on January 19, 2010
When it comes to ruins, perhaps I peaked too early. Visiting Peru four years before Bolivia, and Mexico three, I've been fortunate enough to see some of the most celebrated piles of stone Latin America has to offer. After the likes of Chichen Itza, Palenque and Machu Picchu, there are no end of fantastic sites to visit, but perhaps not on quite the same scale. Tiahuanaco/Tiwanaku is today a UNESCO world heritage site, and stands as the remnants of a pre-Hispanic, pre-Inca civilisation that fell and dissipated two hundred years before the more famous Peruvian dynasty was born. Located about an hour's drive west of Bolivia's capital La Paz, the site is a popular day's excursion, and has been substantially restored and excavated over the past fifty years. I wasn't given glowing recommendations for Tiwanaku, told by a roommate in my La Paz hostel that it was "okaaay ...", the vowel sound stretching like the word had got stuck, with an implied "but" dangling off the end. I am, though, a sucker for ruins, and although the site may be a fraction of its former self today, its importance is easy to underestimate. The precursor to the Inca Empire, Tiwanaku and nearby Lake Titicaca (twelve miles to the north) are at the centre of the region's history and mythology and spawned many of the legends that underpin the likes of Machu Picchu. Very little is known about Tiwanaku compared to sites of similar scale, although the modern visitors' centre at the entrance to the site sheds some light on the origins and purposes of the worn-down structures you'll see. Nonetheless, this is one site where a guide is really necessary; unlike other ruined citadels, little or nothing is self-explanatory, and information within the walls is scarce; that which exists in all in Spanish. ~ Reaching the Ruins ~ There are three main ways to reach and explore Tiwanaku; the easiest (and most expensive) being one of the many guided tours leaving La Paz between seven and eight in the morning and returning late-afternoon. Numerous agencies in La Paz will book you onto one of these tours - look around the streets running uphill from the Cathedral, and expect to pay around 60-80 Bolivianos (£6-8), including transport and a basic sit-down lunch. Alternatively, you can secure the services of a taxi and driver for the day for somewhere in the region of 150 Bolivianos (£15). Obviously, you've got the advantages of flexibility doing this; unless you really love your ruins, you may find the tours stretch the limited appeal of the site a little too thin. The cheapest alternative is to take one of the local buses or minibuses towards the Peruvian border at Desaguadero, which pass the turn-off for Tiwanaku, and leave you a couple of kilometres short of the entrance. ~ Pachamama and the Pyramids ~ Two museums stand at the entrance to the site; although one is simply a façade housing the monolithic Pachamama statue, the largest and most impressive of several such constructions at Tiwanaku honouring the Andean fertility goddess. In the other complex, a variety of exhibits and displays contemplate the site's past, and offer a welcome interpretation of what is now a much-changed landscape (indeed, it is thought that the civilization once stood on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which has since receded a dozen miles to the north). The ruins of Tiwanaku are extensive, although limited excavation means tourists' interests centre around three main areas; the Akapana pyramid, Kalasasaya Temple and the Semi-Subterranean Temple, a kind of sunken courtyard. Akapana would once have been quite stunning, doubtless, but today it barely emerges from a great mound of earth. What little excavation work has been carried out gives an impression of the true scale and design of the structure, but it's one of many prompts to use your imagination to reconstruct Tiwanaku. Kalasasaya is a more complete structure; a raised, walled-in area containing another statue. However, much of the temple has been restored - some claim clumsily - although original foundations and details remain here and there. In front of Kalasasaya, the sunken temple is built around its own three carved monoliths. Lowered a couple of metres into the ground, it is though the multitude of sculpted stone heads embedded into the temple walls that are most striking. Of varying design and states of wear and tear, this modest army of faces staring inwards at the centre of the courtyard make for perhaps Tiwanaku's most enduring image. Close to Kalasasaya, the Sun Gate is an impressive, intricately carved structure that is in reality somewhat smaller than the first hand-drawn images of it suggested. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing piece of stonemanship whose designs are but another of the site's debated curiosities. Nearby, the Moon Gate has fared less well over the years, and any such similar inscriptions have faded over time. ~ Mixed Merits ~ As the least affluent of South America's countries, Bolivia is used to being a poor neighbour. In the scale, impact and popularity of its ancient settlements, the theme is repeated - against the myriad wonders Peru has to offer to the north, Bolivia's ruins, though numerous, are pretty modest in comparison. That's not to dismiss their appeal, though. As much as Tiwanaku isn't going to head many "before you die ..." lists or attract the fawning masses, it's an intriguing spectacle to an imaginative, none-too-expectant mind. The passage of time and countless less than delicate hands have stripped the city of the majesty it must once have had, and nature has at once reclaimed it (submerging the pyramid) and left it behind (Titicaca's northwards retreat). As such, this isn't an attraction to stand in awe of, but it offers plenty to ponder, and provides a little context to Peru's more celebrated (and more recently abandoned) ruins. Interesting rather than exhilarating, curious before spectacular, this isn't the kind of place you'd jump on a plane to see. However, if you've already made the journey to this beguiling corner of the world, it's certainly worth a day trip away from La Paz's frenetic cauldron.
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