Published: November 21st 2008November 5th 2008
Bosque de las Estatuas, Parque Arqueologico
The RG's description of a 12 hour bus ride to reach San Agustin, punctuated by military and guerrilla roadblocks at which one might be relieved of money or other valuables, was as out of date as much of the information circulating about travel in Colombia. As I waited at Popayan bus station for my 6AM departure, I chanced upon the deaths/injuries board showing a tally for each of the transport companies and was pleased to see zeroes in all columns for Cootranshuila. 6.75 hours later, most of which was spent on a fairly horrendous pot-holed gravel road - though the green and misty scenery, plus some snowy mountains, had helped the time pass - I was in San Agustin. Due to the bumpy ride, and my unfortunate habit of dozing off, I had a bruise on my forehead from repeatedly whacking the window - not sure if that made it into the injuries column. Other highlights of the journey were a guy giving me a map of the region to peruse, and a dwarf informing me at the rest stop that it was time to get off to have some breakfast.
San Agustin is the best base for exploring hundreds
Mesita C, Parque Arqueologico
of monoliths created by a civilisation that was in the area for 5,000 years before (presumably) being wiped out by the Incas. Little is known about this civilisation, but the stonecarvings they left behind suggest that they had been sampling the San Isidro mushroom, a powerful hallucinogen common in the region.
My first full day in San Agustin was a wash-out, a heavy downpour setting in from dawn until it was too late to do anything. I watched the rain from my hammock, which also gave views of some excellent natural colours - green hummingbirds, a bright red bird (name unknown), and various purple and orange plants.
The town itself is quiet and laid-back, with enough horse-drawn carts to give a true rustic sensation. I saw only a handful of other gringos, and there was a level of curiosity that overcame the barrier of my dismal Spanish and resulted in some interactions with the local people at mealtimes. There was a surprisingly heavy military presence, mainly youngsters, one of whom appeared to be armed with nothing more than a yoyo.
The Archaeological Park contains a good selection of monoliths in a series of landscaped areas, joined by
stone paths that slick and slippery after a rainfall. I shared the site with a large school group and virtually no-one else. Unfortunately there were no English-speaking guides available when I arrived, but I'd bought a supposedly bilingual pamphlet from a tourist information office in the town and so figured I could make do with that. Sentences such as "excellent for their nature where the imposing one laughed" and "in a cosmic star it would be spoken of protruberances" give a good idea of how helpful the English sections were. (I subsequently met one of the English-speaking guides and his English was excellent. There's minimal info even in Spanish in the site, so you either need a guide or a (better) guidebook (than mine) to understand the story behind the civilisation).
The monoliths were generally 1-2m in height and were of humans, some monkeys, and some fantastical creatures. There were many bared teeth, the odd erect penis, and some with what appeared to be babies that they were about to eat. The RG had compared them with the moai on Easter Island but they lacked the awesome size of the latter, though there was much more detail in the
Mesita C, Parque Arqueologico
San Agustin stonecarving. There are some multicoloured monoliths further afield at other sites which I did not visit.
My accommodation was the most disappointing aspect of San Agustin. Having read several recommendations of it, it was tedious to have to endure a quartet of dogs who didn't see nightfall as an excuse to stop barking, to never have my room cleaned (I don't expect much in this regard, but surely the toilet paper bin deserves emptying once a day?), and to be charged a different (higher) price when I left to the one I'd been quoted when I arrived. I met several travellers subsequently who all said the same thing, the linking theme being that this behaviour seems to happen when the owner is away. I would NOT recommend staying at the Finca El Maco.
After San Agustin, I headed for Colombia's second most important archaeological complex.
In other news, there was a US presidential election.
There are more photos below