San Agustín

San Agustín, Colombia’s most famous archaeological site and the country’s second most visited world heritage sight after Cartagena, is scattered over several sites in the headwaters of the Magdalena and Cauca rivers.

It was here, between the 3rd B.C. and the 9th A.D. centuries, that a civilization named after the colonial town of the same name developed. Its characteristics are monolithic stone figures and megalithic tombs in the form of dolmens (dolmens = stone table).
The latter are an expression of the pronounced burial cult that characterizes the San Agustín culture. Under the dolmen stands the shaman, flanked by tomb guards who protect the sarcophagus and/or the burial chamber.
Due to the large number of elaborately designed tombs in different styles, it is believed that San Agustín was a necropolis for different cultures, to which important dead or their bones were brought in order to bury them here.
An essential element of the sculptures of San Agustín are the lack of human dimensions and proportions. Oversized heads are carried by a shortened trunk with shrunken arms and tiny legs.
Among the central themes of the depiction are motherhood, triangular head shapes (sometimes interpreted as a stylized maize grain), the depiction of the priest / shaman as a figure who has his right arm cut off to deprive him of (worldly) riches, and depictions of bird and snake.
The bird element is sometimes interpreted as an eagle, sometimes as an owl. It is certain that the elements of the bird and the snake represent the omnipresent duality, with the bird representing heaven and light and the snake representing earth and fertility.
Most of the sculptures are still at their original location (in situ). They face east towards sunrise, the origin of life symbolized by the sun god Taita Inti (Quechua).
In order to enjoy the visit of San Agustín and its partly spectacular landscape, one should plan two whole days.
It is a good idea to dedicate the first day to the Parque Arqueológico (UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995). This consists of the four “mesitas” A, B, C and D (large ceremonial platforms levelled by man) where scattered burial mounds can be found, the archaeological museum and the “Bosque de las Estatuas” (forest of statues), with statues from various sites to protect them from grave robbers and looters. Finally there is Fuente de Lavapatas, a water basin carved out of the rock with engraved anthropomorphic figures, amphibians and reptiles.
The second day will be dedicated to an all-day jeep tour, which will include scenic features such as the “Estrecho de Magdalena”, the just 2.20m wide Magdalena Strait, the Salto de Bordones and Salto Mortiño waterfalls, as well as the monumental groups of Alto de los Ídolos and Alto de las Piedras near San José de Isnos. Alto de los Idolos occupies two hilltops where ten burial mounds with large graves are distributed. Among the statues of Alto de las Piedras are some that have preserved their original colors yellow (wealth), red (war), white (purity) and black (weapons). Also noteworthy is the statue of the “double self”, which represents the duality of body and soul.
The town of San Agustín, although a colonial foundation from the 17th century, is not worth a longer stay in our opinion, but there are some good restaurants here, while the more beautiful accommodations have settled outside the town overlooking the countryside.

If you want to visit Tierradentro as well as San Agustín, you should choose the charming small town of Popayán as your starting point.