Tiwanaku: A Line Worth Crossing

Fancy going to check out Tiwanaku (also spelt Tiahuanaco) but it’s in Bolivia and you’re in Peru?? Well if you google it you’ll find it’s not possible – but I’m here to tell you it is TOTALLY possible!

With both of us loving history, it was a site we’d heard, seen and read about for a number of years and it was really important that we try and get there but we had no plans to visit Bolivia on this particular trip as we really only had enough time to explore Peru.

We looked into where Tiwanaku is in relation to Puno, as we were planning to spend a couple of nights on the lake and it looked like it wouldn’t be too far so now it was just a matter of trying to work out exactly how to get across the border to get there!

Doesn’t look too far right??

We started looking online and found there are a couple of tour companies that we could go with but their prices were pretty extortionate so we decided we wanted to do it on our own. I found a couple of threads on TripAdvisor but nothing was recent and I don’t know if the people asking actually attempted the crossing or not, but they didn’t come back to TA to advise how they did it. So I posted my own question – and a few people commented telling me not to bother coz there is only ruins there. It annoyed me a little I must admit! I mean, why would I ask if I didn’t want to go??!

History of Tiwanaku:

I don’t know how many of my wonderful readers will have heard of Tiwanaku before, I didn’t know anything about it until a few years ago but my husband is OBSESSED with all things history (literally!) and he introduced me to it.

Tiwanaku is a Pre-Colombian site near Lake Titicaca which sits across the border of Peru and Bolivia. What remains is the ceremonial centre as most of the ancient city now lies under the modern town, but it’s believed the adobe city once stretched all the way to the edge of the lake.

The site dates back to 200BC but it wasn’t a political power until around 600AD, when the city began to grow in population and importance until around 1100AD, and by 1200AD the people of Tiwanaku had vanished completely.

Whilst in the height of their reign, the Tiwanaku empire dominated large portions of what are now eastern and southern Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, northern Chile and southern Peru. Tiwanaku influences can also be seen at Huari (Wari) and in the central and southern Andes.

Despite the fact their influence stretched so far, little is actually known about the people who built the city. Only a teeny tiny amount of the residential area has been excavated, not enough to be mapped but the ceremonial centre has been explored extensively – this is the main thing you’ll see at the site.

Unfortunately, the site has been the victim of looters and amateur excavations since soon after the empire disappeared. This has also assisted in the destruction of the site which continued when the Spanish arrived and even into the early 20th century. Further damage was caused by people quarrying stone for building and railroad construction, and target practice by military personnel. This means there is very little for the archaeologists to work with, making it a lot harder to learn much about the site.

So how do you get there??

Like I said, we couldn’t find anything anywhere that would actually tell us how to get there on our own so we reached out to host, Vidal, where we were staying at Uros Summa Paqari. He was able to arrange it for us for a total of 300 soles.

We arrived in Puno by bus early in the morning where our driver was waiting for us, so we were on the road straight away headed for Desaguadero which is the border town between Peru and Bolivia.

After driving for approx. 2hrs we arrived in Desguadero where our driver parked his car here and together we all walked over the border. The driver helped us change some of our soles into bolivianos before directing us into passport control on the Peru side.

There was nobody in passport control so we were able to go straight up to one of the counters and advised them that we were only going into Bolivia for the day to visit Tiwanaku. There were no issues at all and our passports were stamped and we were waved through.

From here, we walked across the bridge and into Bolivia (still with our driver) where we met with another driver who was going to take us all to the ruins. But before we could leave, we had to go through passport control in Bolivia, again this only took a few mins to get our stamp and we were on the road!

45 minutes later and we had arrived at Tiwanaku and it was DESERTED! There were maybe a handful of tourists at the site but hardly anybody at all.

It’s sad really, as it’s a really fascinating site and it has been set up for tourists with a nice museum and market stalls. But only about half a dozen of the 30 or so stalls were open and there was nobody buying anything. We bought a ceramic llama and puma from a little old lady for about 20 bolivianos and she threw in a couple of little carved stone charms!

What is there to see there??

The entrance fee is 80 bolivianos per person and includes access to all four sites: Museo Litico, Museo Ceramico, Kalasasaya and Puma Punku.

Museo Ceramico

We started in the Museo Ceramico, which is right across the road from the ticket booth. We deliberately allocated a set amount of time to visit (whatever it takes the average person, it takes Shane at least twice that to get through!) so that we would have plenty of time to explore the ceremonial centre.

It’s only a small museum but it houses items, mostly pottery, that were discovered during the excavation of the site. It is laid out in chronological order, starting from the Formative era (Wankarani and Chiripa culture) and moving through the different stages of development of the Tiwanaku Culture, showing its greatest boom in the classical time of Tiwanaku (400 -800 AD).

