South American trip (7) – Bolivia

La Paz, Tiwanaku and Titicaca Lake

As a country, Bolivia was the most authentic and interesting part of the South American trip. It is a poor country, cheap but without tourist traps. The most interesting experiences were the witch market in La Paz and the fascinating Tiwanaku. Lake Titicaca is included in this article, although it is on the border with Peru.

I know I’ve probably used the words fascinating, extraordinary, magnificent, galactic a lot. But this trip was full of highlights.

Located 72 km (44 miles) west of La Paz, near the southeastern shore of Lake Titicaca, lie the ruins of one of the oldest and largest urban cities ever built.

The ancient buildings and ruins (pre-Columbian, pre-Inca) show you the obsession of the people of that time for geometric perfection. Tiwanaku. 

But first, we got to cross to Bolivia and stop on the way, we got to visit Titicaca and the amazing universe of the Uros natives. We visited the witch market of La Paz. Solar de Uyuni is described in another separate post.

A bit of throwback:

In the summer of 2019 I went on an intensive tour of western South America. Passing through five territories of the continent took me through fascinating places, unique in the world. I stood by the Hand of the Desert, looking up at the southern night sky of the Atacama desert, and drove the largest dunes in the world and the paths of desert valleys with such a different appearance that people gave them names like the Valley of the Moon or the Valley of the Planet Mars.

I took night pictures near the Three Sisters in the Valley of the Moon. I gazed westward into the Pacific Ocean, out in the open, alongside the stone statues of the vanished civilization of Easter Island—the eastern tip of Polynesia.

I had lunch in the middle of the Bolivian salt desert and at night I photographed my reflection in the water mirror of the flattest and whitest place on Earth. We stayed in a villa made of salt and cactus wood. We went to the cactus island of the salt desert.

I listened to the stories of the astronomers from ALMA – an observatory located at over 5000m altitude, but also to those of the native inhabitants of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. We drove fast on dirt desert roads to see the flamingos at sunset. I went to Macchu Picchu. I went to Cusco. We saw the oldest pyramids in South America, the over 5000 year old ones from Caral. I went to the witches market in La Paz and saw the singing fountains in Lima.

It was a monumental trip in just one month, parts of which could be monumental trips in themselves. The pretext was the few minutes of solar eclipse, the third solar eclipse for me. The rest of the trips and the fascinating things experienced concentrated within a month make me wonder what I do with my time at home when week after week, month after month goes by without discovering anything notable. And I miss leaving again.

The tour was organized by the SARM Romania astroclub, of which I am a member. The official name was SARM Romania Expedition – South American Eclipse 2019, extending from June 25 to July 22, 2019.

Given the intensity and extension of the trip, we have divided the story into 9 parts, presented in chronological order as follows:

  • Buenos Aires;
  • Chile – Introduction to Chile and The Solar Eclipse 2019;
  • Easter Island;
  • Chile – Atacama Desert, Valley of Death (or Mars) and other amazing places;
  • Chile – Moon Valley and the Flamingo Birds;
  • Bolivia – Salar de Uyuni or the Salt Desert;
  • Bolivia – La Paz, Tiwanaku and other amazing places;
  • Peru – Machu Picchu and Cuzco;
  • Peru – Lima, Nazca and the Caral Pyramids.

Bolivia – La Paz

July 13 – Saturday

In La Paz we had several options but I chose a free visit of the city.

If you want a pre-arranged schedule, you can choose to do the “Devil’s Road” with bicycles ($127) or optionally a 1/2 day bus trip to Valle de Las Animas and the Palca Canyon ($45).

In La Paz we stayed at the 5-star Hotel Camino Real. I remind you that Bolivia is very cheap even for Romanians.

It was interesting that at night they put metal shutters on the hotel and the hotel itself was guarded by personnel with automatic weapons. If you were late, they had to open those shutters for you.

If I would go again to South America I would take more money with me for shopping.

