Winter Solstice (21st July) is a big thing in Latin America, for them it represents the change in season and thus the time to reap or sow the crop. As a result, many of the ancient temples are designed so that elements light up with the sunrise on the specific days (think Stonehenge in the UK). I’ve seen examples all over as I travel, so when I heard that the most impressive and important ruins in Bolivia, Tiwanaku, were hosting a festival for the Solstice, I had to go.
I joined up with a lovely couple from the UK and got up at 0300am in order to make the 90minute journey out to the ruins in time for Sunrise. By 0430 the bus still hadn’t turned up and we started to get nervous, thankfully a short while later the bus arrived and we clambered aboard and fell asleep. When we got there we were given a souvenir (a bag filled with Coco leaves) and the guide introduced himself. This was the start one of the most surreal days I’ve had so far!
The idea was that we would get to the sungate and see the sunrise and witness the spectacle first hand – it didn’t however work like that. First of all we were over an hour late and when trying to get into the site I ended up getting pulled loads of different ways by guides who wanted to search my bag. There was so many of them pulling in different ways I ended up pulling my bag back and forcing my way in without anyone searching me! All we then had to do was follow our guide who had a white flag – this was easier said than done.
Our guide would run off somewhere, put his flag up, take it back down, run somewhere else, put the flag up, take it down, run somewhere else… It was like playing hide-and-seek in the dark whilst really tired. At one point a number of us were looking around completely lost and spotted our guide about 300m away sprinting up a hill. We chased after him again and eventually found where we should be – we were the lucky ones to have spotted him!
After we managed to find each other, we gathered at the top of the hill and waited for the sunrise (note, not the sungate!). This took a little time as their was low lying clouds which meant that the sun wouldn’t pop out above the hills as intended. As we were waiting the Bolivian President arrived to give a speech, bands were playing and it was just generally organised chaos in the main temple area. The only way to see what was happening was to use the zoom on Eddie’s video camera so you can imagine our attitude to tiredness, cold and hunger! The sun then rose and every started to warm their hands by raising their arms into the air (or at some people did, others dipped their hands into the pockets of tourists!).
What came next is still a mystery. We ended up running around the site listening to the guide telling us about various bits and pieces, but we weren’t alone. The guide started to get a large number of Bolivian followers and TV crews following him. As time progressed he got more and more to the point where when we could find him, he wasn’t speaking English. It was entertaining, but equally frustrating as we just wanted Breakfast by this point.
Eventually we got our breakfast. It was terrible, but food none the less. After breakie, we had the option to pay B$80 to get into the museum and the site again, Kirsty, Eddie and I opted against this due to the cost and the uselessness of the guide – we sat on the grass and amused ourselves by watching drunken and drugged up people sleeping on the grass!
Time progressed slowly until it was lunchtime. We had lunch and then everyone mutinied – we got on the bus ready for home. After ten minutes the guide found us and drove us to a place where a ceremony was taking place. Most people duly got off the bus for 90minutes, but some of us simply slept. Turns out this was a good thing as many of the males were getting attacked and harassed by beggars! Still, we slept through this and were rudely awoken by a man running through the bus, chanting something and waving a burning bowl of what appeared to be incense. Everyone who was asleep had the same “what-on-earth” look on their faces before the others joined us and away we went home ending possibly the most surreal day of the trip so far!
Comments and costs
Tiwanaku is dire. I was led to believe it was the most important temple complex, is huge and well worth the visit. It didn’t live up to expectations at all and would heartily recommend that everyone miss it. This would still be the case with a decent guide!
More pictures of the Winter Solstice
More picutres of the Winter Solstice at Tiwanaku can be found in the digitallery album South America – Bolivia – Tiwanaku Winter Solstice
Click here to load a map showing you the location of this post and images from the digitallery taken nearby.