Lying on the south-eastern shore of the legendary Titicaca Lake, Tiwanaku Archeological Site is the only living testimony to one of the most powerful empire states in pre-Columbian America. Today, little is known about the people who inhabited the area 1000 – 1500 years ago. A lot of what is known is surrounded by myths and fantasies. However, no matter how scarce and incomplete the remaining physical evidence is, it attests to the greatness of civilization that was advanced beyond its age.
Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000, Tiwanaku has been a site of extensive excavations for more than 100 years. Even though the remaining ruins do not have the grandeur of Machu Picchu, visiting Tiwanaku on a one-day tour from La Paz is a must, particularly, if you are a history geek or, like me, fascinated with ancient indigenous cultures. There are a few things that will definitely keep you wondering about the secrets of this mysterious civilization.
History of Tiwanaku
According to the latest research, Tiwanaku, also spelled Tiahuanaco in Spanish, emerged as a town around 110 AD, although the first people settled in this area even earlier, sometime around 200 BC. The place’s current name was, most likely, derived from Aymara, the language of the people who populated this territory after the fall of Tiwanaku. Nobody knows how this city was originally called by its own people as they did not leave any written records. Most legends about this civilization date from a later Inca period.
At 4000 m above sea level, Tiwanaku city has been one of the highest urban settlements ever constructed. Yet, despite the harsh and challenging environment, its people developed efficient agricultural techniques that brought prosperity to the city and ensured its economic and political dominance over the entire region. Since Titicaca was considered a sacred lake and the birthplace of the first people in the Andean religion, Tiwanaku also turned into the most important pilgrimage center in the Andes.
The city’s population and influence beyond the Titicaca basin grew fast. By 500 - 600 AD, Tiwanaku became the first major empire in South America, stretching from Southern Peru to Northern Chile. The state reached the peak of its power in the 9th century, with colonies established in other regions of South America. However, it suddenly collapsed sometime after 1000 AD, and the once prosperous city was soon completely abandoned.
Nobody knows what exactly caused the fall of the Tiwanaku Empire. Some researchers believe it was the change in climate and severe drought that killed the crops and forced people to flee to other regions. Others think the city was intentionally destroyed. Yet, one thing is sure: its legacy lived on through the legends, knowledge, and skills passed on to successive civilizations.
Incidentally, the Aymara people, who moved to live in the Titicaca Basin around the same time the Tiwanaku disappeared, have never considered themselves as their descendants. They believed the city had been inhabited by a completely different race of giants or unholy people who were turned into stones as a punishment from their god.
However, it was the other great empire that took inspiration from Tiwanaku and appropriated some of its achievements a few centuries later. The Incas greatly admired Tiwanaku culture and incorporated some of their beliefs and myths into their own ideology and religion. They regarded the Tiwanaku ruins as the sacred site that had been created by their own god Viracocha. The Incas also borrowed and improved on some of their construction and engineering techniques, notably, the ashlar masonry and usage of metal clamps to connect huge stone blocks. They also adopted the highly sophisticated irrigation system, developed by Tiwanaku, for their own agricultural terraces.
Furthermore, even today, the ingenious technique of flooded raised fields invented by Tiwanaku has proved to be more efficient than modern agriculture. Their irrigation system provides excellent thermal insulation from frosts and helps yield almost twice as many crops as any other known farming methods.
Sightseeing at Tiwanaku
Unfortunately, unlike Machu Picchu that has survived to this day practically untouched, Tiwanaku was largely destroyed and looted for centuries. There are no residential buildings left. What has been excavated and can be seen today is mostly the main ceremonial center. Below is the current map of the site.
Some of its most significant structures that you can visit on your tour are the following:
The Akapana Pyramid, or Temple, is an artificially-made cross-shaped hill consisting of several tiers and covered with large andesite blocks. It used to be the most important religious structure in the city. In the middle of the hill, there is a sunken court that might have been filled with water. The pyramid was most likely used for shamanistic rituals, and the high priest was buried here. Some andesite blocks in the structure weigh as much as 65.7 tons. They must have come from the area of modern Copacabana. This has made archeologists question how these huge stones were moved at such a long distance.