Not only for the interesting products themselves but it seems a very good way to help the locals there who are clearly struggling with money, encourage the local economy, if one could do a bit of help without giving away.

One morning I think I heard gunfire outside in town.

The thought automatically came to mind that I was an European tourist, compared to the local population, much like how we looked at middle or below-middle class foreigners who came to the gray and poor communist Romania of the 80s.

Except that Bolivia, though poor, it is not grey. It is really very colorful.



However, I chose a free walk around the city and had no problem.

The city brings a bit of Kathmandu or Cairo (that’s what I can compare it to) in terms of congestion and chaos on the streets but it seems to be a bit more orderly, with very large stray dogs and colonial buildings, including some gorgeous cathedrals.

It feels like the third world, but again, I didn’t have any kind of problem. I even had pleasant surprises.

La Paz is surrounded by huge mountains and hills, and the city is populated in this gap between the hills and on the hills. The view is also superb from the bottom up, from the depression and from the hills.

They have built a wonderful gondola where everything goes very well organized.

I recommend the Gondola trip, actually the Mi Teleferico cable car.

This is a relatively new form of transportation in La Paz that only started in 2014. Since then it has gone from 1 to 7 active lines (and 4 more in the works) I don’t know and have never personally seen an extensive network of cable cars outside a ski resort! I remind you that a trip on these cable cars costs under $1 – nothing like the exorbitant prices at the ski resorts.

The cable car network has been built according to the needs of the locals, so it does not link the tourist attractions in particular. However, a round trip up and down to “El Alto” will give you amazing views of the city and the entire valley.

Returning to the city of Paz, known as Nuestra Senora de La Paz, a name given by Alonso de Mendoza, the founder of the city, known mostly as La Paz, is the administrative capital of Bolivia and the department of La Paz, at the same time, the largest city in the Altiplan (which the highest mountain plateau after Tibet). La Paz, the government capital of Bolivia, is the highest capital in the world, being located at an altitude of 3,660 m. Although Sucre is the legal capital and seat of the judiciary,

La Paz remains the main political and commercial center due to its central location. The city was founded in 1548 to celebrate the end of the Peruvian Civil War.

Among the most important tourist attractions, I mention the Presidential Palace in Murillo Square, the Murillo Square Cathedral, which dates back to 1835 and is one of the most impressive buildings in La Paz. It is a huge building, with a very high dome, with special stained glass windows. The Museum of Contemporary Art is set up in an old villa, dating from the 19th century, being one of the best art museums in South America, presenting Bolivian art in detail and an impressive collection of colonial paintings.

The Museum of Folklore or the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Church of San Francisco whose architecture combines the Spanish style of the 16th century and the mestizo style, having a facade decorated with stone sculptures are some of them. The Museum of Ethnography and Folklore is recommended for anthropology enthusiasts, presenting the history, folklore and traditions of Bolivia, it is housed in a 17th century building, itself a true work of art. The Whale Museum, the Dove of Peace Monument at the entrance of the city, the Museum of the National Revolution or more precisely of the 100 revolutions of the country, but especially of the revolution of 1952 when the mines were nationalized or the Pipiripi Museum for children, an interactive museum are offers temptations for tourists.

San Pedro prison is the largest prison in Bolivia, renovated to provide space for people who are punished but who enjoy certain facilities, some work (even sell coca to tourists or rent their place) or live with their family and in turn their convicts. Elections are held for community leaders in the prison, and stabbings are the order of the day. There are 1,500 prisoners here, but a Briton, Rusty Young, in 2003 started offering the possibility of visits for interested tourists, since then the place has been famous.

Mercado de Hechiceria (Witches’ Market), a cobbled street full of occult and bizarre artefacts guaranteed to take your breath away (and not just because it’s 3,660m above sea level).

Therefore I did not miss this market, where I got quite a few souvenirs.

To be fair, the market starts out innocent enough. You’re greeted at first by rows of smiling vendors standing together in their traditional little bowler hats and colorful skirts, the aroma of incense drawing you further down the street, before things start to take a strange turn. It is here that the market earns its nickname: “Witch Market“.

