Having once been an archaeology student, it was inevitable I would go to Tiwanaku, the most important archaeological site in Bolivia. Home to a Pre-Columbian civilization, the remains of Tiwanaku today don’t quite live up to what one might expect of the administrative and ceremonial centre of these Incan-precursors. This is largely due to centuries of looting which has reduced the stone structures in both size and grandeur.
The lack of signs or interpretation boards means it’s easy to wander around the site, exposed to the harsh altiplano weather, without really getting a sense of place or what the structures were used for. For this reason, I was happy I’d opted for a guided tour. From my guide, I was able to learn that: the round holes in giant stone blocks at the entrance acted as megaphones; the recesses in the walls of one temple were used to house mummies of the elite class; the dual colours of one of the statues were due to weathering which occurred when it had been half-buried for years; and the Sun Gate, carved with hard-to-discern jaguar and condor warriors, has been moved from its original location.
Our guide also told us some facts (as dubious as some of the restoration work that has been done to the site) about the Tiwanaku culture. Since ‘kawazaki’ means hello in Aymara, he explained the connection with Japanese, complete with a mime of revving a motorcycle. He also pointed out some carved masks in the sunken temple that look like ‘aliens’ and the huge blocks of stone used to build the site, which are not native to the altiplano and therefore must have been brought here by some very powerful force.
As well as the remains of the ceremonial buildings and a few statues, you can see other artifacts in the two museums on site. The lithic museum seemed only half-finished and contained only one megalithic monument. There are plans to move the statues from the outdoor site into the museum for preservation purposes and display replicas in their original places. The little ceramic museum is more interesting. Display cases of pottery, bones, metal implements, jewelry and foodstuffs show how the material culture of Tiwanaku changed through its two millennia of existence.
Apart from the site and museums, there isn’t much else to do in Tiwanaku. You can buy handicrafts (the same as you see sold anywhere that there are tourists in Bolivia) and eat lunch in one of the small restaurants in the village. There’s even a hotel, although I can’t imagine needing to spend more than a day in Tiwanaku.
Despite poor management through the years, there is still plenty at Tiwanaku for archaeologists to explore. It’s now up to the Bolivian government, UNESCO (Tiwanaku is listed as a World Heritage site), the local residents and both Bolivian and foreign archaeologists to come to an arrangement.
A guided tour (from most of the agencies around Sagarnaga), including transport from La Paz and entrance ticket, costs Bs120. Spanish and English spoken. Lunch was optional but there is nothing else to do while you wait for the whole group to finish before heading back to La Paz so I recommend joining everyone for the yummy set lunch for Bs20. You can make your own way to Tiwanaku by public transport. Entry is Bs80.
See more pictures in our photo essay.