26 November 2011

Bolivia day 11: the ruins at Tiwanaku

An archaeological day! Along with about 20 other tourists in a small bus – including the Swiss couple I had spent the day with in Potosi, and bumped into again when back home in Cuzco – we headed out of La Paz towards Lake Titicaca, to the site of Tiwanaku, 20kms from the lake.

The countryside on the way to Tiwanaku

How the site might have been

The Incas are the best known of the ancient South American civilisations but the reality is that, though large, they were only dominant for 170-180 years, whereas the people who created Tiwanaku were active from 1580BC to 1200AD, almost 2700 years. The ruins at Tiwanaku are in the middle of the Altiplano, at 3870 metres above sea level, and consist of one large pyramid and three other temple structures on one side of the small township and another large pyramid on the other side (named Kalasasaya and Pumapunku, respectively). Nothing has been fully excavated and, in the 1970s, some attempts at reconstruction were made, badly, without piecing the stone together correctly and using concrete – so it is difficult to know what is authentic and what isn’t.

We visited the museums at the site first, one that contained ceramic and metal remains, some skulls and textiles – strangely some items looked slightly Asian. The second museum housed the monolithic sculpture for which Tiwanaku is famous, almost 70 metres tall and covered in carvings, some of which have astronomical meanings (e.g. there are 365 circular patterns on the skirt, one for each day of the year). The sculptured figure also has strangely placed hands – the right is depicted in a physically impossible position – and this arrangement is repeated on other sculptures. No one knows why.

The sun gate

Much-weathered carved heads
Interesting carved figures
Another stunning gateway
We walked the site, climbed the tiers of the pyramid (where there’s a constant repetition of seven steps), admired the sun gate (through which the first rays of the sun shine on the morning of the mid-winter solstice on to an obelisk placed directly behind), and puzzled at more astronomical symbols and strange figures carved on another gate.

Next came lunch – and a respite from the blazing sun. The meal was delicious, with quinoa soup, then trout that looked and tasted like salmon, followed by banana and the artificially coloured pink yoghurt that seems to be everyone’s favourite in Bolivia.

Pre-Inca crosses?

More precisely carved stones

After lunch we visited the second part of the site, the pyramid at Pumapunku, where very little has been excavated. However, the large stones visible on the ground have Inca cross (so it’s actually a pre-Inca design?) and other precisely cut carvings, as well as indentations where metal butterfly clips had been used to join the stones together. It was a fascinating glimpse into an ancient culture, about which so little is known, and it will be interesting to see what is revealed in the future.

One small highlight – literally – was the sudden appearance of a wild guinea pig as we walked around. It just scooted across our path and, obligingly, paused long enough for some photos. So cute! I really can’t understand anyone who wants to eat this little creature, though it is as much a favourite in Bolivia as it is in Peru.

We arrived back in La Paz late afternoon and, after dumping some of my gear, I headed out again to explore. I didn’t get to the street with the museums as I’d resolved to, but I walked streets lined with small stalls selling everything from sexy lingerie, a million and one pirated DVDs, food and toiletries, to the fancy petticoats and brightly coloured skirts the women favour in Bolivia. Eventually, my feet would carry me no further and I returned reluctantly to the hotel, weary but entranced after another day of fascinating sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

An alleyway of shops

Tourist tempters!

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