The southwest Travel Guide
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Leaving the snowy white caps of the “Coffee Zone” behind, the Cauca River Valley descends south and widens until you reach Cali, gateway to Colombia’s southwest and the self-proclaimed world capital of salsa music. A knuckle-whitening detour from Cali takes you to the tiny town of San Cipriano. Further south, the Panamerican Highway stretches past steamy fields of sugar cane to the serene, colonial town of Popayán, known for its blindingly white Rococo colonial architecture. The verdant rolling countryside around San Agustín is some of Colombia’s finest, and would be worth a visit even without the enigmatic stone statues – remnants of a mysterious civilization – that pepper the hillsides. Tierradentro’s ancient tombs are less well known but no less fascinating. Heading further south from the overlooked town of Pasto, you ascend a ridge dominated by volcanoes all the way to Ecuador.
Colombia’s third-largest city, with a population of 2.3 million, CALI was founded in 1536 but only shed its provincial backwater status in the early 1900s, when the profits brought in by its sugar plantations prompted industrialization. Today it’s one of Colombia’s most prosperous cities, in part because of its central role in the drug trade since the dismantling of the rival Medellín cartel in the early 1990s; however, Cali is now more famous for its salsa dancers than white powder.
The low-lying and extremely hot city (with temperatures routinely surpassing 40°C) straddles the Río Cali, a tributary of the Río Cauca, surrounded by the sugar plantations of the marshy Cauca Valley. The large numbers of African slaves brought to work the sugar mills left a notable impact on Cali’s culture, nowhere more so than in its music.
Parts of central Cali are unsafe to walk around; be sure to get up-to-date advice on where not to go.
The city stakes a powerful claim to being Colombia’s party capital, and you’ll hear Cuban-style salsa music blaring from the numerous salsatecas throughout the day and night. If you’re here in September, don’t miss the Festival Mundial de Salsa.
The oldest church in the city is the Iglesia de la Merced, on the corner of Cra 4 and C 7, built from adobe and stone shortly after the city’s founding. In the adjoining former convent – Cali’s oldest building – is the Museo Arqueológico la Merced, which has displays of pre-Columbian pottery including funerary urns and religious objects unearthed throughout central and southern Colombia.
Cali’s Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia shows changing exhibitions of contemporary photography, sculpture and painting, sometimes featuring high-profile international names, as well as arthouse film screenings in the adjoining cinemateca. Walk along Río Cali for fifteen minutes from the city centre to get here.
The city’s centre is Plaza de Caycedo, which has a statue of independence hero Joaquín de Caycedo y Cuero in the middle. On the plaza’s south end is the nineteenth-century Catedral San Pedro, with its elaborate stained-glass windows.
After San Agustín, Tierradentro is Colombia’s most treasured archeological complex, though far less visited. Its circular tombs, some as deep as 9m and reachable by steep, smooth original steps through trapdoors, are decorated with elaborate geometric iconography and are as impressive as San Agustín’s statues. Monumental statues have also been found here, indicating a cultural influence from San Agustín, though again little is known about the tomb-building civilization other than that it flourished around 700–900 AD, with the statue phase occurring around 500 years later.
No large population centres have been discovered, lending credence to the belief that the original inhabitants belonged to a dispersed group of loosely related farmers. The modern Paez Indian population, 25,000 of whom live in the surrounding hillside, is not thought to be related to the creators of the tombs.
Tierradentro means “Inner Land”, an appropriate nickname to describe the rugged countryside of narrow valley and jagged summits. The area receives far fewer visitors than San Agustín, thanks to the poor quality of the road from Popayán, though that’s likely to change, given the ongoing road improvements and with the area currently safe from guerrillas.
The main village is tiny San Andrés de Pisimbalá, 4km from El Cruce de San Andrés, the junction on the main Popayán–La Plata road. San Andrés has a picturesque thatched-roof chapel that dates from the seventeenth-century mission. Two kilometres along the road to San Andrés, where you’ll find a smattering of guesthouses, starts the Parque Arqueológico Tierradentro (daily 8am–4pm; COP$10,000), which comprises the five burial sites. The trail begins behind the Museo Etnográfico (daily 8am–4pm), where you pay the park entry fee and receive a wristband, valid for two days. The well-presented displays in the museum focus on the history and customs of the indigenous Paez, while the Museo Arqueológico across the road has an archeological display including funerial urns, some statuary and information about the park’s tombs; both are worth visiting before you visit the sites.
It’s possible to visit all five sites, spread out over a sublime landscape, on a full-day, 14km walk that runs in a loop from the Museo Etnográfico and the Museo Arqueológico, with San Andrés making a convenient lunch stop. Be sure to bring your own torch to explore the tombs, as some are unlit, as well as plenty of water, and wear sturdy footwear. The guards at each site who open the tombs for you can answer most questions (in Spanish). It’s best to do the loop anticlockwise, since a clockwise route would mean tackling a long, tough uphill climb first thing.
Start with Segovia (20min walk uphill), the most important of the tomb sights. There are 29 of them; you descend into the trapdoors and down large, steep stone steps to peer into the gloom; note the black, red and white patterns that have survived the centuries. From here, it’s fifteen minutes up to El Duende, a smaller site with four tombs and very little colour on the walls of the tombs. It’s then a 25-minute walk to El Tablón – where you’ll find nine weather-worn stone statues which look similar to the ones found in San Agustín. To get here, go up to the main road and head left; El Tablón will be well signposted on your left. From here you can either take the main road into the village or else descend down the muddy trail that joins the other road that runs up into San Andrés from the two museums.
The best place for lunch is La Portada, after which you can pick up the trail again along the side of the restaurant. A ten-minute walk gets you to Alto de San Andrés, its six tombs boasting well-preserved wall paintings. From here, it’s a good hour and a half to the last and most remote site, El Aguacate, with spectacular views of the valley and a style of tomb painting not found in the others. Allow plenty of daylight time for the hour-and-a-half walk down to the museums as in the past there have been several robberies along this isolated trail.
Top image: Pillars in an ancient tomb, National Archeological Park of Tierradentro UNESCO World Heritage Site, Colombia © reisegraf.ch/Shutterstock