NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Tiwanaku is located at Bolivia’s extreme west near its border with Peru, on southern Lake Titicaca
VISITORS PER YEAR
Jan: 61°F (16°C); Apr: 54°F (12°C); Jul: 52°F (11°C); Oct: 59°F (15°C)
Tiwanaku (often spelled Tiahuanaco or Tiahuanacu) is one of South America’s most important archaeological sites and is the former home of a remarkable civilization by the same name. Many scholars think the remnants of this people later formed the mighty Inca empire. But to this day no one knows why the city – which, at its height 1,500 years ago, may have held as many as a million inhabitants – disappeared around AD 1000.
Legends of powerful emperor-gods (also priests, for good measure), astronomers whose knowledge of the universe astounds scientists today and masters of long-vanished crafts abound. Their descendants, the Aymara, still live in the region, in villages scarcely changed over two millennia.
The ruins of Tiwanaku visible now are impressive reminders that it was indeed once the most powerful civilization in the western hemisphere. Giant stone reminders are everywhere: the Kalasasaya (standing stones) statues and temple with their still largely undeciphered motifs; the vestiges of the Akapana pyramid, possibly the second-largest ever built; the famous Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun), whose artistic form influenced a continent for centuries; the Templo Semisubterráneo (Sunken Temple) with its rows of enigmatic faces along its walls; and mysterious Pumapunku (The Door of the Puma), with its thousands of 200-ton blocks that this pre-Inca society somehow moved to a height of 13,120 ft (4,000 m) without leaving any trace of how they managed this feat. All these wonders are spread out over an area less than 3 miles (5 km) across, where your only companion will be intense silence, sometimes broken by the mournful winds of the Altiplano.
While the number of visitors arriving at Tiwanaku is steadily increasing, it is still a remote place. Many come for the spring equinox, to watch the sun rise exactly through the center of the archway of the Gate of the Sun on the first day of spring.
Tiwanaku is filled with astronomical and mathematical legacies, leading some to believe it is linked with ancient Egypt and Babylon, two other civilizations with advanced astronomical calendars. While no one knows for sure, there is no doubt that the people who inhabited Tiwanaku were among the most scientifically advanced of any age.
Whether its many legends are true or not, Tiwanaku is as mysterious a place as it gets. Its evocative ruins, vanished civilization, and incredible feats of engineering and astronomy, and surrounding stillness make it one of the most charmed places on the continent.
Getting There and Around A rental car is the best way to visit Tiwanaku and its environs, although there are several daily buses from La Paz that make the trip.
When to Go The ideal time for seeing the ruins and the surrounding region is Jun–Aug.