Tierradentro is one of the most important archaeological sites in Colombia (along with San Agustin and Ciudad Perdida). It is famous for it’s elaborately carved and painted underground tombs scattered across a stunning mountainous landscape. Although the existence of the tombs has been known for a long time, there is almost nothing known about the disappeared tribe of indigenous Colombians who carved them between 1100-1400 years ago. The tombs are all within walking distance from the lovely and remote village of San Andrés de Pisimbala, making it a great base to explore the region.
We arrived in San Andrés after a bumpy 5 hour bus ride along the dirt road from Popayan and met the charmingly quirky Leonardo who runs La Portada (basically the only accommodation in the village). After getting settled in we wandered around admiring the village’s picturesque setting in the jagged Andean mountains. The town is very quiet with only a few shops selling basic provisions. There are no restaurants other than the one at La Portada, which serves good food prepared lovingly by Leonardo’s wife. There is a small market selling fruits and vegetables in the mornings around the town’s 400 year old church which is under repair for the foreseeable future. The people of San Andrés are mostly indigenous Paez who are very friendly, if not a bit aloof to the few tourists who trickle in.
The next day we set out to explore some of the ancient burial sites of Tierradentro. A 20 minute walk from town leads to the park office and two museums. Here, there are a few more basic guesthouses and restaurants. We paid the 20,000 COP admission – good for two days – and decided to check out the small but well displayed museums to get some information about the sites we would visit. The first museum is all about the tombs around Tierradentro; it displays artifacts discovered there including statues, painted funerary urns and a mock tomb with real human remains. The second museum is about the indigenous Paez (approximately 25,000 of which live in the area) and shows their traditional dress, tools, musical instruments and way of living. Both museums are entirely in Spanish.
From the museums there are two ways to start the hike to the tombs. We decided to go the more challenging route up to Alto del Aguacate first, to save the most impressive site, Segovia, for last. It was half way up this 1500m ascent that Rebecca started to feel really crappy. Stomach cramps, nausea and a bit of a fever were kicking in, but as the trail back down was treacherous she wanted to continue on (what a trooper!). After many rest stops, mini breakdowns and most of our water we made it to Alto del Aguacate. The view from the top of the mountain, at 2700m, was incredible! However, completely drained, Rebecca had to lie down and rest while I went to explore some of the 62 tombs dug into the mountain ridge. The tombs here are the least preserved (they suffered extensive looting), but being so remote it really felt like being an explorer climbing down the carved stairs into the burial chambers. At Alto de Aguacate there are no security guards or artificial lighting that the other sites have. After I checked out many of the tombs I pointed out the best ones for Rebecca to see before we continued our hike to the second site, Alto de San Andrés.
Luckily Rebecca was feeling a bit better and the hike was mostly down hill. The burial chambers at Alto de San Andrés are some of the largest and best preserved. We climbed down the stone stairs to the domed rooms about 7m below ground. The tombs are painted with red and black geometric designs as well as eerie faces staring back at you. The feeling inside the tombs can be a bit creepy and definitely leaves you with more questions than answers about the people who carved them and what kinds of rituals were performed there. From Alto de San Andrés it’s a short hike back to town, which completes about a 5 hour loop.
The next day Rebecca’s condition had not improved so she stayed back, ate crackers, watched movies and generally rested while I hiked the second loop to the sites of El Tablon, Alto del Duende and Alto de Segovia. Along the road leading to the museums is the trail to El Tablon. A short 20 minute hike leads up to the site which is completely different from the others. On display are 8 human-like statues carved out of volcanic rock, some over 2m tall. The statues are from an earlier time than the other sites of Tierradentro and are similar to the ones around San Agustin. Following the trail further leads to El Duende, a smaller site of four large tombs. They aren’t as well preserved as some of the other sites, but the views of the valley from this location are spectacular.
Twenty minutes further down the trail is arguably the most impressive site of Alto de Segovia. The 28 tombs are larger and more intricately painted and carved than the others. Climbing down the steep, spiral steps into the burial chambers can be a bit intimidating but the motion sensitive lights help. After checking out the last of the tombs it was a 20 minute hike back down to the museums. Overall this loop takes a little under four hours. After exploring the archaeological sites of Tierradentro, and with Rebecca starting to feel better we decided to head to the Desert of Tatacoa for a completely different adventure.
Getting To and From: From Popayan there are several departures per day, which take about 5 hours. Make sure to get a bus that goes to San Andrés de Pisimbala if you want to stay there as other buses will drop you at La Cruce a few kilometers away. If your going to Bogota, San Agustin or Desierto de Tatacoa, take one of the collectivos from San Andrés to La Plata (1.5 hours), which is a large city with many connections. Likewise if you are coming from any of those places, take a bus to La Plata, then collectivo to San Andrés.
Accommodation: In the village of San Andrés de Pisimbala the only accommodation we saw was at La Portada which has good clean rooms (although any noise from other people is easy to hear) and a quality restaurant. Near the museums there are a few other basic guesthouses and restaurants.
Hiking Around Tierradentro: The most common route is to go from town to the museums, then to the main site of Alto de Segovia, onward to El Duende then to El Tablon and back to the village (approx 4 hours). Then go from the village to Alto de San Andrés and up to Alto de Aguacate, then down to the museums and back to town (approx 5 hours and more strenuous). It’s possible to do both sections in one day, but we would definitely recommend doing it over two days (or skip Alto de Aguacate if you’re not up for the steepest hike). However, we did the loops in reverse, saving Alto de Segovia for last.