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The skies were already threatening rain when Carla, my Peruvian guide, stepped off the bus with me at the turnoff along Carretera 3S. In front of us stretched the highway, stark and empty, like the windswept grasslands of the Andean altiplano in the distance. By the roadside, a sole farmer trudged, carrying a sheep.

I waited as Carla haggled with the taxi drivers parked nearby. We were headed, on her recommendation, to Sillustani, a pre-Incan archaeological site 20 miles outside Puno, itself on the gray shores of Lake Titicaca. I’d never come across the name in my forays into ancient Peru, but Carla assured me it was something. A Peruvian Stonehenge, she’d called it.

Admitting myself to be out of my depth, I’d commended myself to her hands.

Outside, the wind had started to whip up. The temperature on the plain was dropping. Carla’s negotiations having concluded, we waited for the taxi, a late-90s station wagon, to fill with passengers. Pulling up our collars against the cold, we watched the peasant women arrive, clad in bowler hats and lugging heavy cloth bundles. No one spoke. After a wait, we set out.

The road on that stretch of high plain runs through broad flatlands, occasionally dotted with rustic farmhouses and stone enclosures. As we passed, Carla gestured through the window at a gaunt farmer looking out from a doorway. The peasants here, she said, were living pretty much as they had back in the 16th century, when the Spanish first arrived in this harshly beautiful country. Subsistence farming, livestock. There was little else.

The sparse Andean settlements at length gave way to the desolation of the altiplano itself, uncanny under the lowering sky. Mile upon mile of rocky sameness. Soon all conversation ceased.

Finally we entered the dirt road leading to the site. Disembarking, we pulled up our hoods to front the flapping winds. I looked out over the wild landscape.

The path into the ruins descends along a ridge bordering Lake Umayo, a lead-colored sheet of water with alpacas grazing its banks. So intent was I on not being buffeted by the stinging gusts, I didn’t notice Carla was pointing at the horizon.

“Look,” she said.

I looked. In the distance, high atop a ridge of stony outcrops, a row of ruined towers stood, indescribably lonely in that bleak country. Their surfaces had been severely eroded by time and the puna’s harsh winds; several had been struck by lightning, their stones spilling down to the ridge below. They were little more than stumps, yet their profiles, stark against the late-afternoon sky, had a grandeur and a melancholy that made them unearthly.

Carla said the towers—or chullpas—had been built more than six centuries ago by the Qolla, a warrior tribe that was the last to be subdued by the encroaching Incas. These Aymara-speaking people were the fiercest fighters in southern Peru, and held out against the Inca war machine till the very end, but were finally vanquished sometime in the 1400s, victims of the conquerors’ superior numbers and administrative organization. Their presence lived on in the name they bequeathed to the southern quarter of the Inca empire—Qollasuyo—as well as in the funerary towers they built as a final resting place for their dead.

“You can imagine the torchlit processions that must have moved along this rise. Just before dawn. Drums, chants….” Carla remained impassive, staring into the wind.

“Their civilization was doomed. And they knew it.”

The sky was growing darker. We began our ascent to the top of the ridge. Around us, the plain was eerily empty, evacuated by the threatening weather.

The first chullpa we encountered was little more than a shell, a disemboweled carcass whose stones were strewn across the path. Tapping meditatively at the rubble with her boot, Carla said many of the towers had been left unfinished, abandoned by builders during the chaos of the Spanish invasion in the 1530s. Others had been sacked by tomb raiders who came seeking the gold and textiles the Qolla had buried with their chieftains. What few were left were badly decayed from exposure to the elements. Nothing had been spared.

I tried to envision life in that harsh waste. Who had these people been? How had they faced existence in a terrain so unforgiving, amidst unrelenting warfare?

Nothing. No images came to relieve the mind’s blank.

The chullpas grew larger and more imposing as we continued up the ridge. Some were square, others cylindrical. The greatest was the last, balanced on the edge of the promontory that juts out to the east. The so-called Chullpa Lagarto was not an Aymara, but a post-Inca construction, built around 1500 when the empire of Tahuantinsuyo had at last smashed the Qolla resistance and absorbed the architecture of the nation that had defied them for so long. Heaped up from immense coursed blocks and standing some 40 feet tall, it was marked with a bas-relief lizard on its flank, its newly sprouted tail an emblem of the regenerative powers of life itself.

Carla pointed at the tower’s interior. The burial chambers, she said, had been hollowed out in the form of a uterus. The noble families buried there were bound in the fetal position, provisioned with food and personal belongings for their journey into the next world. Always the portals to the tombs were made to face east, the direction of the rising sun. Womb/tomb: death was a return to origins for the Qolla.

A sudden melancholy: What had these people felt, laying their rulers in that lonely place? What obscure meaning did those towers have, in their geometry of the universe, of sun and stars, destiny and desire?

Amidst the stones, I wanted a glimpse of the human. But too much had been lost.

Piedra en la piedra, pero el hombre, ¿dónde estuvo?

Academic history, with its ritualized debates and neatly framed controversies, may afford its practitioners a sense of containment. But here on the puna you were face to face with the thing itself, with the tremendous obscurity of time. In that vast blankness imagination failed utterly. The mystery was simply too great.

The stones were everywhere, but of the Qolla themselves—their griefs, joys, despairs—nothing remained.

A few drops on our shoulders made us blink, looking up at the sky. It had started to rain.

“We should be going,” Carla said.

Clutching our hoods and shivering in the wind, we descended the grade to the rocks below.