Time Traveling: Tiahuanaco

Pumapunku: Tiahuanaco’s Political site

No trip to La Paz is complete without a visit to Tiahuanaco, the main site of an ancient civilization and an archaeological discovery shrouded in mystery.  Possibly the oldest civilization yet to be discovered, the Tiahuanaco civilization is estimated to be as old as 10,000 years (according to our guide).  Mostly a tourist destination with street vendors, a couple cafes and a hostel squeezed in next to the bus drop-off location that’s across the street from the museums and comfortably down the road from the town center, Tiahuanaco is about an hour drive into the Altiplano once you get outside La Paz traffic.  Mini-buses leave from the area around the General Cemetery of La Paz — a dangerous place after sunset and before sunrise, but it’s mostly safe during the day when the mini-buses run.  Occupying a large city square, the Cemetery attracts locals and tourists alike: markets have sprung up on the streets surrounding the cemetery and travel agencies directed at backpackers have set up shop with most of the buses for Tiahuanaco and Lake Titicaca leaving from there.  You can get a ticket to Tiahuanacu from any of the surrounding travel agencies, but make sure someone from the agency shows you to the right mini-bus so you don’t go wandering onto a van to, say, Copacabana.

As I had assumed, our bus started out with just us and a handful of backpackers.  While I thought the bus was operating under the travel agency, once we got underway I wasn’t so sure.  We kept picking up people from the side of the road, driving them a few miles, then dropping them off at the next town: it was as if the “tourist van,” once out of the city, operated like a public transportation system for those living the more rural areas, which makes sense considering these buses run on multiple intervals daily.

Once out of the dust of the city, we drove through the dust of the country, our route across the rolling, grass-covered hills painted brown with the dryness of winter frequently punctuated by rocky, snow-capped peaks in the distance.  Eventually, the terrain plateaued, and we approached a few buildings on the outskirts of what seemed to be a town.  I was told that we had arrived: we were in the middle of a wide valley surrounded on all sides by low mountains rising lazily way off in the distance.  It seemed like the right place: there were a few buildings with backpackers wandering around, a couple guards near a ticket booth housed in a slightly dilapidated yellow building, and the wooden booths of the street vendors who seem to appear wherever tourists do.  But there was nothing else, as far as I could see.

Bus drop-off location

While the Spanish-speaking people in the party (aka everyone but me) went to get tickets and find a guide to Tiahuanaco, which was apparently somewhere around this barren valley, I wandered into the street mostly being used by pedestrians to try to get a glimpse of the ruins.  I couldn’t see anything:

Where are the ruins?

All the buildings I saw (which were few) were in working condition, definitely not the ruins I had been promised.  And everything was in Spanish — so I definitely had no idea what was going on.  No matter though, I figured the ruins were somewhere around this enormous stretch of land we’d been dropped into.

Sure enough, we hired a guide, who walked us past the street vendors, along the railroad tracks, and to a chain-link gate where a man in a little hut took our tickets before allowing us to enter the archaeological site of Tiahuanaco.

Akapana Pyramid

Upon entering, the very first thing you see is the site’s most outstanding structure, the Akapana pyramid.  As you get closer, you see that it was built of stone blocks cut with an incredible precision for such an ancient civilization.  Some of the stones have notches for brass fixtures that held the stones together, meaning the Tiahuanaco’s technology was advanced enough to mold brass.  Sadly, the blocks were also covered in gold that was looted by the Spanish during colonization.  You can only just imagine the brilliance of a such a structure as the Akapana pyramid accented in pure gold.

Steps of the Akapana Pyramid

Our guide told us the pyramid was only 70% excavated, which was evident by it looking like little more than hill in the countryside.  Climbing to the top, around the excavations, we were greeted with a wonderful view of the area and some very interesting details about the civilization/what we were standing on and how it was used.  Carved out of the middle was a giant square basin, which would have been filled with water during ancient times that served two purposes: 1) as a mirror for the night sky, which helped in the astrological discoveries and the charting of the Tiahuanaco calendar and 2) as a reserve for the shockingly advanced, extensive system of irrigation channels and pipes the Tiahuanaco people constructed to water their fields surrounding the temple structures where they grew over 300 varieties of potatoes among other things.  The temples were built up so the water could flow down through the irrigation system into the fields.

