Exploring the Archaeological Sites of San Agustin on Horseback

I’ve been to San Agustin several times before and seen most of the archaeological statues. I’d hiked around the park above town – Bosque de las Estatuas and did the jeep tour of the sites: Alto de los Idolos, Alto de los Piedras and El Tablon. But there were some painted statues at the sites of La Pelota and La Chaquira I’d been wanting to see for a long time both of them located in the mountains above the town of San Agustin.

The draw back was the only way to get there was an 10-12-hour hike through the mountains or a 6-hour trip on horseback. Having been raised on a farm, I had plenty of experience horseback riding. But I hadn’t been on a horse in over 20 years. The cost of hiring a horse and a local guide was only $20 per person. Not feeling the hike, I figured why walk when you can ride. A simple decision, I thought, like hiring a taxi instead of walking 10 blocks to the center.

The trip was organized by my hotel in San Agustin. The guide, a local, elderly man, who lived in the village, came to the hotel in the morning wearing a cowboy hat and boots. We walked a few blocks to his house where the horses were tied up and waiting. He fed them water and sugar cane juice as he saddled them up. Then we went trotting out of the village and into the mountains.

San Agustin

Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony is emerged in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. 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.

The statues at La Pelota were unique because they were the only painted statues still surviving in San Agustin. They had been dyed 3,000 years ago with colored sap from trees. Remarkably, the color was still vivid. The statues depicted a ritual of human sacrifice practiced by the people who once lived here. They would sacrifice children to the gods by clubbing them to death. It was considered and honor to be asked to offer up your newborn. Young boys were preferred.

All the statues in San Agustin are 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 eyes, the canine teeth, and the hands.

After stopping at a local house to enjoy a cup of Colombian coffee, we rode on to see more statues carved in stone at La Chaquira. These statues sit atop a beautiful valley where the indigenous had come to pray to the Gods – an impressively scenic spot overlooking the Magdalena River roaring far below.

The ride through the mountains was beautiful and much better than walking. It was a good getting back in the saddle though little harder getting on and off than I remembered. The horses were well behaved trail horses. Not exactly barn-stormers but methodical animals that walked the same trails often. They trotted and cantered at will a little anxious to hurry things along. Towards the end of the day, it started to feel like I’d been riding a chiva bus over back-country dirt roads for the last 3 days. And when it was all said and done, I was just as happy as the horse to part ways.

For more on San Agustin – see post: http://colombiatravelreporter.com/colombia-travel/san-agustin-archeology-stone-sculptures/ 

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

Colombia has a number of ancient ruins throughout the country but the two most important archeological sites are found in the southern departments of Huila and Cauca where stone statues and deep tombs are located on countryside mountaintops. Located a day’s travel from each other are the pueblos of San Augustin and Tierradentro.

San Agustin – is a pleasant country village in Huila where one can explore Colombia’s finest archeological patrimony emersed 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 eyes, the canine teeth, and the 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 archeological parks located around the village.

Looters

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 in the past.

Historical photos courtesy of Parque Arqueologico Nacional San Agustin

The 1980s – 1990s brought political turmoil and instable times to the area and the park fell victim, once again, to widespread theft and  trafficking of archeological 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 way 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 archeological park ‘Bosque de las Estatuas’ which lies just a 40 minute walk outside of town. The park has an excellent museum and about 50 statues situated on a 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 incredible landscape of mountains, gorges, coffee and sugar cane farms; stops at the beautiful waterfalls of Alto di Bordones and  Salto di Mortino, and at the head of the Rio Magdalena passing other rivers that originate in the area.

a tomb

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.

Accomodations

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 Augustin 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 Augustin.

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 Tatcoa dessert and Tierradentro enroute. The border of Ecuador, which for most is usually the next travel destination, can be reached using either route



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(For more information on archeological sites in Colombia see the article: Tierradentro Tombs and Colombia’s Ancient)

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