The Kalasasaya is another sacred structure in the shape of a courtyard. The walls are made of red sandstone and andesite blocks and regularly placed columns. The precision, with which the stone blocks are tightly fitted in the original section of the walls, is amazing. Inside the courtyard, you can see several famous statues, including the 3.5 m high Ponce Monolith, depicting a high priest, and El Fraile, a monk.
In the north-western corner of Kalasasaya, you can also see the most prominent structure of the entire archaeological complex: the Gateway of the Sun, or Puerta del Sol in Spanish. Although it stands in the same place where it was found, archeologists believe this was not its original location. The monolithic gate was carved out of a single massive block of andesite. It has a depiction of the deity who was the forerunner of the Inca's god Viracocha. The proportions of the Sun Gate are repeated in other structures found at the site. This fact has led archeologists to believe that the Tiwanaku had a pretty good knowledge of geometry.
The Semi-Subterranean Temple is a square sunken court structure next to Kalasasaya. Some researchers believe, while Kalasasaya was the representation of the earth, this court might have symbolized the underworld. Its walls are decorated with 175 sculpted faces of different styles. Some of these faces strongly resemble our modern images of aliens. This discovery led some UFO-believers to assume the Tiwanaku had contacts with extraterrestrials.
Pumapunku is another man-made temple mound that lies across the modern railway, to the southwest of the main Tiwanaku complex. Its main feature is the so-called Platforma Litica. This platform consists of the largest blocks that have been found at the site. The heaviest among them weighs nearly 131 tons.
You can also visit two small but rather informative museums at the site: Museo Lítico Monumental and Museo Céramico.
The Lithic Museum exhibits some of the largest and most impressive carved statues found at Tiwanaku, including a massive 8m high Bennett Pachamama monolith.
The Ceramics Museum has a great collection of ceramics, metalwork, cranial deformations, and other artifacts recovered at the site and in the surrounding areas.
Both museums complement well the ruins visit and provide a more complete picture of the Tiwanaku culture.
How to Get to Tiwanaku from La Paz
Tiwanaku is located just 72 km away from La Paz, which is about an hour and a half drive from La Paz.
Organized Tiwanaku Tours
One of the easiest ways to visit the site is an organized guided tour. You can book it at one of the reputable agencies in the city, for example, Kanoo Tours or Diana Tours. The advantage of this option is that an English-speaking guide will give you a deeper insight into the history and culture of the Tiwanaku civilization. The tour price is about USD30 - 40 per person, including the entrance ticket.
Public Transport to Tiwanaku
If you prefer to wander around the ruins on your own, you can also get to Tiwanaku by public transport.
First, take a taxi or a bus from the city center to La Paz General Cemetery (Cementerio General). Right across the entrance to the cemetery, there is a bus stop where you can catch a small shuttle bus, called collectivo, that goes directly to Tiwanaku. The ride costs 15 bolivianos (USD2). The bus will drop you at the beginning of the road leading to the ruins.
The entrance ticket to the site for foreign nationals costs 100 bolivianos (USD20) and gives you the right to visit Tiwanaku, Pumapunku, and both museums.
Aymara New Year at Tiwanaku
Every year on June 21, the local Aymara people gather at Tiwanaku to celebrate their traditional holiday Aymara New Year.
Although the celebrations have little to do with the original Tiwanaku culture, it can still be a fun experience to see the Aymara dance in traditional clothing and perform sacrificial ceremonies to Pachamama.
Due to the site management’s failure to implement certain conservation efforts, UNESCO added Tiwanaku to its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. So you should probably hurry up to see the ruins in their current state.
At the end of your visit, you will probably still have as many questions as the answers about this ancient civilization. How did these people manage to transport massive stone blocks weighing hundred tons at long distances? How did they manage to carve in hard solid rock, like basalt or andesite, with only bronze tools available? Where did they come from, and how did they disappear? We will probably never have their secrets fully explained, but the mystery that surrounds their lost city will continue to fascinate us for generations.