Museo Litico

Again, this one is only small and it’s right next door to the Museo Ceramico. We chose to do this one after the site itself (Kalasasaya) but it’s up to you which order you choose to do them in.

This is where you will find all the monolith statues that have been uncovered at the site, including the 8m high Monolito Bennett Pachamama. There are some really cool statues to see but don’t expect any information in English, all signs are in Spanish only and there isn’t any guide books or anything like that to help you learn about each piece.

Also, no photo’s are allowed in the museum. I managed to sneak a couple as they’re not particularly vigilant about it, all the museum staff were sat around at the entrance not really paying much attention to anything.

Kalasasaya

This is inside the archaeological ruins so you’ll need to enter through the gate and show your ticket before heading towards the big mounds in front of you.

There isn’t a lot of information at the site but you’ll find the odd panel dotted around explaining the different areas. We walked up and over the pyramids which are only semi-excavated, and headed towards the back of the site to begin exploring. Standing on top of the pyramid mounds gives you a good view down over the site as well.

From the back of the site you can see what looks like an excavation that has stopped midway through. I think it’s supposed to look like that to give visitors an idea of the process of excavation, and personally I found quite interesting. At the back of the pyramids is an area that hasn’t really been excavated much, but it has been determined to have been public buildings.

Next up is the sunken temple (also known as the Semi-Subterranean Temple), a square sunken courtyard that is unique for its north–south rather than east–west axis. The walls are covered with stone carved heads of many different styles, which has lead archaeologists to believe the site was used for different purposes throughout the course of the empire.

Directly behind the sunken courtyard is the Kalasasaya. This is where you will find the famous Gate of the Sun – a stone arch built out of a single piece of stone! When it was discovered by archaeologists, it was lying down and had a big crack in it so the decision was made to stand it back up but leave it in the spot it was found to prevent any further damage.

It’s unlikely this is where is would have stood originally but it’s impossible to know where the exact spot would have been. The arch is decorated across the top and it is believed to have astronomical connotations, though no one is really sure what they mean.

Once you’re done exploring the ceremonial plaza, follow one of the walkways through the grass to the Gate of the Moon. Similar to the Gate of the Sun but a lot smaller and very little is known about it. It looks like where it stands is where it was originally but it’s really hard to know what the site would have looked like when the Tiwanku people were there!

Puma Punku

This is a separate site a little distance from the above three. I’m not exactly sure how far away as we went by car and it took around 5 mins to get there. It’s just on the side of the road but it is manned so you will need to show your ticket.

Puma Punku means “Door of the Cougar” which is a pretty cool name! It’s a very square site with a big pyramid-like structure and you can clearly see the terraces from the back of the site. There are huge piles of blocks piled together which don’t tell much of a story but they do show the amazing engineering skills of the Tiwanku peoples. Look out for the “H” shaped blocks – they’re very cool.

There are a handful of information boards (in English & Spanish) scattered around the site basically outlining each area and what it may have been used for. Keep an eye out for wild guinea pigs (cuy) too, we spotted a couple running between the mounds of rocks!

We spent about 45 mins at Puma Punku before we headed onto a small restaurant called Taypi Uta Eco Restaurant for lunch. I highly recommend it, the food was in a buffet style but at your table and it was amazing. We got to try a few of the local dishes like alpaca and possibly cuy – it was hard to tell what some of them were lol!

The restaurant owner was lovely and showed us his carvings that are displayed in and around the building – they’re all mini versions of pieces at Tiwanaku. After paying he gave us a little carved stone key-ring attached to a business card which I thought was a pretty neat idea and great reminder of our day.

After lunch, we had to head back to Puno – so basically the same thing as earlier but in reverse! Back through border control in Bolivia, walk across the bridge into Peru and through border control, then back to our accommodation on Lake Titicaca!

What you need to know

  1. Reach out to your accommodation provider to help you with hiring a driver to get you to Tiwanaku.
  2. Expect a long day! We left Puno around 6am and got back around 7.30pm.
  3. Only change enough money to get you through the day – if you change too much, you’ll get less back when you come back into Peru.
  4. Ignore anyone who tells you it’s not possible to do! It totally is possible and definitely worth the effort to go.
  5. You’ll probably read somewhere that you can’t re-enter Peru within 24hrs or without paying a bribe to get through – we had no problems at all and didn’t have to pay anything to anyone. Just let border control know that you’re only going for the day.

And most important thing – Enjoy your day! Even if it is a long day, it’s a cool site to visit and you’ll most likely have the whole place to yourself! Also, make sure to visit the market stalls (even if there are only a few open) – you’ll be supporting the local people 🙂

If you have any questions please contact me! I’m more than happy to help anyone looking to visit Tiwanaku!

Chel xx

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