Tiahuanaco

One of the oldest archaeological sites in South America

Address

Sitio Arqueológico de Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia

GPS: -16.554465559324, -68.672942829198

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Also spelled Tiahuanacu, Tiwanaku or Tiwanacu, Tiahuanaco is a major archaeological site on the Bolivian highlands. Its ruins, of which a large section has yet to be examined, are based not far from the Peruvian border to the south of Lake Titicaca. The vestiges comprise enormous blocks of granite and sandstone. At an altitude of nearly 4,000 metres, the site of Tiahuanaco houses the fascinating and mysterious vestiges of the pre-Columbian civilization of Tiwanaku, one of the most eminent of the ancient world.

For a long time, the people of Tiahuanaco, who predated the Incas with very advanced knowledge, prospered on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca before suddenly disappearing in the 12th century. They spoke puquina (or pukina), a language still used today by itinerant healers in the Kallawaya culture. The Andean population of Tiahuanaco included farmers cultivating fertile land near Lake Titicaca. They were adept at medicinal plant treatments and ate mainly potatoes, quinoa, and tubers. The mastery of their agricultural techniques allowed the city to prosper by attracting caravans of llamas. This civilization constructed sumptuous stone buildings, ceremonial centres to receive offerings to the gods, irrigation infrastructures and a network of paved roads. At its peak, between the 5th and 11th centuries, Tiahuanaco was home to about 50,000 inhabitants. The city was the capital of an empire on a large part of the South American continent, around the massif of the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes. Its influence was then exerted on other major civilizations such as the Wari (6th century) and the Incas (13th century). The latter adopted many elements of the Tiwanaku culture, such as architecture or religion. For example, the god Viracocha (described as bearded, tall and with a clear skin) was worshipped centuries later by the Wari, while the Incas made Viracocha their principal divinity.

Tiahuanaco was plundered several times by the Spanish conquistadors from the 16th century onwards and was also ransacked in the name of the Catholic Church. The site was damaged by archaic excavations and the extraction of stones to build the church and the houses of the adjacent village. At the heart of all the controversies and the most audacious theories, this enigmatic place still has many secrets to reveal. Tiahuanaco continues to attract archaeologists eager to uncover its enigmas. Recent topographic studies and the use of a drone revealed that the city of Tiahuanaco covered a much larger surface area than was originally estimated.

