San Agustín is a place full of myths and mysteries.
An ancient indigenous group lived at this place many years before the empire of the Inca and the conquistadors arrived.
They left over many strange looking sculptures which are craved in volcanic stones of different sizes.
Some are shaped like humans, others are animals or both of them.
There is no written language, no known meanings to the sculptures and nobody knows exactly what they stand for.
We discovered here, in the South of Colombia, fantastic archeological sites between cane farmland and coffee plantations.
About 30 000 people live in the area around San Agustín which lies, like the Desert Tatacoa, in the Huila department. The city isn't pretty and the first hostel we picked seemed to be a Motel. We directly changed to another one within 5 minutes after we arrived.
We went to the Hostal Casa François. This hostel was one of the best and cheapest hostels we stayed in Colombia. It lies above the city, has a good restaurant and is just one kilometer away from the statues, the main attraction of San Agustín. The area of the sculptures includes 50km².
Today, the land around San Agustín is used for cane, meadow and coffee. The average temperature in San Agustín is around 18•C. This was our second last stop in Colombia.
Many centuries ago, even before the first European arrived in Colombia, two ancient indigenous cultures lived in the valley of the river Magdalena. They had already disappeared before the conquistadors discovered this place. Nobody recorded those indigenous cultures, there exists no written language and there is only little known about them. The only legacy they left are statues, made of volcanic rocks which are more than 5 000 years old.
Gold seekers searched the graves of those indigenous groups in this area, in hope to find gold or other valuable objects, like in the graves of the Muisca and Tayrona. Instead of that, they only found potteries and strange looking stone statues. Those statues are today one of the most important archaeological sites of the continent.
When the gold seekers found the sculptures, they weren't interested in them and threw them away. Years later, people started to realize the importance of them and searched the area. More than 500 different sculptures were discovered until today and they are all different.
Some of them are 7 meters high, others are tiny. Some are big and round, others are flat. Some have a relief, others are just drawn on the stone. Some have their natural stone colours, others are painted in colours. Some are resembling monsters who are eating children or animals, others are resembling animals who are protecting something.
The best of all, for me iss that nobody knows anything about those sculptures and what they mean.
According to a very friendly local Colombian who we met at one of the sites, it's unnecessary to hire a guide.
He told us: "They will tell only you what they think to see and everyone is telling you something different, because nobody knows something. It is better to go on your own to the places and to make your own consideration".
He also disadvised us to do a horse trip, like most of the travels do in this area. Most of the horses are in horrible conditions, have to work everyday without breaks and don't get enough food.
Most of the sculptures were found in front, next or above a grave. For me, they were protecting the dead from the underworld. Most of the sculptures had a mask and looked like monsters or demons. They had an instrument, an animal or children in their hands and sometimes they were painted with colour.
We did three tours in San Agustín. The first day we booked a "Jeep Tour". We hoped to see plenty of statutes, get much information and to have a nice trip. However, it was none of them.
Instead of a Jeep, we had a minibus for a dirt road in very bad conditions. Furthermore, our minibus driver was very unfriendly. He only drove us to the six destinations of the trip without any information where we are and only told us how long we can stay. It was a long day, we started at 9am and finished at 6pm. In total we drove 90 kilometers.
The street is going through farmland with cane and because we were fascinated of the several cane sugar factories that we passed, we had a short 10 minutes stop to visit one. We ran into the fabric, observed what they were doing, took some photos and tried some Panela, the product of the cane factory. I'm not sure if it was included in the tour, the workers in the factory were a bit surprised but not unfriendly.
On our trip we visited following places:
Estrecho del Magdalena
The river Magdalena is about 1 538 km long and goes through West Colombia, from the South to the North. The river has it source in the PNN Puracé which lies in the departments Huila and Cauca. In San Agustín, the river is passing a 2,20m big restriction called "Estrecho del Magdalena" which should be really impressive when it contains a lot of water.
In the village Obando is a little museum with some graves. It shows what they found near this village and about a short history of the statutes in San Agustín.
Altos Los Idolos and Alto Las Piedras
Both places are close to the city San José de Isnos. Those places are protected by the UNESCO since 1995 and contain several sculptures and graves. The site Alto Los Idiolos has the biggest statue which is over 7 meters tall. In the site Alto Los Piedras is the Doble Yo.
Salto Bordones and Salto Mortiño
The Salto Bordones has a height of around 400 meters when it carries enough water and is one of Colombians highest waterfalls. The Salto Mortiño is only 180 meters high but still impressive.
A bit bored of the long trip the day before, we decided to go for a walk on the second day. We took a Taxi, drove to the archeological site "El Purutal" and walked 9 kilometers back to our hostel, past several archeological sites
After El Purutal, we wanted to go to "La Pelota", a little mountain with a good view over the region. Instead of the normal way, over the street, a Colombian farmer showed us an other option which was through a coffee plantation, under several fences, through pasture land with cows and forest. The way was a bit complicated, neverthless we found the right trail and had a great view on the top.
On the way to our next destination, "La Chaquira", we stopped by a finca of a local woman who sold drinks to travellers. We both took a tasty Lulo juice, a fruit which we got to know here in Colombia. There are plantations everywhere with those fruits. We also met two friendly Canadian travellers there, whom we met again several times in San Agustin.
The archeological site La Chaquira is 200 meters downhill. The sculpture is different than others, carved into a big volcanic stones and the is looking over a long valley of Magdalena. It is surrounded by many other volcanic stones.
The last site of our trip was "El Tablón" which contains 5 statues.
We went to the archeological park the last day. The park contains the largest collection of sculptures, relicts and graves.
The park has a Bosque de las Estatuas with 39 statues in a forest; the archeological sites Mesita A, B and C with graves and some famous sculptures; the Fuente de Lavapatas where figures are craved into the stone of a creek and which was a place for rituals and ceremonies; the Alto de Lavapatas which has graves an statues as well and the park has a museum. The park is protected by UNESCO.
Colombia is small. In the park we met Miguel again, the son of the host of the hostel in Villa de Leyva. He and is girlfriend were visiting the park as well.
We didn't like the town of San Agustín but we loved the hostel above the city and the region. The Hostal Casa François was one of the best hostels in Colombia.
The main attraction in San Agustín are the sculptures.
It's impossible to visit them all in only one day, because they are spread over 50km².
Nevertheless, we visited most of them during our 3 days in South Colombia.
There is only little known about the sculptures and the indigenous groups who craved them into volcanic rocks.
Different than other archeological sites, where you can read for what those things got used for or what the symbols and figures could mean, this is missing here.
You have to build your own opinion and that is very interesting as well.
To hire a guide is unnecessary and I would not recommend to do a horse tour.
Fields full of fruits and meadows are perfect places for foraging. The fields were full with birds, especially Ibis and Lappwing. Around the fruittrees were plenty of Humingbirds and Flycatcher. In the meadow were buntings and grassquits.
Same same but different view!