Colombia has a number of ancient ruins throughout the country but the two most important archaeological sites are found in the southern departments of Huila and Cauca where stone statues and deep tombs are rooted in countryside’s mountaintops. Located a day’s travel, one from the other, are the pueblos of San Agustin and Tierradentro.
San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony immersed in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. A few thousand years ago the people who lived in this area adorned their tombs with statues of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals. The animal traits can be seen in the statues eyes, canine teeth and hands.
Believing mountain tops to be very sacred places, incredible statues were brought to guard the tombs of kings and warriors dug into the mountain ridges near the town of San Agustin. Today these statues and tombs are preserved in several archaeological parks located around the village.
Farmers found most of these statues in the 1800s while plowing and digging in their fields. The main park, Bosque de las Estatuas, just outside of San Agustin, was created in 1937 to protect the statues and tombs from looters. The area had already been heavily looted over the years by gold diggers searching for gold and other precious metals.
The 1980s – 1990s brought political turmoil and unstable times to the area. The park fell victim, once again, to widespread theft and trafficking of archaeological remains. And while many statues have been found in the art collections in private villas throughout the Americas and Europe, only a few have been brought back by the Colombia Institute of Anthropology.
People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas.
Paintings in Museum Obando
Why were these tombs and statues built? Who built them? Little is known about these cultures or what happened to these ancient Colombian civilizations. Like most of the ancient civilizations in the Americas they just disappeared or were annihilated before anyone could understand their beliefs and ways of life.
Visiting San Agustin
and its surroundings properly, one should allow at least three nights and two full days. One day to visit the town and the archaeological park ‘Bosque de las Estatuas‘ which lies just a 40 minute walk outside the town. The park has an excellent museum and about 50 statues situated on a groomed half-mile circular path behind the museum.
Leave another day for a day long jeep tour of the outlying archaeological sites – Alto de los Idolos, Alto de las Piedras and the Museum of Obando. The jeep tour (which costs around $10-$15 per person) passes through an incredible landscape of mountains, gorges, coffee and sugar cane farms. The jeep tour stops at the beautiful waterfalls of Alto di Bordones and Salto di Mortino, and at the head of the Rio Magdalena passing numerous other rivers that originate in the area.
One could add a third day to rent a horse and see the sites, El Tablon, La Pelota and La Chaquira – all located just outside of San Agustin. The 7 mile trek can also be done on foot.
San Agustin has a lot of inexpensive to expensive accommodations. One can stay in town for as little as $10 a night or rent one of the hotels in the countryside just outside of town for a little more. There are a number of hotels and hostels on the road going from the town to the park. I stayed at Casa Nelly – a hostel about a 40 minute walk outside of town – or a $2 cab ride. The hostel was very pleasant and offered breakfast and a late dinner.
To get there – One can arrive at San Agustin by way of Cali and Popayan. It’s a grueling 5 hour bus trip from Popayan which goes over the Cordillera Occidental mountains into the paramo through the National Park of Purace. The trip cost 38,000 COP. The wild park is beautiful but the dirt road is overgrown by jungle and one can only catch an occasional glimpse of the park’s valleys and impenetrable jungle through the trees. The bus stops short of San Agustin leaving you at a fork in the road where you must flag down ‘collectivo’ jeep for the final 5 minute trip to the town of San Agustin.
One could also come from the north through the valley between the Cordilleras Occidental and the Cordilleras Oriental by way of: Bogota – El Espinal – Neiva and Pitalito – passing the Tatacoa dessert and Tierradentro en route. The border of Ecuador, which for most is usually the next travel destination, can be reached using either route
(For more information on archeological sites in Colombia see the article: Tierradentro Tombs and Colombia’s Ancient)
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