Archaeology on the Copacabana Peninsula

I’ve spent two summers in Copacabana as part of an archaeological field school offered through my anthropology department. Because of this, I’ve had the opportunity to visit most of the archaeological sites along the Copacabana Peninsula in Bolivia. This area has been populated since the Preceramic period (5000-1500 BCE), and it houses quite a few sites which are still considered sacred to the local population. There are a number of sunken temples in the area which are associated with a pre-Tiwanaku tradition known as the Yaya-Mama. These temples are located in various parts of the peninsula, generally on top of hills outside of modern villages. Three of these sites have been partially excavated, but the fourth, located in the village of Chi’si, has been fully excavated and restored to its original form during the early 1990s (the project was funded by National Geographic and an article can be found in the March 1992 edition in Spanish). This temple is roughy a thousand years older than Tiwanaku, and is definitely a predecessor to the sunken temple found in front of the Kalasasaya temple at that site. Research conducted on the remains found at the site have indicated artificial cranial modification and trepanation occurred at the site for over a thousand years (see this article in Forbes). This site is open for visitors, and a museum should be open sometime in the near future with the items from the excavations. For anyone visiting the area who is really into archaeology, it’s a worthwhile visit, especially once the museum is ready for visitors.  

Sunken temple at Ch’isi

Tiwanaku – Bolivia’s most famous archaeological site

The archaeological site of Tiwanaku is located about an hour and a half outside of La Paz, Bolivia. The city was the center of the Tiwanaku state, which existed during the Middle Horizon (500-1100 CE). At its height, between 20,000-30,000 people lived in the valley, and the temples were visited by populations from around the region who were under the control of the Tiwanaku ruler. A vast majority of the population of Tiwanaku had artificially modified skulls – think Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, but real. The culture likely collapsed due to a severe drought in the already desolate region which caused great food shortages and led to the migration of people out of the valley.
Today the site is home to two museums and two separate archaeological sites, Tiwanaku and Puma Punku. The museums are fairly small and pretty run down, though they are in better condition that they were when I visited two years ago. The Lithic Museum contains many stone pieces which were brought inside to prevent further damage from the weather, including a large stone monolith called Bennett which was displayed along El Prado in La Paz before being returned to the site. The second museum describes the history of the region (for the most part), and includes pottery and artifacts which range from the Preceramic Period to the Inka. The only truly unique thing in the museum is a local Aymara mummy which is housed in a wicker basket like container.  
The archaeological sites themselves also leave much to be desired. Many of the earliest excavations were no better than looting, and the artifacts and stones have almost entirely been moved out of place. Also, due to a long history of bureaucratic nightmares with the Bolivian government, few archaeologists have ever excavated at the site for more than a season, so much of the research has been fragmentary at best. Now, local people conduct “excavations” at the site and further disrupt any possible means of understanding what happened at the site at its height.  


Llama chilling in front of Akapana
Tiwanaku itself is made up of a couple of different parts, primarily the Akapana pyramid and the Kalasasaya temple. The Akapana pyramid has been heavily reconstructed, but not with the original blocks, which are laying to the side. Most of the structure is still under a mound of dirt, so only bits and pieces are visible. The most important part of the site is the Kalasasaya temple and sunken temple located just in front of it. The sunken temple follows a long history of similar temples which can be found on the Copacabana peninsula. Inside this temple, however, are stone faces which jut out of the walls and two stone monoliths. The Kalasasaya temple, which is a raised platform just behind the sunken court, includes two monoliths, Ponce and Fraile, as well as Puerto del Sol. While these pieces are currently in this court, no one actually knows where they were originally located due to the lack of documentation by the first archaeologists at the site.  


Sunken temple in front of Kalasasaya
Monolith Ponce
The second site at the Tiwanaku complex is Puma Punku, which has been featured on Ancient Aliens for being built by aliens (news flash: it wasn’t). This site is characterized by large H shaped stone blocks which look perfectly straight, though in reality they aren’t (they’re still impressive though). Unfortunately, this site is even more damaged than the main Tiwanaku site, and even less information is known about it. However, the most impressive stonework in the area is located at this part of the site. Overall, the entire Tiwanaku complex is fairly underwhelming when compared to any archaeological sites in Peru, however, it is definitely still worth visiting when in Bolivia, as it was the center of one of South America’s largest civilizations over a thousand years ago.  

