On my first ever trip to South America, I flew into La Paz, Bolivia. I actually got upgraded on my connecting flight out of Miami, which meant that the drinks were free in first class. So, I literally drank myself into Bolivia!
Actually, I can tell you from first-hand experience that if you're flying into Bolivia, you should not drink anything on the plane except for water. The altitude takes some getting-used-to, and you'll want to be well-hydrated. So drink water. Lots of it. And once you've adjusted to being way up high in the Andes, you should make your way to Tiwanaku (sometimes spelled "Tihuanaco").
When you think of pre-Columbian South American cultures, you're probably thinking of the Incan civilization. But the Tiwanaku people pre-dated the Incans by more than 1000 years! The ruins that were the center of their civilization are at the Tiwanaku site, and you can visit!
If you're looking at this slideshow and wondering what's up with my pants, I don't have an answer for you. I don't wear them any longer, for obvious reasons. I can assure you that I don't have a pootch. Trick photography, there.
Archaeological excavations in Bolivia don't seem to be as well-funded as in neighboring Peru, but the ruins at Tiwanaku are in pretty good shape. Plus, you can see the part of the site where they've not yet tackled the project, which gives you a sense of what a monumental (no pun intended) task it is to identify where the ruins are, let alone how much work it is to do the excavation.
It's really helpful to be at the site with a local guide. No disrespect to those of you who groove on independent travel, but being in a group with a knowledgeable guide will really help you know which is the Gate of the Sun, and which is the Gate of the Moon. You'll get a better understanding of the functions of the courtyard, the large stone terraces and the pyramid.
The pyramid was especially interesting. It has a flat top, but with a sunken area in the center. Our guide explained that the sunken portion of the pyramid was lined in silver and that when water collected there, it formed a type of mirror, which the Tiwanaku people used to make maps of the stars--unfortunately, all of their maps were reversed, because they were drawn from a mirror image in the reflection.
The other crazy thing that happened when I visited Tiwanaku, was that I saw a guinea pig in the wild. Seriously. I didn't even know that guinea pigs existed outside of pet stores and elementary school classrooms. But I suppose it makes sense that they have to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is South America. They look nothing like you'd expect. They aren't cute at all. Our guide told us that in Bolivia and Peru, people ate guinea pig all the time, and that we'd have to try it at some point. Wha? Huh? Who?
More on that in another post.