San Agustín Archeological Park, Colombia

Visiting San Agustín  was D.'s idea and he came up with it almost immediately. As he casually tossed the Colombia guidebook my way he said, "I'm picking  San Agustín  - you can pick the rest!" The truth was that picking it shaped our entire itinerary. It takes time to get to San Agustín (which south of Bogota) and if we were going there it seemed like we should see a little more of the area and possibly the tombs in Tierradentro. Once we'd looked into it we found the "Negros y Blancos" Carnaval in Pasto (which looked like fun) and the whole trip began to take shape.

What drew us to San Agustín was  the UNESCO World Heritage Archeological Park which is an extraordinary place and very much worth visiting. This is the center of a ancient chiefly society of which very little is known. As UNESCO describes it,  "This is the largest complex of pre-Columbian megalithic funerary monuments and statuary, burial mounds, terraces, funerary structures, stone statuary and the Fuente de Lavapatas site, a religious monument carved in the stone bed of a stream."  Here's a site of continuous occupations over several millennia, with monuments far older than anything you'll see in Machu Picchu and yet it's barely known outside Colombia.
What you see are a series of burial sites and a large number of carved statues from 1-900AD. The carved stone sculptures show a range of different styles and illustrate different representations of  animals, gods and mythological creatures, combining elements of animals, birds and reptiles. The key element you learn in the excellent small museum, is that archeologists still know very little about this civilization, their cosmology, why they buried their dead in this fashion, what it meant and why they declined after 900AD. 
I love this picture which was in the museum, of archeologist take in San Agustín  the 1930's.
The park is divided into several area starting with a small museum and "Bosque de Las Estatuas" a circular walk where statues from the surrounding areas have been relocated, see below.  

There are also a series of excavated funerary sites (Mesitas A, B and C) and a walk that takes you down to  "Fuente de Lavapatas"  where ritual carvings were made into the stone river bed. 
Tip: It took us four hours to see the museum and  the rest of the park. It was hot and the walk was quite taxing given the heat, your going to want lots of water so don't hesitate to buy it when you have the opportunity.
The park is well laid out with broad paths  and stairs that take you between the various sites,  make sure to see all the sites as each offers something slightly different. It was well worth walking down to "Fuente de Lavapatas" , passing this frog-like guardian stone on the way down.
This is clearly still seen as a spiritual site  for a number of groups and there was a  "New-Age" devotee meditating when we visited. You  see the site from a  viewing platform below. 
While the carvings are hard to photograph, in person it's easier to see the faces in the wet river rock and they are quite impressive  Again very, little is know definitely about this cultural group and their practices, was this a ritual pool or sacred river, a boundary, religious or purification site? Perhaps the most you can say is that the carving clearly indicates it had a significant cultural use and it may have been closely associated with the extensive, nearby  burial mounds.
Mesitas A,B and C are where you'll see the main funerary monuments and these were probably the burial sites for important chiefs. The fact that there is such a concentration of these monuments within a relatively small area and over so many years suggests this was an important center of religious practice and may additionally have been a  site of ancestor worship and pilgrimage.
The tombs are often guarded by funerary statues, here's UNESCO's summary, "The tombs contain an elaborate funerary architecture of stone corridors, columns, sarcophagi and large impressive statues depicting gods or supernatural beings, an expression of the link between deceased ancestors and the supernatural power that marks the institutionalization of power in the region."  As you can see they are quite impressive...
The setting is very picturesque with lots of lovely views over the surrounding countryside. We saw several small French and Italian tour group, there were very few Americans and we met no Brits. Traveling over the Christmas holidays we found it was predominantly Colombian tourists and lots of people had driven down from Bogota.
We stopped at this small cafe for some fresh sugar cane juice and empanadas.  I promise it was more attractive on the inside! After walking around the site for hours we were happy to sit down. They also had homemade ice-cream.
There's enormous diversity to the style, size and form of these statues as you can see. We couldn't even distinguish discernible styles from the various periods. Some have earnings, headdresses, belts and ritual aprons while others have animal , amphibian or bird-like forms or characteristic.

The tall, narrow piece below seems to have an impressive jaguar headdress on top of the human figure. 
San Agustín is a lovely place to visit and it gives you a sense for the sophistication of this society where death was clearly a central ritual moment. Visiting the archeological park   reminds us of the diversity of our pasts, that there were so many smaller (and now unknown) societies with their own, local cultural forms and aesthetics. It's worth visiting because it's rare to find so many intact monuments and sites and it gives you a great opportunity to see something of the area which is incredibly attractive and very much worth exploring. We had three nights and we could  easily have stayed longer to do some walking. We stayed at the Hostal Huaka-Yo which is in walking distance of the park. We liked  it very much and  can highly recommend  staying there, I will be reviewing it in a separate post.
Note: The park is at the core of the San Agustín archaeological zone  and there are a number of additional sites which you can visit on the same ticket including  Alto de Los Idolos  and the smaller Alto de las Piedras  - which we covered on a separate day trip. Hopefully I'll get around to blogging about our day visiting them and criss-crossing the Magdalena river.


Dona said…
Great photos. We found predominantly Colombians wherever we traveled also.
Glad you liked the photos. Yes, it's amazing how few foreign visitors you see outside of Cartagena.
Travel4lifeblog said…
Great post! Thanks for sharing! This is going to be useful as we are planning to spend at least 6 months in South America from January 2017 as we are taking a year off. Will you consider one day to add Pinterest widget at the end of your post so people could pin your article? We would love to add your article in our Colombia board! Keep up the great work!
Patrick and Cecile from