London. Died in Puno, 13th February 1864, aged 39.

William Kemp

John Thomas

Team 2

George Hill

James Sutherland

Francis Martin