Adrift among the clouds

A Victorian gunboat waits on Lake Titicaca to become, at 12,000ft, the world's highest cruise ship. Juliet Clough reports

oored in sludgy algae, near the Puno shore of Lake Titicaca, a Victorian gunboat awaits metamorphosis. "Give us 10 or 12 months and a lot more money," says her captain, Carlos Saavedra del Carpio, "and she'll be off again, the most elevated cruise ship in the world."

At least that is what I think he said; from where I sat, below bare decks in a forlorn and icy galley, it looked as though it would be some time before the cruising brigade came knocking on the Yavari's portholes.

True, an opaque sort of post-modernism seems to have afflicted my notebook at this point. I blame the altitude, coupled with Carlos's legendary pisco sours. I had been badgering him for the recipe. "Take six limes" begins my unusually spidery entry on the Yavari, then:

"Take six years crossing the Andes

Add large slug of brandy

Run on dried llama dung

Whisk up with egg white

Reassemble in 1,383 pieces

Two drops of Angostura optional

And in 10 or 12 months we'll be

sailing again".

Perhaps it is something to do with the thin and heady air at 12,380ft, but if devotion and hard work will do the trick, the Yavari will certainly plough through the duckweed one day to steam out against all the odds on to the highest navigable waterway in the world.

When, in 1987, Meriel Larken paid the Peruvian navy the scrap-metal price of around pounds 3,000 for what was, by then, a barely floating junk shed, she was buying herself into a piece of family lore. Rumours of the Yavari's existence and that of her sister ship, the Yapura, had persisted since the days of her great-grandfather, Alfred Yarrow, the founder of the shipbuilding dynasty.

Built in 1862, in fact as a joint effort between James Watt & Co and the Thames Iron Works, the Yavari and Yapura were dismantled into 2,766 pieces, the largest weighing 400lbs. Six years and two wars later, having crossed the Andes on muleback, the Yavari was launched on Lake Titicaca on Christmas Day 1870.

Originally designed as gunboats, gung-ho presences on the Bolivian border, the two boats were involved instead on trading runs, carrying wool, minerals and cocoa between the Bolivian jungles and the Andean mule posts and railheads of the eastern shore.

While the Yapura survives as a hospital ship, the Yavari last sailed in 1975 and had been mouldering away ever since. But the high altitude and fresh water had preserved the hull; the Yavari had a future. Today, Carlos, a former lieutenant-commander in the Peruvian navy, heads the Larken team of six, working on her resurrection. She is already open as a floating museum and bar. The next goal is the restoration of the hull and decks in line with International Maritime Organisation safety regulations, so that day trips can then help to fund the project.

Cash has come from a number of sources, including the Duke of Edinburgh who apparently fell for the Yavari's charms while on an official visit to Lake Titicaca in the mid-Sixties. Volvo-Peru is funding the restoration of her four-cylinder Bolinder engine which, in 1914, replaced the user- unfriendly, llama-dung-fuelled original. But there is never enough money. Meriel reckons that at least pounds 200,000 more is needed to get the Yavari launched in real style, complete with accommodation for 20. Romantic ship- fanciers take note (Yavari Project tel/ fax: 0181-874 0583; email: yavari.larken@virgin.net).

When it comes to the tourism business, Lake Titicaca is fertile territory for idealists. Alas, this could not be said of my first excursion next day, to the Uros Islands. Some 300 families live on 40 "floating" reed islands, 30 minutes by boat off the eastern shore. We landed on Tupiri Island - if the word "land" is appropriate for what amounts to a sodden reed mat, about the size of two tennis courts. Water seeped through our shoes at every step; the possibility of sitting or lying down to sleep in such a place was entirely unimaginable.

From the reed huts that fringed the island, a pungent smell of fish and rotting vegetation accompanied the hard-luck, hard-sell approach adopted by the vendors of garish mats, clay ocarinas and model boats. And who could blame them? We were there for 10 minutes, the first of a daily stream of money-waving strangers, come to gape at exotic hardship, and only too happy to assuage their guilt by paying for the privilege.

