Pre-hispanic Tombs and Statues.
A cycle tour of Colombia would not be complete without visiting some of Colombia’s pre-hispanic archaeological sites.

While the goal for this section of the ride has been to visit the archaeological sites of Tierradentro and San Agustín, it hasn’t been without interesting riding as we’ve connected the Magdalena River south of Neiva with the steep volcanic valleys and sometimes dirt roads of the Cordillera Occidental; eventually finding ourselves close to the source of the mighty Magdalena near the tranquilo colonial town of San Agustín.

The first leg from Algeciras follows pavement and a sinuous river as it cuts its way through low hills out to the main valley south of Neiva. As always, passing small fincas and settlements.

Down at a low (for Colombia) 600 metres we reached the Rio Magdalena and crossed it for the fourth time since we left Cartagena nearly four months ago.

Fast paved roads took us through Hobo and past Tesalia to Paicol, which was a pleasant surprise: a really chilled small town with a beautiful church and cobbled square. This town’s held on to its colonial roots well and was a really nice spot to stop for the night.

The posada was a surprise too – instead of a characterless prison cell room our NZ$15 got us a room in a place that was obviously well-loved by its owners who have adorned it with all sorts of curios and objets d’art.

The following day we rode on to a hotel on the outskirts of La Plata, left some of our gear there, and headed on to Tierradentro, an archaeological tomb site spread out over a series of ridges in a beautiful valley below the village of San Andres de Pisimbala.

The tombs here, known as hypogea, are dug deeply into tephra (rock-like compressed volcanic ash) hills and along with a few statues, pottery and items of jewellery are all that remains of a culture that flourished here from roughly 600–900 AD.

The subterranean chambers, accessed by stone stairways, are decorated with simple carvings and geometric designs using locally sourced pigments of red, black and ochre. A common feature of nearly all of them were the twin square section columns, and always facing in the same direction. Many of these tombs were looted long before archaeologists reached them early in the 20th century, but those that were successfully excavated had a single corpse, often in a pottery urn, buried in a separate hole cut into the rock floor of the tomb.

The security guard at the main site was quite entertaining. He’s teaching himself English – a phrase or two a day, by asking tourists to translate something for him verbally, which he records with his phone and then repeats until he has it memorised. He said he was the first person in his village to learn English and that he wants to learn so that he can earn more money and travel to the USA to see California. It’s great to see ambition in people.

A section of the 14 kilometre hike that visits all the sites of interest. Best walked counterclockwise and conveniently it passes through the village for lunch.

While the best preserved tombs have locked entrances and roof structures, there are many that you’re free to scramble into. There’s a whole string of them along the final ridge on the walk.

A typically cheerily decorated home.

The final ridge line on the walk (there’s a line of unguarded tombs along here), looking out towards Inza.

We’d spent the previous night at Tierradentro (there are several hospedajes near the main entrance), then walked the 14 kilometre loop from 7am to 4pm. We then packed up and rode 40 kilometres back to the hotel near La Plata.

It was a long day, but we had this pool to wake up to in the morning!

After a wakeup dip in the pool we headed off, stopping in La Plata briefly to pick up some more food. It was a Saturday – the day that all the campesinos from surrounding fincas and pueblos put on their town clothes and come to resupply for the week, drink beer and play pool.

A bumpy gravel road led out of town, busy with taxis and collectivos ferrying people home from the bustle of town. We stopped to buy a couple of bananas from these guys. Stopping partly – as we often do – just for the opportunity to chat to local people. They were friendlier than they look I might add; Colombians rarely smile for photos!

The rainy season had to catch up with us sometime, and it’s been since Villavicencio, down on the edge of Los Llanos, that it’s started raining more frequently – but in this region it seems to be in full swing, with big downpours a near-daily occurrence. We waited out this one for half an hour, before putting jackets on and riding on in drizzle. You can’t wait forever.

We’re back in the zona cafeterra, and nearly every finca we pass is devoted to cultivating this valuable crop.

Not long after the village of La Argentina, Yerson (red shirt) came past on a motorcycle with his mother. He stopped and in pretty good English asked if we wanted to come to his finca for some juice. One of those invites you just don’t say no to. From left: Brothers Isaac, Yerson, Kevin and Sebastián.

It was late in the afternoon, so after lingering over a couple of glasses of fresh squeezed mandarin juice, we asked if we could camp. That led to the offer of a room, and then we were generously fed – enjoying a great meal with the family. They were very nice people; relaxed, easy to get on with and understand and great company. Just another example of the openness and generosity we have experienced from Colombians.

The finca grew coffee, mandarins, avocados and dragonfruit, which they export – interestingly – to Korea. Apparently it’s a growth industry in the area.

Morning coffee. Yerson’s a keen cyclist too and asked if he could ride with us to the next town – around 3 hours ride away.

So we left as a threesome in the morning, following the rough dirt road onwards and upwards…

Already the famous statues of the San Agustín region are appearing – this one in the yard of a school.

Lots of creative use of bamboo in this area; this time as the main spans for a cleverly built footbridge.

And here the entire framing of a house. The wall spaces are filled with large rocks and then packed with mud.

Still climbing… towards the 2360m pass above San Roque.

‘Destroy that what kills you’, reads the patch on Yerson’s jersey. A sign of his maverick streak; long hair and earrings are rare on guys in the rural areas of Colombia. We farewelled Yerson in San Roque and carried on, mostly downhill to Oporapa.

