In the wild Andes of Southwest Colombia the stone shamans of San Augustin stared maniacally back at me with wide coca-induced eyes and toothy grins punctuated by jaguar fangs.
My local guide, Oscar Gomez, explained the human-sized monoliths were carved between the 1st-9th centuries. “We don't know where this civilisation came from or where it went,” Oscar said.
“They are Colombia’s biggest mystery”.
And perhaps Colombia’s best kept secret too?
Despite Colombia’s growth in popularity, particularly honeypots like colonial Cartagena, relatively few travellers venture to the Southwest Andean provinces of Cauca and Huila - a region beset by paramilitary troubles until a peace accord a few years back.
The journey to reach them involved a scenic crossing by car of Colombia’s Andean spine starting in Popayán in the province of Cauca. The hour-long flight south of Bogota to Popayán offered a condor eye view below of the snaking East, Central, and Western Cordilleras: their slopes fecund with coffee and sugarcane thriving on rich mocha soil.
You might never guess from Popayán’s 16th-century whitewashed townhouses and intact Andalusian patios that this Spanish colonial city had been rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1983. The reconstruction included the 17th-century Dann Monastario, now a hotel, where I soaked in its ex-Franciscan monastic vibe in a stately room of creaking floor-boards and hardwood furnishings.
“Popayán was built on slaves, goldmines, and trade,” declared my guide, Franko Lutz, who met me at the airport with a chauffeured vehicle. The pony-tailed Frenchman fell in love with a local girl back in 2010 and never left.
We left Popayán on a zigzagging road towards San Augustin soaring higher into the Andes.
“In 2016 FARC had checkpoints along this road extorting money from truck drivers but now they’ve all gone,” said Franko.
He was referring to the narco-trafficking Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who in August 2016 ended a 52-year old insurrection against the Colombian government. They had been entrenched in Cauca and Huila for decades ensuring San Augustin’s pre-Colombian archaeology remained off-limits to travellers.
Franko explained FARC generally coexisted with Colombia’s indigenous peoples: some 87 different ethnic groups comprising just over 3% of the population. This included the Misak within whose territory we entered later that morning. We paused for several hours in a pretty Misak village called Sylvia set in the folds of pine-forested ridges at around 2500meters.
Misak live in small stone farmhouses surrounded by sloping fields of chilies and maize. To counter year-round chilliness they wear royal-blue woollen ponchos with flattened straw boaters grooved with spirals representing their animistic belief in a circular journey from birth to maturity then back to a Shakespearian-like ‘second childishness’.
Among many quirky customs brides dance in 14 skirts at their wedding as a test of endurance. “If we dance all night in them we will have a successful marriage,” one Misak woman assured me.
The air thinned thereafter crossing over 3,000meters into the mist-cloaked moorland of Puracé National Park.
The 830km.sq park protects condors and an assemblage of moisture-loving succulent vegetation and giant heathers in a habitat called paramo. The spongy soils spawn several of Colombia’s largest rivers including the Rio Magdalena which we followed and crossed into Huila Province.
During the long day’s drive we stopped whenever peckish for roadside snacks. In general comida Colombiana hardly set my culinary juices flowing with its default beefsteak served with rice and fried plantain patacones although street food offerings of deep-fried potato-wrapped eggs and tamales parcelled in banana-leafs were deliciously fattening treats.
More sophisticated fare waited that evening at Hotel Monastario. The hotel grounds include a surrounding coffee plantation: the beans of which find their way onto an innovative menu featuring beef tenderloin in coffee sauce.
The hotel is an elegant 17-room Andalusian-style hacienda, tinkling fountains and all, that is passably historic yet was built from scratch and opened in December 2016. It’s a short drive away from the San Augustin stone shamans and I shared the hotel with just a small tour group of Italian tourists who were the only gringos I met around San Augustin other than a few backpackers.
