Total distance travelled: 43,440.3 kilometres (26,981.55 miles)
Cemeteries are fascinating places.
Steeped in history, often neglected, peaceful, sad, happy, it all depends on where you are, and what your perception.
Well unwittingly, we just visited the worlds largest necropolis!
It wasn’t by mistake that we came to San Augustin, it was however a fact unknown to us that the UNESCO listed San Agustín Archaeological Park was such a grand location.
We’d turned up in town with nothing booked, although on our drive from the crossroads to town (you need to change from the bus to a pickup for the last 5 kilometres), our driver had offered to arrange us a room in a hostel he knew of.
Minutes after arriving in the main street however, we found a guy with a flyer advertised at half the price, so it was to there we walked… what turned out to be a couple of kilometres up hill!
We obviously found it, and although it was basic, it was certainly cheap and serviceable enough so we were sold.
There was also a kitchen available for us… though by kitchen it was truly humbling, as all their cooking was done over a small wood fire!
With a room sorted, it was time to grab ourselves some lunch, so we opted for a Menu del Dia in a local Comida Tipico.
This place shocked us when, rather than simply have one soup option on the go (we’d both opted for chicken for the main), they had 2 or 3 options, with us both choosing the fish.
Sadly, there was only enough for one bowl, so I was offered the chicken…
Whilst my mind over matter approach couldn’t get those feet in my mouth, the broth was certainly delicious, and with full bellies we went out in search for a tour for the morrow, one that could ferry us out to a few of the far flung sites for which our legs were simply not up to the task.
Thankfully we found an office that had an almost full group already, meaning we got to pay a much cheaper price (just remember not to mention it to the other customers).
With that sorted, we kind of had to hustle a bit, as we wanted to see the sights of the San Agustín Archaeological Park that sat closest to town, which included a museum and was only open until 4pm (well not entirely true, only some sections of the park close at that hour).
With a several kilometre walk ahead of us, we got our little legs pumping to get there pronto.
Rather than issue us with tickets at the gate, they had a quite novel little system here. Given that the sites are so widely spread, once paid, your entrance fee is valid for two days (maximising your chances of visiting multiple sites) and you are issued a small passport, which gets stamped at the various locations.
Great fun for kids I’d imagine…
Now be warned, if you don’t like statues, then turn away now as this place has plenty of them!
Well paved paths guided us as we began to inspect the small tombs and large stone Megaliths (we’d not needed all that much time in the attached museum).
As we continued our self guided tour, we came upon this remarkable construction. A bamboo bridge beside a ridiculously large steel and glass roof.
Well, it turns out that this bridge is more than just an elaborate means to cross an otherwise rather small stream.
It in fact serves as a viewing platform, from which you can see the rocky surface through which this stream passes… passes through man made channels!
The original inhabitants of this place remarkably cut a fountain through the solid rock, carving figures, faces and animals (hence the glass roof to offer some protection from the elements) amidst the flowing waters!
Further afield, more tombs, and megaliths could be found, many in their original locations, and others, placed in a purpose built viewing park, where a short 15 minute stroll can see you take in around 30-40 additional carved statues.
At about this time, with the skies darkening, we called time on our day and began the walk back into town… fortunately passing a shuttle bus just outside the park… which we chose not to hop aboard.
Minutes later, it drove on by (I think it would have cost us the princely sum of about 50 cents to ride). A few minutes more, and those dark skies began to really open up!
When the walk, a suddenly long 4 kilometres back into town was completed, we were feeling a quite sodden and cold, so thought it wise to duck into a French patisserie for coffee and cake (like us, you’re probably wondering what it was doing there as well).
At the time, we cared little, as the coffee was warming and the eclairs, quite delicious!
Shortly before 9am the following morning saw us lurking in the doorway of the tour office, waiting for our ride to ferry us out to those distant sites.
Eventually we were ushered into a waiting 4WD, the other members of our party were collected from their hotels, and we were off into the hills, courtesy of a bumpy, curvy, occasionally paved, but generally rocky road.
Our 1st stop, well it was nothing archaeological at all, but rather the beautiful Rio Magdalena.
It was a nice place to kick off the mornings tour, our 2nd stop however, not so inspiring.
Whilst I’m sure this place (Obando) is a source of pride to the locals, it actually had a separate entrance fee, which given the aim of the tour (to visit the far flung sections of the UNESCO site), felt like a bit of a disappointing distraction
Still, it wasn’t long before another bumpy ride saw us at somewhere else that was pretty special, Alto de los Idoles (yes, more tombs and more statues).
Built over a series of small, rolling hills, this place was home to some more impressive feats of carving, as well as the remains of several impressive, often deep tombs.
This place consumed the bulk of our time, possibly due to its lengthy uphill approaches which left several people sucking for air (it wasn’t that bad, but it did feel long).
It’s hard to convey through images (which probably begin to look quite repetitive) how amazing this place was, but soon enough we were done, and it was time for lunch!
When the tour was sold to us, we’d expected lunch to be in a local town where we could find some cheap and tasty eats.
This however was not to be, as instead we were all expected to dine in the sole establishment in the vicinity of the ruins… as you’d perhaps expect, a rather overpriced place where we suspect our driver was receiving either a kick-back or at the very least a free lunch from.
Perhaps in protest at this deviation from the plan, Sarah and I only ordered the one meal between us, which although delicious, still cost us 3 times as much as our whole lunch had the day previously!
One more site lay ahead of us, the rather small and compact Alto de los Piedras, which due to maintenance work around the fence, didn’t cost anybody a thing (even those who didn’t have their passport, ready to be stamped)!
We’d started the day with the pretty Rio Magdalena, and it was by getting back to nature that we rounded out our day, visiting two impressive waterfalls.
The first of these, Salto de Bordones, allowed us to see water plummet (admittedly from afar) something close to 400 metres, an amazing sight!
This steep plunge makes it one of the country’s highest and it was really a shame that we couldn’t get any closer to this stunning sight.
A 2nd stop at the slightly shorter (170 metre) Salto de Mortino followed, and although these falls weren’t gifted with the same altitude as the site we viewed minutes early, this was a truly stunning location, with the waters falling into a deep, rocky ravine.
It also gave us our first chance in some time to indulge in a delicious Jugo de Cana (Sugercane juice), a chance we most certainly did not miss!
That wrapped up our day of touring, and with our mind returning back to our stomachs, we set our sights on another visit to that French patisserie and some more sweet treats.
Sadly it wasn’t to be, with it being a Sunday, it appears the demand for their goods was just too great…
Instead we had to settle on a sweet wafer from the main plaza. A caramel, jam, sprinkles (or do you prefer 100’s & 1,000’s?) affair, and somewhat oddly, shredded cheese.
It worked well as a sweet, although in truth the cheese was both a little odd, and completely unnecessary!
At least I guess a positive can be taken from the fact it helped keep our dairy intake up…
* The bus from Popayan to San Augustin ($30,000.00 COP for about a 3 hour trip) don’t actually ferry you all the way to town. Instead, about 5km shy of town you transfer to a pickup for the final leg of the journey.
* Entrance fees (which allows access to the San Agustín Archaeological Park and affiliated sites) cost $20,000.00 COP per person for a small passport (where sites get punched or stamped off as they’re visited) and is valid for two days.