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Surrounded by sweeping views of the dusty Altiplano, the ruins of Tiwanaku (also known as Tiahuanaco) are one of Bolivia’s most visited cultural treasures. Stone walls and temples stand in majestic contrast to the desolation of the northern highlands. Solemn faces carved into giant monoliths stare silently across the plains, concealing the advanced knowledge of an ancient culture that cheated the elements and thrived in this cold, windswept valley.



Tiwanaku was constructed 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca. Spanning almost 3,000 years, its cultural influence reached from Bolivia into the modern-day nations of Peru, Chile and Argentina. During its peak (between A.D. 500 and 950) some historians believe between 10,000 to 60,000 people lived near the city center. Their perfected method of food production, raised field agriculture, is still in use by many indigenous Aymara today. The drive to the site crosses plains extending from the western side of the snow covered Andes through an endless landscape of fields, farmlands, and traditional villages. A museum at the site begins the tour with collections of artifacts from years of excavations, including elongated skulls and musical instruments.



Sometimes referred to as the ‚ÄúAmerican Stonehenge‚ÄĚ, Tiwanaku is recognized as one of 754 World Heritage Sites. The walls and temples are built with precisely cut stone blocks, one of which weighs over 130 tons. Archaeologists are still trying to understand how, exactly, many of the stones were transported from quarries up to 100 km away. During the summer solstice, locals celebrate with folkloric dances and music while thousands gather to watch the sun‚Äôs rays pass through the massive Puerta del Sol (Gateway of the Sun). The giant gateway bears an image found on pottery and textiles in many regions outside of the city. Referred to as the ‚ÄėStaff God‚Äô, it is likened to Viracocha, the creator god of Inka religion, though a lack of written records has prevented scholars from determining definitively that this figure represented Viracocha for the early Tiwanaku people. Tiwanaku serves as a unifying symbol in Bolivia, a nation with almost 200 revolutions and military coups in the past 200 years. In January of 2006, the newly elected president, Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, celebrated his victory at the site in a traditional ceremony complete with native dress and music.


Excavations are often conducted at and around the site to understand its remaining unknowns. What is known, however, is the widespread influence of Tiwanaku on Andean culture. According to archaeologist Javier Escalante, this influence ‚Äútranscended the borders of its capital, covering diverse and distant areas‚ÄĚ of South America. To see Tiwanaku, in other words, is to see where Andean culture began.

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