San Agustin: Colombian Archeological Wonder
You will find many small towns just alike San Agustin in Colombia, what sets it apart is the beautiful landscape around the town, high waterfalls, and primarily many archeological sites and famous statues hidden and scattered in the surrounding lush green hills near river Magdalena. The exceptionality of the place was confirmed officially in 1995 when San Agustin archeological park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Colombia has many archeological sites around the country, but if you decided not to visit probably the most famous one (and also the most expensive one) - Lost City (Ciudad Perdida), you should make it at least to San Agustin.
Here, you can find the largest collection of religious monuments in Latin America and also the world's largest necropolis.
HOW TO VISIT SAN AGUSTIN SITES
The most of San Agustin sites are easily accessible on foot, by bus, by jeep or during horseback riding tour.
The usual length of stay is three nights and two full days, so tourists can visit Archeological Park and do the horseback riding tour in one day and the whole next day spend in the jeep while exploring sites around San Agustin.
By the way, this is the most common combination, and every hotel or touts in town will offer you this two-day tour.
We didn't haggle about the price and paid COP 60 000 each for horseback riding (from 8 AM to 1 PM) and the other day we paid COP 50 000 each per jeep tour (from 9 AM to 6 PM). If you are part of a larger group, you might try to negotiate.
There was no English speaking guide available, but luckily in both groups, we were part in there was a member who translated for us (but the guide is here more to get you from one place to another than to explain things).
The Archeological Park is closed every Tuesday so you can always do the jeep tour when you arrive on that day.
To visit most of the sites including the Park, you must purchase a 'passport' for COP 25 000, and it is valid for two consecutive days. Some sites (probably on private land) require an additional entrance fee.
WHAT TO DO IN SAN AGUSTIN
The laidback atmosphere, culture, history and picturesque settings make San Agustin worth exploring.
We've made a list of things you definitely shouldn't miss.
SAN AGUSTIN ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK
The site is located near the town, hop on a colectivo from San Agustin for COP 1 200, the ride takes less than 10 minutes, and the bus will stop right at the gate, where you can buy the entrance passport.
The site is vast, so reserve 3 to 4 hours to explore all sections properly.
It is very little known about statues and tombs found around San Agustin.
The first reason why we know such a little about statues, and carvings is, that so far, no writings which could reveal the mystery of their origin, has been yet discovered, the other reason is more prosaic as after tombs and statues were discovered, many tomb raiders and thieves destroyed the site and historical evidence which could help with explanation.
In the park, there is a small museum and jungle walk with statues Bosque de las Estatuas nearby.
Then, you can walk through different sections - Mesita A and C to Fuente Ceremonial de Lavapatas and then climb uphill to Alto de Lavapatas, a viewpoint with other statues and return back via Mesita B.
Thanks to the picturesque surroundings, San Agustin is a perfect place for horseback riding.
And that you've never done this activity before?
Nor we did. It was the first time for us, and it was awesome, although for the whole time I was not pretty sure who in our team is the boss if it's me or my horse.
The whole of our training consisted in jumping on the horse, and then our guide told us that we must pull reins to the left or right depending on where we want to turn and pull reins to ourselves when we want to stop.
After this approximately one minute long explanation (when probably 30 seconds we tried to remember left and right in Spanish), we set off.
The scenery was fantastic, and now we finally understand the phrase that the world looks better from the back of a horse.
On the way, we stopped at three different sites - El Purutal La Pelota, La Chaquira, and El Tablon - which made welcoming breaks during our challenging ride.
EL PURUTAL LA PELOTA
Here we had to pay additional COP 4 000 as this site is not included in the passport. You can find here statues with colorful patterns which are extraordinary as all other statues in the San Agustin area are only gray.
La Chaquira is a beautiful viewpoint over river Magdalena. On the boulders along the path leading to the viewpoint, we could see other remnants of the past culture living in the area many years ago. Boulders are decorated by mysterious faces, but now we can only guess their meaning.
El Tablon was the last stop on our horseback riding tour.
