Travel: Tierradentro – tombs & Colombia’s ancient past
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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.

The tombs at Alto de Aguacate

For info on San Agustin:

San Agustin – archaeology – stone sculptures – pre-Colombian mystery

Exploring archaeological sties of San Agustin on horseback

Please leave your comments, personal experiences and any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you. 

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at:

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