Culture In The Heights: The Communities of Peru’s High Plateau

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For thousands of years, the communities of Peru’s high plateau were able to tame the harsh nature of their surroundings and they have left evidence of their rich culture throughout the land.

Around 60 million years ago, the rising of the Andean mountain range created a vast lake at 3850 meters above sea level, covering what is now Lakes Titicaca and Umayo, the Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, as well as vast areas of the highlands of Puno.

(Photo: Pixabay)

The People of Peru’s High Plateau

Since then, there is a long history in which nature and culture have walked hand in hand. There is evidence of human existence dating back ten thousand years.

The Rise of Civilization in Peru’s High Plateau

Initially there were small groups of hunters who lived in the immediate vicinity of the lake. Later on, these people built up societies that bred alpacas and llamas and cultivated crops such as the potato and quinoa. Thus, Titicaca became one of the most important civilized centers in Peru and it is the place in which, according to ancient legend, two gods named Mama Occllo and Manco Capác appeared from the waters, eventually laying the foundations of Cusco and the Inca Empire (Read more on that legend here).

The Kingdoms of Peru’s High Plateau

The decline of these cultures gave rise to the kingdoms of the high plateau that were situated in different areas around the lake, such as the Collas, who are known for their chullpas, (large stone structures or funerary cylindrical towers) in Sillustani, and the Lupacas, who occupied the areas of Juli, Pomata and Chucuito. These kingdoms reigned until the mid XV century, when the Incas conquered them.

(Photo: Pixabay)

The Uros Culture

Like its islands, the people of the Uros culture are isolated from the rest of the local culture. According to researchers, the Uros people have Amazonian origins and their location on the floating islands of Totora was a defense strategy against the Inca’s attempts to conquer them.

(Photo: Pixabay)

The Pucará Culture

Between 400 B.C. and 600 A.D., Pucará was the most important culture of the high plateau. The center of this civilization can be found in the archaeological site of the same name, where the Kalasaya Fortress is renowned.

The Tiahuanaco Culture

During the same period as the Pucará culture, the Tiahuanaco culture flourished in the region. Today, you can visit the Sun Gate (Puerta del Sol), and other large, carved monoliths that remain.

(Photo: Thule)

Mines and Churches

(Photo: Illary Magic Tours)

The Layacota Mines were discovered in 1657. Spaniards, and the trade prompted by their arrival, motivated the creation of the Spanish-run settlement of San Luis del Alba. Conflicts between the Spanish and local rebels, as a result of working conditions, gave rise to a visit from the Viceroy, the Count of Lemos, who subsequently flattened the settlement and formed the city of Villa Rica de San Carlos de Puno in 1666.

Beginning in the middle of the sixteenth century, Dominicans and Jesuits rose up against the imposing churches of the South that had been created by the Spanish in Juli, Pomata, Llave and Chucuito. Today, the churches of Juli are renowned for their rich paintings of Bernardo Bitti (Italian painter of the XVI century). These churches were the starting point for the conversion to Christianity of inhabitants in the Amazon region, Bolivia and Paraguay, and the production center for grammar and catechisms in local dialects that were created by the followers of Ignacio de Loyola.

Not to be missed attractions in Puno:

Casa del Corregidor
Built in 1700, this is a well-conserved Spanish residence
Deustua 576, Puno

Museo Dreyer
Archaeological collection that includes different cultures from the highlands and the coast
Conde de Lemos 289, Puno

Catedral
Built in 1757, offers an interesting combination of Baroque and Renaissance architecture combined with indigenous symbolism

Not to be missed attractions in the Puno surroundings:

Cutimbo > 22 km.
Archaeological center that includes rock paintings and funerary constructions

Chullpas de Sillustani > 37 km.
Funerary towers with a beautiful view of Lake Umayo

Juli > 80 km.
Sixteenth century churches

Pucará > 100 km.
Monoliths dot the landscape and there is an onsite museum at Kalasaya.

Credit: Ultimate Journeys

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Diego Oliver is a Peruvian writer and author whose work can be found in the travel magazine Ultimate Journeys. He loves to focus on Peruvian culture both modern and classic, traveling the country, as well as social responsibility.