The Mysterious Archaeological Sites of Southern Colombia

In the southern states of Huila and Cauca, two of Colombia’s World Heritage listed sites intrigue archaeologists and visitors alike. The San Agustín Archaeological Park and the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro are amongst the most mysterious sites of ancient civilization in South America.

An archaeological mystery: the stone statues and tombs of San Agustín and Tierradentro in Colombia. Who created them, and when? And what happened to the people?

An archaeological mystery: the stone statues and tombs of San Agustín and Tierradentro in Colombia. Who created them, and when? And what happened to the people?

San Agustín Archaeological Park

This park is made up of 3 sites in the municipalities of San Agustín and IsnosSan Agustín, Alto de los Ídolos and Alto de las Piedras. According to its UNESCO World Heritage listing,

The largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America stands in a wild, spectacular landscape. Gods and mythical animals are skillfully represented in styles ranging from abstract to realist. These works of art display the creativity and imagination of a northern Andean culture that flourished from the 1st to the 8th century. [Quote UNESCO]

Officially, the artefacts date from this time but there are many, varied opinions about who the people were who made these monuments and sculptures, and when they actually lived. There are claims that the beginnings of this culture goes back to around 3000BC, or perhaps to just 3000 years ago; others draw a connection with the Olmec culture of Mexico; still others claim the statues result from an extra-terrestrial visitation.

All through the San Agustín Archaeological Park there is tropical forest, with flowers in abundance feeding beautiful butterflies.

All through the San Agustín Archaeological Park there is tropical forest, with flowers in abundance feeding beautiful butterflies.

Museo Luis Duque Gomez was opened in December 2014. It is filled with more carved stone statues as well as lots of information about the San Agustín Archaeological Park.

Museo Luis Duque Gomez was opened in December 2014. It is filled with more carved stone statues as well as lots of information about the San Agustín Archaeological Park.

 

Despite the mystery surrounding the people, their culture and their art, this is an incredibly interesting region to explore. You can choose to get just a taste, or spend days scouring the countryside – on foot, horseback, or 4×4 – to discover many smaller sites, which are not included in the San Agustín Archaeological Park.

Visiting the site at San Agustín is probably the easiest. The Bosque de la Estatuas (Forest of Statues) is very accessible. It contains a collection of found statues, which have been relocated to line a path through a small rain forest. It’s an easy walk through lush, shady greenery, complete with beautiful flowers and colourful butterflies.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

If you are not limited by time, or physical ability, you can walk much further into the site. It’s very well organised, and gives the opportunity to see many more of the amazing carved stone figures, often in situ, or at least nearer to where they were discovered. Included are 4 plateaus – Mesitas A, B, C and D – with stone statuary, burial mounds and funerary monuments; the Fuente Ceremonial de Lavapatas [link is in Spanish but describes the Lavapatas carvings fairly well], carved into the rock of a streambed; Alto de Lavapatas; and the site museum.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

The small town of San Agustín is set up for tourists, with the usual hostels, hotels, restaurants, cafés, and artisan shops. There are also more of these carved stone statues scattered around.


San Agustín Archaeological Park - Alto de los Ídolos: an overview of plateau B from plateau A. Each shelter covers a single burial mound, which has been excavated.

San Agustín Archaeological Park – Alto de los Ídolos: an overview of plateau B from plateau A. Each shelter covers a single burial mound, which has been excavated.

Isnos is around 25Km from San Agustín, and on the other side of the river valley. The final part of the road is a bit rough, but reaching Alto de los Ídolos (the hill of the idols) is worth it. This puts the stone carved figures into a very real context as you can see about 10 excavated burial mounds. The tallest stone sculpture is also found at this site.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

The third site of San Agustín Archaeological Park, Alto de las Piedras, is nearby but we didn’t visit it.

Nobody seems to know what happened to this culture: in the 8th century it disappeared without a trace, leaving half-carved statues behind.

Alto de los Ídolos is a second site of the San Agustín Archaeological Park. This is purported to be the tallest sculpture found so far. How tall do you think it is?

Alto de los Ídolos is a second site of the San Agustín Archaeological Park. This is purported to be the tallest sculpture found so far. How tall do you think it is?

Alto de los Ídolos: originally these stone sculptures were painted. This is one of the few where you can see the remnants of the decoration.

