Guide to San Agustin
At the source of the Magdalena River, in the department of Huila, lies one of Colombia’s most amazing sites. Approximately 1500 years ago, one of Latin America’s most ancient cultures rose in this area. Their exact name is unknown and the modern name of San Agustin derives from the archbishop of Popayan, Agustin de la Coruña, who regularly travelled to the area which is now the archaeological park, but the remains they left behind show them to have been master sculptors, who used the local volcanic rock to create giant stone statues which are still impressive, wonderful, and in some cases terrifying, even today.
Today, these statues are preserved in the huge 500 square-kilometre San Agustin Archaeological Park, as well as the nearby Alto de los Idolos and Alto de las Piedras sanctuaries, and one of the real highlights of any holiday in Colombia is a trip to see these imposing monuments. Weighing up to five tonnes, and between 1 and 4 meters in height, the statues present a great diversity of figures including: pumas, serpents, eagles, warriors, good and evil and women giving birth. The neatness of the details of items such as musical instruments, weapons, teeth and the like, all stubbornly preserved through the ages, is striking.
As well as the iconic statues, a visit to San Agustin also lets you see the impressive Fuente de Lavapatas, sometimes described as an aquaduct, but probably really a ceremonial site, where looping and swirling channels were carved into the stone bed of a stream, causing natural basins and pools to appear, which it is believed served ritual purposes. In any case, it is further testimony to the skill in stone-working which the Agustinian culture clearly possessed.
Cave Tombs of Tierradentro
If you have a little more time, then you can also fit in a visit to the Tierradentro Archaeological Park to the north of San Agustin. Here, huge underground rock tombs are covered with a bewildering detail of painted and carved decoration, using many of the same motifs as the San Agustin statues – although it’s not entirely clear that the tombs were made at the same time, or indeed by the same culture, although they clearly shared ideas and influences. Many of the decorations are brightly coloured, and the overall impression is incredibly striking – it’s well worth spending an extra day in this part of Colombia to make sure you visit them as well.
The Tatacoa Desert
If your trip to San Agustin begins with a flight to Neiva, then a fantastic detour on your way to is to visit the Tatacoa desert, just to the north of Neiva. Called the Valle de la Tristeza (Valley of Sadness), in 1538 by the conquistador Jiménez de Quesada, the modern name of Tatacoa comes from the black “cascabel” or rattlesnake, an inoffensive local reptile, although it’s also a favourite habitat for wolves, vipers, spiders and bats.
This arid area extends from the middle of the fertile valley to the banks of the Magdalena River and it is famous for its colossal eroded rock formations and dramatic views. In the Cuzco area the landscape is very “Wild West”, with red earth and a great variety of cactuses, while in Los Hoyos, the landscape changes and the rocks transform into yellow sand dunes. During the tertiary period, the Tatacoa was a garden with thousands of flowers and trees which little by little dried up and transformed into a desert.
Climate and Weather in San Agustin
The elevation of much of San Agustin means that the area’s climate is fresh throughout the day and quite cold at night and in the early morning, with highs of around 24°C by day, but dropping to as low as 7-8°C at night. Rainfall is highly seasonal, but anytime from October through to May is likely to bring quite a lot of rain – October to December in particular sees high rainfall and a high number of rainy days here.
Transport: Getting to and from San Agustin
San Agustin is difficult to visit without private transportation, and you really need the services of a guide to both find all the monuments, and to understand the significance and context of the different statues, so an organised private tour is by far the best way to visit San Agustin. Our favourite way is to do a circular route, starting with a flight to the town of Neiva, driving on to San Agustin and then heading over the mountains to the lovely colonial town of Popayan. From here you can continue overland north to Cali and the Coffee Triangle, or fly back to Bogota.