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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
All three sites are must-see destinations for anyone visiting Cuzco and the Sacred Valley region.
Cuzco, Peru – archaeology capital of South America
The PeruHop bus picked us up in Arequipa before dawn for the long trip to Cuzco. This particular trip had very few stops due to traffic problems in Cuzco because of the Corpus Christi festival going on that week. We had a brief stop to grab food to go for lunch, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Word of advice: don’t ever eat a “chicken sandwich” in Pukara, Peru – it’s probably not chicken and food poisoning is not a great way to start a week in Cuzco. Anyway, we made it to Cuzco around sunset and managed to run into some of our friends at our hostel, as they had also booked the same place. Once we checked in we went out for dinner with them, as well as a couple other backpackers from Switzerland, at a restaurant near the Plaza de Armas, which was absolutely delicious. We said goodbye to our friends that evening as they were doing a Machu Picchu trek early the next morning and then heading back to Scotland. That night also turned out to be terrible, as the chicken sandwich from lunch came back with a vengeance and left me attached to the toilet for the whole night. The next day we did very little due to my recovery. Since we spent so much time in Cuzco, it makes little sense to do a day by day post, so I’m going to put it more of a list to save space.
- Casa Concha, the Machu Picchu museum put together with the Yale collection excavated by Hiram Bingham after his “discovery” of the site. The best part of this museum is the life-size figure of my archaeology advisor from uni dressed as the Inca ruler, complete with a skirt and gold gauges.
- Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cuzco with a large fountain and two cathedrals
- Qoricancha, the former Inca center which was converted into monastery by the Spanish after their conquest. The museum shows how the Inca stones were put together with metal and smooth grooves.
- Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, a nightly dance performance which highlights different dances from around Cuzco. Kirsten got pulled from the crowd and had to dance on stage at the end of the show, which was fantastic. This is part of a city ticket which gives you access to most of the major archaeological sites and museums in the city. I can’t remember the cost, however, students get half off with an ISIC card. There are various lengths available from one day to one week. I highly recommend buying this ticket if you are staying in Cuzco for a few days because if you visit just a few of the sites included you will save a ton of money on admission fees.
- Sacsayhuaman, a large archaeological site located on top of a hill overlooking Cuzco. The stones are monstrous and the site is huge. While technically included in the Sacred Valley sites, its a short walk from downtown so I’m including it here. However, you can easily book a tour which combines this with a few other regional sites. It is also included in the city ticket.
- Monumento Patchakuteq, a large monument and museum dedicated to the Inca ruler Patchakuteq. This is included in the city ticket.
- Various churches around the city, there’s a combo ticket that allows entry into 5 churches and a religious art museum
- San Pedro Market, we bought a lot of fresh fruit juices and a meal here because the prices are crazy cheap. There are also a lot of souvenirs available for fairly cheap here as well. Make sure to check out the innards market in the back corner, it’s bizarre!
- We were in the city for Corpus Christi, so the streets were always packed and at one point one square filled with stalls selling meals of guinea pig
- 12 angled stone, this rock in one of the Inca walls demonstrates the ridiculous nature of Inca stonework and has become a popular tourist stop for photos. It was insanely crowded when we stumbled upon it and it took like 5 minutes for me to get a photo without people in front of it.
- We also visited a lot of archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley which are on the Cuzco tourist ticket, but those are written about in another post. Cuzco is a really great city to visit – very walkable and safe. This was my second visit and it was still just as great as the first time.
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.
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.