South America 2015 · Travel writing

Tiwanaku/Tiahuanaco: the looter's paradise

Tiwanaku is now a small collection of ruins around 90 minutes’ drive from La Paz; two thousand years ago it was the capital of an empire which existed and thrived from around 300BC to 1200AD. We spent a few interesting hours there, and were intrigued — and depressed — by what we saw.

(I had never heard of the Tiwanaku empire and yet I had, of course, heard of the much more short-lived Incas — because Europeans interacted with them. It’s a funny old world).

We intended to visit Tiwanaku during the day and then return to La Paz in order to get a bus on to Copacabana, so we needed to be quite efficient with transport. The collectivo that we hopped on, however, had other plans. (My nemesis). We waited for a full hour until enough people bought tickets and got on.

Jess and I were gnashing our teeth in frustration; the driver, for his part, was standing on the roof hollering “Tiwanakuuuu!” and trying to get more passengers. It was not ideal. We did not like it. And when the bus eventually rumbled to life, we were both sure that it was already too late for our itinerary to make sense. (It was fine in the end. But you must recognise that feeling of miserable powerlessness).

One small good thing about the trip was that two Aymara women sat in front of us — the Aymara are one of the local indigenous populations. One of the women was middle aged, and the other was extremely elderly: soft-lipped, speckle-handed, rheum-eyed. Both still had long plaits, vibrant clothing and jaunty hats.

They didn’t speak Spanish to the driver, but Aymari/Quechua — full of clicks and glottal stops, and with an accent that sounded a little like the way deaf people speak. When it came for us to write our names on the bus’s list, the younger woman passed the clipboard straight to Jess and repeated her own and her companion’s name to us until we understood that we should write them down. They were, presumably, illiterate.

Ninety minutes’ dust and stink later, we were in Tiwanaku. It reminded me a little of the (outstanding) archaeological sites of Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra, India — all of these places are UNESCO world heritage sites, but none of them really know what to do with it. Tiwanaku was essentially just a railway station, which doubled as a ticket office, left luggage store, and home for dozens of stray dogs; some museums; some caf├ęs; and some houses. We dumped our bags, grabbed some tickets, and headed to the first in the series of museums and archaeological sites.

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I have seen so many examples of pottery, small metal creatures, and mummified bodies on this trip, from all kinds of cultures. Do they get a bit samey after a while? Yes. But it’s also interesting to think about them as a whole and consider just how important ceremony was to these cultures.

The Nazcas / Incas / Limas / Tiwanakis had stories and myths and religions which infused absolutely everything they did. And in creating and ritually using such valuable objects in ceremonies, they were trying to pin down and express the only worldview they ever heard — and the one that they thought was absolutely correct. To them, performing in this fixed way is absolutely fundamental for the continuation of society.

I have heard thousands of worldviews in my time, from religions to fictions to science. But the thing that links these cultures and me is that I put all my faith in the latter because I think it’s true. In fact, I am as sure as they must have been.

Tiwanaku also suffers as a site because much of its grandeur has been stolen — either by common criminals or by archaeologists who uncovered the city. This was the case with the amazing ten-foot statue of Panchamama (mother Earth), which was temporarily taken to Lima but has since been returned to her very own museum. She looms above you, monolithic and delicately carved, but was only explained in Spanish.

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Next up was the Puma Puku, the ancient Tiwanaku palace. I wish I could tell you that it was beautiful, majestic, awe-inspiring, but it wasn’t. It was a pile of rocks on the ground. I was able to ‘hitch’ on a guided tour for a few minutes and learnt a little about the symbolism and careful composition of the masonry, and the fact that this palace faces the west, whereas all the other temples face the east to greet the sun. I also heard that the gates were originally ‘guarded’ by stone puma-men — but that they are in a museum in Germany. I struggled to get anything from the site itself apart from a vague sense of emptiness.

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The remaining site was a cluster of archaeological sites close together that used to be the main temple and surrounding buildings. These were the easiest to picture in their heyday — we could see intricate mantels; subterranean walls covered in carved heads; precise shapes carved out of dirt to jog the imagination.

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The walls of the main temple itself were destroyed in the 1940s by the army (???), but were still partly intact on one side.

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Fake.
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Real. (BETTER).

We also saw a couple more statues, standing a lonely vigil.
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Jess remarked on how frustrating it was to walk around the place without being able to actually see what the buildings actually were. It certainly required a huge leap of imagination: a much bigger leap than we should have been forced to make.

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At one point I walked past a piece of scrub that had wild guinea pigs scrabbling around — I did my best but they were impossible to photograph. I need to practise!

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