Sarah Woods returns to the sacred lands of Colombia’s San Agustin to marvel at ancient carved monuments and troglodyte tombs etched with mythical winged monsters, wild cats and serpents. 

According to a local fruit seller, San Agustin acquired its megalithic sculptures via an earth-bound alien space-ship. However, historians suggest South America’s largest group of religious monuments were built in the South western Andes thousands of years ago; a wild landscape carrying dozens of monuments etched with bizarre mythical animals and anthropomorphic features. Carved from blocks of volcanic rock, these monuments can weigh up to 4 tonnes. Little is known of the Andean culture behind ‘Colombia’s Easter Island’, other than it was built pre-900 AD. The local tribes are unrelated, bearing little similarity to most other cultures in the Americas aside from their usage of the same sacred animals – jaguars, alligators, monkeys and birds.

Today, San Agustin Archaeological Park is set in Colombia’s department of Huila in the Andes Region, and is home to a UNESCO-listed collection of hundreds of funerary statues, burial mounds, chambers and terraces that bear witness to the artistic creativity of a pre-Hispanic culture. Spread across 116 hectares of velvety meadows, the park is neatly divided into separate areas: the Mesita A, Mesita B, Mesita C, La Estación, Alto de Lavapatas and Fuente de Lavapatas, together with the panoramic splendour of Alto de los Ídolos.

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Fuente de Lavapatas

Last visiting in 2009, I returned in 2013 spotting plenty of welcome changes. The monuments are now shielded from the worst of the sun and rain, and generous funding from UNESCO and other sources has added paved pathways along the steepest stretches, ensuring visitors are spared the challenge of sharp inclines in thick, gluey mud. I furthermore spot that horses are dotted around the compound, offering the service of saddling up. I notice that erosion has left the once magnificent Fuente de Lavapatas site badly worn by the elements, yet this resplendent monument carved in the gushing torrents of a stream bed are still a sight to behold. Even with hours to wander, I barely have enough time to absorb everything; I am simply compelled by the 30m earthen mounds, mammoth tombs and elaborate funerary architecture hidden within this sacred place of pastoral beauty.

Abandoned around 1350 AD, the sites were rediscovered in the 18th and 19th centuries – during which time they had survived earthquakes and tomb raiders. Incredibly, the main draws of the stone carvings remain well-preserved, and in 1931 the park was protected as a National Monument. Visit now, and you’ll be well ahead of the curve, and able to experience the privilege of travelling without the tourist hordes. For me, San Agustin’s curious, perplexing landscape is deserving of quiet contemplation as it poses more questions than it offers answers.

Sarah Woods_2

Sarah Woods is an award-winning travel writer and Bradt Guide to Colombia author.



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