South America Plus 2002-2004 travel blog

Pet Vicuna

SS Yavari

Sillustani Morning

Sillustani Tower

Titicaca Barge

Tower on Lake

Yavari History

Yavari Wheelhouse

Copyright 2004

David Rich 1000 Words

S i l l u s t a n i a n d L a k e T i t i c a c a T o o

When you've about finished touring Peru, you may get excited, because for weeks you've been creeping up on the world's highest navigable lake, over a hundred miles long, the largest lake in the world above 6600 feet (2000 meters), actually over 12,500 feet, so high none of its boats carry life jackets because life jackets are unnecessary—if you fall in you die from hypothermia in thirty seconds, less time than it would take the boat to turn around and pick you up. In a word, your mind has raved to see fabulous Lake Titicaca. Just don't fall in!

But slow down, because an hour before you reach Lake Titicaca you should stop. You reach Lake Titicaca at Puno, Peru but over thirty kilometers before Puno or twenty miles for gringos, you really should take a break. You should stop for at least an afternoon and overnight, if you possibly can, if you can put off Lake Titicaca for one more day, because Sillustani is among the most magical places on the planet, and I have pictures to prove it.

Weird name, Sillustani, a place practically no one has heard of for two very bad reasons: because it's off the beaten track and as far as I know, National Geographic Magazine has never done a spread on it. But Sillustani is overdue for National Geographic coverage, though it's obviously making progress toward fame—at Sillustani I saw the first Japanese tour bus after two months in South America.

Sillustani is an ancient place of sheer startling beauty, pre-Incan yet its rulers commandeered the southern quarter of the Incan Empire. If the Incan capitol of Cusco was the Emerald City, the center of the Empire, Sillustani was the headquarters of the excellent warriors of the South, the Colla Indians, who buried their noble dead with pizzazz in Sillustani, the most striking of locations.

Sillustani sits on a high rocky peninsula with a spindly neck extending into Lake Umaya, which borders it on three and three quarter sides. On the rocky top, on a lofty bluff, poke funerary towers up to forty feet high, round ones and square ones, medium ones looking like a blockade, lots of them, formed from massive stone blocks that fit together perfectly, mausoleums reflected perfectly in the mirrored waters of Lake Umaya. Some are unfinished with blocks stacked for insertion into the half-completed edifice, angled ramps waiting to convey them to the top. Some towers soar while others squat in various states of disrepair. Others are held up with rickety poles, whitewashed citadels on the north edge of the little plateau and plain ones of massive stones in the south, all sprinkled above a curvaceous lake of striking beauty. From each seeming fort, the view is instant grandeur.

Family groups were buried in each rampart. As with ancient peoples all over the world, they were entombed with food and implements for an afterlife. They definitely didn't get in standing up, because the only opening was a small triangular entrance facing east. And what towers they were. All boasted construction far more complex than the run-of-the-mill Incan buildings, many decorated in motifs of rapid reptiles.

A new village sits below the towers, its occupants seemingly unaware they'll graduate to funerary towers of far less grandeur. The village sits on a lake of salt water, supporting a bird-lovers' paradise from Andean coots and geese to vivid flamingoes, the last sighted only by the lucky, which did not include me. But I was lucky at sunset and sunrise when Sillustani turned mystic and enchanted, providing perfectly photogenic views for the long dead, the oblivious villagers, and the incidental tourist.

The next morning a single hour from Sillustani I spotted the lake, Titicaca, and dropped into Puno, a labyrinth of a town and the jumping off place for the islands of floating totani reeds and those of more substantial sort. Thor Heyerdahl used totani reeds to fashion a raft to prove that South American natives populated the South Pacific. The floating islands are tourist traps as are most trips onto the grand lake from Puno.

One attraction is not a tourist trap, what Lonely Planet Peru calls the most fascinating stop on Lake Titicaca and for me it was, but then I'm a sailor or used to be. Non-sailors will be able to more objectively judge the saga of the SS Yavari.

The good ship Yavari was ordered by the Peruvian government in 1861 from James Watt & Company and the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company of England, shipped around Cape Horn in 1862, and up the Chilean coast to its furthest northern port, Arica, where it was taken by railroad to Tacna (now in Peru). There the SS Yavari was dismantled and shuttled by mule to Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes, a chore taking six long years.

The SS Yavari was launched to grace Lake Titicaca on Christmas Day 1870, one hundred-thirty-odd years ago. Its fuel was dried llama dung, the engine converted to a Swedish Bolinger diesel in 1914, putting many llamas on unemployment. In 1887, after the War of the Pacific between Chile and Peru, the ship was deeded to the British Peruvian Corporation and later fell into rack and ruin. The fabulous Yavari is 165 feet long (50 meters), salvaged from oblivion in 1962 with backing from Prince Philip.

She is now a beauty, completely restored and soon ready to again ply the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca, life jackets optional. A six-armed anchor winch of finest rare wood commands the far foredeck, ready to roust double chains because a steel boat 165 feet long better have two excellent anchors.

The ship is immaculate, the amidships whitewashed and bordered with polished glass and rare woods. The pilothouse centers on a huge wooden wheel and large brass stanchion that is polished to a glare. The plan is for ten double cabins hosting tourists on Lake Titicaca, a remarkable opportunity to sail on one of the world's oldest ships.

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