Taquile, the next stop, took away much of the sour taste of this interlude. The Taquilenos are robust survivors of a culture that had been thriving around Lake Titicaca for 2,000 years, long before the Incas, let alone the Spaniards, arrived. Their isolation, two hours on by fast, modern Piramide launch from the Uros, has helped to preserve farming methods, religious beliefs and textile skills of awesome antiquity.

Faced with the grim examples of the Uros and the pylon-festooned neighbouring island of Amantari, the Taquilenos have taken matters into their own hands. By the time the first real wave of tourists arrived, travel had begun to open the islanders' own eyes to the value of their assets and to how easily they could be eroded.

They took good advice and the result, rather than merely a tourist island, is an island where tourists go in droves but on the islanders' own terms. Taquile is solar powered; its inhabitants own the restaurant and run the daily boat trips from the mainland. Since all overnight visitors are put up in island homes, the pink hotel presented by the President stands empty.

The Taquilenos' breathtakingly intricate knitwear and weaving are all sold on a co-operative basis. "Tourism is a good supplement," the man behind one shop counter in the village square told me. "We have only a tiny bit of land. This way we can go on living our own lives."

Lake Titicaca will always be bigger than tourism. Watching dawn break over its glassy surface next morning, flushing the distant peaks of the Cordillera Real with pink and turning the water from the colour of lead to a deep turquoise, I remembered the Ur myth and felt my skin prickle. It was from this puma-shaped lake, the most sacred in the Andes, that the children of the Sun, Manco Capac and his sister Mama Ocllo, sprang to found the Inca dynasty.

The proliferation of Spanish monuments around Lake Titicaca points to a much older religious culture; the Spanish always put their best energies into sanitising sacred places. Many churches crumble round the lake - the town of Juli was known as "little Rome" and had the third printing press in the Americas. But, as Puno's great dance festivals show, Pachamama, the Earth mother, is still proving a hard act to follow.

"Throughout the Andes, religious life is lived in a syncretic way," said Martha Giraldo when I met her on Suasi, the island of which she is seigneur. "Praying to the Lord goes hand in hand with offerings to Mother Earth. Before you drink or eat coca, it is common to throw a little on the ground.

Martha clearly has money but she also has a passionate Andean respect for the land. It would not be fanciful to see the reserve she is creating on Suasi as, in itself, a kind of tribute to Pachamama. "I want to create a model for environmental management. To prove you can use a natural resource like an island without damaging it."

It was summer and though very cold at night, the lake and its islands basked by day in a little microclimate considerably warmer than the surrounding plateau. Martha grows vegetables and grain for her little thatched eco- lodge. Sheep and chickens forage; the ducks had to go for they ate the frogs; the guinea pigs, though an Andean staple, are "too nice to eat".

A party of vicuna was due to arrive "if they can burst through all the red tape". Roses and cacti flourished around a trio of what looked like flying saucers - solar ovens where fish sizzled and kettles were boiled for our coca tea and hot-water bottles (literally bottles: mine used to contain Ballantyne's whisky).

Travellers who find their way to Lake Titicaca have plenty of time to reflect on what a mistake it is to suppose the roof of the navigable world to be a barren and inhospitable place.

LAKE TITICACA

GETTING THERE

The author flew as a guest of Iberia Airlines (tel: 0171-830 0011) which operates four flights a week from London Heathrow to Lima via Madrid. Flights on Iberia can be booked through Journey Latin America (tel: 0181- 747 3108) for journeys between 6 April and end June for pounds 422, plus pounds 36 tax.

The author travelled to Peru as the guest of Aracari Travel, Avenida Pardo 610 No 802, Lima 18, Peru (tel: 00 511 242 66 73; fax: 00 511 242 48 56; e-mail: postmaster @aracari.com; website: www.aracari.com

GETTING AROUND

In the UK, Aracari itineraries throughout Peru can be booked through Union-Castle Travel (tel: 0171-229 1411). A tailor-made, 15-day tour (Lima, Colca Valley, Arequipa, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco, Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu), plus all international and domestic flights, transfers, accommodation, most meals and experienced English-speaking guides, costs from pounds 2,950 per person. Entirely independent travel in Peru can work out far cheaper.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Embassy of the Republic of Peru at 52, Sloane Street, London SW1 9SP (tel: 0171-235 1917).

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