Day 14 — The Chulpas of Sillustani

Thursday — April 16

Sillustani, the site of pre-Columbian funeral towers, is about 9 miles (~15 km) off the main road between Puno and Juliaca, making it a perfect stopover on our way to the airport.

This Google Earth image shows Sillustani in relation to Puno and Juliaca.

Half an hour after leaving Puno, we were standing on a peninsula that splits Lago Umayo into two uneven parts, taking in the views before starting our short trek to explore the site. Looking out over the north side of the lake, the skies were overcast with clouds threatening rain. Towards the ruins, however, we had beautiful blue skies. (For those who might be wondering what Sillustani means, the name comes from a Quechua word that means "fingernail" — refers to the peninsula on which the site is situated.)

View of the smaller portion of Lago Umayo from the peninsula that splits it into two.

Looking towards the funeral towers of Sillustani, the skies look quite different.

The highlight of this site are the chulpas (burial towers) of the Colla, an Aymara-speaking civilization that pre-dated the Inca occupation. Simple though these circular stone towers seem to be, the engineering that went into building them was quite complicated. In fact, to date, archeologists have been unable to rebuild one of the damaged towers. The consensus amongst the experts is that the Collas had a more sophisticated mortarless construction style than the Incas who invaded them in the 15th century. The towers, some of which are 40 feet (~12 m) tall, were used as burial chambers for the nobility, who were entombed with not just their worldly goods, but with their entire families.

The masonry work of some of the chulpas is quite rough.

This chulpa, which occupies a prominent spot at the site, has come to symbolize Sillustani.

Except for some locals from the nearby village going about their business, we had the site to ourselves and took our time exploring it with Veronica and Vidal providing insight into the symbolism associated with the towers — the cylindrical tower = a phallus; the interior of the tower = a womb; the body mummified in a fetal position = returning to mother earth in the same position that one comes to life; the small door facing east = where the sun rises and life is reborn every day.

Our meandering walk through the site eventually took us to the other side of the promontory where the main body of Lake Umayo was laid out before our eyes, with Umayo Island about halfway offshore (the island is now a wildlife reserve to protect the threatened vicuña, a camelid much prized for the very fine wool that is produced from its fleece).

Mui and I are caught in action at Sillustani.
(photo by Vidal)

Umayo Lake and Island; the latter is a vicuña reserve.

Lake Umayo makes a great background for our photo op.
(photo by Vidal)

After exploring the tower that was destroyed by lightning — they have lightning rods around the site now — we returned to the chulpa that has become synonymous with the site: the “Lizard Chulpa.” The burial tower is so named because of the image of a lizard carved in relief on the external wall. From certain angles, the tower looks completely intact. In reality, it was dynamited by grave robbers who were looking for treasure. What makes the destruction particularly sad is that the treasure that was in the tower had already been removed and placed in a museum.

Left: If you look closely, you can see the lizard for which the chulpa is named.
Right: A “we visited Sillustani” photo op. (photo by Vidal)

With the hour getting on towards 11:00a, we left Sillustani to resume our sightseeing with one more stop on our way to the airport in Juliaca.

Next Up: Day 14 — A Traditional House in the High Andes

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