The scattered ruins of the ancient city of Tiwanaku do little to inspire visions of its former splendour. Located near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, on the Bolivian Altiplano, they are all that remain of a capital that once boasted a population of more than 100,000. Its people, also known as the Tiwanaku, established a great civilisation that prevailed for almost three millennia to become one of the world's longest-running empires.
Although relatively little is known about the Tiwanaku, it's thought that they emerged as a powerful force in the region in around 1200 BC. Originally, they dominated only their closest neighbours, but the search for natural resources drove them to colonise a much wider area. At the peak of their powers, between 700 and 1100 AD, they dominated the Andes, controlling an area that today takes in southern Peru, much of Chile, half of Bolivia and northern and central Argentina.
To facilitate this colonisation, Tiwanaku engineers built a vast network of paved highways across the Andes and the surrounding deserts and jungle. Although some of these paths were later used by the Incas, many have been lost over the centuries, their stones plundered or their form eroded by the elements and vegetation. It was with the aim of tracing one such path that I travelled to the Apolobamba region of northwestern Bolivia with two friends, John Benson and Jeremy 'Jez' Trevis. The route that we hoped to find and follow was typical of the Tiwanaku's network, crossing the last ranges of the Cordillera Apolobamba before descending through dense cloud forest into rainforest at the edge of the Amazon Basin. Local guides told us that the mountainous section hadn't been trekked before, and the lower stretch was only visited by one or two intrepid groups a year.
I had learnt of the potential to trace this route through email correspondence with Javier Thellaeche of Andean Summits, a tour company based in La Paz. When we arrived, Javier, who was our English-speaking guide for the journey, told us that for some time he'd been scoping parts of the route's possible course with binoculars. He had arranged for a Quechua called Reinaldo to be our local guide and to hire a team of llamas, complete with two handlers.
The final member of the group was the cook, Seferino, an Aymara from the Titicaca region who amazed us by producing delicious and varied sustenance in the most trying circumstances. Direct descendents of the Tiwanaku, the Aymara have always inhabited the high-altitude Altiplano. As a consequence, they have developed broad, barrel-shaped chests and huge lungs in order to cope with the thinness of the air.
Having set out from the small colonial town of Pelechuco ahead of the llama team and tackled the first in a series of high-altitude passes, the expedition almost came to an inauspicious end on the first day. The llama team, together with the bulk of our equipment, had taken a different route and, as dusk approached, we hadn't managed to link up. We searched hostile terrain, under the threat of rising clouds and gathering darkness. After two hours, to our great relief we finally sighted the group of corralled animals through the twilight.
Exhausted, we threw up our tents by torchlight before sitting down to discuss ground rules with the guides. As it snowed and froze solid that night, it wouldn't have been a good start to have been stuck on the mountainside with only a survival blanket for protection.
For the next three days we hiked across the last ranges of the Andes before they started to give way to the Amazon Basin. Each day, we tackled two or three high passes of up to 4,700 metres that separated remote, glacial valleys where steep waterfalls cascaded from jagged ridges to feed the meandering rivers. Huge condors soared overhead, effortlessly traversing the harsh terrain with their awesome wingspan and outstretched 'fingers'. Through this landscape we traced the Tiwanaku route, which varied from stony remnants zigzagging up steep slopes to terraced, paved paths that clung to the high sides of the valleys and appeared as if they could have been built recently. …