It's a tiny site with only five statues and a small museum (we didn't go in). Statues are in good condition but not somehow impressive if you are considering to visit this site on own.
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The jeep tour was well-organized, and everything was on time, the only downside was that we were in Spanish speaking group where only one lady spoke a little English, so we felt a bit left out.
In the afternoon there is a stop for lunch, meals are about COP 15 000, but it is not compulsory to eat in this particular restaurant, feel free to bring your own food.
During the tour, we had seven stops - Salto Mortino, Alto de Las Piedras, Salto Bordones, Alto de Los Idolos, a sugar cane factory, a museum in Obando and Estrecho del Magdalena. Be prepared for a long day on bumpy roads.
Salto Mortino is an impressive waterfall only 15 minutes drive from San Agustin.
Apart from the waterfall, we could see coffee plantations and trees of one of Colombia's native fruits, lulo. We had to pay here, it seems that locals pay COP 2 000, gringos COP 3 000.
ALTO DE LAS PIEDRAS
Alto de Las Piedras is another archeological site showing statues of people, animals and also tombs. It is believed that this place was an ancient ceremonial center of the area.
Colombia's longest uninterrupted waterfall falls freely from the high of more than 400 meters.
There is a viewpoint overlooking the waterfall from above or you can walk down the narrow path to get a little bit better views from a different perspective.
ALTO DE LOS IDOLOS
When arriving at Alto de Los Idolos, we started to have a feeling that we already saw more statues than we are able to take in.
The archeological part was interesting, but the lack of information and also the repetitive symbols made us feel tired.
That's why what we liked the most about this site was the vast green area where we could walk freely, and it was refreshing.
There are two notable things: the highest statue and statue depicting a crocodile, although crocodiles did not live in this area.
SUGAR CANE FACTORY
Even before we entered the building, we could smell the sugar in the air.
The visit to a factory where they make from raw sugar cane panela (block of natural sugar) was hot and sticky, but very interesting to see. Colombians love sweets, so no surprise that workers looked very busy.
MUSEUM IN OBANDO
Apart from actual museum showing ceramic objects found in tombs and explanatory boards explaining the history of excavations, in Obando, there are ancient tombs we could actually enter and have a look at what is underground.
We had to pay additional entrance fee COP 3 000.
ESTRECHO DEL MAGDALENA
The last stop on the tour was Magdalena Strait.
Magdalena River is Colombia's most important and also largest waterway, but here, at this specific point is only about two meters wide as it flows through the narrow strait.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN AGUSTIN
Although we did find just little reviews about Hotel La Gaitana, we were happy that we gave it a try. A huge family house with several rooms and a very nice patio on the top where guests can just hang out was a perfect place to stay. Take the option with breakfast it's worth it. The family who runs the hotel is friendly and helpful we just couldn't figure out why the hotel wasn't busier. Hopefully, for them, it will change soon.
Budget | Hotel La Gaitana - Amazing staff, quiet location, clean rooms, great breakfast, and excellent price.
Mid-range | Masaya Hostel San Agustin - Superb views, location out of the town, great for people looking to meet other travelers. Cheap dormitories are available.
Luxury | Monasterio San Agustín - Spacious rooms excellent and helpful staff, beautiful surroundings, walking distance to the town center.
WHERE TO EAT IN SAN AGUSTIN
We found two excellent choices in San Agustin.
Both for COP 10 000 offer menu del dia. Restaurant El Tomate is the vegetarian option, usually, open until 2 PM or until the food runs out and it's a real gem.
The other is Fonte Cafe Restaurant, open all day and they serve soup, the meat of your choice and a great coffee desert altogether with freshly squeezed juice.
How to get to San Agustin
There are two most common ways how to arrive in San Agustin.
You can arrive from Neiva (or Bogota). Usually, you must transfer in Pitalito from where frequent jeeps go to San Agustin.
The bus from Neiva to San Agustin cost COP 30 000. You can also arrive from Cali or Popayan. From Popayan, it is a long, at some parts unpaved and uncomfortable way. The distance is only 126 km, but takes about 5 hours!
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