Discover Colombia's Latin Quarter

Colonial towns, haunting deserts and mysterious pre-Inca sites – Colombia’s south is a distinctive and surprising slice of Latin America

7 mins

An explosion rang out. An injured man, hit in the foot, winced and limped away. I looked around at the men’s faces, masks of grim concentration as they took aim. The stakes were high – the losers would have to pay for the beers.

The game of tejo is a Friday night ritual in the southern Colombian town of Villa Vieja. It’s played by lobbing a heavy piece of metal – somewhere between a discus and shot put – at a target 18m away that’s primed with explosives triggered by a direct hit. The games are serious, but the atmosphere is beery and friendly; Latin music blasts out of the speakers. When I score my first strike (on the rookie 9m course), the same man who’d been hit in the foot by a stray tejo hobbled over to shake my hand, joking that I’d be in the local paper the next day.

“Tejo is a game with easily 1,000 years of history,” Alex, my guide and opponent, told me as we played. Colombia’s indigenous people used to throw rocks at tomatoes; the conquering Spanish added the explosive element. It felt in keeping with Colombia’s violent history to have a national game that is essentially boules with an added kick.

But despite 40 years of civil war, Colombia ranks, according to the Happy Planet Index, as South America’s happiest country – and the sixth-happiest in the world. Indeed, the warmth and helpfulness I experienced on the tejo field were characteristic of the people I met across the country.

Colombia’s problems aren’t entirely over. Decades of conflict have led to huge levels of internal displacement, with the knock-on effect of poverty, homelessness and crime. There are still problems with illegal armed groups, guerillas and drug gangs. But the country is more stable than it’s been in years and visitor numbers have more than doubled over the past decade. The majority of the country’s roads, especially in tourist areas, are under the control of police and soldiers.

Cartagena and the Coffee Triangle, both in the north, are relatively well known. But the country’s ‘newly open’ status means there are plenty more off-the-beaten-track places still to be discovered. I had ventured to the country’s lesser-visited south to find them.

Salt of the earth

My journey to the south actually began with a quick detour north of capital, Bogotá, driving to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. John, the hard-hat-wearing guide, led me and an enthusiastic group of young Catholic men down into the giant complex of caves, blasted mine-shafts and cool, dark tunnels with large crosses and kneeling places carved into the rock. The idea to build a cathedral here came from the miners. “When they started to use TNT, work here was very dangerous,” John told me. “Many miners died. There were a lot of Catholics and they wanted a place to pray. They wanted to feel some sort of protection.”

The first cathedral, dedicated in 1954, collapsed after 40 years. Version two, finished in 1995, is one of the most visited sites in the predominantly Catholic country. Our walk covered around 2.5km of the whole complex, which meant we saw “only 0.8% of the mine,” John informed us.

“The rest is industrial and off-limits.”

The chapel was bathed in warm, orange light with an image of the Virgin Mary at one end. The cavernous cathedral had a bluish luminosity while a recreation of Michelangelo’s ‘Creation’ was ringed by a purple glow.

In front of a carved Nativity scene, the young Catholics started to whisper excitedly, hatching a plan. Then they broke into song, their voices echoing as they sang ‘Los Peces En El Río’ (‘The Fish In The River’), a common Christmas song in Colombia. Afterwards, one man delivered a few lines of ‘Silent Night’ solo, in English. Festive cheer in May, 200m below Colombia’s surface, wasn’t something I’d been expecting.

I drove north from the cathedral through the Ubaté region, on the way to Villa de Leyva. The landscape was so crisp, vividly green and dotted with black-and-white cows (this is the milk capital of Colombia), it reminded me of Switzerland.

Villa de Leyva was a peaceful colonial town, a protected National Heritage Site free of modern constructions. I ambled the cobbled streets in the hot sun with Oscar, who owns a hostel and travel agency in town. The lengthily titled Catedral de Nuestro Señora del Rosario de Villa de Leyva, at the top of the plaza, took 40 years to construct, he told me. “It was partly a slow build because the priests could use it to get money from the people. They could say, ‘We need more money to finish the church’. A lot of churches took a long time to build...” Oscar added wryly.

We drove out of town to hike in the Moniquirá Valley, walking along paths broken by fallen trees and mud slides from the recent floods. We headed to a waterfall, a sacred site for the indigenous Muiscas who lived in this area. “See the rock shaped like a table?” Oscar pointed. “It was probably used for sacrifices.” From there we headed to Paso del Angel (Angel’s Step), a path that – at its thinnest – measures 40cm, with a 170m drop down to the river below.

Oscar showed me another pre-Columbian site, El Infiernito (‘Little Hell’), with monoliths up to 6m in height, each with a different thickness. They were arranged, Oscar informed me, according to the angle of the sun on the solstices and the positions of the stars. The heavy rocks, each weighing up to ten tonnes, were brought here with great difficulty from the valley in the distance, then carved into penis-shaped columns – not just approximate phallic shapes, but sculpted shafts each with a clearly defined ‘head’. If proof were needed that humankind is strange, and that religion in particular drives people to do peculiar things, it would have to be the decision to haul giant chunks of rock 80km across mountains and streams to fashion them into giant manhoods and point them at the stars.

