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Tiwanaku (Bolivia)

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Also Tiahuanaco or Tiahuanacu. Part of Unesco World Heritage. It is a premiere archaeological site.

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      16.01.2010 15:51
      Very helpful



      The limited remnants of Bolivia's most expansive pre-Hispanic ruins.

      When it comes to ruins, perhaps I peaked too early. Visiting Peru four years before Bolivia, and Mexico three, I've been fortunate enough to see some of the most celebrated piles of stone Latin America has to offer. After the likes of Chichen Itza, Palenque and Machu Picchu, there are no end of fantastic sites to visit, but perhaps not on quite the same scale.

      Tiahuanaco/Tiwanaku is today a UNESCO world heritage site, and stands as the remnants of a pre-Hispanic, pre-Inca civilisation that fell and dissipated two hundred years before the more famous Peruvian dynasty was born. Located about an hour's drive west of Bolivia's capital La Paz, the site is a popular day's excursion, and has been substantially restored and excavated over the past fifty years.

      I wasn't given glowing recommendations for Tiwanaku, told by a roommate in my La Paz hostel that it was "okaaay ...", the vowel sound stretching like the word had got stuck, with an implied "but" dangling off the end. I am, though, a sucker for ruins, and although the site may be a fraction of its former self today, its importance is easy to underestimate. The precursor to the Inca Empire, Tiwanaku and nearby Lake Titicaca (twelve miles to the north) are at the centre of the region's history and mythology and spawned many of the legends that underpin the likes of Machu Picchu.

      Very little is known about Tiwanaku compared to sites of similar scale, although the modern visitors' centre at the entrance to the site sheds some light on the origins and purposes of the worn-down structures you'll see. Nonetheless, this is one site where a guide is really necessary; unlike other ruined citadels, little or nothing is self-explanatory, and information within the walls is scarce; that which exists in all in Spanish.

      ~ Reaching the Ruins ~

      There are three main ways to reach and explore Tiwanaku; the easiest (and most expensive) being one of the many guided tours leaving La Paz between seven and eight in the morning and returning late-afternoon. Numerous agencies in La Paz will book you onto one of these tours - look around the streets running uphill from the Cathedral, and expect to pay around 60-80 Bolivianos (£6-8), including transport and a basic sit-down lunch.

      Alternatively, you can secure the services of a taxi and driver for the day for somewhere in the region of 150 Bolivianos (£15). Obviously, you've got the advantages of flexibility doing this; unless you really love your ruins, you may find the tours stretch the limited appeal of the site a little too thin. The cheapest alternative is to take one of the local buses or minibuses towards the Peruvian border at Desaguadero, which pass the turn-off for Tiwanaku, and leave you a couple of kilometres short of the entrance.

      ~ Pachamama and the Pyramids ~

      Two museums stand at the entrance to the site; although one is simply a façade housing the monolithic Pachamama statue, the largest and most impressive of several such constructions at Tiwanaku honouring the Andean fertility goddess. In the other complex, a variety of exhibits and displays contemplate the site's past, and offer a welcome interpretation of what is now a much-changed landscape (indeed, it is thought that the civilization once stood on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which has since receded a dozen miles to the north).

      The ruins of Tiwanaku are extensive, although limited excavation means tourists' interests centre around three main areas; the Akapana pyramid, Kalasasaya Temple and the Semi-Subterranean Temple, a kind of sunken courtyard.

      Akapana would once have been quite stunning, doubtless, but today it barely emerges from a great mound of earth. What little excavation work has been carried out gives an impression of the true scale and design of the structure, but it's one of many prompts to use your imagination to reconstruct Tiwanaku.

      Kalasasaya is a more complete structure; a raised, walled-in area containing another statue. However, much of the temple has been restored - some claim clumsily - although original foundations and details remain here and there. In front of Kalasasaya, the sunken temple is built around its own three carved monoliths. Lowered a couple of metres into the ground, it is though the multitude of sculpted stone heads embedded into the temple walls that are most striking. Of varying design and states of wear and tear, this modest army of faces staring inwards at the centre of the courtyard make for perhaps Tiwanaku's most enduring image.

      Close to Kalasasaya, the Sun Gate is an impressive, intricately carved structure that is in reality somewhat smaller than the first hand-drawn images of it suggested. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing piece of stonemanship whose designs are but another of the site's debated curiosities. Nearby, the Moon Gate has fared less well over the years, and any such similar inscriptions have faded over time.

      ~ Mixed Merits ~

      As the least affluent of South America's countries, Bolivia is used to being a poor neighbour. In the scale, impact and popularity of its ancient settlements, the theme is repeated - against the myriad wonders Peru has to offer to the north, Bolivia's ruins, though numerous, are pretty modest in comparison.

