Pumiri, the enchanted or petrified city

by Jim Allen.

14th November 2002

 

Way back in April of 1998, I found myself riding in a jeep with well known Bolivian archaeologist Oswaldo Rivera and a film team from the BBC. We were heading towards a site I had picked out from a satellite photo as a possible Atlantis location, it was a perfect circle of water about one and a half mile in diameter located at a site called La Joya which means "the jewel" just north of the city of Oruro on the Bolivian Altiplano. It was not possible to tell from the satellite photos exactly what the site was, so, like all the other potential Atlantis sites on the Altiplano, it had to be checked out on the ground. Just then, Oswaldo remembered what it was - "It's a giant slurry tank for the gold mine" he exclaimed, "I remember now, that's where they process the water before returning it to the river."

There did not seem to be much point in continuing after that, but in the manner of all film teams they did not want to go back empty handed so we pressed on and filmed the Altiplano from the top of the gold mine.

Oswaldo had another brainstorm. "I remember there is a lost city around here somewhere, and it's got ruins, which is what you want to film, but I can't remember exactly where it is. When we get back to the hotel, I'll look in the guidebook."

The tiny little guide book produced by the town council in Oruro had this to say. "The Petrified city of Pumiri - The enchanting city of Mystery and Time, calls to us with the petrified voice of the semi-troglodytes; it's streets, avenues, weathered shapes and caverns await us." And that was more or less all. But at least now we knew the name and where it was located, on the northern edge of the level Altiplano near the village of Turco.

DECEMBER 1998. I had no more expectations of returning to the Altiplano that year as it was well beyond the "Altiplano season" which I usually considered August and September.

But I had a call from Atlantic Productions to see if I would be interested to participate in an Atlantis film and how soon could I travel? My answer was of course yes, and would tomorrow be soon enough!

A couple of days later the producer and his researcher drove up from London to see me and were suitably impressed, it remained to see if they could get the go ahead for a "recce" in advance of filming the following year, also to check out the climate in Bolivia on the Altiplano at this late time of year which should have been the wet season.

Some calls followed to Bolivia and to several tour operators who, when they heard of the proposed route around the desert declined the trip and told us we would be bogged down in the rains.

Toby, the researcher, in a fit of inspiration, phoned the police station in Oruro to ask how the weather was. "Fine" came back the reply, "no problem at all driving around that area."

They made a brave decision and three days later we were off, flying through Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires then back up to Santa Cruz and landing once more at El Alto airport in Bolivia.

This time we headed down the Oruro highway as before, but I had a new route mapped out. I proposed we turn off the Oruro road and take the newly constructed metalled highway which heads down towards Volcan Sajama and continues on into Chile.

We whizzed along, passing some ancient Chulpas or burial towers which had been brought to the public view by the construction of this new road and had we continued it would have taken us all the way to Volcan Sajama.

However I had selected another route over the mountains which led to the level Altiplano. I knew that moviemen like old ruins to put in their films, especially if in the quest for lost civilisations, so I wanted to call on the way at the "Enchanted" or "Petrified" city as it is sometimes called, of Pumiri.

We turned off the new highway at Curahuara de Carangas, famous in olden times for its silver mines, passing through the village and seeking the road over the mountains. We could see formidable rocky mountain tops all around us, and it was easy to imagine lost ancient hilltop fortifications on all of them, such as John Blashford-Snell and Oswaldo had found a few miles north of here and which they had dubbed "Cities of the Eaglemen"

pumiribison
Pumiri bison

The rocks began to take on more fantastic formations, we could see eagles, pumas, bears, condors, all as if petrified in stone or as if some ancient unknown race had carved them out of the natural rock which in turn had been dissolved by the ravages of time, or even some unknown nuclear blast which had dissolved and melted the rock.

pumiribison
chulpas at Pumiri

We descended into a deep ravine flanked by towering cliffs and approached a shallow stream which at other times might be a raging torrent. Thatís why we needed four-wheel drive and even better with two jeeps rather than one. If only we had the time, we said to ourselves, we would love to stop and explore. I could imagine the starship "Enterprise" landing here as if on some alien world, or at least bringing Startrek itself here as one of its future blockbuster movie sets. (Patrick Stewart had been approaced to present the film). And what a benefit that might be also for the people of Bolivia, something more for the future tourists to think about.

We forded the stream and soon the landscape changed to rolling hills, everywhere was the sign of long abandoned cultivation even on the most remote peaks, something we were to notice all around the Altiplano.

We rolled into Turco and pulled up in the main square.

The headmen and elders came out to greet us wearing their traditional garb and seemed right friendly. Pumiri was nearby, they told us, and in the morning the guide who happened to be in the village would take us there and show us around. "Donít go on your own," they advised, "as once you enter, you will never find the way out."

Notwithstanding the sound advice, we couldnít resist a sneak preview that evening so we headed out to Pumiri.

The entrance was via the dried up bed of a former river, guarded on either side by two ancient Chulpas then we were

pumiri dusk pumiri chulpa
arriving at Pumiri

inside just as dusk was falling. A time-frozen condor and puma looked down on us from the petrified stone as we parked the jeep and gazed out dumbstruck at this most awesome of landscapes.

Well, no, we werenít really thinking of spending the night there, in a place haunted through aeons of time so we set off back to Turco wondering if there really was a city there at all, or did they just mean the stone rocks themselves were the city?

pumirihighview

Pumiri extends over several kilometres of countryside and consists of naturally weathered rock formations which had been occupied by at least three different civilisations about which nothing is known, since no archaeology has been done there and even in La Paz no-one has even heard of the place. The villager from Turco who found the site kept it a secret all of his life, and only fairly recently revealed it to his son on is death bed.

We arrived early in the morning with two of the local guides. They assured us that there were in fact buildings and very old walls, and we soon found ourselves in amidst these old walls, the remains of rectangular houses grouped around little plazas at any convenient spot in amongst the rocks and cliff tops.

pumiri walls pumiri wall
ruined walls at Pumiri

pumiri wall

We went on, ever upward and signs of former habitation were all around. pumiri guide We could imagine the estate agent of the day offering a particular hollow in the rocks as a most desirable residence which indeed it was, with elevated views over the surrounding landscape which were literally breathtaking and in amongst the rocks themselves were circular holes like windows gazing out on the surroundings, probably naturally formed, or were they the work of man? A stone carved basin set in the ground suggested a former grinding place for some substance and one of the guides picked up the remains of a stone bowl in his hands.

Broken pottery was everywhere and fragments were collected to be taken back to Oruro for presentation to the archaeologists.

Alas the carefully collected treasure had an unhappy fate. Days later in Oruro Clive and Toby spread the pottery out on the floor of their hotel for further study then popped off to the bar for a drink. On their return they found the fragments gone Ė the maid had serviced the room and swept them up, throwing them into the dustbin. A frantic search of all the dustbins proved to be of no avail, personally I found it hilarious!

pumiri pumiri
arriving at Pumiri, the girls take in the view of the valley

pumiri
the present inhabitants of Pumiri

pumiricut
Entrance through the hole cut in the rock face

pumiri formations
people lived in ancient times amongst the rock formations pumirivalley
view of the valley from the heights of Pumiri

We never did present those fragments to the archaeologists to study and Pumiri remains as little known today as it was four years ago when I first went there. We only had the "short" or quick tour of the site, but it extends ever upwards amongst the rocks complete with it's caverns, time-frozen condors and remains of those mysterious subterranean troglodytes; perhaps one day we will bring a film and archaeology team to write the history of this mysterious place for posterity.

sailing to Atlantis
sailing to the lost city of atlantis
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