On either side you’ll find wide-eyed wooden drums and stone totems, promising to bring luck and adventure to those who buy them. There are tables of a variety of bottled potions with Mills & Boon-style labels that promise everything from fixing an aching stomach to helping with weight loss, pregnancy or even bedroom performance (say you’re buying for a friend ). If you think you’re traveling buddies might be possessed, there are also incense packs to help ward off ghosts and evil spirits. While you can find all the ingredients for making the following witches, such as dried frogs, animal bones, and herbs, the most confusing ingredients are the llama fetuses. Hanging from doors like the odd buzz, sitting on tables or in buckets, dried specimens are everywhere. Fetuses serve an important cultural purpose, they are buried in the foundations of any new building as a cha’lla (offering) to the goddess Pachamama, in return for good luck. Some Bolivians are expected to sacrifice a live llama.

Coca Museum

This is a wonderful, quirky and informative little museum, you could spend a few hours here learning the ins and outs of this infamous plant. From its history and importance to indigenous cultures in South America to the devastating effects it can have on the body when misused and the wars fought in its name.

Traditional food in La Paz

At Tranquera you will find many local dishes – from the traditional meat dishes of Silpancho and Pique Macho to trout and steaks. For big llama dishes and quinoa dishes, head to Angelo Colonial. And for a total lunch, consider Vagon del Sur for more delicious local food. For tasty empanadas filled with cheese (and condiments upon request), head to Jawitas Chulumani. If you’re vegetarian but still want to try saltenas, head to Pacena La Saltena. And if you want a good coffee, go to Cafe arte Sultana (which is also interesting for lunch).

For those looking for alcohol over caffeine, visit Jallalla Cocktail Bar to enjoy both art and fine drinks.

As our hotel was five stars, we took full advantage of this. I have laundry to wash, I ordered room service, for prices of several tens of euros.

In the evening we had dinner at the hotel. Other colleagues in the group took the opportunity to try Alpaca heart. For all my curiosity, I did not do this, especially after seeing so many alpacas on this trip.


Tiwanaku or Tiahuanaco

July 14 – Sunday

After a very early breakfast in the luxurious hotel in La Paz, we went by coach to Tiwanaku.

I know I’ve probably used the words fascinating, extraordinary, magnificent, galactic a lot. But this trip was full of highlights.

Located 72 km (44 miles) west of La Paz, near the southeastern shore of Lake Titicaca, lie the ruins of one of the oldest and largest urban cities ever built.

The ancient buildings and ruins (pre-Columbian, pre-Inca) show you the obsession of the people of that time for geometric perfection. The ruins seemed to be cut with a water jet or a laser, everything was symmetrical and joined to the millimeter.

Tiahuanaco was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, Tiwanaku is an ancient archaeological site named after one of the most important civilizations that preceded the Inca Empire.

At the magnificent Tiwanaku site, I had a very, very skilled archaeologist guide.

I spent the most time at the gates and the calendar: the Sun Gate, the Moon Gate, the Calendar, etc., all UNESCO monuments. But I would have stayed for months.

I stayed at the site for about three hours, on the way to Puno (which, by the way, marks the crossing into Peru), in fact (located on the shores of Lake Titicaca at over 3800 m above sea level).

Tiwanaku or Tiahuanaco is the spiritual and political center of the Tiwanaku culture. It is a pre-Columbian archaeological site located in Western Bolivia.

Tiwanacu is recognized by scholars from the Cordillera Andes area as the most important forerunners of the Inca Empire. Tiwanaku is located in Western Bolivia, in the Andes mountains at an altitude of 4100m, being the oldest and highest city in history.

Tiwanaku is known in Spanish by the name Tihuanaco, meaning “Place of the Dead”. The age of this city is not yet known, but Hans Schindler Bellamy writes in his book “Build Before the Flood”, loosely translated as “Built before the flood”, that the city must be at least 250,000 years old.

