The thoroughly laidback little town of SAN AGUSTÍN, 140km southeast of Popayán, has everything a budget traveller could want: awesome landscape, cryptic remains of a forgotten civilization, bargain-basement prices and a plethora of outdoor activities – from white-water rafting to horseriding. There’s plenty to discover here, in particular the archeological park. Some 3300 years ago the jagged landscape around the town was inhabited by masons, whose singular legacy is the hundreds of monumental fanged stone statues comparable in detail to the more famous Moai statues found on Chile’s Easter Island.
Much mystery still surrounds the civilization that built the monoliths, though the surreal imagery of sex-crazed monkeys, serpent-headed humans and other disturbing zoomorphic glyphs suggests that the hallucinogenic San Isidro mushroom may have been working its magic when the statues were first created. What is known is that the priestly culture disappeared before the Spanish arrived, probably at the hands of the Inca, whose empire stretched into southern Colombia. The statues weren’t discovered until the middle of the eighteenth century.
To see San Agustín and its surroundings properly, you ideally need three days: one for the archeological park, one for a day-long jeep tour of the outlying sights, such as the Alto de los Idolos, and one for a horseback tour of El Tablón, La Chaquira, El Purutal and La Pelota.
Alto de los Ídolos is the area’s second most important site after the Parque Arqueológico, and its two hills lined with tombs are home to the region’s tallest statue, 7m high. Four kilometres southwest of the village of San José de Isnos (26km northeast of San Agustín), it can be reached by joining a day-long jeep tour (around COP$35,000 per person), which is easily arranged through your accommodation. Jeep tours also take in the Alto de las Piedras, another important archeological site, its highlight being Doble Yo, a statue that is half-man, half-beast. If you look closely, you’ll see that there are four figures carved on that rock. Other stops include Colombia’s tallest waterfall and a smaller waterfall viewpoint.
The bizarre Tatacoa Desert makes for a worthwhile detour en route from Bogotá to San Agustín or Tierradentro. Measuring just 300 square kilometres, tiny Tatacoa’s arid topography – complete with cracked earth, giant cacti, orange-and-grey soil and towering red rock sculptures – is all the more astonishing because it lies only 37km northeast of Neiva, a city encircled by fertile coffee plantations. Scorpions, spiders, snakes, lizards, weasels and eagles have all found a home here, while fossils indicate that the area was an ancient stomping ground for monkeys, turtles, armadillos and giant sloths.
Some of the fossils are on display at the paleontology museum, on the main plaza in the village of Villavieja, 4km from the desert. Villavieja has a few basic hotels and restaurants, but since one of Tatacoa’s chief attractions is the amazing night sky, it pays to stump up for one of the basic four-walls-and-a-corrugated-iron-roof deals in the desert itself; accommodation is scattered along the road just past the observatory, the desert’s focal point. In the evenings, don’t miss local astronomer Javier Fernando Rua Restrepo’s star show, where you get to observe the night sky from his three powerful telescopes (weekends 7–9.30pm; by appointment on weekdays; COP$10,000; t 310 465 6765). Across the road from the observatory, there’s a lookout point over the Laberintos de Cusco – the maze of otherworldly red rock formations. A 45-minute trail runs down from the red-roofed bar through this labyrinth to the main road; a number of locals also offer guided desert tours by car, mototaxi or horseback. The best time to explore the desert is early morning before the heat becomes intolerable (temperatures frequently reach 43°C).
Hundreds more statues are littered across the colourful hillside on either side of the Río Magdalena. Some of the most popular destinations are El Tablón, La Chaquira, La Pelota and El Purutal, which most visitors see as part of a four-hour horseriding tour. While the four sites are also doable as part of a day-long hike from town, riding through spectacular scenery is one of the highlights of San Agustín, and knowledgeable guides, booked through your accommodation, can shed some light on what you are seeing. Of the four sites, La Chaquira is the most impressive, with deities carved into the sheer rock above the beautiful Río Magdalena gorge.
Unmissable for its wealth of statues, the Parque Arqueológico, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, sits 2.5km west of San Agustín. The park contains over a hundred stone creations, the largest concentration of statues in the area. Many of them are left as they were found, linked by trails A, B and C, while others, like the ones in the wooded sector known as the Bosque de las Estatuas, are rearranged and linked by an interpretative trail. The statues are beguiling – their fanged faces, the animal-human hybrids, the stylized animal carvings – and they are all very much intact, though their purpose remains a mystery. Don’t miss the Fuente de Lavapatas, a maze of terraced pools, covered with clearly visible images of reptiles and human figures, thought to have been used for ritual ablutions. Further along, and up, is the furthest point of the park, Alto de Lavapatas, the oldest of the sites, with statues sitting forlornly on a hilltop, their brooding gaze sweeping over the countryside.
There’s also a Museo Arqueológico featuring pottery, jewellery, smaller statues and background information on the San Agustín culture; visit it before hitting the statue sites if possible.