The ruins of Tiwanaku are located in western Bolivia on the border with Peru. Next to Machu Picchu in Peru, Tiwanaku is the most important site in South America that was built before Columbus landed and is an absolute must-see, not only for culturally interested travellers to Bolivia.
The ruins of Tiwanaku (also called Tiahuanaco) are located about 70 kilometres from the Bolivian capital La Paz near the town of Tiawanacu in western Bolivia on the border with Peru. At an altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level, the mysterious historic city is enthroned in the Bolivian Andes. This fascinating place is one of our top 10 sights of Bolivia.
Tiwanaku refers to both a ruin site and a South American culture and is the most important excavation site in Bolivia. Along with Machu Picchu in Peru, Tiwanaku is the most important site in South America that was built before Columbus landed. Tiwanaku has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
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PICTURES: Tiwanaku Ruin Site
Photo gallery: Tiwanaku Ruin Site
Centre of power of the Aymaras
Tiwanaku literally means something like "Sit down, little lama". Tiwanaku was built about 3,000 years ago, around 1,500 BC, and functioned as the administrative and spiritual centre of the Aymara culture from around 300 BC.
Tiwanaku reached its cultural peak from 600 to 900 AD, when its influence extended as far as the Atacama Desert in Chile and into present-day Argentina. Towards the end of the first millennium, a period of drought doomed the flourishing city, destroying large parts of the harvest despite sophisticated irrigation systems.
Tiwanaku was abandoned for many years and never regained its former importance due to the power of the Incas and other peoples over the Aymaras.
Takeover by the Incas, destruction by the Spanish
When Tiwanaku was reached by the Incas, the city had already been abandoned for about 500 years. The Incas built their own structures next to the Aymara ruins and even named Tiwanaku the birthplace of humanity in some of their myths. Thus, Tiwanaku retained its spiritual and religious character until the arrival of the Spanish.
The conquistadors used the ruined site as a supplier of building materials and destroyed much of what was left of the historic city. The excavation and exploration of the city was led by the Austrian engineer Arthur Posnansky.
Today, only about 1 percent of Tiwanaku's 10-square-kilometre area has been excavated, and several US universities and Bolivian institutions are working on archaeological research at Tiwanaku.
Visit from Tiwanaku
Tiwanaku is an absolute must not only for those interested in culture in Bolivia. You can see walls, stairs and building remains of the millennia-old city. The special thing about it is that the blocks weighing over 100 tonnes for the masterfully crafted stone carvings were brought from a quarry over 20 km away. How this was done is still a mystery, because the wheel was still unknown in Tiwanaku.
The processing of andesite and diorite, which are among the hardest rocks, is still a mystery to researchers today. From the Akapana, a small hill on top of the temple complex, you can get a good view of the entire area.
However, it is not only for the view, but also holds a scientific mystery. If you hold a compass over one of the stones on this hill, the needle starts circling like crazy - why this is so, our scientists still cannot explain.
The famous Tiwanaku Sun Gate
Tiwanaku's most famous sight is the Sun Gate, also called Intipunku. The gate, which is about three metres long and almost four metres high, is made of volcanic rock and its shape is reminiscent of a triumphal arch, and was carved out of only one andesite block.
Probably due to an earthquake, it once broke in two, but was reassembled and erected at the beginning of the 20th century. At the highest point of the gate is the mask-like face of the creator god Wiracocha, flanked on the right and left by two sculpted serpent sceptres. The Sun Gate was also used to calculate astronomical data. The Tiwanaku already knew that the year had exactly 365.25 days.
Finds from Tiwanaku are exhibited in a small museum, which also provides English-language explanations of the vessels, figures and jewellery made of clay and ceramics.
A few hundred metres away are the masterfully carved monoliths of the Puma Punku ruins, parts of an unfinished Aymara building. The temple of Puma Punku is one of the masterpieces of pre-Columbian architecture in Bolivia.
Tip: When visiting Tiwanaku, a competent guide should be with you who can explain the somewhat obscure culture of Tiwanaku. The stone ruins become even more worth seeing with the help of the interesting background information.