Clearly as a city it is not that old but as settlement upon settlement upon settlement (as many are otherwise like that).. it is not a wrong speculation because the researcher L.S.B. Leakey found fossilized fragments of a 20-million-year-old human jaw.

Archaeologists, however, believe that it is unlikely that the city was built before 50 BC. Chr. The ruins of the city rise 23 km from Lake Titicaca, a lake that used to bathe the walls of the fortress.

All the buildings still impress us with their grandeur and would challenge today’s technologies, the stone slabs weighing 200 tons and the nearest quarry being 50 km away, the next being 128 km between the mountains. This is the main reason why people believe that the city was built by aliens and raised in one night). If it had been in Romania, the dacologists would probably have died of ecstasy. It’s good when you travel a lot, because that’s how you see what’s nice and interesting at home, but also what’s exaggerated.



Sun Gate

The Sun Gate is the most fascinating edifice, symbolizing the Entrance to the Temple of the Sun.

This gate is cut from a single slab formed of a volcanic rock of great hardness, being 3 meters high representing figures with wings, human heads, condors, pumas and toxodons, now extinct.

Calendar of Tiwanaku

Arturo Poznaski concluded that the signs present on the buildings represent an interesting calendar. This calendar shows the four seasons, solstices and equinoxes, being divided into ten months of 24 days, plus two more months of 25 days, the year being 290 days, each of 30.9 hours.

Currently, the exact history of this ancient city is not known, because the Tiwanaku culture does not have any written sources outside of the carvings on the buildings, carvings that are still interpretable by those in the field.




History of Tiwanaku

For about five hundred years, the Tiwanaku empire grew from a small settlement focused on the cultivation of crops and other products not available on the Altiplano into a thriving ritual and administrative capital of a major political state. Tiwanaku’s location between Lake Titicaca and the highlands provided a wonderful environment for agriculture, making it a desirable base for Tiwanaku. The people of long ago they developed agricultural techniques that led to the growth of their civilization.

Around 400 AD, a state began to develop in the Titicaca Basin, and an urban city was built at Tiwanaku. By 500 AD, Tiwanaku was most likely the main political power in the Titicaca Basin,

The peak of power being in the 8th century. Along with being the headquarters of a powerful empire, Tiwanaku was also most likely the sacred center of the Andean region. Many people made the pilgrimage to the sacred site, to worship and praise their gods.

Between 600 and 800,  the Tiwanaku community continued to grow and is estimated to have supported a population of 20,000 at its peak. Through their development, the Tiwanaku were able to expand

culture and political power in the surrounding regions, spreading from northern Argentina and Chile through Bolivia to southern Peru, making them the most important regional power south of the Andes.

The decline of Tiwanaku is supposed to have started around 950 after most likely a change

substantial of the climate. In the Titicaca basin, a drought was caused by a significant decrease in rainfall, probably leading to a drastic decrease in agricultural production, the source of the empire’s power and authority.


The people of the region eventually fled to different areas of the Altiplano and Tiwanaku disappeared as an urban center around the year 1000. Abandoned for nearly 1000 years, Tiwanaku was rediscovered

in 1549 by the Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, who came across the remains while searching for the Inca capital, Qullasuyu. According to the historian, the Indians of the Tiwanaku region told the early Spaniards that the ruins were either erected by giants or were the remains of an agnostic population that the gods had petrified.

Today, Tiwanaku remains an enigma, shrouded in mystery about how, when and by whom it was built. Much of Tiwanaku’s stone creations defy explanation, posing more questions to archaeologists than answers. For example, the site is strewn with enormous stone blocks weighing up to 25 tons, which no known pre-Columbian culture could have transported.

Over the centuries, Tiwanakus has produced some of the most impressive stone monoliths in the world, along with an ingenious irrigation system, advanced understanding of astronomy and solar astromechnics. The fascinating civilization was truly advanced beyond their years.

The ruins of Tiwanaku consist of impressive architectural structures such as palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as gigantic monoliths and figurative representations.

