There’s a lot of living culture in Bolivia, but the country does not have many archaeological sites that are open to visitors. The Tiwanaku (sometimes spelled Tiahuanaco or Tihuanaco) archaeological site is an impressive exception with massive monoliths, elaborate stone carving, advanced architecture, and innovative agriculture from a civilization that largely remains a tantalizing mystery.

tiwanaku overview

The Tiwanaku archaeological site sprawl across a large high-altitude area near Lake Titikaka in Bolivia.

Exploring the Tiwanaku archaeological site

The Tiwanaku archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, is located at 12,670 feet (3,870 meters) about two hours from the city of La Paz near Lake Titikaka.

Monoliths, stone walls, and carved stone faces of the Semi-submerged Temple at the Tiwanaku archaeological site.

The place was created by the Tiwanaku people and it started out as a humble project around 100 AD. By 800 AD, however, it had grown into an important political and ceremonial site and a city with tens of thousands of residents.

Tiwanaku monolith sculptures

Two impressive carved stone monoliths at the Tiwanaku site including the 10 foot (3 meter) tall Ponce Monolith (left) which was named for Bolivian archaeologist Carlos Ponce Sanguinés..

By 1000 AD, it was all history and even today not much is known about the Pre-Columbian Tiwanaku people. Did their culture naturally die out? Was there a disaster? Were the Tiwanaku ancestors of the Aymara people who are the main Indigenous group in Bolivia today?

Kalasasaya temple tiwanaku

The stone wall surrounding the Kalasasaya temple at the Tiwanaku archaeological site.

What we do know is that the Tiwanaku people left behind a lot of clues at this site which attracts experts, who continue to investigate, and visitors. Here are highlights of the Tiwanaku archaeological site in Bolivia.

Highlights of Tiwanaku

The Incas are rightly famous for their stonework, but, it turns out, the Tiwanaku people (who predated the Inca by hundreds of years) were pretty good as well. Some parts of the city of Tiwanaku were built of adobe and these constructions disappeared over time. But a large area of political and ceremonial structures built of stone survived and that’s what is protected within the Tiwanaku archaeological site.

Tiwanaku subterranian temple

The Semi-submerged Temple is a highlight of the Tiwanaku site.

A major highlight of the Tiwanaku site is the Semi-submerged Temple which is believed to have been built between 500 and 600 AD.

Tiwanaku subterranian temple monolith

Stone monoliths were placed in the center of the Semi-submerged Temple, including the distinctive Barbado Monolith on the left which is carved from red sandstone.

Three carved stone monoliths still stand in the center of the submerged area. The most striking is the bright red sandstone monolith called Barbado.

masks Tiwanaku subterranian temple

There are 175 carved stone faces in the walls around the Semi-submerged Temple and, according to a sign at the site, all but 6 of them are original.

The walls surrounding the Semi-submerged Temple include 57 carved stone pillars and 175 human heads carved out of stone and set into the walls. According to a sign at the site, all but six of these heads are believed to be original.

sun gate tiwanaku

The impressive Sun Gate was carved from a single massive slab of stone.

The raised platform that was home to the Kalasasaya Temple is where visitors will find the Sun Gate, one of the most famous elements of the Tiwanaku site. Experts believe the Sun Gate was carved from a single slab of stone weighing more than 10 tons which is adorned with carved petroglyphs and niches. The Sun Gate may have been used as a calendar or as an astrological tool.

moon gate tiwanaku

The Moon Gate at the Tiwanaku archaeological site.

In comparison to the imposing Sun Gate, the Moon Gate at Tiwanaku seems a bit plain. However, this gate has not been studied as much as the Sun Gate and may yet reveal more.

In addition to the settlement’s role as a political and ceremonial center, agriculture was also an important focus. Experts believe that, at its height, the area had tens of thousands of fields and an elaborate irrigation system.

Pumapunku temple tiwanaku

Carved stones in the Pumapunku area of the site.

And don’t miss the Pumapunku area of the site which is on other side of the museums. Here you’ll find a jumble of stones, some precisely carved to fit together like a puzzle. Experts believe these stones were used to build another elaborate temple and surrounding structures.

