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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
A major highlight of the Tiwanaku site is the Semi-submerged Temple which is believed to have been built between 500 and 600 AD.
Three carved stone monoliths still stand in the center of the submerged area. The most striking is the bright red sandstone monolith called Barbado.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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