Walking through the colourful Bolivian town on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the glittering waters tickle the buildings with their bright reflections. The rainbow of colours lights up the green banks that frame the sapphire blue lake. Copacabana is a small, ramshackle town on the Bolivian side of the lake. As you explore, you see some cars adorned with flowers being blessed by a priest. Rows of stalls sell medals and icons. Native ladies sit on stools waiting for customers to buy garlands for their cars so that the priest can utter some protective prayers over them. The hive of activity gives way to a quiet courtyard and you enter into the sacred space of the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana.
The 16th century church is a beautiful white cluster of buildings that house the Virgin of Copacabana; patron saint of Bolivia and an incarnation of the Virgen de Candelaria (Virgin of the Candles), a Black Madonna. The gilded maguey wood statue is a potent figure and, dressed in the garb of an Incan princess, she clearly states her allegiance to the locals. The diminutive statue was carved by native sculptor Francisco Tito Yupanqui, a descendant of the 11th Sapa Inca (ruler); Huayna Capac. After sitting in her chapel in her presence, you feel the power that she wields over the Bolivian people. The location she resides at has been potent since before the Inca were dominant. The hill that you can see near the church on the coast of Titicaca was once used for sun worship, before being redefined as being symbolic of Calvario (Calvary Hill, where Christ was crucified) by the Catholics. From the basilica, you decide to explore the early history of Copacabana further and it is another hill that attracts your attention.
The ancient Chiripa people once lived in this part of the Andes, and the pre-Incan tribe shared much of its successors’ obsession with the sun, the moon and the stars. The hill that lies ahead of you and towers over the town and Calvario, is a mass of time and human worn rocks. The Chiripa people were quinoa farmers who inhabited the southern Titicaca shores from the 14th century BC, to the 1st century AD. Here, at Kesanani Hill, they set up a sophisticated spiritual and scientific hub; the Horca del Inca (Gallows of the Inca).
At the foot of the hill, you encounter a small Bolivian girl. You ask her if this is the Horca del Inca and she replies in the affirmative and tells you that she has tickets for five Bolivianos. Under normal circumstances, you would think this a street hustle. Here in Bolivia, it is not out of the ordinary for the local government to entrust the access to a historical site to a local family and, in this case, a ten year old child. You happily pass her the money and she tears off your ticket while absentmindedly keeping an eye on her piglet that is happily snouting around in the dirt. She goads you on towards the start of a semi-defined path that occasionally has steps and markers to reassure you that you are still on track.
Climbing the path, it seems all easy sailing as you breeze up the gentle slopes. Within minutes you are on a shallow plateau that looks out over the lake and the town of Copacabana. The ground has some soil here and there and a lot of scrub plants fight out of the craggy surface to compete for the nutrients that lie in the superficial topsoil. After enjoying the view, you press on and continue your ascent. The path becomes barer and the bedrock more exposed as you climb higher. Soon, you pass some natural standing rock formations that create an apse that is almost basilica-like structurally. Beyond, another small plateau contains more standing stones and a large table-shaped stone that looks almost like a sacrificial altar. Your mind begins to form fantastical tableaux of ancient rituals being performed among these megaliths.
Leaving your over-active imagination behind, you soon come to a flat area that is almost entirely rock. Few plants grow in what was once the sacred precinct of the Horca del Inca. The title is a typical Spanish misconception. The true name is Pachat’aqa or Inti Watana (Inti Huatana), meaning the place where the sun is tied. The name gives you a major clue as to the function of the site. Dating from the 14th century BC at the dawn of the Chiripa culture, it was used as an astronomical observatory. The Chiripa marked the course of the sun (Inti), the moon and the stars. The sun was important in regard to crop cycles, so it was the foremost of the heavenly bodies to be measured and worshipped.
The rocks transform into ever smoother objects. Humans have walked on them for thousands of years. The graffiti of modern Bolivians marks the continuous attachment the local people have had for the site. You continue up precarious paths until you come to a naturally walled alley. At the end of it, facing Titicaca is the focus of the activities performed for centuries: what the Spaniards called the horca. Two natural upright stones are bridged by a horizontal slab that was placed there by the Chiripa, forming a trilithic structure. Local accounts suggest that there were more of these structures and that originally there were seven slabs. Residents inform you that the Spaniards broke them all looking for gold, but spared the last one; the one you see before you today.
The one H-shaped structure you see ahead of you tells a lot about the ancient purpose of the site. A few metres behind you, you see a circular window in the rock. During the winter solstice in June, a beam of light penetrates the hole and shines directly onto the lintel of the horca. This was rediscovered in the late 1970s by chance. During the September equinox a nearby crag casts a shadow on the crossbeam. Nature has been manipulated in order to study the heavenly motion. Equinoxes and solstices bring the reflection of the sun off various places and in its heyday, it would have been a rustic, yet complex solar and lunar calendar.
The exact nature of the rituals that were performed here is elusive, but seeing Isla del Sol in the cross-hairs of the crags, you see how the pilgrimage cult of the island probably correlates with activities that occurred where you now stand. Running by your feet, in front and to the right of the horca, is a cut out foundation that once supported a wall. The wall’s purpose is also a little unclear. You feel that by crossing it, you are in what was once the holiest enclosure. It seems to divide sacred and profane. Perhaps you are now where the elite priests were segregated from the common congregation during rites. Regardless, you now have a bird’s eye view of the surroundings. The sunlight dances on the lake surface. The rocks seem alive with shadows as clouds tint them shades darker as they play across the sky.
In ancient times, locals would have carried heavy rocks up hills and mountains to honour the mountain gods. Although you did not carry a burden up the hill like a pilgrim of yore, you do feel lighter on your descent. The air becomes increasingly oxygen rich as you come down from the Inti Watana. You note that while at the summit, you felt breathless and light-headed. Your giddiness fades as you close in on the base. Arriving at the bottom, the sky feels no less imposing. Having returned to earth, you empathise with the ancient people who created their ritual enclosure as close to their gods as they could in order to record their movements and blessings. Having seen the place, you have touched those gods and returned to the plain of mortals a little humbler for you efforts. The powerful sun looks down on you and you look right back at it.