Tiwanaku is the modern name given to an ancient, wide-ranging civilization that predated the Inca by more than 2,000 years. Through trade and colonization, the culture's influence spread into present-day Peru, eastern Bolivia, and northern Chile.
Tiwanaku's ceremonial center—legendary capital of the bearded creator god Viracocha—is located on a plain that was once the eastern shore of a formerly larger Lake Titicaca. Although this area may have been inhabited as early as 1500 BC, Tiwanaku urbanized most rapidly from 600 AD to 800 AD. At its peak, the city covered 2.5 square miles and may have supported 30,000 inhabitants.
The city's growth was partly due to its use of the hyper-productive suka kollu (flooded-raised field) agricultural technique. However, after centuries of prosperity, prolonged drought brought cultural collapse around 1000 AD. Within another 200 years, Tiwanaku was completely abandoned. Some authorities speculate that the Uros people of Titicaca are direct descendants of the Tiwanaku people. Many more archeologists agree that elements of Tiwanaku culture were assimilated into Inca cosmology and civic structure.
Only about 6% of Tiwanaku's original limits have been excavated. The portions that are visible reveal complex mathematics and astounding effort. Among the highlights are temples, tombs, monoliths, and aqueducts. These structures are largely constructed of massive red sandstone and green andesite block hewn from quarries up to 55 miles from the site. Some blocks weigh as much as 145 tons.
Chief among Tiwanaku's structures is the Akapana, a stepped, pyramidal structure measuring 843 feet east-west and 633 feet north-south. At its highest level, the Akapana towers 54 feet above the surrounding plain. Its top course is studded with carved stone tenons representing human and puma heads. Numerous human skulls have been excavated here, suggesting ritual sacrifice.
Northwest of the Akapana is an elevated courtyard structure known as the Kalasasaya. Measuring approximately 426 feet by 393 feet, the Kalasasaya incorporates some of the most iconic monoliths and gates at Tiwanaku—The Gateway of the Sun, the priest statue (El Fraile), and the Ponce Monolith.
Some structures at Tiwanaku are still under excavation, allowing visitors to see the work in progress. The Semi-Subterranean Temple is famous for its carved faces, perhaps signifying conquered peoples. Several other temple, palace, and tomb complexes can be visited, and the site has a small museum and visitors center. Some of the most interesting artifacts excavated from Tiwanaku are housed in La Paz's Museum of Precious Metals and National Archeological Museum.
Every June 21st (winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere) the Aymara New Year or Machaq Mara is celebrated at the site. Smaller, more traditional celebrations are held on December 21 (summer solstice) and the March and September equinoxes.
Tiwanaku is located approximately one hour (44 miles) west of La Paz and 20 minutes (12 miles) east of Lake Titicaca. Mosaico arranges privately-guided tours to Tiwanaku from La Paz and the Titicaca region.
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"I do love these ancient ruins. We never tread upon them but we set Our foot upon some reverend history."