San Agustin is set next to a spectacular gorge that drops down to the Magdalena river in Colombia. The hills around San Agustin are extremely fertile and civilizations have thrived here for almost 5000 years. The area is most famous for several archaeological sites (known collectively as San Agustin) scattered amongst the mountains that contain hundreds of stone sculptures carved by people between the 1st and 8th century. Since we had done many kilometers of hiking over the past few weeks, this time we decided to explore the countryside on horseback.
It had been a long time since either of us rode a horse, but after seeing so many people do it we figured “how hard could it be?”. Humberto, the man who ran our hostel, was happy to hook us up with a guide and horses for the day so off we went. A short distance from San Agustin was our first stop, El Tablon, a site that contained several large statues of god-like figures carved into different types of rock.
From there the trail took us through some beautiful countryside to the impressive Magdalena gorge through which Colombia’s longest and most important river flows. This was the location of the second site, La Chaquira, where there are deities carved into the boulder strewn cliffs. The views of the gorge are spectacular and it was incredible to see the farmed fields on the almost vertical walls of the gorge.
On the way to the third site we were getting a little more comfortable on our horses and decided to see what 1 horsepower was really like. With little encouragement our horses would take off, going from walking to galloping instantly (maybe this wasn’t the best idea). We were left hanging on for dear life desperately trying to pull back on the reins to slow them down. At times it was exhilarating and other times terrifying, but we definitely gained a new respect for horses and the people who ride them.
We quickly made it to our third site, La Pelota, which contained several more statues with one carved into an eagle. Next to La Pelota was the site of El Purutal which had the most impressive statues which are left in their original tombs. Here the statues are painted with red, yellow, black and white (colours that could be made from naturally occurring things close by such as unique trees and minerals). In a gruesome depiction of history, the statues here are holding babies and it was believed that this site was used for human sacrifices to the gods.
A bit mortified we climbed back on our horses for the ride back to San Agustin. Our horses must have known that it was time to head home and they wanted to get there in a hurry. Admittedly, we do not know much about horseback riding, but despite our best efforts our horses would burst into a gallop like a couple of wild mustangs. Luckily we made it back to town without falling off and were somewhat relieved to be finished with the horses for the day.
Getting To and From: San Agustin can be reached by direct bus from Bogota (approx 10 hrs) or Popayan (5 hrs). To get to Tierradentro take a collectivo to Pitalito (45 min), then change for a bus to La Plata (approx 3 hrs). From there take a collectivo to Tierradentro (approx 1.5 hrs). To get to the Desierto de Tatacoa, take a collectivo to Pitalito, and change for a bus to Neiva (approx 5 hrs) then take a collectivo to Villavieja (30 min). From there you can take a mototaxi to the desert.
BONUS Getting to the Ecuador Boarder – It is a long trip and it’s possible to do it in one day, however it is strongly recommended not to travel at night as there is a legitimate possibility of bus robbery. From San Agustin there are two options, for either option start by taking a collectiveto Pitalito. From there you can take a bus direct to Pasto (approx 8 hrs). Note that this bus is mainly on gravel roads through the mountains, usually on the edge of a cliff. The views are incredible, but the ride can be a little intense as there are numerous landslides and river crossings and the tiny road hugs the mountains with drops of hundreds of meters. The second option is to go from Pitalito back to Popayan, then switch for a bus to Pasto (approx 10 hrs Pitalito-Pasto) on somewhat better roads. From Pasto it is a 1.5 hour bus to the boarder town of Ipiales. If you are in Ipiales during the day do not miss the easy side trip to the incredible Cathedral of Las Lajas! The boarder crossing to Ecuador is incredibly easy and organized with connections on the other side to Tulcan.