“It was a risk planning this hotel before signing the peace deal with FARC,” conceded German-born architect Bernd Kroening, who part owns the property and was residing there. “But we felt Colombia’s security had improved rapidly and San Agustin’s archaeology will become huge once the world knows about it”.
He could be right.
After breakfast we entered San Agustin Archaeological Park, which hosts 200 of the monoliths discovered in-situ in the area. UNESCO declared them world heritage in 1995 recognising them as the ‘largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America’.
Local guide, Oscar, said visitor numbers remain low and with the site virtually to myself I marvelled at excavated tumuli mounds that revealed burial chambers guarded by the phallic-shaped stone guardians that are beguiling, macabre, and charged with sexual potency.
Some possessed feline fangs or bones protruding through their noses; others eagle talons that grasped writhing snakes or babies with deformed heads, while monkeys clambered upon the backs of flanking courtesans. The tallest statue measures 4.2-meters and featured a midwife grotesquely wide-eyed on coca pulling a baby from the womb of a mother whose own eyes are widened from childbirth. The statues are so outlandish their creators may have been on something stronger than coca-leafs?
“Archaeologists’ think the statues represented people of great knowledge like shamans and midwives,” explained Oscar. It’s believed they guard noble tombs of an enigmatic civilisation that vanished long before the conquistadors arrived.
“Between 700-900AD the San Agustinians completely disappeared,” Oscar added as a postscript. “Archaeologists’ think years of bad weather made it impossible to maintain their crops”.
A day’s drive further away is another remarkable encounter with the pre-Colombians. Tierradentro (‘inside earth’) has a divine assemblage of UNESCO-listed hypogea (shaft tombs): the largest collection of such features in South America. To reach them we drove north into the mountains passing pony-trotting cowhands on route to an overnight stay at a homely posada in San Andres village. It cost £5 per night and the owner, Madam Eva, cooked creamy arroz con leche pudding.
From the posada Franko and I hiked up to Alto de Aguacate following knife-edged ridges looking down upon cobwebs of cloud suspended in the coffee-filled valleys. On these high-altitude ridges are Tierradentro’s finest hypogea, located, Franko said, to be closer to the sun. Some date back several millennia although many are contemporaneous with the San Augustin civilisation. Again little is known about the architects.
Bring a torch because some tombs are accessible via rock-hewn staircases leading several metres underground. They rekindled a similar feeling of awe I felt when first visiting Luxor’s pharaonic tombs.
They were built to resemble the houses of the deceased, most likely wealthy and influential citizens who were buried in earthenware jars among highly-decorated interiors featuring carved niches and columns.
Many are painted head-to-toe with red-and-white geomorphic patterns or incised with abstract carvings depicting triangular human faces. Franko said he’d heard a local shaman refused to perform a ceremony here because the ancient chi was too strong.
Tierradentro Archaeology Park
Beyond Tierradentro one further surprise awaited near Neiva City from where I flew back to Bogota. The road sank deeper into aridity towards what conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada called the ‘Valley of Sorrows’.
The 300sq.km Tatacoa Desert is the smaller of Colombia’s two true deserts. After the mountain greenery I was taken aback by the rapid transition to arid wadis excavated by flash floods sculpted into teetering ochre-coloured sandstone towers. Local tourists flock here to an observatory apparently offering Colombia’s best stargazing although I only saw cloud that night.
“In the 16th-century the Spanish grazed cattle here,” said Franko. “The climate has changed a lot since then”. Not as quickly though as Cauca and Huila’s new climate of peace, which in time should enable this region’s enigmatic pre-Colombian treasures to reside among South America’s most endearing attractions.
What to try this?
Amakuna (www.amakuna.com; 020 7193 7582) offer a week-long Southern Road Trip itinerary from £1,750 per person including an over-night stay at Mika Suites in Bogota before em-barking on the road trip. Accommodation with daily breakfast, guided tours, transfers and internal flights are all included in the price.
Direct international flights with Avianca www.avianca.com start from £650 return per per-son.
For more information on Colombia, please visit www.colombia.travel/en.