San Agustín – Statues and Sarcophagi

It’s a long, long way to San Agustín.

Particularly if a very large truck slides off of the winding mountain road right in front of your minibus!

We were coming from Popayan which required a 5 hour ride in a minibus on winding mountain roads. Not comfortable but great views. Unfortunately, we chose a day of torrential rain on which to travel. As a result of the rain, or awful driving, or most likely, both, a truck in front of us slid across the road and ended up half on the road and half over the edge!

San Agustín

No way of getting past so all the male bus passengers and other drivers, that quickly backed up, had to get out and heave rocks from the drop off one side of the road to the ditch on the other so that everyone could get around the truck.

An hour later, soaking wet, covered in mud, we were back in the minibus on our way again! It needn’t have taken that long but, being Colombia, many took the opportunity to stand around and discuss/offer advice on the best way to move said rocks etc.!!!

We were on our way to the UNESCO World Heritage Archeological Park, one of the most important sites in Colombia.

San Agustin was the centre of a ancient society of which little is known. Described by UNESCO as “the largest complex of pre-Columbian megalithic funerary monuments and statuary, burial mounds, terraces, funerary structures, stone statuary and the Fuente de Lavapatas site, a religious monument carved in the stone bed of a stream.” Or something like that..

The site had been continuously occupied over thousands of years. It’s monuments are far older than anything at the world famous Machu Picchu.

The park is comprised of a number of burial sites and a large number of statues dating between 1 and 900AD. Given those timescales for that society, the states are of many differing styles. Most animal based, representing mythological creatures, presumably gods, often combining different elements of animals, birds and reptiles.

The small museum at the park entrance provides a basic understanding of the nature of the site and its discovery. It is fair to say that archeologists actually know very little of the civilisation that inhabited the site and the chain of events events that led to the decline of that civilisation, all adding to the mystery of the place.

The park is well laid out in several distinct areas starting with the museum and “Bosque de Las Estatuas” – a circular walk where many of the statues have been relocated ( although we left this part until last).

The main funerary sites known as Mesitas A, B and C, are linked by pathways making it is virtually impossible to get lost. At first glance, all the sites seem similar, but on closer examination there is always something different to see at each one.

It took us 3-4 hours to see the park in its entirety. We were there in June when it was relatively cool and we had a few spots of rain but I can imagine it would get very, very hot in high summer.

Fuente de Lavapatas

Possibly my favourite part of the park. The carvings in the riverbed are very impressive, although perhaps difficult to appreciate in a photograph. Little is known of site and its purpose. Various theories include it being a sacred river or place of ritual purification. Whatever it’s actual purpose, it is pretty clear that it was of significant cultural importance to the society it served. The connection with the nearby burial mounds seems unclear (at least to me!). Maybe it was used for some form of sacrifice?

The Mesitas

Theseare the main funerary monuments and were most likely the burial sites for the society’s chiefs. The concentration of such monuments within such a small area leads archaeologists believe this may have been a major centre of pilgrimage, worship and religious significance to the civilisation that occupied the region.

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The various tombs appear to be guarded by funerary statues which UNESCO describes thus:

“The tombs contain an elaborate funerary architecture of stone corridors, columns, sarcophagi and large impressive statues depicting gods or supernatural beings, an expression of the link between deceased ancestors and the supernatural power that marks the institutionalisation of power in the region.”

So there you are! Just what I thought!

Everyone else we met over the three days we were in San Augustin were Colombians. We met no other Europeans or North Americans at all.

San Agustín is a small town with not a lot going on apart from the park. There are some nice walks around the countryside and one or two tour operators trying hard to sell jeep or horse based tours to lesser sights in the area.


San Agustín

We stayed at Huaka Yo, a hostal, close to the park entrance (200m) but 3 kms out of town. The staff were really nice and the was food great. Some of the best trout we have ever eaten. Stunning views out over the mountains and valleys. We were given an absolutely huge duplex room. A real bargain at around $20 a night. It could have slept at least six people.

2 thoughts on “San Agustín – Statues and Sarcophagi

  1. Security is fine now. Lots of soldiers on the roads but I think that was due to farmers/tanker drivers or someone going on strike. Have found Colombia remarkably safe and unthreatening, apart from the kamikaze drivers!

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