Alto de los Ídolos: originally these stone sculptures were painted. This is one of the few where you can see the remnants of the decoration.

 

National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro

Although we had visited San Agustin in 2008, we had missed Tierradentro. Whilst taking a rest between the Bosque de la Estatuas and exploring the rest of the San Agustín site, we met Tony. He’s a Scottish expat who lives in Popayan and has a tour company . He was a wealth of information about this region and really encouraged us to visit Tierradentro.

To reach the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro we drove a road, which was unpaved and often very narrow, but with beautiful scenery.

To reach the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro we drove a road, which was unpaved and often very narrow, but with beautiful scenery.

Despite his description, we didn’t really know what to expect. What we found were a number of hypogea – literally an artificial cave. They were dug out of the volcanic rock and used as tombs by the Tierradentro culture. First the inhabitants dug a well, around which spiralled carved steps. Once these steps reached the required level (usually 5-10m), they began carving the chamber, which became the tomb. These tombs were usually multiple burial sites with up to 3 carved pillars to hold the structure, and 7 pilasters to divide the chamber into various alcoves. They are secondary burial sites: after the primary burial, the skeletons were dug up, put in earthenware pots and placed in these final resting places.

These huge underground tombs (some burial chambers are up to 12 m wide) are decorated with motifs that reproduce the internal decor of homes of the period. They reveal the social complexity and cultural wealth of a pre-Hispanic society in the northern Andes. [Quote UNESCO]

National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro: overlooking part of Alto de Segovia. These roofed enclosures cover several tombs, most of which you can climb down into.

National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro: overlooking part of Alto de Segovia. These roofed enclosures cover several tombs, most of which you can climb down into.

According to signage at the site, 64 hypogea have been identified (although that number seems to be out of date, as exploration and discovery is ongoing), and 25 of these are accessible to the public. Some of them are difficult to get down into, because the steps are very deep. I went down one on my backside – the only way to reach the next step.

We took the advice of the guards, who told us which were the most impressive at each site, so that we didn’t have to clamber down into all of them. And we were impressed. There are carvings on the pillars and pilasters; and some of them have well-preserved, painted patterns.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

There are 4 individual sites (Alto de Segovia, Alto del Duende, Alto de San Andrés and Alto del Aguacate), which have tombs you can visit. 2 other sites (El Tablón and El Hato) have carved stone statues similar to those found in San Agustín Archaeological Park.

We visited Alto de Segovia on the first day – it’s the most accessible, being only 750m from the entrance, along a paved path, but it’s uphill all the way. You can continue past this site and make a loop, which takes in Alto del Duende and El Tablón. We decided that this one would be enough for the day, particularly since it had started to rain.

On our second day we took a moto-taxi to the village of San Andrés de Pisimbalá and walked from there to Alto de San Andrés. The path to this site was less defined, up and down through farming land, and rough to walk. But the site rewarded us with an amazing view, and the hypogea had much better paintings to be seen.

National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro: on the way to Alto de San Andrés - it was tough going at times.

National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro: on the way to Alto de San Andrés – it was tough going at times.

Alto de San Andrés - the roof of this tomb collapsed so it's possible to actually see it in daylight. Behind us there is still some quite good paintwork to be seen.

Alto de San Andrés – the roof of this tomb collapsed so it’s possible to actually see it in daylight. Behind us there is still some quite good paintwork to be seen.

 

These two World Heritage sites are linked. They are thought to be the remains of the same culture that occupied this part of Colombia. Unfortunately, not much is known about the culture, its origin or its demise. Further study by committed scientists will probably continue to unearth facts along with artefacts. For now they remain the interesting but mysterious archaeological sites of southern Colombia.


Further Information:

An interesting English language newspaper from Colombia about San Agustin

You can download a guide book in English for the sites here:
San Agustín
Tierradentro


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An archaeological mystery: the stone statues and tombs of San Agustín and Tierradentro in Colombia. To this day it's unclear who created them, and when? And what happened to the people? Why did they disappear around 800AD? In our post we show you some of the amazing rock carvings and explain more. But the rest you will have to discover yourself!

