Archaeological Sites

Riddle me this: why is the explorer spelled “Columbus” but the country is spelled “Colombia”?

From Popayán I made a quick loop to visit two of South America’s most important archaeological sites. For being UNESCO World Heritage sites, surprisingly little is known about the civilization that left these remnants. Although radio-carbon dating has been done, archaeologists can’t even agree on what centuries we’re talking about. I’ve seen anywhere from 500 BC to 1600 AD, although most accounts place it from the 1st to the 8th century AD. Regardless, the civilization predated the Incas and was long gone by the time the Spaniards arrived.

San Agustín is famous for some 500 large carved stone statues that were laid to rest with the deceased. These statues are in the shape of animals, warriors, and faces, average around 2 to 4 metres tall, and weigh several tons. It’s estimated only about 10% of the ruins have been excavated. The iconography bears some similarity to the Mayan ruins I saw in Guatemala, and indeed some archaeologists theorize both groups are related, along with those who built Ciudad Perdida. According to one of the tour guides I met:

The San Agustín people treated women as equals and superiors (they had female leaders), they had a grasp of advanced mathematics, they attempted complex surgeries and they were obsessed with the idea of life after death. People were ritualistically sacrificed, burned alive and sometimes buried alive under the influence of hallucinogens.

The journey from Popayán to San Agustín is less than 100 km, yet takes six hours due to the bumpy dirt road. The scenery is beautiful – lush green hills fronting dramatic mountains. Near the end of the ride the bus suddenly stopped, the driver pulled (only) me off, and told me to get in the back of the pickup he had pulled up next to. Although 90% of the time they do have your best interests at heart, there is that moment of, “am I being kidnapped?” Turns out nobody else on the bus was going to San Agustín, so he flagged down a passing truck to drive me the rest of the way. He paid the driver, I got dropped in the center of town, all was fine. Actually, more than fine – assuming it’s not cold or raining, riding in the back of trucks is my favorite way to travel. It was coming on dusk with the mountains in silhouette and the sweet smell of flowers in the air.

Immediately upon disembarking, I was welcomed by an “official from the tourist office”. Yeah, right. I hadn’t seen touts like this in months. I guess a large part of the economy for this tiny town comes from tourism, which naturally brings touts. Actually she was friendly, introduced me to her husband the tour guide, and insisted on accompanying me to find a hotel. Annoying, but not terribly. After checking out the hotel my guidebook said was the best but turned out to be a flea trap, I ended up going with the one she suggested. The hotels in San Agustín are all extremely lower-end places, there don’t seem to be hotels for mid-range tourists. Although the place was pretty run down, it was cheap and the family was friendly and welcoming. I also happened to meet a friendly English bloke named Rick staying there as well.

Over supper Rick shared with me how he left the rat race and has been traveling for the past year as well. The difference being that he’s actually been doing productive things for the world. Rick and some buddies spent six months living in a tiny village in Uganda (with no electricity, no running water, no privacy, the whole nine) designing and implementing various projects to improve the residents’ quality of life. Classic story – he had been working in finance in London raising money for already rich people and finally got fed up with it all. So they spent six months planning and organizing before quitting their jobs and traveling to Africa. Apparently the various projects are still going strong without them. Hearing all of this was compelling and inspiring, since I’ve recently been having more and more existential moments – what am I doing with my life, why am I here, shouldn’t I be doing something more productive. Bumming around is fun at times, but it’s not really helping the world. And they say it’s only by helping others that we attain true happiness and satisfaction for ourselves. So I’ve been thinking about what skills do I have, and how can I apply them to the world in areas where I would be useful.

The next morning the birds out my window surprised me. The music that my iPhone normally wakes me up to is Woody Allen’s jazz band playing Pappy’s B-Flat Blues. It’s got a distinctive melody carried by Woody’s clarinet. Well, this morning he had some accompaniment – the birds outside my window mimicked the song. Hard to believe I know, but it’s true – they were singing that melody long after the alarm had shut off.

The jeep tours take you to the outlying sites as well as some very high waterfalls, but both Rick and I decided to forgo the tours on account of cost. We had read that most of the major sites could be visited on foot. It ended up being a long day hiking 20 km in the hot sun, but it was worth it. Mainly for the scenery – the statues were cool, but honestly, once you’ve seen a few, you’ve seen them all. The countryside is filled with farms, ranches, and friendly locals. One old woman with a small sugar cane mill next to her house offered us lemonade when we stopped to ask directions. Those moments of interaction stick in the memory. It’s great being in a small town with big sky where everyone is relaxed and friendly and you don’t have any of the dangers or annoyances of big cities. Rick and I had a well-deserved steak dinner after our killer hike.

