The whole reason I wanted to come to Colombia was for some of its amazing and mysterious archaeology. I’ve been getting it in bucketfuls, and indeed nearly kicked the bucket for one of my most important things on my bucket list ha ha.

The amazing painted tombs of Tierradentro and San Augustins funerary statues were top of my list

Pretending to be brave.

Alert: This trip is not for the faint-hearted. The journey is arduous and the final climb up to the tombs harsh. Descending into the tombs is very dangerous, the steps are VERY steep and there is nothing to hold onto and there is a sheer drop to the bottom. I was very scared much to the amusement of the guards. I was later told that many people refused to go down into them even after all their exertions to get there. The reason given for the lack of some kind of handrail was that it would spoil the aesthetics of the design! Please don’t consider this if you are scared of heights, are claustrophobic and, if you value your life!

Mountain road, getting higher!

After the previous day in the wild red desert of Tatacoa and its exertions you might think me mad for attempting this hard core trip into the mountains of Tierradentro some three and a half hours drive into a remote and frankly scary hidden mountain community of separate small group dwellings. Indeed it was mad as I had decided to travel on to San Augustin after, rather than return to Neiva. I am mad of course so had bitten off more than I could chew.

Up top, happy to have faced my fears of those tombs!

After leaving the main roads that were relatively easy we were suddenly on a tortuous winding mostly mud track that led us into a very secluded area. It is beautiful there no doubt, but the further in you got the more isolated from civilization you become and there is no way to get out apart from whence you have come the scorched sides of many of the mountain slopes showed testament to huge fires. If you were there, there would be no way to get out my cab driver had to keep asking if we actually were on the right road to this isolated archaeological park as he too couldn’t believe it was taking so long.

Mountain streams all the way and often over the roads.

Finally, we arrived and it’s a beautifully maintained site with a museum at its start. However, take note old birds, it’s a right old climb up a cobbled path and over a small rickety bridge to arrive finally at the tombs. It’s harsh at that altitude and very hot when the sun comes out from behind persistent mountain clouds. My bravado in Colombia’s Cauca was rather foolhardy. Breathing heavily with palpitating heart I finally reached the summit. I was horrified at what I encountered.

I removed my shoes as it was so dangerous to grip down these VERY steep steps.

The guard unlocked each trapdoor for me and we peered down in dawning horror. (I was with the cab driver as I didn’t know how long I’d be so invited him too) As I progressed the steps became tougher to deal with. Once down, however, they were incredible and very atmospheric. Although they were all I hoped for, the terrible anxiety about each climb in and out rather clouded my experience but boy oh boy were they magical.

Tomb robbers raided all these tombs only leaving the pots in some.

These underground stone vaults were used to house burials between 600 and 900 AD. Here remain the vestiges of human groups that settled in this region before 1,000 AD are displayed and built tombs in its highest parts. Here you can appreciate elements of the Paez culture, whose descendants inhabit this area of ​​the department of Cauca today.   Tierradentro culture is related to the neighbouring San Agustín culture where I was heading next. Very little is known about either but the ecstatic archaeologists have literally had a field day with both.

Silly selfie, now worried about getting UP those steps.
Looking up at what I had to face!

“The typical hypogeum has an entry oriented towards the west, a spiral staircase and a main chamber, usually 5 to 8 meters below the surface, with several lesser chambers around, each one containing a corpse. The walls are painted with geometric, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic patterns in red, black and white. Some statues and remains of pottery and fabrics can be seen scarcely due to grave robbery before the hypogea were constituted as protected areas.” Quote from Wiki.

Ochre, black, white and red used for the painting.
Chambers cut into the volcanic rock.
Figure of some long forgotten god.

Top Tip: Always be prepared for this kind of adventure. Water, water, water. Getting dehydrated is so easy at that altitude and with the high humidity and STRESS! Understand it takes bloody hours to get anywhere and there are rockfalls and broken high mountain roads so don’t even bother to look down or think too much! I’m not trying to put you off I loved it and so will you on these more dodgy outings! Remember this is why you’ve taken on this challenge and you’ll be so PROUD of yourself at the end!

What I call the snail steps.
One can only imagine what offerings were left there originally.
The most richly painted of the tombs.
Another strange face peering at you.
Preoccupation with the steps is only aesthetic!

When finally I left this place of magic I was a little smug. The challenge of the steps had been a real problem but I had conquered it (at one point going up I hit my back on the curved wall and nearly fell) and felt very proud if a little dazed and reckless.

Anyone know the name of these abundant fire trees?

Later after my cab driver got lost on the way to San Augustin I felt less clever.

Stupid cab driver before we fell out!

We went around in circles for over an hour then ended up on a mud and rock road for over an hour. It was getting dark and there were old signs to be alert that guerrillas were in the area, in other words we were screwed, there were a lot of these government signs so had to be taken seriously!

Ever present Rio Magdalena

I started to lose my cool, the driver clearly was a f***ing idiot and we would die here! Then suddenly there was a police patrol on the road frisking two guys who had been on a motorbike and asking them if they had guns! They flagged us down too and asked all sorts of questions and looked at my passport very closely. Once satisfied they gave it back and I asked innocently if this was a dangerous road. The policeman smirked and said not with them around it wasn’t. I actually felt like kissing him. The subsequent ride was tedious but uneventful.

Finally we were in San Augustin against all odds and my precious chalet style mountain hotel!