|San Agustin Archaeological park|
In 1758 a lone Franciscan priest, Friar Juan de Santa Gertrudis, whose Amazon mission was facing many difficulties, decided to cross the Eastern Cordillera and to travel to Santa Fe in order to appeal to the Spanish Viceroy for help. Accompanied by a few missionized Andaki Indians, the friar ascended the eastern flanks of the Andes and reached the headwaters of the Magdalena river at San Agustin, then only 'a village of no more than five miserable huts'. There were few people to welcome the traveler, but among them happened to be another cleric from Popayan who had established a small mission at San Agustin. The reason for his mission was to become clear during the hearty meal that the cleric cheerfully offered to the tired friar.
Over coffee, the cleric confided to Friar Juan that he was an inveterate treasure hunter, and that, with Indian help, he had been digging for buried gold amongst the ruins and monuments he had found scattered in the vicinity of the village. He continued to speak at length about the strange burial sites, and revealed that while his men had already dug out 19 tombs, they had so far only found one gold earring. His grave-robbing had not as yet proved very successful.
Friar Juan listened in amazement. And the next morning, while his Indian escorts were still asleep after a night of merrymaking, he set out to see for himself. He was troubled by what he saw: 'There are three bishops...all of stone...with their mitres. They are dressed in their rochets which are fringed with lace, well-worked and beautiful. Only one has arms, but one can see that the left held a bishop's croizier while with the right he was giving his blessing...From there I went to see another monument...They were five Franciscan Friars of the Observant Order shown from the knees up, carved of the same stone as the bishops. Two stand with hands folded and hidden in their sleeves...two others are shown as if preaching...the fifth wears a hood over his head and the hair in front is so finely worked that it looks quite real."
-Excerpt from Cadogan Guides 'Ecuador, the Galapagos and Colombia' by John Paul Rathbone 1991, pp 268-269
The sites are spread over many hills in quite a vast area, with some like the 500 sq. m San Agustin Archaeological Park with more than 100 stones to just one or two clandestine tombs on a hillside, to a group of carved rocks on a cliff above the river.
|Alto de Los Idolos - the second most important area of San Agustin era statues|
|Sarcophagus and small mouse carving behind|
|Some of the tombs have residue of paint and other decoration|
|Standing stone at Alto de Las Piedras|
The town of San Agustin lies on a hilly mesesta (highland plateau) at 1700m, and it was founded in 1552 by Alejo Astudillo. The 500+ stones cover around 2000 square kilometers, but many important figures have been moved to the archaeological park. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and the area was quite unsafe to visit for many years, but has improved greatly in the last decade. Aside from the statues, San Agustin also has many mesitas which would be similar to the barrows in Europe except they are named as 'tables' (mesa). The large stones are set up in a vertical arrangement around a tomb, with three stones (often the side ones are also decorated) forming the front guard area/entranceway. In the museum area there are four mesitas spread over two hills. Other important sites line the hills around San Agustin and a 15km hike will take in the important ones like El Tablon (5 sculptures under a roof), El Purutal (statues with excellent remains of paintwork), La Chaquira (carvings on the rockface overlooking the river) and La Pelota (2 painted statues found in 1984). There are also Los Petroglifos on the right bank of the Rio Magdalena near the Estrecho, and the ambitious can walk to the town of Isnos to see the second park of Alto de los Idolos.
|Lavapatas carved ceremonial fountain|
|This fountain was unearthed in more recent times and has 30 monuments carved into the riverbed including lizards, snakes, salamanders, iguanas, toads, chameleons, and turtles, along with human faces and shapes.|
The painted statues of El Purutal
|La Chaquira - a spectacular location overlooking the Magdalena River|
|Downtown San Agustin village|
|El Estrecho - the point where the mighty Magdalena River sluices through a narrow 2.5m gap|
|Obando -- underground tombs similar to those found at Tierradentro|
|Salto de Mortino -- 250m high waterfalls just off the road to San Jose de Isnos|
|Salto de Bordones - the highest waterfall in Colombia at 450m|
Michelin Green Guides Colombia 2011
National Geographic Traveller Colombia 2012 by Christopher P. Baker
Footprint Colombia Handbook 2009 by Charlie Devereux