The National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro is well known for its pre-Columbian hypogea, which were found in several excavations and in various archeological locations.
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.
The precolumbian culture that created this funeral complex inhabited this area during the first millennium A.C. Tierradentro Archaeological park features hypogea dating from 6th to 9th centuries AD. The details in the sculptures and pictoric patterns are similar to the San Agustín culture.
Map of TierradentroLoad map
It's worth coming here even though the roads are horrible for the last section and if you plan on continuing north/west be ready for a looooong bumpy ride. Slips are constantly ruining travel plans in this area.
On arrival you get the typical booklet for the site and a visit to the museum. There are two parts of the museum and one is not related to the caves and I skipped out quickly. You are then ready to ascend to the actual sites, no guide necessary, with local guards taking care of you as you arrive at each one.
One would think the site is so big and should be explored fully in a day, but I think that is a little wasteful. It is big but I thought it was jading to see the first cluster at Segovia already, each time you descend a horrible twisted set of stone slabs ("stairs") to see very little. Some have art and carvings but then I find it just so-so, and you descend one of these to see some broken jars - no thanks. Try to get the guide to ONLY show you the mui grande ones so it doesn't become too boring quickly. With the weather acting up I decided to return the same way rather than making a long circle to see the rest. There were also forest fires but they didn't seem to care about it so I take it they were managed fires (I'm still suspicious about that). Definitely not healthy for the lungs.
2 days after visiting San Agustin we found ourselves hiking along the much quieter and muddier trails between the sites in Tierradentro. We didn't mind though as Tierradentro is much more rural and scenic and worth the effort. There are 5 scattered sites to visit and while it is possible to visit all in a long and hurried day, the entry ticket is valid for 2 days and if you have the time it makes more sense to break it up. In our case we only had the one day and failed to make it to the fifth and final site, Aguacate, as we ran out of time and the afternoon rains started up and scared us off. We were told it is more for the views than for the archaeological sites there anyway.
There is a little collection of guesthouses across from the official entrance to Tierradentro but we stayed in the village of San Andres de Pisimbala 2km away uphill. Some of the sites are quite close to the village but there are guards at each site to check tickets and unlock gates so you have to start at the main entrance to get your ticket. This is better anyway to first visit the small museum (no english signage) before hitting the trails in one big loop. The trail is straightforward but a little deceiving because to the first and best site, Segovia, it is an easy paved trail but after that it gets narrow and muddy up to the others.
The guard at Segovia opened up 10 tombs for us. They are much bigger and more impressive than the small tombs associated with San Agustin. We saw nothing else like it in South America and felt like this site would easily fit in somewhere in Europe or the Middle East instead.
The 2nd site, El Duende, had 5 more tombs to show us, all more damaged than those in Segovia. The 9 statues at El Tablon were bigger than those in San Agustin but in a worse state of decay and generally underwhelming having just come from San Agustin. After a break for lunch we made it to the 4 Alto de San Andres tombs. One of the tombs there was easily the most impressive single tomb with the best preserved display of patterns and paintings on its walls. Most of the tombs are dimly lit but a torch will help you to see the details better. If you don't have or forget to bring one, the guards were friendly and offered to lend us theirs as well.
Overall, despite the comparisons to San Agustin we found the 2 to be quite different. Tierradentro has simpler facilities and infrastructure for a visit and is harder to reach but we enjoyed it more in the end.
Visited Tierradentro just recently (November, 2011). Visiting all 5 places (Segovia, El Duande, El Tablon, San Andres and Aguacate) requires at least full day on foot or riding a horse (although I am not completely sure about the latter possibility as the road are occasionally stopped by fence accessible by man only). All thirst four sites are protected and most of tombs are locked. They can be opened during visiting hours only (no additional cost except of entrance ticket). Aguacate is more remote (requires 500 meters climb and some 1,5 - 2 hours of mountain walking), very impessive (photo attached)
I visited Tierradentro, which is set in beautiful and spectacular mountain scenery, in November 1996.
Two days earlier I was in San Agustin and spent the intervening day getting from there to Tierradentro in 4 different vehicles, including my only ride on a chiva (goat) the open sided bus, brightly painted clay models of which are one of the commonest souvenirs of Colombia.
I stayed at the Hospedaje Los Lagos in nearby Pisimbala. I thought it excellent.
The description at the top of this page gives a good brief description of the site.
I began my visit by going first to the attractive and informative museum to learn something of the culture that flourished here about 1300 years ago and, upstairs of the areas present day inhabitants, the Paez Indians.
It is possible to visit most of the best tombs on foot. I walked first to Segovia where there are more than 30 tombs, of which about 6 are lit and visitable, then to El Duende (more tombs), then El Tablon, where there are statues like those to be seen at San Agustin, and finally down and up again to Alto de San Andres. By this time I decided not to make the effort required to climb to El Aguacate.
This was clearly an advanced culture, with time to spend on their elaborate funerary monuments and rituals. These required that bodies be buried first with tools and personal possessions in a simple tomb. Some time later the remains were exhumed and placed in the excavated chambers which this site now preserves.
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