We sat down with all the other Sunday diners in Oporapa for a full comida corriente (soup, juice, main and coffee) for a bargain 6,000 COP (NZ$3 each) and then carried on – refueled – for a long afternoon.

A really fun mix of narrow roads linked together nicely, taking us through Saladoblanco and then into the final long climb of the day towards Bordones.

Partway up we saw some boys picking guavas from a tree, so we took advantage of our seniority (older people are universally respected in Colombia) and convinced them to give us some.

And then only 400 metres up the hill their family was crushing sugar cane to extract the juice. They called us over and gave us a couple of glassfuls to drink. Just what we needed at that stage of the day.

After a day of over 2700m vertical we pedalled into Bordones in the drizzle and after dark. It’s a small, scruffy place of dirt roads and hastily built houses and kiosks. We asked a couple of people about somewhere to stay and eventually got led to a private home that doubled as an unoffical posada. The family were quite accommodating – giving us a room, warm cups of agua panela and then offering to cook us a meal of rice and eggs to save us foraging on the street.

The house was a shambles of rotting floorboards, creaky railings and one wall in our room just had a cheap tarpaulin to keep the weather out. But it was a cosy bed for the night, even though incessant barking and whining dogs broke our sleep.

The señor of the house was either too lazy or too frail to walk downstairs to the toilet, so there was a piss bucket at the top of the stairs. I prayed I wouldn’t trip over it when going to the bathroom during the night myself.

In the morning the family’s cache of coffee beans were spread out to dry.

While some of the family headed off for the day on their people-mover.

We headed off to the salto (waterfall) that Bordones is well known for. It’s the tallest waterfall in Colombia, pouring powerfully off a sharp cliff and cascading 400m metres in a narrow column. It’s not the most photogenic waterfall in the world, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

We thought this lurid red millipede was quite impressive too.

A network of dirt tracks led us to the paved road shortly before San Jose de Isnos, where we turned left to check out the first of the main archaeological sites of the area: Alto de las Piedras. This small park has a few statues, but is not as impressive as Alto de los Idolos, or the main site at San Agustín.

After lunch in Isnos we headed on to Alto de los Idolos, which is a really nice site on a clear hilltop surrounded by dense forest.

Here you can see impressive tombs, typically including a hand carved sarcophagus, pillars and slabs of basalt, and a carved guardian of some sort at the entrance. The layout in this and the following photo is quite typical of the style here and at San Agustín. The whole arrangement was originally covered with dirt to form a small hillock.

There is a huge variety in the styles, scale and quality of the tombs and carvings, suggesting they developed over quite a long period. Like Tierradentro, little is known about their creation: the dates of the statues are uncertain, but they are believed to have been carved between 50–400 AD. The origin of the carvers remains a mystery, as most of the site is unexcavated, and no writings have been discovered yet, unlike the Mayan Civilisation for example, where detailed glyphs reveal dates and the names of individuals.

We pushed on for San Agustín, passing through El Palmar and Obando. There are some poorly restored tombs in Obando that aren’t worth investigating, but the small museum there has some interesting artefacts and black and white photos, as well as a gaudy mural illustrating the history of the indigenous people. Interestingly, although, like Tierradentro, this is an indigenous area, the people who live here are not thought to be related to the people who created the carvings.

From Obando the road drops steeply back down to the Rio Magdalena, here a fast flowing mountain river, only 30 kilometres from its source.

In the base of the valley the river passes through the estrecho (narrows) where the normally wide river convulses and boils through a gap only two metres wide. While narrow, it’s apparently 15 metres deep here and is quite a sight.

And finally San Agustín.

We spent three nights here, staying at Hostal Bambu. San Agustín’s a really nice, relaxed small town, with a colonial, historic feel and manages to feel like an authentic Colombian town with locals going about their business, while still being a popular tourist town. It was good to see it not ruined with high prices.

The Rio Magdalena runs through an impressive gorge just outside town and one of the first things we did was ride and walk to the Chaquira site, where a track leads to the canyon and a large carving in the boulders on the cliff edge.

The San Agustín Archaeological Park is just 3 kilometres from town and contains dozens of carvings in many different sizes, as well as an excellent museum. It’s here that you really get a sense of the diversity and symbolism of the carvings. The site contains the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in Latin America and is considered the world’s largest necropolis.

From the creepy…

… to the almost comical.

This was one of the oddest things we’ve seen in a while: a hundred-odd caterpillars moving together – like a single organism, over the ground. A sort of insect peloton, perhaps. I’m told they eventally hatch into blue butterflies.

At the sculpture park we also ran into David, a Mexican long distance cyclist also biking the Americas, on his handmade bamboo-framed bike. We last saw David at a hostel in Antigua, Guatemala – about 9 months back. It was great to see another cyclist and trade stories. We’ve seen so few on our entire trip, due mostly to our choice of route. Which will next take us to Mocoa for the famous Trampolín de Muerte.

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2 Comments

  • Madge says:

    What do ‘dragon fruit ‘ look like – do they grow on trees or in the ground ? Also, what are ‘patacones’ ? Every bulletin makes fascinating reading. Love it all. Keep well.

    • Mark Watson says:

      Hi Madge – always nice to see your comments – thanks. Dragonfruit are about the size of a large orange – pink on the outside with white flesh and lots of small black pips. Quite tasty. The plants are cactus-like – about 1.5 tall. Patacones are fritter made from plantain (called platano here) they’re a very large banana, but less sweet and more starchy. Still good to eat raw but more commonly cooked. We’ll be in Ecudaor in a couple of days – but a new post from Colombia coming soon… adios!

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