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Chullpas Policromas


Chullpas Policromas with the Western Range of the Andes in the Background

Chullpas Policromas with the Western Range of the Andes in the Background

Some people don’t get very excited about the Chullpas (or Chullpares, as they are also called).  Personally, I think they are cool.  These tombs, built during the period between the end of the Tihuanaco empire and the Spanish conquest (including during Inca times) by the Aymara people, still stand all across the Altiplano.  Although they can be made of materials ranging from mud bricks, to adobe and even stone, and can range in form from tall spires to short boxes, what they have in common is that they are all buildings, made from local materials, with an opening toward the bottom into which the bodies of the dead were placed.  Presumably, the bodies were accompanied by artifacts, when originally entombed, but all the chullpas have been raided over the years and peeking in these days the most you are likely to see is some old bones.  The Chullpas are believed to have been built to entomb the remains of local leaders, together with their wives, concubines, and other family members.  They were a place for annual ceremonies, as well as funerals.

_MG_0373On the altiplano some 25 miles south of Tambo Quemado, and practically on the border with Chile are the Pukara Chullpa, the Jallu Chullpa Funeral Complex, and the Wila Chullpa Funeral Complex, all within a short walk of each other and together often called the “Chullpas Policromas.”  They were built between the years 1210 and 1380 AD by the Carangas people.

Chullpa with Checkerboard Pattern

Chullpa with Checkerboard Pattern

Chullpas Policromas is a bit of an exaggeration   Might be better to just say, “decorated chullpas.”  The tombs are decorated mostly in red, blue and, in some cases, a bit of green.  They are not just painted, but apparently the bricks of which they are constructed are actually colored all the way through.  In any case, they are spectacular (for someone who likes such things), and the setting is pretty impressive, as well, up against the backdrop of the Andes.  The chullpas in this area are in a better state of preservation than many you find in other locations on the Altiplano,  presumably because preservation work was undertaken on them by the World Monument Fund and the Organization of American States in 2005 and 2009, respectively.

The Ñandu, or Darwin's Rhea, an American Cousin of the Ostrich

The Ñandu, or Darwin’s Rhea, an American Cousin of the Ostrich

The trip itself  is also impressive.  It is a real Altiplano adventure, taking you about 43 miles along rough roads through a couple of villages and down the valley of the Lauca river.  Besides the ever-present llamas and alpacas, we saw vicuñas and Darwin’s Rheas.

Darwin’s Rhea, or the Lesser Rhea (Ñandu, in local terms, and sometimes also called the Puna Rhea), is a relative of the ostrich.  It can run at speeds of up to almost 40 miles per hour and lives in areas up to 15,000 feet of altitude.  We saw it in groups of 5-10 birds, but reportedly they sometimes form flocks of up to 30.  Although the only natural predator of the bird is the cougar, it is considered near threatened, mostly as a result of man’s activities.  The birds often live in close association with the vicuñas, llamas and alpacas, and we saw some close to human dwellings.  People apparently hunt them for the meat and gather their eggs.  There are three sub-species, two of which live at high altitudes, but they owe their connection to Darwin to the lowland species, which lives in the Patagonia.  It was first described to the Western world by Darwin after the second voyage of the HMS Beagle.  Reportedly, Darwin’s first inkling that species might evolve resulted from his observation of the two clearly related, but different species of Rhea (Darwin’s Rhea and the larger Greater Rhea) which, in some lowland areas, coexist.

Getting There

(click to enlarge map)

(click to enlarge map)

The trip to the chullpas policromas is a good side trip from Sajama National Park.  The turnoff for the chullpas is the last turn, to the south, before reaching Tambo Quemado when approaching the Chilean border.  After about seven miles, the main road turns off toward the west (left).  You, however, want to keep going south, in the direction signposted “Nogachi.”  Nogachi is another six miles down the road.  Passing through Nogachi, you will find one of the two routes to the chullpas, potentially making for a short loop.  However, when we went, in rainy season, we were advised that road was impassible, so we took the other route both ways.  The main road passes to the west of Nogachi, continuing another 17 miles to a newly constructed bridge over a fairly significant tributary to the Lauca River.  We saw flamingos in the river.  The largest village in the area, Sacabaya, is just beyond the river.  If possible, the loop would be the better way to go, as I understand that there are more chullpas along the road we did not travel, and it also passes by the Laguna Macaya which, from photos on the internet, appears to be a salt lake and small salar, or salt flat.  During the southern portion of the drive, and especially on the way back, keep an eye on that big volcano sitting behind the Nevados de Quimsachata (a line of three smaller peaks).  Guallatiri (sometimes Guallatire or Wallatiri) is a 19,918 foot high ice-covered stratovolcano with an active vent on its south side.  We saw smoke curling up from the volcano, one of the most active in Northern Chile, the whole time we were in the area.

Sacabaya turned out to be the most challenging part of the trip.  There is a police checkpoint on the main street of the town, and alternative routes through the town were blocked with large stones when we were there.  Villagers challenged us as we attempted to pass.  They are apparently concerned about illegal trafficking of vehicles from Chile, and don’t want their town to be used for such contraband.  It took a fair amount of arguing to convince them that we were innocent tourists just going out to see the chullpas.  Apparently they don’t get a lot of innocent tourists in the area.

From Sacabaya, it’s another 13 miles to the parking lot at the chullpas.  This is a road you probably would not want to be on when it was wet.  Although we were there in rainy season, it hadn’t rained for several days.  Though the road was dry, it showed every sign of being one long mudhole after rain.  Even in dry weather, a vehicle with plenty of ground clearance is necessary.

For use in your gps or in Google Earth, attached is the usual .gdb file.


Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Chulpas Near Curahuara de Carangas
Time November 17, 2013 at 7:02 am

[…] building materials.  We have visited Chulpas near the Salar de Uyuni, at Cerro Pirapi and the Chulpas Policromas south of Sajama National Park.  In comparison with some of these, the chulpas of the Curahuara […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » The Churches of Curahuara de Carangas and Sajama: In and Near Sajama National Park
Time February 16, 2016 at 9:18 pm

[…] you are in the area, you would also be well advised to check out the Chulpas Polichromas, some 43 miles south of the La Paz-Arica road.  To get there, take the last left before Tambo […]

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