This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

That's Archaeology! - San Augustin

We leave Pereira and take the very long bus ride to Popayan. After a couple days in Popayan (which I will write about later) we decide to go to San Augustin to visit their unique archaeological parks that contain burial sites from a pre-Colombian culture. From Popayan to San Augustin is only 126 KM, but the trip is a six hours, spine-jarring, teeth-rattling ride on unpaved roads through the Andean mountains. That is six hours to travel 79 miles.
San Augustin
San Augustin is a quiet little town. Besides its proximity to ancient history there is really not much else going for it. As we have found in several other small Colombian touristy towns (ie. Villa de Leyva, Salento) there does not seem to be many decent restaurants where just normal, non-tourists eat so we buy groceries and cook most of our food in the hostel. The main archaeological park is within walking distance from town. There is also an all day tour offered by everyone which will take people to six other natural and cultural sights around the area. Most foreigners do this tour while many Colombians have their own vehicle to take themselves around. I actually do not feel like doing a big tour so Mika and I spend several days going to the places of our choosing.

During our time in the town, the highlight seems to be - lowlight actually - is that I get locked inside the ATM booth. The lock goes out into the latch but not back. I learn this too late. Mika is busy relaxing at our hostel, so I have to flag down a pedestrian who gets the bank worker who does not have a key and jimmies the bolt open with his pocket knife. My real fear here is not having to spend hours trapped in the booth until a locksmith comes, but that "Gringo stuck in ATM" will be the leading story of the San Augustin 9 o'clock news.
A reenactment
San Augustin Archaeological Park

Is he eating a child, or is this his dolly?
The Parque Arqueologico de San Augustin is a UNESCO world heritage site and of course the main draw to the area. There is a 3 KM trail that leads to four small man-made hills showing various statues and funerary complexes. There is also a smaller trail that leads past thirty-nine sculptures found all over the region. The indigenous people of the Northern Andes lived here between 1-900 A.D. and are believed to be agriculture based societies. But in reality, apart from these statues and burial sites very little is known about these people and their way of life.

The park is only 2 KM from San Augustin town. It costs COP 10,000 to enter, but you can get the combo for COP 16,000 which will include entrance to Alta de Los Idolos, the other UNESCO site. The San Augustin park also has a smalll museum containing more sculptures. Walking slowly through the park is fascinating as we pass by these ancient, stone relics of an extinct, mysterious culture. The sculptures vary from human to animal to other-worldly.

Alto de Los Idolos Archaeological Park

Alto de Los Idolos is the second UNESCO world heritage site in the area and has the best preserved funerary complexes of this pre-hispanic culture. Remnants of colorful paint can still be seen on some of the sculptures and stone. To get here from San Augustin we go to Isnos with public transportation. The tourist office in San Augustin told us that it is a 2 KM walk to the park from Isnos. It is actually 5 KM mostly uphill. We find out the hard way.
This is a good angle showing exactly how the grave was found
When entering the park there is a short trail that leads to a large clearing with one hill on each side. Both hills contain several the tombs an statues. Where as San Augustin has many statues, Alto de Los Idolos shows more open graves showing how things were actually found. We are pretty much the only people here and it is very peaceful. Both parks are really nice and well worth our effort to get to San Augustin.
The largest statue found in the area. The tombs are on the hill behind.
When we are finished, with no taxi or car insight, our only option is to walk back to Isnos. It is downhill and goes by pretty quickly and then take our rides back to San Augustin.
If I am to be buried I want my coffin cover to look as cool as this one 

Salto de Bordones

On our final day in San Augustin we motivate ourselves to get out and visit the Salto de Bordones waterfall. To reach the falls we take a truck back to Isnos and another that drops us off at the tiny Salto de Bordones town. From this spot our eye level is over the top of the falls in the near distance on the opposite mountain. Salto de Bordones is around 400 meters high and is the highest waterfall in Colombia and the third highest in South America.When doing the tours from San Augustin people only stay at this point for a few minutes. But from this point there are trails that will head down to the river and get us close to the bottom of the falls. Here at the trail head some kids are selling sodas in a bag and offer to rattle off some well-memorized info about the waterfall.

Deal of the Day: For COP 1,000 (US $0.52) we get a detailed
(and indiscernible) explanation about the falls and a bag of soda

Better luck next time
 We start making our descent to the river. Since the waterfall is 400 meters it will mean that we have to go down even more, maybe around 1500 feet, to get to the river. The trail is winding down widely through a coffee plantation and we wonder if we'll ever reach the bottom. We reach a viewing platform more than half way down the mountain and forge on past only to get stuck somewhere not too too far from the river where it looks like we made a wrong turn. We head back up the way we came and try to go down a different path which ends somewhere in a coffee field. Up again and try down once more only to dead end again at coffee bushes and banana trees. Hot and tired and out of food and water we give up and head all the way back up.

Two lessons are learned today: 1) What goes down must come up, and 2) Next time hire an elementary school kid for a dollar to guide us to the river.

Finding this felled banana tree during our final ascent saves our grumbling bellies

Around San Augustin it is impossible to miss the fields of sugar cane. The area is full of homes with small cottage industries producing panela. Panela is unrefined sugar made from boiling pure sugar cane juice. Colombia is the world's largest producer and consumer of panela. Agua de Panela which is pretty much just brown sugar water is a popular here.

On our 5 KM walk to Alto de Los Idolos we meet a young woman who invites us to visit her family's panela factory. To make panela the sugar cane sticks are run through a machine that extracts the juice. The leftover wood part of the cane is used to fuel the fires that boil the cane juice. We have a nice little tour and chat with the family. We also get a glass of pure sugar cane juice which gives us the kick we need to finish our walk to the park.
A panela making facility. Shredding the sugar cane is step one.   

Transferring the sugar cane juice from one vat to the next
Cooling what is left after the boiling process

Bricks of panela sold at the supermarket


  1. Yes. It was a fantastic place to visit. Very interesting. Just too bad that we do not know more about this culture.

    Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading.