Sillustani, Peru – Chullpas of the Pukara Culture
The cemetery of Peru’s most important pre-Incan cultures
It’s a beautiful journey through the Peruvian Altiplano to get to Sillustani, which only gets better once you see a hill topped with strange, cylindrical towers looming out of the ground. The hill overlooks a beautiful marshland lake, where birds skitter across the surface, alpacas and sheep graze at the side of the road, and even flamingos wade across the lake looking for their next catch.
These unusually shaped towers are actually a funerary complex, where the most important people from the Pukara culture were buried. This culture pre-dates the Incas and was one of the most powerful groups in Southern Peru between 200BC – 200AD. The towers which make the site distinctive are called chullpas – funerary towers that could hold a family of up to 10 or 12 people after their deaths. When the Pukarans died, they were buried with food, drink, coca leaves, blankets, and valuables to take with them into the afterlife. Unfortunately, they can’t be seen anymore; it’s widely believed that the Spanish destroyed the towers and took any valuables out of them in search of precious metals during the colonization. There are also some smaller marked stone structures that denote graves for the lower classes, also called pueblos.
Although Puno is a popular stopover on the Gringo Trail on the shores of Lake Titicaca, most people don’t spend enough time here to visit Sillustani. This is a shame because the site is not only fascinating but it is set in an exquisitely beautiful location – on an island surrounded by Laguna Umayo – with jaw-dropping views of the flat-topped island in the lake behind and the altiplano stretching out into the distance.
The site is half ancient cemetery and half agricultural site, where the ancient people who lived here grew quinoa, rice, potatoes, and other grains to sustain them. There’s evidence of terraces like you find at other Inca ruins, as the Incas did use part of Sillustani when they came into power.
The main chullpa stands watching over the lake and surrounding landscapes; standing beside it gives an excellent panoramic view. It can also be seen from all around, at a height of 12m. The chullpas were built on a hill at an already high altitude (3,840m above sea level) as it’s believed that this left the deceased closer to the gods and the sky. The main chullpa is called “the lizard tower,” as lizards were associated with peace, tranquillity, and meditation in the time of the Pukara people.
After spending some time wandering around the ruins and getting some pictures, the biggest surprise – and best thing about the site – is revealed. Although Sillustani is surrounded by Laguna Umayo, most of it is hidden until you have walked through the chullpas. It opens up to a vast, deep blue lake surrounded by lush green hills. Take a seat on one of the rocks and look out over Andean birdlife, insects, and flowers. The views are just stunning; it’s a beautiful place to spend a morning or an afternoon while entirely disconnecting from the rest of the world.
Visiting Sillustani is a great way to spend half a day, and perfect for getting out from the drab city of Puno and into the stunning Altiplano countryside. The ruins are a bonus, but the main attraction for me was sitting in such a tranquil and quiet place watching the world go by.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Sillustani is 35km from the town of Puno; it takes just under an hour to get there by car. Doing tours from Puno is possible. These are the easiest way to get there and will enable you to learn a lot of information about the site too.
However, if you want to go to the site on your own steam, it isn’t too hard. You can take a taxi from Puno, which will be a little quicker than getting a tour bus, but more expensive. Most tours go in the afternoon and last for half a day, leaving Puno at about 2 pm. If you want the site to yourself, take a taxi in the morning, when you’ll be able to enjoy walking around the mysterious stone towers; you’ll also be able to get some fantastic pictures of the nature surrounding Sillustani.
There’s one more way, which is a little trickier but will save you some money. Take a bus from Puno towards Juliaca but tell the driver you want to go to Sillustani. At one of the junctions on the highway, there are loads of taxis which are there for the sole purpose of heading to Sillustani. It should cost a little less than directly from Puno, but it would be very easy to miss the junction if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Stay – Accommodation
There isn’t any accommodation at the site. Most travellers choose to stay in Puno as it is within easy travel distance of the city. It’s possible to do the tour in as little as half a day.
Eat – Restaurants
As with accommodation, most visitors only take a half-day tour and head back to Puno for a meal, where there are some restaurants serving traditional and international food. There are a few cafés at the site where you can stop for a coffee and a slice of cake; they even sell coati coffee here.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
As written above, the best time to go to Sillustani if you’re not going on a tour is in the morning, when there will be fewer people around. Sunset is a great time to go too, especially if you’re into photography. However, it may be trickier to get back to Puno at this time, so make sure that your taxi is happy to wait for you to return from exploring the site.
The area around Puno is pretty chilly, so the best time to come is between October and December when the weather is at its warmest. February is also a good time to visit when the Virgin of Candelaria festival takes place. It’s a good idea to tie both attractions together.
Safety – Possible risks
There are a couple, but nothing that will cause you any problems if you’re well prepared. An altitude of 3,840m above sea level means that altitude sickness (or soroche, as it’s known here) can be a real problem. Make sure you’ve spent a few days acclimatizing before tackling the hike. It’s not steep or difficult, but can be tough on the lungs if you’re not used to it. The other problem is the sun; you’re really high up, and there’s very little shade here. Make sure you coat your exposed body parts in a high factor sun cream, or you’ll come back red, even after just half an hour.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim to those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
An all-inclusive tour from Puno costs around 40 soles. It is cheaper to do it by yourself if you’re in a group, but a little more difficult. Taking a taxi from Puno costs around 90 soles (roughly £21 or $30), and there’s a small entrance fee into the site too.
Sillustani isn’t a bad place to buy souvenirs; the surrounding stalls selling traditional Peruvian handicrafts are substantially cheaper than those close to some other tourist attractions in Peru.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
The site is pristine, and there’s a lot of wildlife very close to the chullpas themselves. If you take food, please take your rubbish with you. When booking a tour, make sure you use a tour company that behaves ethically and pays their guides a fair wage.
Reality Check – Be Aware
There’s not too much to say here – it’s an easily doable day trip from a well-connected city. Non-Spanish speakers won’t have any problem. The only thing to reaffirm is any difficulties with altitude shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Sillustani doesn’t have its own website, but there are some blogs online which give independent travelers’ opinions of the site. There’s also information about it on Trip Advisor, but be careful in case the information you’re reading isn’t reliable and up to date.
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