H blocks at Puma Punku

The Sacred Valley – Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray

The Sacred Valley of Peru, located just outside of Cuzco, is packed with fascinating archaeological sites. Many of these sites are included in Cuzco’s multi-day ticket and are absolutely worth visiting if given a chance. Kirsten and I visited 3 of these sites, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray.
We took an early minibus on a Sunday morning to Pisac from Cuzco for about $2. Sunday is Pisac’s market day, so the city was packed with tourists when we arrived. The market is mostly tourist junk but it’s fun to wander around for a bit before going to the ruins. When we were done with the market, we took a cab to the entrance to the site. It is possible to walk to the top, but having done that on my previous visit, we opted for the cab as it took 20 minutes instead of 3+ hours of uphill walking. Pisac is a fantastic site located on top of a mountain, and it’s very well preserved. There are a series of agricultural terraces toward the entrance which descend down the mountain. The site is almost divided into two sections which are about 15 minutes walking apart. The higher portion has less impressive stonework and is on top of the mountain peak, while the second part is in a more level area and has very fine stonework. The lower section has the characteristic Inca doors and windows, as well as some ridiculous stones carved in very difficult ways. After touring the site we hiked back to the bottom, which took about an hour and a half. By the time we got to the bottom we were starving so we went to one of the tourist restaurants that was open and had lunch before heading back to Cuzco for the evening.

Pisac Sunday Market
Terraces at Pisac
Pisac Ruins

The following day we took another minibus to Ollantaytambo, where we were spending the night before our early morning train to Machu Picchu. I stayed in Ollantaytambo for four days on my previous visit, and wanted to spend a night there as I really enjoyed the laid back and historical atmosphere of the town. Ollantaytambo was the last Inca stronghold to fall to the Spanish, and most of the town is still intact like it was when the Inca were there. The main site in town is extremely impressive, and I find it comparable to Machu Picchu in terms of archaeological sites worth visiting. We grabbed lunch at Heart’s Cafe (best place in Ollantaytambo) before hiking around the ruins, and spend a few hours wandering the site. Once we finished at the official site, we hiked up the opposing mountain to visit some other Inca ruins and take some pics of the entire fortress of Ollantaytambo. We ended up taking a few wrong turns and found ourselves on top of the mountain, which took a while to climb back down. By the time we finished with the ruins it was getting late so we found dinner and went to bed early for the early train to Machu Picchu, which I wrote about in a separate post.


The old city streets
The main section of ruins
Some of the amazing stonework on top of the ruins
The valley surrounding Ollantaytambo

The morning we got back from Machu Picchu we booked a tour of Moray and the Maras Salineras through our hostel. I normally don’t like taking tours of sites, however it was substantially cheaper than any other method of getting there so we took it. I didn’t get a chance to visit on my previous trip to Cuzco, so this was one of the only things I didn’t repeat on this trip. Moray was an agricultural testing center for the Inca, where they could grow lowland crops as well as highland crops in the series of concentric circles. The deeper the circle the warmer the microclimate, which allowed for non-native crops to grow well in the site. There were three of these circular fields, only one of which was fairly large. The tour only stopped here for about an hour before continuing on to Salineras.

The circular terraces of Moray

The Salineras of Maras are a series of salt pools which are created by a natural spring of salt water which runs over these shallow pools and forms a brine. The water evaporates and leaves a thick crust of salt which is then harvested and sold around the world. Different families own each of the 1500+ pools at the site, and it’s the biggest economic input in the town, both from tourism and salt exports. The area was really pretty and the different colors of salt allowed for really good photos of the salt and surrounding valley. This was definitely one of my favorite places in the Cuzco area due to how bizarre and beautiful it was.


