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.
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Visit January 2020
It proved to be quite hard to reach Tierradentro by public transport. On my first approach I stranded at about km50 on the notorious road #26 between Popayan and Tierradentro: overnight a landslide had occurred and the road was fully blocked to any motorized transport. On foot it would have been possible, but the prospect of venturing on alone on the other side was not so tempting as the options that lay ahead seemed to be:
- being kidnapped by some last remaining FARC guerillas (this road was the only place in Colombia where I saw pro-FARC graffiti),
- being attacked by a spectacled bear (the road also sports yellow signs "be aware of bears" and "be aware of puma’s"), or,
- being assaulted by drunk men (it was New Year’s Day and we had met them consistently unsteady on their feet on the streets in every town along the route).
I succeeded a few days later after having first visited San Agustín: I took a shared taxi from San Agustin to Pitalito, a minibus from Pitalito to Garzon, another minibus from Garzon to La Plata and hopped on the back of a mototaxi for the final gruelling 38km to Tierradentro. It took 6 hours in total, not too bad considering the logistics.
I stayed overnight in Tierradentro, a hamlet that has formed itself around the entrance of the Archaeological Park. The village of San Andres de Pisimbala lies 2.5 km away. Both have very little to get excited about: San Andres has a T-listed Catholic Temple (worth about 2 minutes of your time), while you have to be in Tierradentro anyway to start your visit by buying the ticket to the Park. You can walk or take a mototaxi between them. Food options are very poor in both towns – I found the often recommended La Portada restaurant in San Andres overrated and in Tierradentro I had to rely on Salchipapas.
Like many reviewers before me, I visited 4 out of the 5 locations. I started the walk at opening time, 8 am. I only met 3 young Colombian tourists who did the tombs at about the same pace as I did. Along the route I saw no other tourists, only some local farmers who have their fields in this area.
There’s a whole ritual involved in visiting the hypogea: “opener of tombs” must be a local job description, as the park employs a dozen men or so who act as guardians of a specific cluster of hypogea, check whether the tourist has a ticket and stamp it, and – most importantly – open the cover to the entrance of the underground tomb. I wonder if they rotate? It would be sad to be posted at a set of tombs that aren’t among the highlights so they get skipped by most of the visitors.
Climbing down the staircases into some of the tombs isn’t for those with a fear of heights, as there is no railing to hold on to. I also am a bit unsure going down staircases since I fell down from one headfirst about a year ago at work. But by taking it easy I got the hang of these. They even get a honorary mention as part of the site’s OUV: apparently they are the original ones (although I could swear that I saw some cement added here and there). They come in straight, zigzag, or spiral shapes. The huge spiral one indeed is memorable.
The best-kept tombs are found at location #1, Alto de Segovia. The fourth location (Alto de San Andres) isn’t that interesting decoration-wise (except for one), but here you can see the outline of the construction of an underground tomb. Its roof has collapsed during an earthquake in 1994. It’s a fine walk up there as well: you have to cross two bamboo bridges and the area presents good opportunities for birding.
Some points which might be of use to anyone planning a visit to Tierradentro and deciding how (and whether) to visit its 5 locations (Based on a visit in Nov 2019) -
a. Alto de Segovia is the most worthwhile site to see. From the main site entrance there is a paved uphill path (30/40 mins without rushing) which leads to what I understand to be 30 excavated tombs – of which 25 are “open”. Other statements vary these numbers slightly - but it isn’t worth arguing about the odd difference! All are currently lit by electricity. Sometimes this is switched on by the guard and sometimes there is a movement sensor which means you have to descend in the dark almost to the chamber itself before the light goes on! The tombs may have their “lid” covers open when you arrive – but there is a guard nearby to unlock any of them if required (some are kept closed to prevent birds entering). We visited Segovia twice across 2 days - once religiously entering every open tomb and once concentrating on the finest. The tombs are scattered in groups across quite a large area and each group is covered by an open sided, but fenced, shed. All tombs are numbered and T21, 30, 9, 10. 11 and 12 are the best in terms of decoration. The amount of energy required to descend the very steep steps and haul oneself back up could be as much as the walk itself if as we did you visit them all! Some of the “steps” are giant sized. If you are not really “into” pre-Columbian tombs this is the group to plan for - plus the museum. If there is a group of people visiting then it could take a long time for them to get everyone down and up since 3 people at most can descend at a time - we watched the wait as a group followed us but, on our second visit, we were the only people on the site.
