Total distance travelled: 43,688.3 kilometres (27,135.59 miles)
Who doesn’t love a good mystery story?
Well that’s exactly what our second, even further off the beaten track destination was.
These UNESCO World Heritage listed tombs, built atop the hills surrounding the small Colombian town of San Andres (full name actually being San Andres de Pisimbala) sounded just that.
Apparently constructed from the 6th to the 9th centuries, by all accounts their builders remain a mystery, the current indigenous inhabitants of the area claiming they are certainly not the descendants.
Obviously we weren’t the only people to know little about the place, but when we did a quick internet search and spied some of the pictures of this place, we didn’t care.
It looked amazing, so was quickly slotted into our itinerary for southern Colombia.
A lengthy, at times adventurous journey had preceded our arrival in this sleepy mountain town of roughly 1,000 people, begun early that same morning in San Augustin and included no fewer than 4 vehicles.
Despite the many vehicle changes, there was really little of note from the first few legs, other than the need for us to change from a shared taxi to another vehicle after a young girl was apparently sick in the back seat.
The final stanza however, a ride in the back of the truck through the mountains, was made a little more memorable thanks to several delays for roadworks, the dusty bumpy ride and a newly befriended Colombian who hailed from Bogota and certainly loved to chat.
Then there were the mountain views, not bad at all.
Eventually we found ourselves deposited in the not so bustling streets of San Andres.
The town before us, making us a little skeptical it even held the 1,000 aforementioned souls.
Literally metres from our drop point we found some accommodation, at what according to our book was not the only offering in town, however we’re not certain we managed to spy any alternatives.
Not that this was a problem, however seemingly doubling as the town’s only eating option (aside from self-catering) it would mean that all of our eating and sleeping time would ultimately spent here.
Lucky the food was pretty decent!
After a breakfast feed (the following morning) at the aforementioned establishment, we began our endeavour to see the sights of Tierradentro in what promised to be our only full day in town, and given that the only other guest we’d encountered in our lodgings had been a Colombian, we didn’t expect to encounter many other gringos over the hours to follow.
First on the agenda, especially as it was necessary for us to go there to purchase our entrance tickets, were the two museums which sat a few kilometres back down the road into town.
It is always an indicator that you are a little off the beaten tourist path (a bit like many of our experiences in northern Mexico), or perhaps that the site you are about to visit is perhaps not as well regarded as you’d hoped, when we found ourselves being only the second people to sign the visitors register for the week.
At least we experienced personal, one on one service when the museums had to be opened especially for our visit!
The two museums were interesting enough, but certainly didn’t consume a huge amount of time (probably 20 minutes was enough for us to complete them both) so it was on to the key reason for our visit.
Hiking to the tombs!
The first site, reached after a short 15-20 minute uphill walk from the museums and known as Segovia, was home to something close to thirty underground crypts, many of which were illuminated and accessible to us after getting our passports checked and stamped (not our actual passports, but the entrance ticket came in the form of a passport, similar to San Agustin Arcaeological Park).
They were to be found in all manner of states, some certainly much better than others.
Some included amazing carvings or wall painting, whilst others were bare and long since victims (well before their re-discovery) to tomb robbers.
Access to each was allowed, but restricted, so that one by one they were unlocked, we were allowed to enter, then they were closed and locked behind us.
That’s not to say every site was accessible to the public, as at the first we probably descended into perhaps a dozen, although that certainly didn’t leave us feeling short changed!
At a slightly higher elevation sat the 2nd of the sites, El Duende.
Much smaller than the first, this also required the use of a torch for entry (thankfully provided by the guard at the site), as unlike the first location, this had not been rigged with electrical lighting.
Whilst it did help cast some eerie shadows, it did little to help us take decent photographs!
The third part of the Tierradentro archaeological park was something a little different (more akin to our recent experiences in San Agustin), rather than more tombs, a collection of megaliths that had been located in and around the various tombs.
