The burial towers of Sillustani are certainly among the most fascinating non-Inca sights Peru has to offer. Not far from Lake Titicaca, the Colla people buried their kings here in monumental stone towers even before the time of the Incas.
One can imagine the amazement of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century when they explored the shores of the famous Lago Titicaca. The people of Peru at that time lived in simple huts made of mud bricks and straw and built enormous stone burial towers for their dead, the so-called "chullpas". The metre-high, round burial sites can be found in wide regions in the Central Andes.
The most impressive collection of these chullpas can be found at Sillustani about 30km northwest of Puno on the small Umayo Lake, which is right next to Lago Titicaca. It is not known exactly when these burial sites were built, but researchers estimate their origin around 1,000 AD.
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PICTURES: Tomb towers of Sillustani
Gravesites of the Colla
The metre-high stone towers were built by the Colla tribe, a sub-people of the Aymara on Lake Titicaca, who were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. The mortal remains of kings and other dignitaries were buried in the Chullpas.
Tied up in plant fibres, the deceased were sent on their final journey in a foetal position. Their bodies were preserved for centuries due to the dry and cold air. Often, the deceased's belongings, food for the afterlife and even servants were also walled into the chullpa.
Visit to the Chullpas of Sillustani
The burial site of Sillustani can be reached from Puno in about 30 minutes by bus or taxi along a paved road. The typical round trips to Sillustani take about 3.5 hours, of which one and a half hours are dedicated to the burial towers.
Tip: The scenic Lago Umayo is one of the best places in the region to observe water birds. Vicuñas, the wild species of alpacas, also live on a small island.
The twelve chullpas in Sillustani are up to over ten metres high, mostly round and covered with a stone slab or thatched roof. The older chullpas are still made of small stones and covered with mud, while the younger ones are made of perfectly interlocked, exactly rectangular volcanic stones. The only opening of each burial tower faces east, in the direction where the sun is reborn from the earth every morning.
Although the Colla burial towers were built long before Inca times, they are very similar in construction to those famous Inca walls found in Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuamán or Ollantaytambo. It is assumed that the Incas adopted the funerary cult of the Colla for their earthquake-proof buildings.
The largest chullpa in Sillustani is the Chullpa de Legarto ("Lizard Chullpa", so called because of a relief in the upper stones), at 12 metres the tallest burial tower in all of South America.
Over the centuries, many of Sillustani's burial towers have been damaged by frost, lightning, earthquakes or grave robbers. Fortunately, the latter escaped the 4kg gold treasure that astonished archaeologists stumbled upon in 1971.
Some burial towers were simply never completed. In the case of one chullpa, the stone ramp by which the building material was brought to its place is still visible.
Tip: In the late afternoon, the tomb towers of Sillustani are bathed in a mystical light from the low sun - the best prerequisite for fantastic souvenir photos but also the most visitors.