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  • The fantastic ruins of this mythical city, one of the oldest in the world; a civilization ahead of its time in many aspects (architecture, agriculture, astronomy …)
  • The Kalasasaya Temple (equipped with an ingenious system of sound amplification), the Semi-Subterranean Temple (which included an advanced system of water extraction for the time), the Gate of the Sun (megalith carved in the shape of an arch and covered with inscriptions), the Akapana Temple (pyramidal monument with seven levels aligned with the cardinal points), the Putuni Palace (ancient burial place), the Kantatallita Temple (with a high level of finishes) and the Gate of the Moon (oriented so that the sun rises between its pillars during the solstices)
  • The enormous Ponce, Barbado, Bennett and El Fraile monoliths (named after their discoverers) reminiscent of the monumental moai of Easter Island
  • The sculpted faces and statues embedded in the walls of buildings; the monuments buried underground
  • The ancestral know-how of the Tiwanaku civilization (stone carving, ceramics, frost-resistant terraced agriculture, irrigation and sewage systems called Suka Kollos, astronomy…)
  • The Museo Lítico Monumental (housing the Bennett monolith, more than 7 metres high); the older Museo Cerámico (collection of art objects and pottery)
  • The nearby ruins of Puma Punku (gigantic carved stone blocks) awaiting study and the church of San Pedro de Tiahuanaco (dating from the 16th and 17th centuries)
  • The landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano and the Cordillera Real mountain range
  • The popular celebration of the winter solstice on June 21 each year
  • For some scientists like the German astronomer Rolf Müller, and based on the alignment of the constructions with the equinoxes and the solstices, the history of Tiahuanaco is older than generally believed. In fact, the city dates back not to -1000 BC, but rather to -12000 or -15000 BC. Other scholars have drawn the same conclusion by observing engravings or drawings (in particular on the Gate of the Sun) interpreted as depicting prehistoric animals: the Cuvieronius (a Pleistocene elephant), the Scelidotherium (a giant sloth), the Toxodon (an animal reminiscent of the hippopotamus) or the Macrauchenia (half horse, half camel) appear to be represented.
  • Some specialists evoke the presence in Tiahuanaco of what could be like docks (site of Puma Punku). This hypothesis is controversial, just like the one evoked above but, if it were proven, it could explain the rise of the city whose nearest lake (Titicaca) is now nearly 20 kilometres away. Another theory is that a cataclysm provoking an important rise in the water level of Lake Titicaca could have been at the origin of the decline of this ancient unfinished city. Finally, an oral tradition states that a mythical lake existed on the outskirts of Tiahuanaco, and that the area all around was the cradle of humanity.
  • According to researchers and scientists from Harvard University (United States), the cosmopolitan city of Tiahuanaco had as much genetic variation among its inhabitants as modern-day New York. This diversity was linked to successive human migrations and to the great power of attraction that Tiahuanaco held on the South American continent at that time. The occupants of the city lived in mud brick houses surrounded by vast cultivated fields.
  • Capital of the first Andean Empire, Tiahuanaco was part of Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Human sacrifices to appease the gods appear to have been organized at the top of the Akapana Temple.
  • The Gate of the Sun is a monolithic 10-ton monument. It was carved from a single block of stone (andesite, a volcanic rock). The monument is decorated with a representation of the god Viracocha, the main deity of the Tiwanaku, characterized by his two sticks as well as a series of effigies representing human faces and heads of condors. An Aymara legend tells that the Gate of the Sun contained a secret that could save humanity in times of upheaval and chaos.
  • Every year, the Aymaras (an ethnic group native to Lake Titicaca) celebrate the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere on June 21 with songs, dances, ceremonies and llama sacrifices. This date marks the New Year (Machaj Mara) in their calendar and coincides with the end of the agricultural cycle. On this occasion, the sun rises precisely between the pillars of the Gate of the Sun and its rays emit energies that the crowd, dressed in traditional costumes, tries to capture.
  • Surveys carried out by a drone indicate that the heritage area of Tiahuanaco covers more than 600 hectares, an area six times larger than specialists initially believed.
  • At the end of 2019, a set of 17 vases dating back 1 500 years was excavated within the Kalasasaya Temple. They were accompanied by charcoal, remains of fish and bones of taruca (Andean deer), suggesting a ceremonial practice on the ancient burial site.
  • Not far from Tiahuanaco, archaeologists discovered an ancient brewery probably used by both the Wari and Tiwanaku people. The brewery would have played an important diplomatic and social role in bringing together the two civilizations (within the framework of the formation of the Empire Tiahuanaco-Wari).
  • The lost city of Tiahuanaco is easily accessible from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, 70 kilometres away. It takes just over an hour by road.
  • Many pieces from the site are at the National Museum of Archaeology of La Paz.
  • At the end of your visit, continue to Lake Titicaca to discover other archaeological vestiges resulting from the Andean cultures.

Where to eat

  • Namas Té
    (appetizing address)
  • Typica Café
    (coffee culture)
  • New Tokyo
    (elegant setting)

Where to go

  • La Paz Witches' Market
    (local sights)
  • Kimsa Chata
    (sacred mountain)
  • Chacaltaya
    (high altitude hike)

Where to stay

  • Arthy's Guesthouse
    (friendly and well-maintained)
  • Almudena Apart Hotel
    (spacious apartments)
  • Casa de Piedra Hotel Boutique
    (attractive architecture)