When the lights went out I was standing in the middle of the street. In San Agustín there was not a lot of traffic to worry about, just the occasional horse-drawn cart, so I had walked along its thoroughfares with a nonchalant stroll. When the powercut hit on the moonless night, I felt stranded in midstream, unable to recall just how far I was from the hotel. And the darkness was absolute. I shuffled forward, my arms outstretched like a resurrected mummy, until a friendly voice beckoned me towards a torchlit doorway.
If a similar blackout hit me on the streets of London I would have put my hand on my wallet and all my senses on guard. But in this little town in south-west Colombia I had already realised that walking into a horse was the biggest peril when darkness fell.
To most Europeans, danger and Colombia seem as synonymous as diarrhoea and Nepal, and I have to confess my own vision had at first been coloured by the news reports and Hollywood images that would have portrayed it as a war zone ruled by the drug cartels.
In truth there are parts of the country that foreigners would best avoid, and some of the big cities have definite no-go zones. But in the rural south, as in many other areas, I was treated to an easygoing hospitality and the pleasure of discovering a beautiful country that few travellers have even considered.
It was two days’ travel from the Ecuador border that brought me at last to the dusty streets of San Agustín. Along the way I had spent a noisy night in the town of Pasto, at the base of a volcano described as “extinct” in my guidebook. I had heard the eruption two days before, on the other side of the border, and as I left the television news teams were still loitering in the streets.
Next stop Popayán – a charming white-walled town that had itself been hit by a fierce act of nature not so long before. There were still buildings boarded up and cracks showing from the 1983 earthquake that almost levelled the old colonial settlement. Seismologically speaking, this part of the world is a veritable hot-spot. But the long bus journey onwards through the verdant hills and cloudforest gave the semblance of a calm and uneventful land.
When we spilled out onto the streets of San Agustín it was like stepping onto the set of a spaghetti western. I sat outside a bar and sipped a cold beer gratefully from the bottle, as very little happened in the little square before me. A young lad came up to me, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small stone fashioned into the shape of lizard. With the instant response of one used to repelling all hawkers I shook my head and looked away, but the image of the lizard stayed with me.
Later that evening, having finally found my way back in the dark to my hotel, I read by candlelight about the people who once lived in these lush hillsides and valleys.
It did not take long, for there was little to read about this enigmatic civilisation that had farmed the land and buried their dead with pottery and gold jewellery in elaborate tombs guarded by sentinels of stone. They were a skilled and sophisticated people, who had lived in the region for perhaps several thousand years, but had vanished a short time before the Spanish arrived, presumed to have been displaced, or exterminated, by the Incas. They left behind tantalising clues to their world from a period of their lives when they took to cutting the local rock into intriguing images.
Most of the statues and petroglyphs seem to have been made during three centuries of creative activity from around 300AD. Around San Agustín, and the Magdalena Valley, hundreds of figures and symbols have been found carved out of the rock. Some freestanding, some chiselled into the cliffs, and others a part of more intricate intentions. There are tombs and temples and totems, depicting people and animals and monsters. An archeological conundrum, scattered around the hillsides – it is this I had come to see.
But this was no stroll around a museum, for to experience the stones of San Agustín means exploring the countryside itself, and in this part of the world there is only one way to do this properly.
Jerry had the horses ready and waiting outside the hotel the next morning. A local fellow with a gentle humour, he made a living taking visitors on horseback around the major sites. And for once I could take a break from my stumbling Spanish thanks to his English learnt through “25 years of hustling gringos!”.
This gringo was happy to be hustled, for Jerry was good company and possessed a real enthusiasm for the places we visited. He led me to La Chaquira – a set of rocks overlooking the beautiful Magdalena canyon, and pointed out the strange faces etched into the stone. Perhaps a millennium ago an artisan sat in the same spot, looking at the same river, and decided to cut a face in the rock that would look over its waters until the day they ran dry. I sat under the same sun and soaked it all up. It was a magical place.
As the day went on I learned to sit back in the big western saddle and let the horse carry me gently along the muddy tracks between coffee farms and sugar cane fields to the various sites. We would stop to exchange a few words with other riders, and ate a lunch of empanadas and fresh strawberry juice as the sun rose high above us. And then, replete and still hot, we remounted and headed off again to discover more faces and figures hidden in the countryside.
Since a Spanish monk rediscovered the first of the sites, two centuries ago, dozens more sites and over 500 carvings and statues have been unearthed. Sadly many sites have been plundered of their valuable relics, with ruthless collectors descending on the region from all over the world. But aerial surveys (and commonsense) suggests many more sites are awaiting rediscovery, and the larger statues at least will probably remain – their sheer size thwarting the collectors.
And what magnificent creations they are. On my long day in the saddle I came across soldiers guarding tombs, and diabolical creatures standing alone. There were what looked like men with fangs eating children and bold portrayals of animals, such as an enormous owl or an alligator. At one site – Fuente de Lavapatas – an elaborate array of channels and bathing pools had been cut away in the rockbed of a stream, with depictions of lizards and snakes as decoration. Whether this place was for fun or ritual we can only speculate.
What did seem clear after studying many of the sculptures was that these were a people who respected, and probably feared, the natural world in all its guises. Making their homes in a land given to shaking and erupting beneath them, they had good cause for believing in forces greater than their own. The formidable animals that lived around them played a part in their understanding of the world. Some were allies, some were foes, some were deities and some, perhaps, were relatives – a number of statues displayed the features of both wild creature and human.
The puzzle is part of the appeal of the statues of San Agustín, and they spark the imagination of even the most jaded traveller. After a long day in the saddle I staggered back bow-legged through town, content to leave the mystery for others to solve. But when the lights went out again that night, the faces in the rock still were still flashing through my mind.
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