The next day I was off to Tierradentro, the other big archeological site. The remnants in this site are surprisingly different from the ones in San Agustín. While there are some similiar stone sculptures here, the main thing are large underground tombs (hypogea). It’s not certain why these exist here but not in San Agustín or Ciudad Perdida. Again, it was only 80 km away, but took 11 hours to reach! Leaving the hotel at 6 am (!), I caught a shared taxi to Pitalito. Waited there for 2 hours until a collectivo was full enough to go to La Plata. Another wait, and I was off in a jeep/bus to San Andres de Pisimbala. Here is the route in Google Maps for anyone planning a similar trip.

The jeep/buses they use in this region for public transport are fierce. They’re tough extended-cab pickup trucks with a roof built over the bed. Luggage, animals, even people ride up there. I was lucky to get one of the seats inside the cab, it was comfy. I pitied the people hanging on to the back. I’ve no idea how many people we ended up carrying, but we kept stopping to add more.. it was like one of those clown cars.

Soundtrack for this journey: late Dylan, Cat Stevens, Lucinda Williams – perfect for the scenery. My pack was covered in a thick layer of dusty dirt by the time we arrived. Tierradentro is not even a town, it’s just a collection of about a dozen houses alongside the archaeological park and museum. A couple of these houses are hospedajes, one of which I stayed in. Very basic, but fine. The old woman that ran it was funny. After settling in, I walked 2 km up the road to the town proper to find dinner, and had the choice of.. one restaurant! Typical of most places, it had no menu, just the same old dish of some kind of soup followed by a plate of beef, white rice, cole slaw, yucca, and beans. Sometimes you can choose chicken instead of beef, or black or white beans instead of red. The yucca might be plantains – that’s about the extent of variation in this typical dish that is served for lunch and dinner in every inexpensive restaurant in Colombia.  I’ve even taking to eating fast food in malls (where available, in the larger cities) just for a bit of variety. Anyone who knows me will tell you that these are desperate measures, since I hate the idea of fast food. You can see why I’m looking forward to changing countries.

At the restaurant I met some friendly English hippies and an American student anthropologist who has been living in Peru for the past year. Most people take two days to see the sights, but I am not most people. I was determined to see everything in one day and catch the afternoon bus back to Popayán. I didn’t end up setting out particularly early, but still, I managed to power through everything. The guard at the museum was friendly and showed me around the artifacts. He explained that when a person died, s/he was laid to rest in an individual underground chamber along with various artifacts (most of which have disappeared thanks to grave robbers). After two to three years (post decomposition), the bones are brought up from the tomb and put into a larger group tomb, along with 30 to 40 other skeletons. I asked whether this was done for everyone, or only for important people. I believe he said it was the former. If so, what a lot of work that was! I also saw urns, both ceramic bowls as well as built into the floors of the tombs. So I’m not sure how cremation plays into this, since it contradicts what he told me. Maybe they did both.

The sites are spread all over the valley and you hike between them. Again, only a fraction of them have been excavated. The government has done a nice job preserving and protecting them – they’ve lined the steps with concrete so foot traffic won’t degrade them any more, and there are even guards at each one. Some of the tombs are quite deep – 8m or so, and occasionally they connect to other tombs. It is estimated they date from the 6th to the 9th century AD. Many of them are painted with geometric shapes and animal figures. The furthest site is an hour and a half hike up and over a beautiful ridge to the neighboring mountain. I met an ancient indigenous woman on the trail walking up the mountain with a cane, in bare feet. I asked to take her picture, but she declined and was suspicious of me after that. I really wish she had let me, her face was so iconic. Deep rutted lines, only a few teeth left, yet regal in the way she carried herself. Anyway, this furthest site is the most impressive because it’s right on top of a ridge with a 360 degree view. Only one of the 30 sites on this ridge is fully excavated – the others are only partially dug out – you can squeeze your way down into some of them and start to realize what an enormous task it would be to excavate these after 1,000 years of growth and decay.

As I was bounding back down the mountain, the sky, which had been sunny and bright only 10 minutes before, opened up with a torrential rainstorm. Wow, that’s living. Pleased with my ability to do it all in one day, I got back to the hotel in time to shower, change, and start hiking down to catch the bus. A passing motorcyclist gave me a ride the rest of the way (with both of my big heavy packs strapped to me, he was brave!) Much of the bumpy 5 1/2 hour ride back to Popayán was cold and in the dark, but eventually I made it back to the same wonderful hostel I stayed in three nights earlier.


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