Travel: San Agustin – archeology – stone sculptures – pre-Colombian mystery

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.

Statue San Andres

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.

Historical photos courtesy of Parque Arqueologico Nacional San Agustin

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.

a tomb entrance at Tierradentro
The straits of Rio Magdalena

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.

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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.

the market at San Agustin
Door of the church at San Agustin
Waterfall  Alto di Bordones is highest free falling waterfall in Colombia dropping 400 meters or 1,300 feet

Waterfall Salto de Mortino

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)

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have and we will get back to you.

Travel: Tierradentro – tombs & Colombia’s ancient past

Colombia has a number of ancient ruins. But the two most important are in the south of the country where large stone statues and hundreds of deep tombs are located on mountain tops.  Amidst the  wild, isolated countryside visitors get to glance into Colombia’s ancient past. The two towns are San Augustin and Tierradentro located about a half a day’s travel one from the other.

Tierradentro – located in the department of Cauca, is  known for its pre-Colombian tombs.

Underground tombs have been found all over the Americas – from Mexico to Argentina but their largest concentration is in Colombia. And Tierradentro is one  of Colombia’s greatest pre-Hispanic attractions.

The Spanish found this mountaintop area so isolated they called it – ‘Tierra a dentro’ or the land on the inside. The area has always been inhabited by the Nasa (Paez),  Colombia’s largest indigenous group. Still residing in the area, many take turns working at the park.

-Tierradentro has been relatively unvisited for years-

The Nasa have always been key in the fight for indigenous rights in Colombia. Left leaning peasant leagues have been active here since the 1930s, the era of ‘La Violencia’, and more recently the Nasa heartland has been a fertile ground for the revolutionary group FARC.  For years tourists kept away from the park due to the fighting between guerrilla and paramilitary groups. But in the last few years the fighting has ceased and visitors have been increasing.  San Agustin underwent a similar experience though Tierradentro has remained the much less visited site.

A tomb

The Tombs

There are 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. Carved into  volcanic  rock the tombs open to the west. Spiral staircases lead to a main chambers 15 to 24 feet below the surface. The main rooms are 30-36 feet wide with supporting columns and small walled chambers where bodies were buried.  The walls were scored with geometric patterns and painted red, black and white; red representing life, black death and white the hope of passing  to the next life.

A hand painting in one of the tombs
An spiraling staircase – an entrance to a tomb

These burial sites were abandoned before the 13th century. Farmers discovering the tombs uncovered them which led to many of the tombs being looted during the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1945, Tierradentro was declared a National Monument. The Colombian government created the park to protect the tombs, sites,  carvings and paintings from looters and further natural deterioration. Most of the main tombs were covered with  roofs to prevent flooding and padlocked doors installed over tomb entrances.

A girl at one of the farms along the trail
A finca planted to coffee on the steep hills near Alto de Aguacate

Hiking in the Park

The hills surrounding the park are spectacular with small farms growing coffee, banana, potatoes, yuca and sugar cane.

It’s a long hike and difficult hike up and down the steep mountains. There is a total of 8 miles of narrow foot trails to cover to visit the major sites. It can be easily done in two days of hiking which includes exploring the tombs.  Some hikers were reporting doing it all in a day.

At the park entrance there are two small museums. From there, a 30 minute climb up a paved road is the main site, Alto de Segovia,  where there are 29 tombs mangificiently preserved. From Segovia it’s a 20 minute walk up to Alto del Duende  – a smaller site with 13 tombs. And from there its a 35 minute walk to El Tablon where there are 9 statues similar to the ones found in San Agustin. The footpath continues to the village of San Andres de Pisimbala’ – a favorite lunch stop.

The main road goes down to the park but the foot path continues to Alto de San Andres, a 15 minute walk where  7 tombs are located.   The hike gets heavy from then on. The path goes down to the river at the  bottom of a valley and then straight up a steep mountain to the mountain ridge where Alto del Aguacate is located. Here there are there are 62 tombs in a more rustic setting.

Aguacate is the most isolated site and the least visited because it is  a hard trek to get there. The tombs are dark an unlit and climbing around under the earth in these ancient chambers with a flash light is a real Indiana Jones moment.  The path continues down the mountain returning to the entrance of the park.

The trail back to the park as seen from Alto de Aguacate

If you just have one day to visit it all I would suggest staying at a hotel near the park entrance and going to see: the museum, Alto de Segovia, Alto del Duende. If you have time and want to press on  – El Tablon, lunch in Pisimbala’ and onto Alto de San Andres.  From here return to Pisimbala and catch a ride down to the entrance of the park.  The hardest climb is up to Alto de Aguacate. It’s difficult, bring plenty of water and leave it for  a second day.

Getting to Tierradentro  while only 50 miles from Popayan – it’s  not an easy road over the Cordillera Occidental to the town of Inza. From there it’s  taxi ride to Tierradentro. The road is little easier  from Neiva and San Agustin.  A bus to the ‘termanalito’  in the town of La Plata and from there – a jeep to Tierradentro.

They will leave you down by the entrance of the park where there are a number of inexpensive restaurants and hotels – $10 a night and up. Or ride the jeep across a river* to the end of the line at the small village of San Andres de Pisimbala’, at the far end of the park.  The  only  hotel – La Portada  ($20 a night) also runs a restaurant across the road where the dona offers  well prepared meals at a nice price.

*2018 -A bridge over the river had washed out. They were rebuilding it but as of writing the trucks and jeeps had to fjord the river. After a good rain, the river rises and trucks couldn’t cross. But motorcycles still made it over the footbridge.

(For information on San Agustin see the article: 

San Agustin Archeology, Stone Sculptures, Pre-Colombian Mystery)

The tombs at Alto de Aguacate

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