The Ships of the World’s Highest Lake that Run on Llama Dung

On the Border of Bolivia and Peru, high up in the mountains there sits a large lake called Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world sitting at 3,800 meters. On this lake, there are numerous wooden boats and 2 iron ships. These iron monoliths don’t run on diesel fuel like many vessels, rather they power their steam engines using dried llama dung.

To understand why there are two poop burning ships on an isolated lake in the mountain in South America, we need to go back to 1861.

In 1861 the Peruvian Navy was looking for a way to transport munitions, people, and supplies across the lake. Due to the intensely high elevation of Lake Titicaca, historically only boats made of wood and reeds navigated the lake. So, the Peruvian government gave Thames Ironworks a contract to build them 2 ships to float on the lake. The only problem was that the ships would need to be built on the lake as transporting a fully built ship up the Andes on a dirt path would’ve been impossible.

That meant that the ships were built in “knockdown” form, or rather they were fully assembled in a shipyard and then dismantled into pieces and shipped for transport. Each dismantled piece was designed to be small enough to be carried by mules over a 220-mile treck from the end of the railway in Peru all the way up to the lake.

Initially, the contractor for the job quoted a delivery date of six months… but they drastically underestimated how long transporting ship pieces on the back of mules up a mountain would take. By 1869, 8 years after the project started, the keel for the first ship was laid. By December 1870, the ship was launched, named the Yavari. 15 months later in 1872, the second ship, Yapura, was launched as well.

Both ships were identical in their engineering and design. They stretched 100 feet and had a 60 horsepower steam engine. One of the other major hurdles to the project was fuel. Transporting standard fuels up to the lake was no easy task, and local ranchers had an abundant fuel they had used for decades – llama dung.

Llama dung was a useful and locally sourced fuel that was able to keep the steam engines going for low cost and low effort by the Peruvian Navy. The Yapura is still in operation by the Peruvian government, but it was turned into a hospital ship in 1976, renaming it the BAP Puno.

As for the Yavari, after years of sitting in disarray, it was bought by a non-profit in 1987 that refurbished it and turned it into a museum on the lake.

These ships may lend to a strange-sounding story, but they have served the locals well for the last 100+ years.

Trevor is a civil engineer (B.S.) by trade and an accomplished writer with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author and the producer for the YouTube channel Concerning Reality.

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