And the site is not even fully excavated yet.

Structures available for public viewing include:

Akapana, Akapana East and Pumapunku

Puerta del Sol – Gate of the Sun

Puerta del Luna – Gate of the Moon

Kalasasaya, Kheri Kala and the houses of Putuni

The semi-underground temple.

There is also a decent, if small, museum inside that provides a good framework for understanding the ruins and pre-Columbian civilization.

One of the biggest events in the Bolivian calendar is the Amayra New Year.

Every year on June 21, in Tiwanaku you can watch the sun’s rays rise through the entrance of the temple on the east side of the complex. Locals celebrate the Amayran New Year wearing colorful clothing, not missing the singani drink, gum chewing and dancing. Sometimes llamas are sacrificed for the barbecue. Tourists are welcome to join the festivities and can purchase local art from artisan tables set up to coincide with the event.

Special buses leave La Paz around 4:00 AM to arrive in time for sunrise. Most hardcore can get outside the ruins a few days before the event.

Future of Tiwanaku

In 2010, UNESCO recommended that visitors be banned from climbing the Akapana pyramid, but the suggestion was not implemented. In 2014, due to the lack of management and a holistic view independent of the commercial aspects of the use of Tiwanaku, UNESCO decided to add the archaeological site to their list of World Heritage in Danger.

Towards Peru

At the border with Peru I changed the coach for one from Peru and then went to Puno.

In the new bus we had a very funny Peruvian guide who explained to us that Peru, somewhat richer than Bolivia, lives from tourism and smuggling with Bolivians (Peru being more expensive than Bolivia, but still the third world for Europe).

Fitting in time, we had another super interesting trip (if we could have one more on the same day – but you can do so much some days and so little on others when you’re sitting at home watching TV) one to the Uros floating islands.

This trip also included a cruise on Lake Titicaca to the Uros Floating Islands, which cost only $15.

About Lake Titicaca..


Lake Titicaca and the Uros natives

We started to see the famous Lake Titicaca from the coach. It is a very large lake, like a small sea, and it is impressive that it is located at such a high altitude.

It is an intense blue, contrasting with the yellow of the surrounding hills and mountains.

On the lake, the main attraction was meeting the Uros ethnic locals, who come from the Amaraya or Quechua tribes.



From what both they and the Peruvian guide told us, it seems that their origin comes with the rise of the Inca civilization, they took refuge from the violence with which the Incas subjugated all the tribes in the region, right on Lake Titicaca, where they built their villages building thatched houses and thatched islands far from the shore.

I also didn’t know that Inca was the name given to the elite class and the tribes were actually Quechua, Amaraya and others with their specific languages. Quechua would have been more towards today’s Peru and Amaraya more towards today’s Bolivia, but obviously the old borders or living areas of the tribes 500-800 years ago did not correspond to the current borders.


It seems that the Inca rose on the basis of violence and political-military power and their fall so quickly before the Spanish conquistadors was also due to the differences of opinion and the resentments that the other conquered tribes had against the ruling class of the empire.



Uros live on these floating islands of straw, of considerable thickness. Personally, I think that their physiognomy has also adapted to this way of life, for hundreds of years. However, descendants of South American tribes are somewhat shorter on average than those with European ancestry, but the Uros appear even shorter and wider.

The straw islands are so important to them that when, for example, a child gets married, they are given a part of the island, which is sawn off.

They have some traditional thatched huts on the island but I tend to think they are more for tourists now as they also had prefabricated buildings with modern bathrooms and everything.

They gave us a craft demonstration and a lecture on the history of Uros. Practically on the islands they have their whole life, including pets, especially cats.



The boats are very beautiful aesthetically, they look like some kind of bulging pagodas made of straw obviously. The boat tour was very interesting.

Funny how they recounted that each head of family or tribe on a larger floating island is named a Mayor or President, the Uros very much keeping their independence.

At the end of such a full day, we stayed tired but delighted beyond measure at the Royal Hotel in Puno.