Sex, drugs and rock sculptures

There were more mysterious statues down south. After catching a plane from Bogotá to Popayán, the ‘White City’, I took a bumpy six-hour drive south on a policed road that used to be controlled by guerrillas and drug gangs, heading to San Agustín, the archaeological capital of Colombia. Just outside the town, there’s a 2,000 sq km Unesco World Heritage site filled with hundreds of statues; many more are scattered across the surrounding countryside. There’s talk, too, that there might be a pyramid buried somewhere in the area.

Alex and I met Marino, a local expert. The people who created the massive, well-preserved sculptures are thought to have come originally from Amazonas, he told us. Their Classic Period was between AD100 and AD900, but they were in this area from 3,300BC, before the Incas, Aztecs and Maya, and contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians.

Despite much research and comparisons with other cultures, the statues remain a mystery. “There’s much here that is unknown, simply guesswork,” Marino admitted. “This is the land of the mystery, the enigma, the question mark.”

Each sculpture is unique, but there are recurring characteristics: large heads, no necks, short or no legs. In their details are clues to the culture. A chief has a skull around his neck, possibly a war trophy. Some have visibly swollen cheeks from chewing coca leaves. The sculptors frequently combined human with animal or bird features; many of the mouths are filled with jaguar teeth. Together, the statues make a pretty freaky bunch. Some archaeologists believe they were created under the influence of coca, ayahuasca or other narcotics.

We walked past statues of monkeys and snakes copulating. There are more phallic shapes here too, and male figures with erect penises tied to their waists. “Sex and death are two universals. All cultures cover these themes,” Marino said.

Our gang of three rode out the next morning on horseback, through coffee and sugarcane farms, to explore other sites on the hillsides. Several statues showed signs of their original colours: red, yellow, white and black. Marino pointed out the plants and trees in the vicinity that produced the dyes and paints. Later, we tied the horses and climbed down a mountainside to see Chaquira, a figure carved into the rock, facing east to where the sun rises.

Meeting the desert princess

From San Agustín, Alex and I headed for the Tatacoa Desert. Approaching the town of Villa Vieja, the scenery became hillier, with strange reddish rock formations, spires and mounds, and 6m-high candelabra cacti. “Everyone calls Tatacoa a desert, but actually it’s a dry forest,” Alex told me. Cows and goats grazed freely across the open ground. From a ridge, we looked out at the Tower, one of the desert’s most striking features, then hiked down into the Cusco Labyrinth, a range of ‘dunes’ similar to Death Valley.

Tatacoa’s not quite a match for the red-rock formations of the south-west USA, but it’s peaceful and there are interesting characters living here. I’d hoped to meet the ‘Queen of the Desert’, a local legend who helped create and populate the villages of Tatacoa, but we discovered that she’d died last year, aged 97. Many of her 13 children and 50 grandchildren still live in the area.

I tracked down Paula, the Queen’s 15-year-old granddaughter, who was tending goats on her family’s farm. She described her grandmother as “really honest – she’d look people in the eye and tell them the truth. She was very famous. People came from all over the world to talk to her.”

Paula shares her grandmother’s affinity with the desert. “I love the tranquility,” she told me.

If her grandmother was Queen, Paula must be a Princess of the Desert. “Yes,” she said, “definitely.” And a future Queen? “It would be good to be Queen. I’d be able to meet people from all over the world too.”

After dark, when the last of the goats had been called in, we headed to the observatory. Tatacoa’s known for its night skies. “There are other observatories in Colombia with bigger telescopes, but they don’t have the location,” local astronomer Javier told me, as we climbed to the observation platform. “There’s no light contamination here. Also, we are close to the equator and we can see the whole sky, both hemispheres.”

We stood on the observatory roof, the desert peaceful except for the hum of cicadas, the corners of the landscape flashing with lightning. Through the telescope, I studied a remarkably clear image of Saturn and the crispest image of the moon I’ve ever seen, despite being about 384,000km away. Javier looked at his watch and told us to concentrate on the horizon as the International Space Station flew across the sky.

Breakfast the next morning out in the desert was one of my strangest. As the sun rose we ate fruit – small, lurid-pink and shaped like chilli peppers – straight from the top of cacti. They had a crisp, sweet taste, like strawberry. We washed them down with milk, frothy, warm and squeezed fresh from a goat on the Gonzalez family’s farm.

Brother and sister Miguel and Lilia are the fourth generation of Gonzalezes to live on the farm. With them was a small boy called John Jailer, the son of their sister. After Lilia squeezed several tankards of milk from a goat’s udders, John started to help his uncle and aunt separate the animals, lifting the smaller ones into a pen. “Sometimes,” Miguel smiled, “the goats see he’s small and try to take him on, but he’s strong and wins. He’s very helpful. He already knows everything about the farm.”

John stepped forward to demonstrate his abilities. He missed with his first lasso shot, laughing and chasing to collect the rope. Once retrieved, he tried again and successfully snared a little goat.

Miguel looked satisfied, happy even – perhaps those surveys have it right. “We love to live here,” Miguel confirmed. “We feel rich – not with money, but with tranquility, the sound of birds, the calm of the desert.”

The author travelled with Travel the Unknown on a tailormade itinerary that included visits to Villa de Leyva, Popayán, San Agustín, and the Tatacoa Desert

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