      That's not to dismiss their appeal, though. As much as Tiwanaku isn't going to head many "before you die ..." lists or attract the fawning masses, it's an intriguing spectacle to an imaginative, none-too-expectant mind. The passage of time and countless less than delicate hands have stripped the city of the majesty it must once have had, and nature has at once reclaimed it (submerging the pyramid) and left it behind (Titicaca's northwards retreat). As such, this isn't an attraction to stand in awe of, but it offers plenty to ponder, and provides a little context to Peru's more celebrated (and more recently abandoned) ruins.

      Interesting rather than exhilarating, curious before spectacular, this isn't the kind of place you'd jump on a plane to see. However, if you've already made the journey to this beguiling corner of the world, it's certainly worth a day trip away from La Paz's frenetic cauldron.


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        15.01.2009 15:14
        Very helpful



        Sill being excavated but very interesting historical site

        Tiwanaku is about 50 miles west of La Paz and near the south-eastern shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco or Tihuanacu) has the Pre - Columbian ruins which were the capital of the state for over 500 years and are in the process of being excavated. The city dates back as far as 1500BC but it is between 300BC and 300AD that Tiwanaku is thought to have been a religious pilgrimage centre and at the height of its importance.

        Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site administered by the Bolivian government. Prior to this there have been a number of archaeological investigations, some more sensitive than others.

        The price of entry to the site is much less for Bolivians than foreign tourists, It is 80 Boliviano for foreigners and 10 for locals which considering how little local people earn I think is more than fair, it is certainly not expensive for foreigners.

        We travelled through the Andean plateau area which is quite a poor farming area and the farms were mud brick buildings with a few llama or sheep and the crops were very limited. It is pretty well subsistence farming. There were a number of road blocks on the road stopping people going to La Paz as there was a big pro government demonstration there; because of this we had to take a side road which was unpaved and very much un-made. This was very interesting as it took us through the real countryside area and the road was extremely uneven, at times it disappeared downwards in a dramatic fashion and we went very slowly down through the shallow river and climbed out again. I give credit to our driver who got us there safely with no damage to the bus.

        At Tiwanaki there were two very new museums; one only had a monolith - the Bennett Monolith or Pachamama -in it and nothing else. The story goes that at one time this monolith was moved to La Paz and that year there was a really bad earthquake in La Paz which was unheard of prior to this. They returned the monolith to Tiwanaki and that year in La Paz they had severe rains and flooding in many parts of the city. I think they will not be moving the monolith again as they fear every time it is moved something bad happens.

        The other museum holds relics found at Tiwanaku and told the story of the development through the ages in this area. At one time Tiwanaku was near Lake Titicaca and as the water level in the lake fell then the city became less important; possibly because it became harder to continue the agrarian way of life that the city depended upon. If you are interested in more history about Tiwanaku then these sites are quite interesting and the first one has some older drawings of the site: http://www.jqjacobs.net/andes/tiwanaku.html

        The actual site is huge and is still in the process of being excavated which means that there are some areas you cannot visit. The main pyramid or Akapana was originally surrounded by water or a type of moat and is still mainly unexcavated and looks like a mound of dirt except for one section. There were seven stepped terraces with buildings on the top but today there are archaeologists working in this area and we were unable to visit. The Kalasasaya is a large raised walled area with the Puerta del Sol at one end and the Peurta del Luna at the other There is a fascinating hole in the wall which acts like a megaphone - if you put your ear near the hole and somebody speaks inside the walled area you can hear them quite clearly. These walls are vertical unlike those in Cusco which were angled, that is because in Bolivia they had not the need to build to stand up to earthquakes.

        We were told that the sun gate had been moved from its original position but I'm not sure if I misunderstood, perhaps she was just saying that it had been repaired as it did have a huge crack in it. It was originally astronomically aligned so the sun shone through onto the centre of the pyramid but if it has been re aligned, its new position it was still regarded as important. On mid summer's day there is a big celebration of local people which unfortunately being more modern, usually requires alcohol and sometimes parts of the ancient ruins are damaged in this revelry.

        There was an underground temple or sunken courtyard with strange stone faces in the walls. They were all rather odd and many were worn or damaged. No-one really knows who or why there were carved there. It is one of the many Inca mysteries. We really liked these faces as they were so odd and we enjoy a mystery.

        It is a work in progress and as the museums are only 4 years old there is plenty of opportunity for this site to become better known as more is unearthed in the next few years. There is some discussion between archaeologists as to whether some of the reconstruction has been rather over enthusiastic and is not as authentic as it might have been so it hard to know what parts of what we saw is reconstructed and what is merely rebuilt.

        © Catsholiday
        Also published on Ciao under my name


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        Also Tiahuanaco or Tiahuanacu. Part of Unesco World Heritage. It is a premiere archaeological site.

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