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!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

That's More Archaeology! - Tierradentro

Since we really enjoyed the archaeology at San Augustin we decided that we should go check out Tierradentro, the other UNESCO archaeological park in the area. The first step is getting there. It turns out to be eight an ordeal that involves three seperate camionetas and a taxi. Camionetas are the most common form of public transportation in the region. A camioneta is a pick-up truck that has benches in the truck bed and a hard top cover (see photo below). They are usually stuffed with eight paying adults and at least two children. Plus five other passengers in the front of the truck and some on the roof and/or standing on to the back bumper. For most of this trip the roads are windy, dusty and uncomfortable. Mika and I never seem able to figure out how to secure a premium seat in the front of the truck. The only breaks from squishdom is having to stop for construction work and dump trucks which in itself is an inconvenience.
Hoping we can get going again soon, but also not.
We finally arrive to San Andres. It would be hard to call San Andres a town, it is more like a tiny village. We get dropped off at the top of the hill. The only noticeable restaurant that is here happens to be the same place as our hotel. There are a few small stores to buy bread, fruit and snacks. Two KM down the hill on the main road are some other guesthouses and a lady making really good fruit juice. There is also a museum.
The church of San Andres
Where as San Augustin is famous for its pre-Colombian stone statues and sculptures, people visit Tierradentro archaeological park to see the hypogeum. You do not know what "hypogeum" is? Well, I won't pretend that I did either before coming here. It is a fancy Greek word for an ancient, subterranean burial chamber. Whatever you want to call it, this mountainous area has lots of them to see and so many more undiscovered or known about and to be left in peace.

The clearing at the bottom of the photo is a burial site with numerous tombs

From San Andres, there are two very nice hikes going in opposite directions from the town to get to the Tierradentro sites. Some travelers with less time and in better shape than us do both sides in one day. One hike a day is plenty for us. On the first day we visit three sites. The first just has some statues. The other two have the burial chambers. There is an attendant/security guard there to open them for us so that we can go down. He walks us through each chamber unlocking and locking them one-by-one. I am not sure what he would do if other people showed up while he is with us. Tierradentro is definitely not ready yet for an influx of tourists.
Stairs leading down to a burial chamber
The hypogea vary in depth. The deeper chambers being reserved for the important people. The deepest one goes down seven meters (21 ft.). All of the chambers have stairwells leading down so that people could visit the tombs. The stairwells to visit the chamber are all original covered in cement so that they do not crumble. The larger chambers are in a semi-circular shape with pillars designed for support. There were up to seven bodies laid out in one chamber. Some still have detailed paintings that have survived time. Many have the same face carvings in the exact same locations. Small chambers of the poor people were found closer to the surface. Their bones just placed in ceramic pots.
Inside a hypogeum. Bodies were placed in the spaces
between the columns with a common face design.
A different decorated hypogeum
These pots contained the bones of the poor. 
On day two we do the other, longer hike. There are actually only two places to visit on this trail. The first is partially up the mountain and not too far from the town. The tombs are similar to what we saw yesterday. The second, El Aguacate is quite far. We have to finish going up one mountain trail, go all the way down and then back up and around even higher on another mountain. It is strenuous and the always green scenery is gorgeous. We finally reach the top and are rewarded with 360 degree mountain views. For the past two months we have been in the Andes, but this is the first time that we have been on the top of the Andes.

El Aguacate has only two burial chambers to visit, but it has the only hyogeum with salamanders painted on the walls. Your guess as to the significance of these reptiles is as good as anyone else's. There are no lights here and we are not allowed to use camera flash so we take the best photos we can using a flashlight.
Ancient lizard art
All of these sites and the museum can be visited for COP 10,000. The museum has artifacts and some skeletons that were found in the burial chambers. The other part of the museum is dedicated to the traditional ways of life of the people of the region. The highlight here is our introduction to the notorious coca leaf. Indigenous people have been chewing coca leaves in the Andean mountains for thousands of years. The leaf gives energy and helps stave off hunger. Coca leaves are not a narcotic in their natural state. A man-made chemical process is necessary to create cocaine.

Follow the link to read an interesting op-ed piece from the President of Bolivia regarding the coca leaf.

At the museum there is a coca tree in the garden (and pretty much everywhere else). The woman working at the museum gives us some dried coca leaves from their museum display for us to try - though you are supposed to stick wads of them in your mouth and ad a little lime (the mineral, not fruit). Tired from our hike, Mika claims that chewing the coca gave her the energy boost to trudge up the hill to our hotel. I am not sure about that, but it did make my mouth slightly numb. In San Andres we also have coca tea (coca leaves in boiling water) and try a locally produced coca wine which tastes like a cheap plum wine. Because there is such a stigma attached to the coca plant in my country, having drinks made from the leaves feels kind of naughty and rebellious.
How can one lttle leaf cause so many problems?


  1. I'll have to read up the history of when they started to process the coca cocaine.

  2. Yes, I should probably also.

    Thanks for the comment.