Salineras of Maras

All three sites are must-see destinations for anyone visiting Cuzco and the Sacred Valley region.

Machu Picchu – my second visit to this Wonder of the World

Having neither the time nor the money to do a trek to Machu Picchu, we opted for the cheapest available train to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo. Unfortunately, this meant leaving at 6 AM to get to the train station. The train itself was nice and provided a basic breakfast. We arrived in Aguas Calientes around 8:30 AM and were at Machu Picchu an hour later. This was my second visit to the site, but it was still just as amazing as the first time. We began by hiking toward the Sun Gate, but turned around about half way as Kirsten wasn’t feeling well. We hiked around the normal tourist route for a few hours, checking out all the old buildings and terraces along the sides. We encountered a llama in one of the paths on the way out, which was posing for the cameras for a while before running up a narrow set of stairs toward a group of people. A few other llamas held up the sidewalk by standing in the middle and eating a nearby bush. We left soon after the llama incidents and went back to the town to check into our hostel.

Your first view of the site from the entrance
Some of the hundreds of terraces around the complex
The famous shot of Machu Picchu

We checked into Ecopackers Hostel (highly recommended) and grabbed a far too expensive lunch before heading out of town to the Machu Picchu museum, interestingly enough named after my archaeology advisor’s father, who was a Peruvian archaeologist. The museum holds interesting artifacts from the excavations and describes how much of the site was built and used. It’s definitely useful for more context as to what the purpose of the site was. It’s not a very large museum, and visiting shouldn’t take more than an hour. The walk to and from the museum is very pleasant, and there are a few other things available to do along the way, including a butterfly garden. We ate dinner at a French bakery in town before heading to bed early, as our train back to Ollantaytambo was again at dawn. Thankfully the hostel was quiet and comfortable after a long day of hiking. We headed back to Cuzco from Ollantaytambo for a couple days before continuing south to Bolivia.
Tips for Machu Picchu:

  • If you are a student, get an ISIC card before coming, it will save you 50% on the entry fee for this and many other attractions in Cuzco
  • Take the train from Ollantaytambo instead of Cuzco, it’s substantially less money and the ride to Ollantaytambo is only a few dollars and takes just 1.5 hours
  • Aguas Calientes is an awful and expensive town, don’t stay if you can help it.
  • Restaurants in Aguas Calientes add a service charge to the bill, unlike the rest of Peru where it’s included – be aware so you aren’t surprised like we were
  • Visit the museum located at the bottom of the mountain, as well as Casa Concha in Cuzco to get a better history of the site
  • NOTE: There is a cheap way to get to Machu Picchu without taking the train, I did it on my first visit.  HOWEVER, it is not a pleasant experience for those who get carsick, and this route takes substantially longer each way than the train.  So, its up to you whether time > money and comfort.  I personally prefer the latter, and that’s from a guy who’ll take a 27 hour bus ride because its $20 less than a flight.
The llamas here love to pose for photos and harass tourists

Lima, Peru – the beginning of a journey across South America

After two years away, I finally made it back to South America. The trip began early in the morning at Detroit Wayne Metropolitan Airport, where the first of three flights departed. The flight route was convoluted, Detroit -> Boston -> Fort Lauderdale -> Lima, but flying with JetBlue made the ordeal much less painful than it could have been. We arrived in Lima after 11 PM local time and cleared passport control and customs relatively quickly along with a fellow bioarchaeology student who happened to be sitting next to me on the last leg of the flight. We found our hostel pick up in the arrival halls and had a butchered conversation in Spanish with the driver on the way to our hostel.

Flying out of Fort Lauderdale

The hostel, 1900 Backpackers, was a lovely old hostel located in a colonial mansion designed by Gustav Eiffel. It was definitely one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in and I would highly recommend it to anyone heading to Lima. The hostel offered two free walking tours the morning after we arrived, and being the cheap person that I am, we decided to take both tours that day.

