While many globetrotting travelers these days hurry from one megasite to another in their haste to check each off a ‘must see’ list that’s been compiled by someone else, many discerning travelers are ready to escape the crowds and delve into often over-looked and more remote historical gems in their search for a more authentic and unique travel experience.
One such site is the San Agustín Archaeological Park found deep in the montane rain forests (also known as cloud forest) of the southern Colombian Andes.
Pack snacks and don’t forget your worry beads
Just getting to San Agustín is half the fun. Well, that is if you have a keen sense of adventure and a durable backside.
After a 5-hour bone-rattling bus ride across the spine of Colombia’s central Andes range on rutted, potholed, muddy dirt roads that at times are incapable of accommodating two-way traffic—think bus encounters with large trucks—we arrived in the magical upper basin of the Magdalena River.
This area was off limits to tourists not so long ago due to being controlled for many decades by Colombia’s fabled (and feared) FARC rebel group. Since the government, led by ex-president Juan Manuel Santos, signed a peace deal with the rebel group in 2016, tourists have begun to discover the wonders of the area’s pristine rain forests and rich cultural history.
Because of my keen interest in early sculpture, my primary purpose for making the trek was to visit the San Agustín Archaeological Park, a sparsely-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring fascinating megalithic stone sculptures and burial mounds. The fact that the park was surrounded by this regions rugged, lush, green landscapes was quite an unexpected bonus.
A road less traveled
If, like me, you have a healthy appetite for exploring lost civilizations in beautiful natural settings, you’ll be thrilled by what you discover in this very special region of southern Colombia.
With fewer than 100,000 visitors each year to the area’s sites, you’ll be able to linger and savor its special qualities rather than being pushed along by the busloads of tourists that flock to other UNESCO sites such as the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Great Pyramids in Egypt or Machu Picchu in Peru.
Before visiting San Agustín, I read reviews of the site on Trip Advisor. One disappointed traveler stated that the site was missing the ‘wow’ (think bling!) factor. I couldn’t help but muster an image of this sad, young backpacker who hadn’t yet developed the ability to discern quality over quantity when comparing one site and culture to another.
Spirituality captured in stone
While travelers won’t find any grand temples here built by legions of slaves, the mystery and simple beauty of the statues and tombs more than make up for the lack of grand monuments. What does make this site impressive, however, is the realization that it’s the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in Latin America.
While the main site in San Agustín contains the largest concentration of statues and tombs, various other related sites are scattered over the ridges surrounding San Agustín and Isnos, the neighboring town on the western side of the gorge formed by the Magdalena River.
Though little is known about the way of life of the northern Andean culture that sculpted these works in stone, researchers believe this culture flourished between the 1st and the 8th century. The sites appear to have been abandoned around 1350 AD, before being discovered once again in the 18th and 19th centuries by historians and archaeologists.
Despite not having the wealth and large population of the Incas, the impressive stone work reveals that the San Agustín culture was a highly organized society and possessed an abundance of creativity and imagination.
The main San Agustín Archaeological Park together with other sites spread across the steep ridges along the Magdalena River contain 600 known statues and 40 burial mounds. The stone statues—the tallest of which stands 23 feet (7 meters) tall–are believed to be guardians and helpers for those who were buried in what’s believed to be the world’s largest necropolis.
As might be expected in such a tropical location, many of the sculptures feature figures such as birds and reptiles which most likely held great religious significance for these people whose daily life and belief system was integrated into their natural environment.
The main site
What impressed me almost as much as the artifacts found within the San Agustín Archaeological Park were the well-managed and executed buildings along with the easy to follow layout of the main site’s grounds. The Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) has done an excellent job of developing and organizing the informative museum–where visitors get an overview of the culture–as well as the beautiful trails that lead through the rain forest which provides the perfect backdrop for individual and groupings of statues within and around the various tombs.
A good map leads visitors on a forest journey to the 3 designated areas of the main archaeological site. I spent 5 hours meandering along the trails admiring the statues and photographing both the stones and the amazing variety of plants found in this ecologically rich area.
I also found my experiences with the local vendors to be especially pleasant at this site. There’s a small group of select souvenir stalls very neatly and unobtrusively situated near the main entrance gate. On higher ground, after visiting the 3 areas of stone concentration, you’ll also find an artisan’s village of locals whose families lived on the site when it was established and have been allowed to stay and be a part of the overall park experience.
If you’ve witnessed the commercialization of UNESCO sites such as Petra in Jordan, then you’ll really enjoy the laid-back low-pressure atmosphere here while looking for a small stone carving to remind you of this wonderful place once you’ve returned home.
Note: the best quality ‘real’ stone statue replicas are found in the artisan’s village inside the site itself.
So, if you’ve moved beyond simply looking for a travel experience with the biggest ‘wow’ factor, I highly recommend the natural beauty and enduring mystery of the ancient stone statues in San Agustín and its surrounding archaeological sites.
Stay for a few days in one of the secluded rain forest lodges near the main archaeological park, visit the outlying sites in the surrounding mountains on horse back or by jeep, breathe in the fresh air and savor the spectacular vistas over the gorge formed by the Magdalena.
I guarantee your spirit will soar and your mind will be at peace.