Touring Colombia’s San Agustín Archaeological Park was such a unique experience. “The largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America stands in this wild, spectacular landscape. Gods and mythical animals are skillfully represented in styles ranging from abstract to realist. These works of art display the creativity and imagination of a northern Andean culture that flourished from the 1st to the 8th century.”
During the first day our guide and driver, Jose, led Maria, Juan, Juan, and me through burial sites that were some distance away from the main Archaeological Park. I was happy to join the others not only because they were fun and good company but also because they spoke English and could translate some of the details presented in Spanish. Jose has led visitors through the ruins for 20 years and is very knowledgeable about the area. He’s an indigenous native of San Agustín.
Think the sites we toured on day one included the following but we were given so much information, I’m not sure…. The guide-book is in Spanish.
- El Tablon
- La Chaquira – deities carved into the sheer rock above Río Magdalena gorge
- La Pelota and El Purutal
- Esteecho del Magdalena – a canyon containing the narrowest point of Río Magdalena where it opens on its way to the valley below
- Salto de Bordones Waterfall
The hundreds of stone statues at San Agustin were created some 3,300 years ago and discovered in the middle of the eighteenth century. Mystery still surrounds the ancient civilization that built the monoliths. No one knows exactly how the statues got there or who built them.
The Archaeological Park has burial remains of indigenous nomadic people. It’s believed the culture disappeared before the Spanish arrived.
Many also believe those who created the statues did so under the influence of coca leaves or some other hallucinogenic. It’s said that eating coca leaves enabled the masons who built the stone statues to work longer without getting tired.
Archaeologists have studied the ruins for years trying to grasp their significance. However, even experts can only guess the history of the people, statues, and area.
San Agustin Archaeological Park is in a unique geographical location where the Andes Mountains split into three separate cordilleras – east, central, and west. At this same location Colombia’s two major rivers – the Cauca and Magdalena – meet. Both rivers flow the entire length of Colombia into the Caribbean Sea. Burial ruins are scattered throughout the valley. Each statue is different but some of the things they have in common include:
- Two faces carved into a statue – the lower face portrays individuals as they were in life and the top face shows their higher self.
- If the statues are holding something in their hands it signifies what they did in life – warrior, stone mason, etc.
- Many statues have guard figures stationed outside the tomb.
- The tombs contained ceramic artifacts and gold.
- Some of the images depict ancient myths, religious rituals, and animals.
- The graves of kings and wealthy people have distinctive markers and are higher up in the mountains than the unmarked graves of poorer members of the group.
- Replicas of the original stone statues have been created but the stone always deteriorates or develops mold and has to be cleaned. This is not the case for the original statutes which remain the same throughout time.
- Only 60% of the ruins are excavated. Further excavation depends on approval by the Colombian government.
- There is a constant problem with tomb raiders who loot the sites for gold.
- Statues show that women were revered and treated with dignity and respect.
- The ruins are a protected UNESCO World heritage site.
Fascinated with the ruins I extended my stay at Finca el Cielo for another day of exploring. During our second day we had another excellent guide – Ernesto. We toured the main archaeological park for hours to view other Mesitas (small tables in Spanish). Most of the statues in the park were larger than the ones we saw the day before. Many of them were found buried in the jungle near the place they were displayed.
Many of the statues were mask-like with fierce animal characteristics like sharp teeth and claws. These statues were used to guard tombs and crops. One statue was part eagle and part snake symbolizing heaven and earth. Some of the statues depict a combination of human and animal traits. Animals included birds, felines, frogs, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, monkeys, and rodents.
One tomb was supposedly a second burial site that contained the bones of a family that were taken from their original graves, combined, and buried together in one mound so they could go to the next life together.
There wasn’t time to visit many other interesting places in San Agustín. One that would have been especially fun is the butterfly farm. There you can coat your fingers with juice to attract the butterflies and within minutes butterflies cover your hands!
The archaeological sites at San Agustín Colombia are like nothing I’ve ever seen before!