An amazing view + basin

As for astrology, the Tiahuanaco had observed enough to create an incredibly advanced calendar around the solstices and equinoxes.  Researchers originally thought the Tiahuanaco to be a less advanced civilization when it was first seriously excavated in the early 1900’s because the solstices and equinoxes they had charted did not match to those of today.  However, when the pole shift hypothesis (very simply put, the hypothesis that around 1,500 BC, the poles shifted) became more wide-spread in the mid-centruy, researchers discovered that the calendar of the Tiahuanaco aligns exactly to earth’s alignment pre-pole-shift.  Pretty cool.

I was surprised to discover the Incan cross carved into many of the boulders used in the architecture (the Incans conquered the Tiahuanaco in the 1400s and reigned for a brief 100 years before Spanish conquest).  According to our guide, the cross served as the calendar for the Tiahuanaco (meaning the Inca possibly borrowed the already existing symbol).  The top of the cross is the equinox, the planting season beginning in our September and where the Tiahuanaco began their calendar (I always knew my birthday month was the best month…).  The other ends represent the subsequent solstices and equinoxes.

Incan Cross in Tiahuanaco

The construction of the temples, as well as their decorations, is also not a mistake but shrouded in symbolism.  Now, most of the tour was in Spanish and broken English, but what I could get out of it was that 3 and 4 are highly symbolic numbers, 3 being the number of the gods and 4 being the number of the earth, and there are 7 levels to the Akapana pyramid, the perfect merging of the two.  There are also three important animal symbols of the Tiahuanaco religion: the puma, the condor and the fish, and you find them everywhere on the two temples and the megalith inside Kalasasaya Temple (read on!).  There is evidence that the Tiahuanaco began to establish contact with other cultures as far as the Pacific Ocean: the fish is sometimes represented as a crab in later works, which is unusual for a land-based civilization with Lake Titicaca as the closest major body of water, and monkeys show up in later works, indicating contact with the Amazon region.

Ok, now I’ll get to the good part: La Puerta del Sol and the megalith on the ritual platform of Kalasasaya Temple.  Sounds like gibberish, but let me explain.  First, take a look at the picture:

Templete Semisubterraneo, Kalasasaya Temple, Megalith

This is the back entrance to the Kalasasaya Temple (the thing in the background with the giant walls), where the Tiahuanaco performed their religious ceremonies, most likely corresponding to the solstices and equinoxes.  The sunken area in the foreground is the templete semisubterraneo, perhaps a priest burial chamber, that boasts hundreds of carved heads sticking out of the walls, which suggest a number of different things from the use of the coca leaf (bulging cheeks) to contact with extraterrestrials (weirdly-shaped heads that could only be aliens, of course).

Stone faces

Walking along the walls of the Kalasasaya Temple, you really get the sense of how advanced this civilization was: the walls are constructed along a perfect line from bottom to top and intersect at a perfect 90 degree angle.  You can see irrigation holes constructed into the walls all around, with corresponding holes in the ground that clearly lead out to the fields in the distance.

Once inside the temple, you finally get to see Tiahuanaco’s famous megalith and La Puerta del Sol, all completely in line with each other and with the rising and setting of the sun on the summer equinox.  We also experienced an ancient megaphone.  Absolutely amazing.  Our guide told us to stand in the middle of the space while he ran over to a hole in one of the stones.  All of a sudden we could hear him speaking as if he were still standing next to us!  Then he told us to switch places with him and again, it was as if he was standing right next to us.

Testing the megaphone’s acoustic properties

Once we had seen our fill of Tiahuanaco, our guide led us to the museums, where we got to see a number of artifacts (lots and lots of artifacts) recovered from the site, from pottery dating to the various different periods of the extensive Tiahuanaco civilization to the original megalith (the one on site is much smaller than the actual one, it had to be removed for conservation purposes) to a mummy wrapped in the Tiahuanaco way of mummifying their dead: in kind of a woven cocoon.  Then it was time to say goodbye to our guide and make our way on our own to another archaeological site down the road called Pumapunka.

The site with the temples is only the religious site of the Tiahuanaco civilization.  The entire valley is most likely strewn with archaeological remains of this extensive city, which, at its peak, is thought to have been home to 20,000 people.  Unfortunately, there are only 2 sites of the city with on-going excavations: the religious site and Pumapunku, the political center.  Not much more to see there, except some more large stones and an amazing view of the wide valley.



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