South America contains many archaeological treasures: lost cities hidden deep in the jungle, gigantic figures etched into the desert, a glittering array of gold and silver; but in the fertile green hills of southern Colombia is one which few people outside the country are aware of.
San Agustín is a pretty, coffee-producing town in the southern department of Huila: to the casual visitor it doesn’t seem particularly out-of-the-ordinary. However, the town is the location of a spectacular archaeological park, home to “the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America.” This is according to UNESCO, who thought so much of the park that it became a World Heritage Site in 1995. These sculptures, built by mysterious pre-Columbian societies, range from realistic depictions of pregnant women to bizarre likenesses of jaguar-toothed shaman.
There are several options for visiting the archaeological sites. The most well-known and easy option is to simply take a $1000 peso bus marked ‘Parque Arqueológico’ from the centre of town which will drop you at the main entrance of the principal park in the region. For just $10000 (although if you are planning on visiting any of the other parks in the surrounding area, pay $16000 and get a ticket giving access the all of them) you are free to wander through the main mesitas, home to an array of unearthed tombs and statues, as well as the puzzling and intricate Fuente Ceremonial del Lavapatos, a complex series of interconnecting pools carved from the rock of a riverbed. Try and spot how many faces are hidden behind the waterfalls! It’s a disconcerting experience to say the least. As well as this, you have access to a pleasant walk through the ‘Forest of Statues’, where over 30 of the grinning figures are displayed, dotted along the meandering woodland path.
For the slightly more ‘Indiana Jones’ inclined traveller, there are various other sites in the volcanic hills around San Agustín which are less-visited but equally fascinating. Many of these can only be easily accessed on horseback, so a good idea is to hire horses and a guide for the 5 hour round-trip. This can easily be arranged through any hostel. Be warned however, we heard many stories during our trip about opportunistic horse-owners who, in an attempt to drum-up trade during the off-season, are slashing prices: this may seem like a great deal, but you won’t get the same information or assistance you will with an accredited guide. We even heard stories from other travellers about how they were offered some grave-robbed golden trinkets to ‘remind’ them of their stay in San Agustín. Expect to pay around $40000 per person for horses and a guide (bigger groups can negotiate this, we were only 2). Ask for Manuel: he studied for 3 years for his licence, and we found him knowledgeable and friendly. He was also incredibly patient with two non-riders!
Another day-trip option is the jeep tour. This is a full-day excursion which takes in the narrowest point of the Magdalena River, two more pre-Columbian sites (the stunning Alto de los Idolos and Alto de las Piedras, which contains some of the more recent, detailed statues) and Salto de Bordones, the highest waterfall in Colombia at some 450 metres (guides will tell you it’s the 2nd highest in South America: at the risk of spoiling the fun, it isn’t, but it is still magnificent). The jeep tour may not be as much fun as the horse tours, and you do spend a lot of the time travelling between the sites, but at just $30000 it is an essential part of any trip to San Agustín, if only to see some of the more natural wonders of the region.
In terms of hostels, we stayed at La Casa de Francois, a ten minute, uphill walk from the main town. Whilst there are many options for accommodation in the town itself, it is well-worth investigating slightly more rural options. La Casa de Francois was the best hostel I have stayed at in South America: it is set in a small finca clinging to the hillside, boasting stunning views of the hills and valleys surrounding the town. The kitchen offers mouth-wateringly delicious food (with a French touch), mostly sourced from the gardens of the finca: the home-grown coffee at just 500 pesos a mug is a highlight. It is a relaxing experience staying there: they are well-equipped with hammocks (take note ‘most hostels’: one hammock is insufficient!), and Francois’ menagerie of horses, puppies and kittens certainly doesn’t hurt. The price isn’t bad either: just $17000 pesos for a bed in a dorm.
How to get there: there are daily buses from Bogota, costing $50000, and taking about 10 hours. We travelled with Taxis Verdes and departed at 9:40pm. Alternatively there are regular buses from Popayan, which take about 5 hours (although on one of the bumpiest roads in Colombia!). Consider making a stop in Neiva and visiting the Tatacoa Desert on the way from the capital.
If you are interested in experiencing San Agustín for yourself, See Colombia Travel can help you organize a trip. Just get in touch!