b. Duende lies a further uphill climb away – not paved – 20 to 30 mins walk plus visit time. There are 5 tombs of which 4 are open to view. None has electricity for lighting. A small torch isn’t really enough and the guards don’t have torches as part of the “Entry service” - though they may loan their mobile phones to help create a better light!!
c. Alto de San Andres lies a few kms from the main entrance. It is reached by following the road almost to Pisimbala. The path to it starts alongside the Hospedaje Portala just down hill from the village centre. It has 5 tombs of which 4 are open. It also has a collapsed tomb which shows the structure from outside. None is lit by electricity. 1 is particularly fine in terms of its painting and would be the next best to visit after those at Segovia.
d. El Tablon is the odd man out among the 5 sites as it has no tombs whatsoever but consists of 9 statues which have been collected together and erected under a single cover. It is a short walk from Pisimbala and wouldn’t take much longer than 30 mins to see. Apparently there is thought to be a connection between this site and San Andres which is clearly visible across the valley – the former for ceremonies and the latter for burials. If you have already seen San Agustin and have paid attention or done your homework you should be able to identify the stylistic similarities between the statues at El Tablon and those at San Agustin! The latter are however much finer. It isn’t entirely clear to me why El Tablon was included unless for this possible “connection” with San Andres. Other units of the Tierradentro Archaeological Park were excluded – e,g The El Hato statues on the road to Inza.
e. I can say nothing about the “value” to be gained from the Aguacate walk as we didn’t do it
f. The “Passport” (i.e ticket) lasts for 2 days and permits multiple entries to any of the sites but can only be bought from the main entrance. There are supposed to be 2 musea on either side of the road at the main entrance but one seems to have been on long term renovation and the other, just past the ticket office, covers both aspects on 2 floors - the lower for “Archaeology” and the upper for “Ethnology”. It is your choice but I would visit both (see later) - 40 mins probably, A guard is ready and willing to provide an explanation (in Spanish) and may well have to unlock the rooms anyway. Understanding the practices of initial shroud burial, later dismemberment and cremation, with the ashes placed in urns within the tombs is of interest.
g. You have a decision to make about where to stay - in one of the cluster of hotels/Hospedajes around the main entrance or up in Pisimbala. The former (but not the latter) seemed to lack restaurants and the tiendas all closed in the evening so Pisimbala has its advantages but possibly to be paid for by the extra need to walk to and fro. I guess it depends mainly on how you are travelling – bus or own transport – if the latter then you have more choice.
In the Ethnology section of the museum we noticed that some of the information boards were written in bilingual Spanish and Paez/Nasa (The language of the indigenous people within whose “Reservation” the Tierradentro Park is situated). We asked the various guards but only one of them could read them - and that somewhat haltingly. It appears that revitalisation of the Paez language has commenced by introducing it as part of the School curriculum (for schools run by the Indigenous communities). Hence the younger people are better at it than most of the older! But this matter is a part of the reason for the clashes between Indigena and Mestizo Campesos which I referred to in my review of the Catholic Doctrine Churches. There have also been clashes over the running of Tierradentro Park arising from the same tensions and issues as led to the burning of Pisimbala church. This link to a downloadable article provides background to the tensions Colombia has with the Paez over the inscription and management of Tierradentro (and refers also to the similar issues regarding San Agustin and the Catholic Doctrine Temples) -
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.
The site has 5 locations
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