It was nice enough (and was called El Tablon), but after the huge array we’d witnessed in the recent days, it probably didn’t impress us as much as it otherwise would have.
By this point, we’d climbed some way, and our 2 remaining destinations all sat on the opposite side of the valley.
The bonus of this being that our path took us through San Andres itself, allowing us the chance for a quick pit stop (by that I mean bathroom break).
A narrow, muddied path from town took us across a small incline before we began to climb again, shortly reaching our 3rd set of tombs for the morning (or by now, was it early afternoon?), Alto de San Andres.
Again, like the 2nd this was quite small and also required the use of a torch to be able to view the tombs themselves (again thankfully provided by the site guard).
Although not markedly different from the others, there was still some nice artwork to be seen, so we again felt like our efforts up until this point had certainly not been wasted.
Having wrapped up all of the sites within the valley, that left only 1 more on our day’s itinerary.
The catch being, that this rarely visited site sat on top of El Aguacarte, the huge hill, or is it a small mountain, I’m honestly not sure, that loomed above.
Still, with nothing else to do and not wishing to feel like we’d been defeated, we began our climb along a narrow path behind that wound its way beyond Alto de San Andres.
We weren’t sure, but we assumed that this was where we were headed…
Initially it was all climbing, often slipping along a narrow rutted path (although this was not worn by cartwheels, but rather eroded by running waters), before we began a long, equally slippery descent into a smaller valley.
All this meant, was once we’d crossed the valley, we were forced to climb the same distance and more on the opposite side.
About an hour of hard climbing, encountering only 1 farmer, his 2 aggressive dogs and a random cow near the peak, and we finally found ourselves at the last site of the day, set atop El Aguacarte.
Forgetting the tombs for a moment, the views and the setting were stunning!
What also came as a surprise to us was that unlike all of the other sites, there was no guard present here… in fact there wasn’t a single other person present at all!
Many of the tombs were only visible as small, overgrown holes in the ground, but others sat protected by covers that had been erected at some point, and these remained open for visitors to descend and investigate.
Surprisingly, many of them still possessed some artwork still on their walls, and whilst I expected them to be damp and musty affairs, they somehow remained relatively dry.
With our last tombs for the day done and dusted, we were very ready to get back to San Andres for a by now late lunch and a well-earned beer.
The only problem with that plan being that we were still sat atop a mountain, a rather long way from the valley below.
There was little else we could do, but share a couple of biscuits we’d brought along, and then begin the descent down the opposite side of the mountain (the trail is like a loop, and although this final leg would see us emerge at the museums and not back at the town, at least it was all downhill).
As I said before, it was easy to get distracted from our hungry bellies and sore legs by the vista before us…
When we finally emerged at the bottom, we had one final climb before us (about 4 kilometres back uphill to town) before we could get to lunch, but as you can imagine, when we finally made it, that beer slid down both our throats very easily indeed!
By 6:30am the following morning, having achieved our goal, we were sat on a steamy, bouncing bus (full of schoolkids) on our way back to Popayan…
* Travel from San Augustin to San Andres de Pisimbla (the town used as a base for Tierradentro) is an adventurous affair over 3 legs. First was a colectivo from San Augustin to Pitalito ($6,000.00 COP per person, although you can get them slightly cheaper, we took the first available).
* Next we went for a colectivo taxi (although a bus was $20,000.COP per person, and eventually talked down to $18,000.00, it wasn’t leaving for an hour) to La Plata for $22,000.00 COP per person, although we had to change vehicles part way after a young girl was sick on board.
* The final leg was an $11,000.00 COP ride per person from La Plata to San Andres, another bumpy, dusty ride, which dropped us off in the heart of this very small town.
* Entrance into the various museums & tombs is all included in 1 ticket (purchased from near the museums) which, like San Augustin, is valid for 2 days and costs $20,000.00 COP per person.