The view from San Agustin (Tijs Zwinkels)
Article Words : Sarah Woods | 01 June

The south – Colombia Itinerary

Meet ancient civilisations (two weeks in San Agustín, Tierradentro and Popayán)

At Colombia’s very own Stonehenge, San Agustín, megalithic tombs, sculptures and carved figures are a major draw – and to visit the south-western region without witnessing this large collection of curious carved stone is unthinkable.

Now that the road from Neiva (fly in from Bogotá or Cali) to San Agustín is without guerrilla roadblocks, travel to the site by road is easy. Elsewhere in the south, security issues curtail many ‘off the beaten track’ itineraries yet the Parque Arqueológico alone makes visiting this region wholly worthwhile.

San Agustín allows a rare and exciting foray into an otherworldly terrain rich in mementoes of ancient civilisations.

While the town itself is nothing special, San Agustín’s fascinating array of chiselled figurines has roused international curiosity – an extraordinary collection 2.5km to the west of the town, declared a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site in 1995. With little known about the origins or purpose of the stones, San Agustín is shrouded in mystery. Perfectly intact (surprising, given the region’s history of unrest), this evidence of an ancient civilisation – believed to date from the second century BC – is set within a stunning, other-worldly landscape of massifs and canyons; several fabulous treks are possible in the area.

Discovered in 1758, these megalithic tombs, temples, sculptures and anthropomorphic figures span a wide range of themes and subjects, both human and beast. Just as you think you’ve seen it all, a further cluster of 30-plus stones appears from a steep bank by a river, thought to be a sacred foot-washing area. Here, carvings depict snakes, frogs, birds, human faces and eagles, with a narrow path that winds up to magnificent statue-guarded crypts. All are best viewed with a specialist guide.

You’ll also need a local expert to visit the catacombs of Tierradentro, another mysterious archaeological site located about a six-hour drive from San Agustín on an unmade road (prone to mudslides in the wetter months).

Popayán and Cali are well served by flights from Bogotá and linked by a first-rate, inexpensive bus service. Popayán, set in the undulating Valle de Cauca at an altitude of 1,760m, is known as La Ciudad Blanca; characterised by pretty white-washed streets that are easily navigable on foot, it is one of the nation’s most handsome colonial cities. It has long played an important role in the arts – home of poets, painters, playwrights and composers – and today its sizeable student population enjoys some of the oldest academic establishments in the country.

Sarah Woods is the author of the Bradt Guide to Colombia. She enjoys nothing more than a fierce game of dominoes in the Amazon town of Puerto Narino

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