The small colonial town of San Agustín, nestled within the folds of the southern Colombian Andes, would probably be an attractive destination in its own right. At an elevation of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet), it is set in a place of enormous natural beauty and has wonderful spring-like weather. However, its fame comes from its location near the largest pre-Columbian archaeological site south of Central America and north of Perú. From approximately AD 100-800, this region was home to an indigenous culture that produced spectacular monumental funeral statues hewn out of volcanic rock. Researchers do not know what these people called themselves, and so, lacking a better name, they have been labeled the San Agustín Culture.

Armed with a map and a willingness to ask directions, it is possible to visit all the sights on the San Agustín side by foot.To visit the main archaeological sites near San Agustín, you will need about two days. However, it makes no sense to rush your stay here, as it is an incredibly pleasant and peaceful place to visit, with several options for hiking and rafting amidst spectacular mountain landscapes.

One of El Purutal's pigmented statues, near San Agustín, Colombia.

While visiting San Agustín, be sure to check out El Purutal, which contains two magnificent, very well-conserved statues with original bright pigment covering. Photo © sergejf, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Sights

The extremely well-maintained Parque Arqueológico de San Agustín (8am-4pm daily, COP$20,000) covers 80 hectares (200 acres) of what was one of the most important ritual areas of the San Agustín Culture. It was first established in 1937 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The park contains over 130 statues with striking human and animal-like features, as well as carved tombs and monumental stone tables or dolmens. Your ticket also valid for Parque Arqueológico Alto de los Ídolos.

Near the entrance to the park is the Museo Arqueológico, which contains smaller statues, pottery, tools, and jewelry, as well as explanations on the San Agustín culture. At the time of writing, the museum was undergoing renovations. Most of the monumental stone objects are concentrated on four funeral hills designated Mesitas A, B, C, and D. The pleasant Bosque de las Estatuas contains a path that meanders among statues relocated from other locations in the San Agustín area. The unusual Fuente de Lavapiés contains bas-reliefs of human and animal figures sculpted on the rocky bed of a stream. This is the only non-funeral site in the park. On a hill behind the fuente is the Alto de Lavapiés, where excavations have shown human presence dating back to 3300 BC. The park is easy to navigate: plan on a couple of hours to stroll leisurely and absorb the beauty. The park is two kilometers (1.2 miles) west of town and can be reached on foot or by bus.

There are four smaller, yet definitely worthwhile sights, near the town of San Agustín: La Chaquira, a large bas-relief sculpted in a rock face overlooking the spectacular Río Magdalena gorge; El Purutal, which contains two magnificent, very well-conserved statues with original bright pigment covering; and La Pelota and El Tablón, each with additional funeral monuments.

Eight kilometers (five miles) southwest of the town of Isnos on the other side of the Magdalena, the Parque Arqueológico Alto de los Ídolos (8am-5pm daily, COP$20,000) is the second largest archaeological park. It includes an anthropomorphic statue that measures 4.3 meters (14 feet), along with large sarcophagi. A ticket here is also valid for Parque Arqueológico Nacional de San Agustín. The much smaller Parque Arqueológico Alto de Las Piedras (8am-5pm daily, free), six kilometers (four miles) north of Isnos on the road that leads to the Salto de Borodones waterfall, has statues and tombs with original pigments.

At El Estrecho, Río Magdalena spurts thought a 2.2-meter (7-foot) rocky funnel.

At El Estrecho, Río Magdalena spurts thought a 2.2-meter (7-foot) rocky funnel. Photo © Erik Cleves Kristensen, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Also in the vicinity of San Agustín are several natural sights. The entire upper gorge of the Río Magdalena is majestic. At El Estrecho, the river spurts thought a 2.2-meter (7-foot) rocky funnel. On the Isnos side are two waterfalls, the 400-meter (1,300-foot) Salto de Borodones and 200-meter (650-foot) Salto de Mortiño.

Armed with a map and a willingness to ask directions, it is possible to visit all the sights on the San Agustín side by foot. This can make for a wonderful escape. However, many tourists opt for half-day or full-day horseback tours, which can cover several of these sights, including the Parque Arqueológico Alto de Ídolos. Make sure to book reliable guides that take good care of their horses through your hotel. Rates depend on the length of ride and number of people. Visiting the sites on the Isnos side by public transportation can be difficult; most people opt for day-long jeep tours that cover the Parque Arqueológico Alto de los Ídolos, Parque Alto de Las Piedras, El Estrecho, and the waterfalls.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Colombia.