Travelblog LA#6: Popayán, Tierradentro & San Agustín – Colombia

2nd – 7th May, 2023


The border crossing into Colombia was smoother than I expected – no queues, bag inspections, or questions – but it was rather the journey after that was choresome. Due to recent landslides, a bus that was supposed to take seven hours took over ten, meaning it was late into the night when I finally arrived in Popayán. I was worried that it would be too late for the hostel wouldn’t let me in, but after ringing the doorbell a couple of times, a man came out and greeted me.

I was surprised by how empty it was as he showed me around. This hostel was one of the cheapest and best-rated in the entire town, but my dormitory of twelve beds only had another two people sleeping in it, and most of the private rooms were empty. This would become a reoccurring theme over the next week during my time in the south of Colombia.

Popayán is a charming colonial town in the Pubenza Valley, most famous for its white buildings and being home to seventeen Colombian presidents. Unfortunately, I found many of its attractions – such as its churches and museums – to be closed, but I did manage to get inside its cathedral.

Along with the Archdiocesan Museum of Religious Art (once I rang the bell a few times).

I also went for a walk up El Morro del Tulcán, which is supposedly a pre-Colombian burial site, but I didn’t see any signs of any ruins. It did, however, have views of the city.

Other than that, it was a day when I got my bearings in this new country. Purchased a SIM card. Drew out some money. That sort of thing. The following morning, I rose early to catch a taxi to the bus station in time to claim a seat on a bus heading to Tierradentro.

A reoccurring theme of this area will be, ‘Where is everybody?’. I had asked a few questions by now and was told by others that the south of Colombia doesn’t receive too many tourists as it is, and we are currently in low season. I was still a little confused. I usually travel to places during low season – as I don’t like big crowds – but it had been quite some years since I had witnessed a low season quite as ‘low’ as this. Usually, when a place is this quiet, it will be because of a recent natural disaster or adverse weather, but I couldn’t see any sign of either.

After checking in at a hostel, I went straight to the admission office for the archaeological park, and as I filled out my details noticed that I was their only visitor that day and one of less than a dozen over the past week.

For a place that sees such few visitors, Tierradentro does have a lot of staff, all of which immediately tore their attention away from their phones and seemed happy to let me into the various hypogeums.

This site is not the most photogenic, so I don’t expect my photography to do it justice, but it was rewarding to visit. Not much is known about the culture that created these monuments, but archaeologists have dated from between the 6th and 9th centuries. I am someone who likes to study the history of places I visit, so a part of me yearned for answers, but I also have a fondness for mysterious places.

Most of the entrances face towards the west, and many feature anthropomorphic carvings and geometric patterns on their walls.

Once I had finished clambering in and out of all the hypogea I was allowed access to in the Alto de Segovia – the main site located closest to the admission office – I walked along the trail to reach El Tablon. It was then that I began to appreciate just how much Tierradentro had to offer as a destination, not just because of its ruins but also its scenery, situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by little hamlets and farms. This was my first real glimpse of rural Colombia.

After passing through El Tablon – home to a series of anthropomorphic statues – I stopped at the village of San Andrés to hydrate myself before heading to the last two sites, both of which involved a rather strenuous climb.

It was around 3 pm when I reached Alto de San Andres which had yet more hypogea that I could climb inside. One of them in particular was very well preserved with original paintings.

And then I set off for El Aguacate (‘the avocado’), the peak of the mountain overlooking both Tierradentro and San Andres. It was a bit of a tough climb – especially considering the heat – but it was worth it for the stunning vistas.

If I am honest, once I reached the top, the hypogea located there we neither as impressive nor as well maintained as most of the others I had seen that day, but I was still glad I came up there for the setting itself.

It was there that I also met a Belgian couple by the names of Mari and Tom. This was their second day exploring these ruins, and they were also coincidentally staying at the same hostel as me. We swapped some stories and realised that we were both travelling to the same destination the next day – San Agustín – so decided to band together. I was quite pleased by this, as my recent experiences made me appreciate the idea of safety in numbers.

Overall, I liked Tierradentro and think it deserves to be visited more. It has everything going for it. A UNESCO World Heritage site, with stunning scenery, well-maintained paths, and a smattering of (mostly empty) hostels waiting for guests. I guess there are a few reasons it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Colombia, as a country, is not known for its ruins, and among the few ancient sites that it is known for, Tierradentro is overshadowed by Ciudad Perdida and – the more local – San Agustín.

