During my last trip to Peru, I finally got to visit Sillustani, one of the most unique sites in the country. The main feature of this pre-Incan site are the huge cylindrical tombs – tower looking burial structures that are among the most impressive heritage left by the Colla people that once lived in the area.
What’s special about them is that the Colla used brick-like rectangular edges, which makes buildings very different from those of the Inca who, on the other hand, used stones of pretty much any shape (remember the 12 angles stone in Cusco?).
If you have a chance to visit Sillustani while exploring the area of Lake Titicaca and Puno, you definitely should. It won’t take too much of your time – half a day is enough, and it’s a really nice experience. In this post, I will share everything you need to know about the site and how to plan your visit.
Make sure to also read my post The Ultimate Guide To Lake Titicaca.
The History Of Sillustani, Puno
Situated on the shores of Lake Umayo, 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, Sillustani is a large burial ground that dates to pre-Incan times. In fact, the site is believed to have been influenced by the Pukara, dating from 800 BC to 500 AD.
But it is known mainly for the Qulla people – an indigenous group that lived in western Bolivia, Chile and Argentina for many centuries. They were an Aymara-speaking people who were conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. Colonial evidence at the time describes the Qulla as a highly centralized society.
Veneration of the dead was an integral part of Qulla culture, and this was celebrated in this graveyard by the construction of chullpa. A chullpa is a funerary tower made from large bricks; the tallest of these centuries-old towers stands around 12 meters (39 feet) high. The height and size of these towers increased with the importance of the people who were buried within.
Not everyone was buried in a chullpa – instead, these would have been constructed for a noble person or noble family. As part of the funerary rights, corpses would be buried in the tomb in a fetal position alongside a collection of their belongings, including items such as clothing and other everyday equipment.
Most chullpas have an opening which faces the east – the direction of the rising sun; a few also have carvings. This opening was large enough for a person to crawl through, which symbolizes a belief that the dead would go onto an afterlife.
The tombs at Sillustani feature carvings that include lizards, thought to be a symbol of life due to the regenerating properties they have when it comes to losing and growing back their tails.
The word “chullpa” came into use during the 19th century and comes from a dictionary compiled by Ludovico Bertonio in 1612. However, the entry in this dictionary for chullpa described a “basket burial”; instead it was the word uta amaya that Bertonio’s dictionary described as “houses of the soul”.
Not all chullpas were for one singular person. There were also tombs of this kind built for entire extended families of royal lineage or for the elite of Qulla society. The bodies ended up being mummified – not intentionally, but by the dry environment created by the tomb. As a result, they survived in relatively good condition for centuries. However, many chullpas were looted by graverobbers, leaving only the structures themselves that remain to this day, often half destroyed.
The chullpas themselves are impressive, not only in their size but the skill involved in creating them. The massive stone blocks that were used to create these stone burial towers are thought to be more complex than even Inca masonry. The Qulla used stones that were made with even, rectangular edges, as opposed to the Inca style of stones of varying sizes and with rounded edges.
Interestingly, a very similar style of stone construction has been noted on Easter Island, where it is known as tupa. The blocks used at Sillustani were thought to have been first stacked and then placed using a large ramp; this same style of construction was noted by Spanish Jesuit missionary Bernabe Cobo during the construction of Cusco Cathedral by Inca laborers. With no mortar involved, the precision for cutting the blocks so that they fit together tightly is notable, even today.
Two different building techniques seem to exist at Sillustani. According to some scholars, the smaller chullpas, which have less intricate brickwork, are believed to be Qulla-built; the more complex stonework in the larger, rounded towers are attributed to either Incas or to Qulla people under Inca rule who have learned new building techniques. To this day, whether this is the case or not is hotly debated.
There are dozens of chullpa – around 90 in total – and thousands more semi-subterranean tombs at Sillustani. Some academics believe that, following the collapse of Tiwanaku around 1000 AD, Sillustani became “the most prominent pilgrimage center in the Titicaca Basin”. However, even so, not a lot is known about the site or the people who were buried here.
What To See In Sillustani, Puno
Visiting the eternal resting place of the Qulla (that’s another way of referring to the Colla) people is particularly fascinating. Built out of their dark stone, the cylindrical towers stand out against the stark altiplano scenery. Here, on the backdrop of Lake Umayo, you’ll be able to get a wide sweeping view of the Sillustani area – and get up close to a number of these long-standing tombs.
As you walk along the route that leads visitors around the site, you’ll be able to see how the chullpas have been carefully constructed. The blocks being fitted together with precision, making up towers that rise towards the sky, is a mesmerizing experience.
Some of these funerary monuments come with interesting inscriptions and carvings – such as lizards and pumas. In fact, the most famous of them is the Chullpa del Lagarto (“Lizard Chullpa” in Spanish). Interestingly, this chullpa is wider at the top than at its base, like an upside-down truncated cone, a shape thought to be for aesthetic reasons than anything else. There are also other stone carvings, such as those at the entrance to the site.
You should also read my post The Best Ruins In Peru.
