Puno’s most enigmatic attraction lies 35km (21mi) from the port city, overlooking Lake Umayo with dignified mystery. Tours are easily arranged; consider coming around sunset, and staying to enjoy the starry skies.
The Chullpas of Sillustani are a collection of striking burial towers, among the finest examples of such architecture in the Andes. Though no one can be sure of their age, they appear to have been under construction just prior to the Inca conquest of the local Aymara-speaking Colla people, around 1300 AD. They most resemble, however, the neat stonework of the Tiwanaku people, who controlled the southern shore of the lake from about 500 AD to 1100 AD.
More advanced than even the Inca’s finest masonry, these towers reach with neatly squared geometric regularity toward the clear, high-desert sky. The tallest are 12 meters (40ft) high; others probably exceeded that, but have long since been dynamited by tomb robbers. Some have detailed carvings and all open eastward toward the sunrise.
Archaeologists have long hypothesized that these were the tombs of the Aymara elite, buried in baskets that trapped them in fetal position. The dry, desiccating desert air mummified many of the presumably regal corpses, surrounded with offerings such as ceramic bowls of grain, guinea pigs and gold (the last now displayed in Puno’s excellent Dreyer Museum.
More recently, archaeologists discovered the bodies of 44 children around a 10m-tall (32ft) tower called Chullpa Lagarto. They were apparently sacrificed some 700 years ago, perhaps by the Colla people during some sort of conflict. A volcanic stone was placed on each of their chests and they were also surrounded with food, ceramics and other offerings. Perhaps the adult corpses were not royalty at all, but the revered remains of a human sacrifice.