The first tour took us to Miraflores, the wealthy and very Western part of the city. This district was very much like any city in the U.S., complete with TGI Fridays and Starbucks on seemingly every corner. The first order of business was eating lunch, and since there were only three of us and the guide, we were able to have a nice conversation with him over plates of wonderful Peruvian food. I had Aji de Gallina (one of the best Peruvian dishes, hands down) and Kirsten had Lomo Saltado (the first of many). Once we finished with lunch we walked down to Parque Kennedy, a small park named after JFK which was teeming with hundreds of stray cats (it did not smell pretty). From here we walked down to the coastline and El Parque del Amor (Love Park), which had spectacular views of the Pacific coast and the cliffs of Lima. We left Miraflores from here as the guide had to get back to the hostel to prepare for the second tour.

Aji de Gallina
Cliffs of Miraflores

The second walking tour went to the Historic Centre of Lima, about a 15 minute walk from the hostel. The architecture in this area could have been in any old European city. We walked along the pedestrian only shopping street to Plaza San Martin, where there was a festival for Indigenous Languages of Peru taking place. We stopped to watch a dance performance from the Amazon region of Peru and check out some of the displays (and I got a really great free poster of the languages of Peru). From here we continued up toward the Plaza de Armas and the river, our guide discussing the history of the buildings along the way. The walking tours gave us some grounding as to the orientation of the city, which we needed for the following day of site seeing. On the way back to the hostel we stopped at every churro stand along the street (it’s a disgrace to visit Lima and not eat at least 5).

One of the many churros eaten in Lima
Amazonian dance during the Language Festival

Our second and last day in Lima was packed with all the sites the walking tours didn’t hit. We started by heading to the Cathedral of Lima, which housed the grave of Francisco Pizarro and some really cool crypts with glass flooring which allowed you to see the skeletons under the floor. The Pizarro tomb was quite ornate, but the most interesting part was an analysis of his skeleton which was displayed next to the tomb (how often is bioarchaeology so prominent in an exhibit?!). The rest of the cathedral was beautiful, but very similar to other Catholic churches in Europe. From here we continued to another church a few blocks away. The Monastery and Church of San Francisco is the second most important church in Lima. The visit to the monastery required a tour, and no photos were allowed inside (though I managed to get a few that semi-turned out). The monastery houses a large and beautiful old library of antique Spanish books from the 16-18th centuries. In addition, below the monastery and church are an extensive network of catacombs, including a circular pit which holds concentric circles of skulls and long bones (best part of the tour). When the tour ended, we went back to the Plaza de Armas to watch the changing of the guard at the presidential palace. A marching band comes out and plays every day at 12:45 PM to signal the guard change. Once this ended we found a cab and headed to Miraflores for lunch.

Francisco Pizarro’s Tomb
San Francisco Church and Monastery

We were dropped off in the cat park and headed straight to find ceviche. Ceviche is probably the best Peruvian dish there is. It consists of seafood cooked only by the acidity of lemon juice and served with a side of sweet potato. When combined with the purple corn drink Chicha Morada, you have a perfect Peruvian meal (which is exactly what we did). Following the delectable meal, we walked the streets of Miraflores to find Huaca Pucllana, a mud brick pyramid located in the city. Huaca Pucllana was built by the Lima Culture, between 200-700 CE, as a religious and administrative center. Because of the lack of rain and the construction patterns, the site was remained largely intact over the centuries. The bricks are not stacked in the traditional way, but rather stacked upright to allow for movement during the frequent seismic events of the region. The site is overall pretty well preserved and restored, and the associated museum houses a few interesting objects from the excavations at the site. When our tour of the site finished, we walked back to the coast and visited a mall built into the side of a cliff. We caught a cab back to our hostel and ran across the street to the Lima Art Museum to visit before it closed. It houses an impressive collection of archaeological specimens and some not-so-impressive modern art pieces. It’s not a very big museum, and can be visited in well under an hour. When we finished touring the museum, we went back to the hostel to pack and get ready for our early morning pick up by the PeruHop bus, a hop-on hop-off bus that we booked to take us to Cuzco for the next week. 

Fresh ceviche in Miraflores
Huaca Pucllana ruins