The secret statues and tombs of San Agustin and Tierradentro in Colombia


Popayan is situated in the Valle de Pubenza and it is known as the La Ciudad Blanca (the White City). It is an enjoyable place to walk around, with cobbled streets, leafy parks and pavement cafes. My bus dropped me here very early in the morning so I had to wake the hostel woman up which I felt bad about.

I ate a tamale in a café off the main square and it was delicious. Tamales are a historically rich dish across Latin America as the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas all ate different versions of this meal, usually prepared by women for the men who went out to fight.

The Aztecs ate frog and flamingo in their tamales and the Mayas enjoyed fish and iguana. These corn dough treats are still enjoyed mixed with meats, vegetables or seasonings and wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. 

Popayan is the gateway for buses to San Agustin and that was where I was headed. The bus station has buses coming in at all hours for the journey along rough roads to San Agustin or to the border with Ecuador. 


San Agustin

In the area of San Agustin in the municipality of San Jose de Isnos, there is an archaeological park which is home to a variety of statues that depict pre-Hispanic Andean culture for several centuries, with sculptures dating from the first, up until the eighth century. The site is 2000km² and the main historical sites are Alto de Los Idolos and the smaller Alto de Las Piedras which lie on each side of the Magdalena river.

The area is of great archaeological interest as there is much evidence of Andean ancestry.  This includes tracks, field boundaries, drainage ditches, artificial platforms and funerary monuments such as the prolific stone statues, hence the reason why the area was declared a World Heritage Site.

The stone guards, that were placed outside the tombs can be up to 4m in height and can weigh several tonnes, as they were carved from tuff igneous and volcanic rock.

Inside the main park, you can find Las Mesitas, an area that is like an open-air museum that contains artificial mounds, terraces, funerary structures and stone statuary. I really liked the Fuente de Lavapatas which is a romantically carved stone stream bed, and my personal favourite which was the Bosque de Las Estatuas.

I enjoyed the forest of the statues as it was a lovely winding forest path punctuated by the carved stones. It reminded me of an eccentrics back garden except with actual historical significance.

Despite all the big stone clues that they left behind, little is known about the culture apart from the obvious examples of stone technology for which they used basalt chips and it is thought that they lived on wild berries.

This was in the pre-Agricultural period from c3300 to c600BC, so it is unknown whether they also hunted for food, as it was such a rudimentary culture it means that little has been discovered about social politics. It is believed that it was a settlement of kinship which would be very civilised indeed.

A more modern people arrived and brought agricultural and pottery making practices with them in the 7th century, it is thought that social order brought by chiefs meant that manpower was allocated to carve the stone statues and the temple-like architecture suggest a spiritual belief in religion and in magic.

There were various settlers and the last of them were the Amazonian Andakis tribe in the 17th century. The colonial settlement of San Agustin by the Spaniards began in 1608-12 when a religious centre for indoctrination was founded by the colonists for the indigenous people.

From San Agustin, it is two buses and about half a day’s travel to get to Tierradentro.

Tierradentro - burial caves


I liked Tierradentro as it is a bit more off the beaten track than San Agustin and seeing underground tombs is pretty cool. The people that worked there were really nice and leant me torches for the tombs that weren’t lit so I would able to see them.

There are around 100 of these interesting funeral temples and this is the only place in the whole of the Americas where they are found. The different sites are along a beautiful uphill walk and the road and village settlement runs through the middle of it.

The town is called San Andres de Pisimbala and the people there are crazy nice, apart from the one women at the hospedaje that I stayed in. People also open their living rooms as spare bedrooms and will make you breakfast or tea whenever you want it.

The tombs were made by scooping out the soft volcanic rock and there are five different sites you visit as well as two museums. The paintings inside the tombs are black and red with white backgrounds. Well worth a visit for the intrigue factor as I have not been anywhere like that since.

If you want to know more about my adventures in Colombia and South America then my ebook, Girl vs Latin America is available to buy from Amazon:

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