High on the treeless plains just south of Lake Titicaca stand the wind-blasted ruins of Tiahuanaco. Here reside the remnants of a once-great ceremonial center called the “Gateway of the Sun,” appropriately elevated on the high Andean plateau. Stone buildings and statues dot the plain 13,000 feet (3,900 m) above sea level. The most notable structure is a doorway carved from several massive slabs of andesite, which once acted as an entrance to the never-completed complex. Carved upon the Gate of the Sun is a central human figure, flanked on either side by three rows of figures that are depicted as half-human and half-bird.
Tiahuanaco was the principal ceremonial center and pilgrimage destination for an advanced Andean people known as the Viracocha. The prehistoric Viracocha are recognized as the original people who brought civilization to South America. It was the Viracocha who were the original builders and sculptors in South America, passing on their masonry skills to the Inca at a much later date. This enigmatic race disappeared as mysteriously as they arrived. Yet, for unexplained reasons, the Viracocha built their greatest ceremonial center at Tiahuanaco, one of the most inhospitable places in South America.
What little is known of the Viracocha remains one of the greatest mysteries of prehistory. The megalithic platforms and colossal statues of Tiahuanaco are the best ruins of the Viracocha — a Caucasian race from pre-Inca times. Early Spanish chroniclers recorded stories in all parts of the Inca Empire about the Viracocha–“runa” (“people”). From these stories the Viracocha emerge as an ancient race, tall, white and bearded. The Inca ruled over many races of indigenous people and considered themselves descendants of “Manco Capac” — a red-haired, bearded messenger from God. When Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1527 to conquer the Inca Empire for its gold, it was only a small contingent of Spaniards who won the war. The reason the mighty Inca military fell so swiftly was because the Incas erroneously believed the Spanish to be the returning Viracocha people. Even today, Indians around Lake Titicaca still refer to any white skin traveler as viracocha.
The artwork and architectural style of Tiahuanaco undoubtedly influenced the invading Inca people in the 12 th century CE , about the same time the Viracocha vanished. The stylized designs symbolizing Tiahuanaco were repeated on ceramics, woodcarving and metalwork throughout most of the Inca Empire. Inca lore relates Tiahuanaco as being the place where the original ancestral god Viracocha was said to have created the first Andean human being.
A recently excavated earth-covered pyramidal mound at Akapana at Tiahuanaco reveals some startling facts about pre-Inca history. The Akapana pyramid is a terraced pyramid predating the Inca Empire by many centuries. It is faced with accurately hewn and artistically joined blocks, which are comparable to those found on Easter Island. This discovery proves that Inca builders learned their impressive craft of masonry from their predecessors in Tiahuanaco. The ground plan of this unfinished pyramid is only slightly smaller than the dimensions of the Great Pyramid in Egypt.
Another enigma of Tiahuanaco is the stone-lined canal system found near the prehistoric city. Today they neither carry water, nor connect bodies of water. What are these obsolete canals doing two-and-a-half miles above sea level? Speculation exists that the canals once served as a connection between the Pacific Ocean and the geologic Amazonian Sea (which was formerly part of the Atlantic Ocean) before the last polar shift. Could Tiahuanaco be the remains of an Atlantean city?
Getting to Tiahuanaco
The ruins of Tiahuanaco are located near the southern end of Lake Titicaca, about 45 miles (72 km) from Bolivia’s capital La Paz. Most travelers opt for a day trip to Tiahuanaco into and out of La Paz. Buses, taxis and mini-buses ply the route daily from La Paz, but the rough road takes about two hours each way. A ticket to Tiahuanaco also includes admission to Puma Punku (down the road 1 km), which contains a pair of andesite gates considered to be among the finest examples of stone cutting in South America.