Nestled in the Sajama National Park in the Bolivian altiplano, a complex of prehistoric burial towers (chullpas) comprises the most important surviving monumental complex of the Aymara people. The park lies southwest of the department of Oruro, bordered by the department of La Paz to the north and to the west by Chile’s Lauca National Park. Ten groups of chullpas, totaling over 100 towers, can be found scattered over an expanse of 10 kilometers north and south of the Rio Lauca. The chullpas stand isolated in a landscape that remains seemingly unchanged since the arrival of the Incas in the fifteenth century. The chullpas are made of adobe and stone and vary in height from three to four meters. Some are decorated in pigmented mud. For centuries they have been exposed to the extreme climate of the altiplano. Water penetration, staining, and freezing; wind and sand erosion and duning; faulty drainage; lichen infestation; salt efflorescence; and bird nesting have progressively destroyed the structures. In 1996, a paved road linking Bolivia with Chile was completed, allowing for many more visitors to the area, threatening the unprotected monuments and the delicate ecosystems nearby.
1998 World Monuments Watch
The Rio Lauca Burial Towers were included in the 1998 World Monuments Watch, and from 2004 to 2006, the Vice-Ministry of Culture implemented a conservation program with support from WMF and American Express. The emergency stabilization and repair of five chullpas undertaken in 2004 was followed by conservation work on several towers in 2005. Based on the principle of minimal intervention, and using natural materials, the second phase included the cleaning and fumigation of the interior and exterior surfaces of the chullpas, and removal of surrounding vegetation. Missing areas and holes caused by wind erosion and bird nesting were filled with an adobe and straw mixture. Workers used clay for capping the towers to prevent water infiltration, and for color reintegration in polychromed chullpas, and a mixture of clay, rubble, straw, and cactus mucilage to consolidate the surfaces. Indigenous vegetation was planted nearby to help protect against strong winds, and several paths were created to allow access to visitors. The work was carried out by professionals and local residents, and supervised by representatives of ICOMOS-Bolivia. A total of 17 chullpas, were conserved.
The rehabilitated chullpas, now part of the Rio Lauca Ecotourism Route, have become a popular tourist destination within the Sajama National Park, listed on Bolivia’s Tentative List for World Heritage inscription. The chullpas are invaluable archaeological monuments of the region’s ancestral heritage. The conservation program helped protect and ensure their continued existence, while making it accessible to visitors. More importantly, it helped train and create awareness among members of the communities involved in the maintenance, conservation, and management of the historic towers.