A reader asked if I could kindly follow-up my story from the Machu Picchu post of September 1. Here goes. (I feel like a mis-gendered "Sheherezade".) After the Machu Picchu visit, I took a train to Puno at the edge of Lake Titicaca to board the ship “ss Ollanta”.
It was almost nightfall. Embarkation process was like stepping into a reverse time zone. Customs and immigration was handled by one official who spoke no English; his office was an old wooden shack, a mottled green. My passport was stamped by candlelight. A full moon was rising on the horizon. I was being shown to my quarters when it suddenly struck me, “How did this antique vessel ever get way up here on the highest navigable lake in the world? And, from where?”
Here's what the chief steward told me. It all began in the late 1860’s when renowned British shipbuilders Earle’s of Hull, UK received an order from the Peruvian government. It was to build a two 70-passenger vessels, later named “Yavari” and a sister ship “Yapura”. These would provide the only transportation between Peru and Bolivia (Bolivia is a landlocked nation.)
It was to be an extraordinary feat of engineering: somehow, the ship had to get over the Andes Mountains! And, all the way to Lake Titicaca, 3,810 metres above sea level (12,500 ft.).
The ships (with eight British engineers) were brought from England around Cape Horn, aboard “Mayola”, 2,766 packing crates all marked and numbered and weighing a total of 210 tons, plus two crankshafts. These were first transported by train from the port of Arica on the Peruvian coast, inland to Tacna (on the oldest railway line in South America.
Then onwards over the Andes, by mules - - - over a “moonscape of the driest desert in the world with mountain passes higher than European peaks and sub-zero windswept wastes of the Altiplano”. Also something to keep in mind is the air at such an altitude requires for most of us extra oxygen.
For example the “Tren del Sol” (another amazing achievement of engineering) from Lima to Huancayo, which I also took in 1969, carried oxygen tanks in each compartment of the train. “ss Yavari” became the blueprint for “ss Yapura”. Later, she was followed by “ss Ollanta”, and this was the historic vessel I sailed aboard. She had been launched 39 years earlier, in 1930.
Following the Chief Steward's explaining how this remarkable vessel got to Lake Titicaca, (after temporarily being transported into that “believe it or not” realm of amazing human achievement), he proudly gave me a complete tour of “ss Ollanta”. Suffice to say the interior of First Class was elegant and luxurious, with mahogany, rosewood, teak, polished brass everywhere, and lace curtains over the port holes. The dining room featured pure linen, genuine silverware, crystal glasses and decanters; while the galley was a feast for the eye with copper pots and pans.
During my crossing aboard “ss Ollanta”, there were about 20 passengers. The food was five-star. I’d only ever experienced such lavishness back in the late 1940’s when I was a waiter in the top-quality restaurants of Amsterdam and later a dining-room steward with Holland America Line where I served Hollywood movie stars. (More on this some other time.)
Who could ask for anything more, to sail from Peru to Bolivia on the highest navigable lake in the world – Lake Titicaca, the spiritual realm of the ‘Altiplano’ people, with a full moon! Signing off. Henri
p.s. The now-famous reed boats of this Lake are the only reminder of the ancient ways. Imagine the reaction of the native people who first set eyes on the steamships, smoke-spewing metal monsters, which crossed their sacred Lake Titicaca? And what about transportation today? The native people still use their reed boats, while hovercraft and catamarans ply the Lake, to bring the human family back and forth between Peru and Bolivia. Progress! Adios, Henri