I think the real problem, however, is transport. It is a bit of a pain to get to. There are buses from Popayán, but mine dropped me off at a junction two kilometres away, and I had to walk the rest with all my bags. And then, if you are travelling on to San Agustín – like most visitors to this place seem to – there is no direct bus there either, so the onward journey is a bit of a hassle. We had to catch a two-hour colectivo to La Plata, followed by a four-hour minibus to Pitalito, and finally another colectivo to San Agustín. With all the waits between, it took us most of the day, and the first colectivo was one of those trucks with a pair of benches at the back that we were crammed inside, and by the end of it our bags, clothes, and hair were all covered in dust. Personally, I don’t mind these kinds of days too much – as long as I don’t have to do them too often – as, despite the discomfort, there is a certain novelty to watching the scenery pass you by whilst feeling the wind in your face. You get to see a different, less touristy side of a country.

It seems that Tierradentro is caught in a rut that it is yet to climb out of. It is not busy enough for shuttle buses between it and San Agustín to be a viable enterprise, and yet the absence of such a service is making people shy away.

After the attempted robbery during my last day in Ecuador, one thing I have been particularly mindful of during my first week in Colombia is that I do not want it to define the rest of my journey. I am more mindful about certain things, definitely, but I don’t want to become one of those travellers who clutches their bag tightly the whole time, eyes every stranger that passes by suspiciously, or flinches away every time a local person offers them help.

I can happily say that Colombia has made this very easy for me. Everyone I have met so far has been warm, welcoming, and helpful. I have already mentioned the staff at Tierradentro, but on this blog, I always try to also want to give shout outs small businesses that make an impression on me, so I also want to recommend Hospedaje Bamboo. The couple who own it are very friendly and helped me figure out transport options before I left. It is not one of those places that can be found online or are listed on Google Maps, but you can’t miss it if you walk up the street a little from the entrance to the site. They also run a shop downstairs and – most importantly – have a very cute doggo.

Similar can be said for the place I stayed in San Agustín, Finca El Maco, an ecohotel set within some lovely gardens. I booked to stay in their dorm, but because the place was nearly empty, they upgraded me to a chalet, and they went out of their way to help me feel at home during my entire stay, despite how little I paid, and the incredible deal they gave me.

Although my hostel was almost empty, San Agustín is more connected to the tourist trail than Tierradentro, so I was not the only person visiting its main attraction the following day.

The monuments are more photogenic than Tierradentro’s hypogeum but no less mysterious. Not much is known about this culture either, but there does appear to be a connection between them as the two sites do feature some similarities, such as in their anthropomorphic statues.

As someone who has also explored a lot of neolithic sites in my home country, I found it quite eerie that some of the photos I took looked like they could have almost been taken in the British Isles. And no, I do not think it is aliens – it is most definitely always humans – but synchronicity is something that I have encountered again and again during my travels, and I find it fascinating.

San Agustín also has an on-site museum with information in both Spanish and English, and there are guides available to hire at the entrance. I decided to forgo hiring a guide, as being alone meant it would have been expensive, and not much is known about the civilisation that built these monuments anyway so I am not sure how much reliable information they will be able to give you beyond a series of speculations and perhaps some anecdotes concerning the excavations. If you are travelling in a group and/or have some money to splash, it could be worth it – and you would also be helping to support local workers – but one thing I will say is this; make sure you don’t miss any parts of the archaeological site. It didn’t escape my notice that very few people with guides ended up venturing to the Alto de Lavaplatos, for example, which just so happens to be the one that involves walking up a hill. This is a phenomenon I have noticed many, many times, and I can’t help but suspect that it is sometimes because the guides become jaded over time about which parts of the sites are ‘worth seeing’, and they don’t want to walk too far.

There are two other smaller sites that one can visit with the same ticket, and I did look into options to get to them, but transport turned out to be a lot of hassle. San Agustín sits within the slightly frustrating intersection of not receiving enough tourism to have convenient bus services but being popular enough for the taxi drivers to have pulled off the ol’ tourist town classic of setting their tariffs for rides artificially high. So, once again; if you are in a group or have some money to splash, it could be worth it, but if you are a solo traveller on a budget, there are currently no viable options.

Despite this slight niggle, I had a great time in San Agustín and am glad I came. More people should explore this beautiful and fascinating part of Colombia.

If you want to see more photos click here. I also have albums for Popayán and Tierradentro.


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