Discovering the forgotten Tiwanaku culture in Bolivia

Everyone has heard of the Incas but hardly anyone knows the pre-Incan Tiwanaku culture, which is kind of surprising considering it was the longest-running civilisation in South America.

The Tiwanakus were around from AD300 to AD1000 and their most important site – or capital of their empire – can be found in Western Bolivia, not too far from Lake Titicaca.

Entrance to Tiwanaku Double-Barrelled Travel

The entrance to Tiwanaku

Visiting Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku is located about a one and a half hour bus ride from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, and it’s certainly worth a day trip. We were going to go solo but in the end decided to do a tour and we were glad we did because it only cost a tiny bit extra and yet we had a very informative guide who showed us around the ruins.

Idol statue at Tiwanaku Double-Barrelled Travel

A Tiwanaku idol statue

Unfortunately, the Bolivian government hasn’t really got its shit together, because unlike Machu Picchu, Tiwanaku hasn’t been well-kept and they actually think around 80% of the ruins are still uncovered. The only good part about this is that it’s not a very touristy area and you can wander around with hardly any other people to get in your way (unlike the crowded Machu Picchu).

The museums are rundown and in one of them the ceiling had even collapsed. There aren’t many signs to explain what you’re looking at, which is why the guide was great because we took us through the archeological museum and explained all the artefacts to us.

Ruins at Tiwanaku Double-Barrelled Travel

Some of the ruins at Tiwanaku

A fascinating culture

The Tiwanakus were an amazing pre-Columbian culture. They understood mathematics comprehensively and built all their temples according to the position of the sun and moon, and used calendars year-round.

They didn’t have any cattle to help them harvest their crops – of which potato was their main food – but they used brute force and also created tools out of metal which could hold up to 4,500kg. Quite a feat!

By the end of their reign, the Tiwanaku civilisation had spread more than 600,000km², crossing into Argentina, Chile and Peru.

Dave at Tiwanaku Double-Barrelled Travel

Dave standing next to a Tiwanaku-built wall

An unfortunate history

As well as much of Tiwanaku being left undiscovered even to this present day, researchers believe around 60% of the city as destroyed by the Spanish who stole the stones in the 1500s so they could build their churches.

The Christians also defaced a lot of the Tiwanaku monuments, and you can see the vandalism today on the side of the artefacts, with crosses carved into the stones.

Stone carving Tiwanaku Double-Barrelled Travel

A Tiwanaku stone carving

Other thieves and vandals included a British lord who tried to steal the beautiful sun gate at the site, wanting to take it to the British Museum. Unfortunately for him, war between Chile and Bolivia broke out (it was 1874) and he fled, leaving the sun gate behind.

Tiwanaku sun gate Double-Barrelled Travel

The sun gate at Tiwanaku

This is great news for us, because you can still see the sun gate when you visit Tiwanaku today.

Have you been to Tiwanaku? What did you think?

Stone carvings at Tiwanaku Double-Barrelled Travel

Tiwanaku stone head carvings

What you need to know:

When to go: You can visit all year round, but try and pick a day with sunny weather, as most of the tour is outdoors.

Cost: We paid 150 bolivianos (US$21.70) each for our tour. This included the bus to and from the site, the site entry fee and the guide but not lunch. However, we went to a lovely restaurant for lunch and the set menu was around US$7 per person. You can book a tour at any of the agencies in La Paz.

How to get there: If you want to visit Tiwanaku on your own, you can also get a bus from the Cementerio District every half an hour from 8am to 4:30pm. The tickets for the bus cost 8 bolivianos.

Anything else: Bring a hat, sunscreen and water as it can get warm as you walk around and take in the ruins.

Restaurant at Tiwanaku Double-Barrelled Travel

This monument was outside of the front of the restaurant where we had lunch

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About the author

Carmen has been nomadic since May 2013 and the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel. She loves experiencing new cultures and learning new languages. She is having the most fun when skiing down a mountain, scuba diving in the Caribbean or curled up with a good book.

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