Pumapunku ruins tiwanaku

Carved stones in the Pumapunku area of the site.

Some experts also believe that the carved stones in the Pumupunku area, which dates back to 536 AD, may have been gussied up with ceramic and polished metal plaques. Now the large and small stone building blocks at Pumupunku (one, weighing more than 130 tonnes, is the largest stone found in the entire Tiwanaku site) are essentially just lying around on the ground as if a giant used them as dice.

The museums at Tiwanaku

Your entry fee to the Tiwanaku site includes entry to two museums.

mummy tiwanaku museum

This mummy can be seen in the Ceramic Museum at the Tiwanaku Archaeological site.

In the cold and poorly-lit Ceramic Museum, you’ll find artifacts from the site including pottery, arrowheads, stone items, metal items, gold items, and a mummy. The few signs on display were all in Spanish only, though a temporary exhibit had signs in English and in Spanish.

Bennett monolith tiwanaku

The Bennett monolith, now protected inside the Lítico Museum, is 21 feet (6.4 meters) tall.

The Lítico Museum houses carved stone monoliths taken from the site for protection, including the Bennett monolith which was originally in the Semi-submerged Temple. It was named for the man who re-discovered it in 1932. A few of the signs in this museum included English. Unfortunately, most pieces were so dimly lit that it was sometimes hard to appreciate the carving.

Tiwanaku visit details

The Tiwanaku archaeological site is open from 9 am to 5 pm and entry for foreigners is 100BS (about US$14.50). Tickets can be purchased at the train station across from the museums and in front of the site which is now the ticket office.

This old train station building is now the ticket office for the Tiwanaku (sometimes spelled Tiahuanaco) archeological site in Bolivia.

Try to arrive when the site opens. At 9 am the site was deserted except for us and a few llamas but by 11 am the site was full of people on group tours. The Tiwanaku site is all exposed to the sun with little or no shade, so wear sunscreen and a hat. Signs are in English and Spanish. Also, take it easy and drink a lot of water to counter the effects of the altitude. Allow at least two hours to tour the Tiwanaku site.

Getting to the Tiwanaku archaeological site

The 45 mile (70 km) route between La Paz and Tiwanaku is neither easy nor lovely. First, travelers must pass through some of the worst urban streets in the country in the chaotic city of El Alto on the Alitplano above the city of La Paz where traffic snarls can mean that it takes an hour or more just to clear this urban sprawl. Once out of El Alto, miles and miles of the road across the Altiplano were strewn with garbage before you eventually reach the Tiwanaku site which is surrounded by the dingy town of Tiwanaku. Allow two hours for this journey, but if traffic is particularly bad it could take longer.

12 cornered andean cross chakana tiwanaku

A carving of 12-cornered Andean crosses called chakanas.

Fun fact: Evo Morales, an Aymara and Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, held his first presidential swearing-in ceremony at Tiwanaku and returned to the site many times during his nearly 13 years as president of  Bolivia.

Where to sleep and eat in Tiwanaku

The town of  Tiwanaku was built on top of an area of ruined adobe structures built by the Tiwanaku. Because we wanted to be ready to enter the Tiwanaku site as soon as it opened, we spent the night before our visit to the site in town at Hotel Akapana which is a basic but perfectly fine multi-story hotel near to the site. About 180 BS (about US$26) got us a passably clean private double room with a private bathroom, a lumpy mattress, weak Wi-Fi, no TV, very little heat, and breakfast. After touring the Tiwanaku site, we got lunch at the nearby La Cabaña del Puma restaurant which was mediocre, overpriced, and full of other tourists. Look for one of our Trans-Americas Journey stickers near the entrance of the restaurant.

There are no tourist attractions in Tiwanaku town, however, the Iglesia de San Pedro de Tiahuanaco, built between 1580–1612 AD is a national Bolivian monument. The builders of the church incorporated stone blocks taken from Tiwanaku and a pair of carved monoliths can be seen at the doorway.


Here’s more about travel in Bolivia

Here’s more about Archaeological Sites


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