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Yasha

dare2go’s human navigator (we’re not lost because there’s nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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18 Responses

  1. Cat says:

    You’ve visited some interesting archaeological sites! The carvings of those sculptures and pillars are so well preserved. Although we are curious about where they come into existence, we will probably never find out.

  2. Elisa says:

    I visited Tierradentro on my second trip to Colombia but I am still missing San Agustin so probably there will be a third Colombia trip for me. Good information and nice pictures to complement the text, it will be very useful for those who are thinking about visiting this area. Which site did you prefer by the way?

    • Yasha says:

      I can’t actually say I preferred one or the other. We had already been to San Agustin and liked it enough to revisit. Tierradentro was really interesting, but I’m not sure that I would do a return visit to it. It was a bit hairy trying to get down some of those stairs – I’m not as young as I used to be…

  3. Jitaditya says:

    Really glad to find this. Most people know the heritage of Peru or Mexico. But I had never heard of such sites in Columbia. They do look mysterious, almost feels like built by aliens! I am firmly putting them in my own list.

    • Yasha says:

      I hope you’ll enjoy a visit to both San Agustín Archaeological Park and the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro really soon. It is definitely worth it before they become too well-known and over-visited.

  4. These ancient ruins hold untold secret stories in stone. I love these kind of historical sites which are so fascinating. San Agustin and the other sites are really intriguing. I have always been deeply interested in the old Mayan civilization. Could these belong to the same genre? What were the people like who lived during that era and how was their life? Questions like these flood my mind whenever I see or read about the old civilizations and their remains. Really a fascinating read.

    • Yasha says:

      All good questions that the experts don’t seem to have answers for yet. So these archaeological sites of southern Colombia remain mysterious – and that’s one of their attractions.

  5. Megan Jerrard says:

    It’s funny how when you think about mysterious sites of ancient civilization in South America, you automatically think of Machu Picchu. So it was cool to read about sites I hadn’t heard of yet – both San Agustín Archaeological Park and the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro sound incredible!

    Myself and my husband are big fans or archaeology, and non touristy experiences – these sound awesome in that sense. Cool that you can take horseback and 4×4 to find smaller sites which are outside of the San Agustín Archaeological Park. I expect you would feel some sense of exploration doing it that way!! It just amazes me how a whole civilization can disappear without a trace!! Those stone sculptures are fascinating. And I would love to see the tomb paintings and carvings in Tierradentro first hand.

    Reminds me of our time in Easter Island, and Chichen Itza – but less touristy!

    • Yasha says:

      We also love visiting archaeological sites – and we try hard to find the unusual and less touristed ones. We did visit Machu Picchu on our first South American trip but this time we have concentrated on the less-known ones. We always think it’s a shame that most people think of pre-Colombian history as only Incan. There are so many much older cultures to explore – and mysteries like San Agustin and Tierradentro that are not yet explained.

  6. Marvi says:

    Mysterious archeological discoveries like this are pretty awesome to explore. Were the tombs you visited not claustrophobic? I love how the tombs and the sites are preserved well through the enclosures that were made. It would be great to see this sights personally.

    • Yasha says:

      Marvi, those tombs can be a little claustrophobic, but you can always look straight up the well with the staircase around it and see the daylight and the way out. Going down is certainly worth it if you can hold the fear at bay.

  7. Medha says:

    3000 years ago, wow! I can imagine why some people might think extraterrestrial visitation haha. The site is lovely, I would love to explore a place like this, thanks for sharing.

    • Yasha says:

      There are several sites and it is definitely worth taking the time to visit all of them. Tierradentro was new to us and definitely worth while.

  8. Lydia Smith says:

    Such a beautiful landscape. It’s strange that nothing is known of this culture but I’m sure there would be an interesting discovery. And those monuments are just mind blowing. The road to the the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro is also a sight to behold. Mysterious places and mysterious findings and mysterious feeling. I’d love to visit these archeological sites in Colombia

    • Yasha says:

      We really enjoyed San Agustin on our first visit in 2008 – and so glad we added Tierradentro. This area of Colombia is definitely worth a visit. We can really recommend Tony – the Scottish tour guide – who takes tours to both places from Popayan. He was a mine of information that he gave us freely.

  9. Sreekar says:

    That sure looks eerily similar to Easter island statues, though not as huge. But love such mysterious historical stuff. Makes one think. err of aliens even sometimes:)

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