Bolivia Photo.

March, 2006

Tiwanaku started as a small town in about 1,000 BC. It grew over the years to become the center of a powerful empire that controlled much of present day Bolivia, northern Chile, southern Peru, and parts of Argentina. It's economy was based on an agricultural system that used elaborate raised planting beds (sukakullos) to produce huge crops in what is now an arid plain. It is estimated that the Tiwanaku farmers produced 7 times as much food per hectare as farmers produce on the same land today. The population of the city is believed to have reached 50,000, with another 100,000 living in the surrounding countryside.

Around 1,000 AD, the Tiwanaku empire collapsed, probably as the result of a long drought. Over a period of 50 years, the population died or moved away, and the empire disappeared. When the Spanish arrived, most of the buildings were still intact, but the discovery of gold artifacts in the buildings led to their destruction. The Spanish issued licenses to loot the site, much like the mining licenses they issued throughout the region. In later years, the best statues were taken away for sale to museums in the US and Europe. Many of the stones were used to build new buildings, or were dynamited to produce crushed rock for railroad ballast.

Today, the modern town of Tiwanaku is small and quiet (see the panorama above). There is little left of the ancient city, and only a small portion that has been excavated. The few remaining stone idols have been gathered in a museum at the site (see photo #1, at left). There are a number of other kinds of stone carvings on display. The museum also contains many examples of pottery, dating from throughout the occupation of the area. The changing pottery designs are used to identify the different eras of Tiwanaku civilization. We started our visit in the museum, then moved on to the excavations nearby.

— Akapana

Our first stop was the 7-tiered earth pyramid of Akapana. Each terrace was faced with stone to create a platform. Only a small portion of the lowest level has been excavated (photo #2). It is likely that much of the stone has been lost forever.

It is believed that Akapana was built as an imitation of a sacred mountain. It may have contained water channels and cisterns to represent rivers and lakes on the mountain. Whatever its purpose, it was a huge undertaking to build, particularly at this altitude. Just walking up to the top was a major undertaking for us. Jim felt as though he was aging as he climbed. It was worth the effort though; we got a great view from the top.

— Kalasasaya

Our next stop was Kalasasaya, a walled temple compound that has been well excavated (photo #3). The walls are impressive, including tall megalithic stones that required a lot of muscle to move and raise into position. The name Kalasasaya means "standing stones" in the Aymara language. Surprisingly, it does not refer to these megaliths in the temple walls. The "standing stones" were the many carved statues that once dominated the site. All but two of the statues have been removed over the years. The most impressive of these last carvings is a human-like figure standing in the center of the temple. It can be seen framed by the entrance door as you approach.

— Semi-Subterranean Temple

Finally, we stepped down into the Semi-Subterranean Temple, a sort of sunken patio. The walls of the Temple are lined with nearly 200 carved stone heads (photo #4). It is believed that the heads represent the gods of the many cultures that were defeated and absorbed into the Tiwanaku empire. Placing them in the recessed space was meant to show that these gods had submitted to the power of Tiwanaku. It may be that some or all of the stone figures were actually taken from the defeated peoples and had once been worshiped by them.

After our visit to Tiwanaku, we continued on to Copacabana and Lake Titicaca. It is hard to express how interesting and beautiful Bolivia can be, or how difficult it was for us to do anything in the thin air at that altitude. The lack of oxygen really hampered our enjoyment of the sights and activities around us. We have never found travel to be so physically difficult. We should have gone to Bolivia when we were younger!!

— return to the 2006 Journal Archive.