Other Notable Sites Near Sillustani, Puno
This beautiful lake, forming the backdrop to Sillustani, is a gleaming body of water which means “river head” in Quechua and “place to drink water” in Aymara. Located at almost 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, the lake is surrounded by rural landscapes and farms.
One myth states that the lake originated from the tears of Ururi – a princess who was in mourning. As well as the chullpas that dot the shoreline of the lake, it is also an interesting place for birders who come to sea Andean birds and waterfowl.
Situated on the banks of Lake Titicaca, Puno is a lively, compact city that is often dubbed as the “capital folklorica” – the capital of Peruvian folklore. Famed for its lakeside location as much as its local culture, here people flock to see the Virgen de la Candelaria – a legendary (and now UNESCO inscribed) festival that is well-loved across the country.
The down-to-earth city of Puno may not be the most beautiful place in Peru, but works as a good jumping-off point if you want to explore more of this region, and especially for the many tours that will take you around Lake Titicaca.
Practical Information For Visiting Sillustani, Puno
Entrance fee and opening hours
It costs 15 Peruvian Soles (approximately $4 USD) to enter Sillustani.
The site is open daily from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Do you need a guide to visit Sillustani?
You don’t need a guide to visit Sillustani – throughout the site, you will find information boards explaining what you are seeing.
Having said so, many people do opt to hire one for their visit. We did, and were happy to have done so as the site is quite big, and without a guide it’s difficult to make sense of what you see. Going with a guide will help to open up the history of Sillustani. It helps you to get a better understanding of the meaning behind the monuments.
There are a whole range of guided tours that leave from Puno and take sightseers to Sillustani – most of them are half day tours and include transport from Puno.
For a guided tour of Sillustani which includes transportation from Puno, click here.
How to get to Sillustani
Sillustani is about 33 km (20.5 miles) from Puno, and depending on traffic it can take between 45 minutes and one hour to get there.
Tours from Puno to Sillustani leave at around 1:30 p.m. every day. The tour, including transport, will take you to the archaeological site, so you don’t need to worry about getting there by yourself. In total, the tour takes around three and a half hours (including travel time), with an hour and a half scheduled for exploring the ruins themselves.
Guided group tours departing from Puno are particularly convenient for solo travelers, as transportation from Puno can be quite expensive if you are alone.
For a guided tour of Sillustani which includes transportation from Puno, click here.
For those who want to enjoy a more leisurely, independent trip to this archaeological site, it is possible to hire a taxi from Puno. You’ll have to pay around 100 Peruvian Soles (around $26 USD) for the journey there and back, and the time the taxi will spend waiting for you before bringing you back. This option is convenient if you can share the costs with a friend or two, and if you are not interested in having a guide.
Another option is to catch a bus from Puno to Juliaca, making sure to get off the bus where the road forks. You then have the option of either taking an inexpensive combi or hopping in a private taxi all the way to Sillustani. This option is definitely cheaper, but also quite time consuming.
When to visit Sillustani
You should schedule your visit to Sillustani depending on what you want out of your visit. Group tours usually arrive at the site in the afternoon, which means this is when it is more crowded – however, it’s never crazy crowded. This isn’t the Sistine Chapel. To be fair, the site arguably looks best for photographers in the afternoon. That’s when we visited, and even though it was a weekend and a school holiday, we didn’t find the site to be too crowded.
That said, the site will be far less busy in the morning, but that means you’ll also have to get there yourself as there won’t be guided tours, or book a private transfer.
What to take on a trip to the Sillustani
First of all, you’ll be walking around this archaeological site – so make sure you wear a good, sturdy pair of hiking shoes that you feel comfortable in – it’s a bit of a climb to get to the hilltop location of the chullpas themselves.
Make sure to take water with you, as it can get very warm here when the sun is out, and it’s important to keep hydrated. You will also need to take sun protection – sunscreen and a hat will do. Sunglasses would also be good on particularly bright days, and will protect your eyes also from the dust.
But also take layers. Though sunny, it can get really cold here; if the sun isn’t out, it can feel much colder than you might expect. It was quite overcast when we visited and we were all glad to be wearing a nice jacket!
Don’t forget your camera! Sillustani is a prized location among photographers, with the chullpas looking particularly dramatic against the stark landscape of the high Andean plateau.
Take some spare cash with you, as there are a number of different souvenir stalls right outside the site where locals sell their wares at reasonable prices. It’s a good place to pick up small souvenirs. You will also need spare change to buy snacks (there are many vendors and small cafés right outside the site) and use toilets.
Watch out for altitude sickness as it can also affect you at Sillustani, which is situated at around 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level; keep an eye out for the warning signs (severe headache, dizziness, difficulty to breathe among the others) and take care of yourself. I was definitely affected by altitude sickness during a recent trip and after 3 solid days with a bad headache I gave in and took acetazolamide. Make sure to consult your doctor before doing so.
Are you planning a trip to Peru? Make sure to read these other posts:
- The Best Places To Visit In Peru
- A Wonderful Peru Itinerary
- What You Need To Know Before Visiting Peru