Digging in the Dirt (Part 1)

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South America » Colombia » San Agustin
December 11th 2008
Published: June 20th 2010
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1: San Agustin 173 secs

Into Colombia

The bus pulls over to the shoulder of the two-lane mountain pass and stops. I can't imagine why we would want to stop here. I'm sitting at the very back, and can't really see to the front where the driver is saying something to someone through the window.

A moment later, the door pops out and slides over and a man dressed in camo steps onto the bus. He surveys the passengers from one side to the other for a few seconds, then clears his throat.

"Ok can I get all the men to step off the bus, please?"

He says something else as he steps back off onto the grassy shoulder, but I can't make it out at this distance. My first assumption is that this is a military checkpoint. They'll take all the men off the bus, check our ID for known rebels, and frisk us for weapons.

But this is the wrong place for a checkpoint. We're parked on a fairly steep incline in the middle of a sharp curve around the side of the rocky mountain. Just begging for a messy death.

My second thought is that technically - technically - this is still considered guerilla-held territory. But in reality, there hasn't been any violent activity here in well over five years.

Besides, if we were being hijacked, they wouldn't politely step on and ask us to walk outside - giving any armed citizen a chance to fight back. They would just come running on with rifles in our faces.

In either case, I'll have to get off the bus. I check for my passport and get up. There are only about fifteen people on the bus - maybe five or six men. We all walk down the aisle and out of the coach.

I walk out in front of the bus and realize what is going on. In the oncoming lane, a large pickup truck is parked. Behind it is a little army jeep with the driver-side door left open. The men from the bus are gathering in a little cluster where another soldier and the man who presumably owns the truck are standing on the center stripe of the road.

On the road about two meters in front of the pickup truck is a huge boulder. I look up the side of the mountain to a rocky outcrop from where the boulder must have come. The guy in the pickup is lucky he saw it as he came around the curve before dismantling his radiator all over it. Hell, he's lucky he didn't get there sooner for it to land on him..

The boulder is pretty large - just under four feet in diameter. Luckily it is full of angles and facets, and the job before us becomes evident without a lot of planning. We all get into place wherever there is room and get our hands in position. On the count of three, we push up and forward and lift to roll the boulder over on its side. Once its up, the two men who are pulling from the other side scramble out of the way as the rest of us push it on over with a crash not far from the edge of the road.

"Uno más, uno más," says the soldier.

We get in position again and heave in the same manner. One more time, the boulder topples over, this time landing well away from being of any danger to traffic in the outer lane.

After a few of the standard self-congratulatory grins and cheers, we all return to our respective vehicles.

Before stepping back onto the bus, I take a moment to breathe in the fresh mountain air and look at the criss-crossing mesh of diagonal mountain slopes that create a marble tapestry of green that fades off into the horizon.

The driver puts the bus back into gear, and we continue on our way to the city of Popayán .

The White City

The small city of Popayán is nestled in a green valley of the Colombian Andes. Not much is known about its history prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but its colonial heritage is more than evident in the stark white buildings and numerous Catholic churches. It was primarily used as a way point between Quito and Cartagena on the coast.

It's a nice place to walk around for a day or so. The narrow streets and unyielding whitewash give it a unique vibe - even, surprisingly, among other pueblos blancos both here and in Andalucía.

But my main reason for coming here are the archaeological sites of San Agustín and Tierradentro a few hours outside the city. These are the ruins of two distinct pre-Incan civilizations that were based in the northern Andes. These are of particular interest simply because they have been in an ongoing process of discovery for only about 20 years. Moreover, no one knows a damn thing about the cultures that inhabited the area. Very cool.

So the idea will be to do a triangle loop from here to San Agustín, up to Tierradentro, and then back here to Popayán.

Here goes.


three cloves should do it try not to cut your finger off no nevermind what a ridiculous thing to say like you ever stayed in a hostel where they had a knife sharp enough to cut garlic let alone your finger god i miss my knives...

"Hey, I'm Paul."

...and would it kill this continent to import some basmati from time to PAUL time i mean jesus there i go adding a fourth clove just to add some flavor to the wait a second what the...hell is a paul

I break out of my garlic-chopping trance and look up - realizing that there is only one other sentient being in the hostel's kitchen and that he is more likely speaking to me rather than jabbering on to himself the way I am right this very moment.

I look over at a smiling guy who towers a good six inches over me and has just set a bag of groceries on the counter. I stare at him dumbly for a second before remembering that Paul is a name and that the normal response in these situations is to reciprocate with my own name - whatever that might be.

Poor bastard. If he knew 85% of all conversations with me start off in this manner, he might think twice about introductions.

I wipe my hand on a paper towel and reach over to shake Paul's hand.

"Tony. What's up?"

Paul is from New York. He is making his way to São Paulo where his Brazilian father lives.

Paul finished a degree in Biomedical Engineering last year at Georgia Tech. He worked for about a year and quit. He packed a tent and a few things onto the back of his bicycle and pedaled his way from Atlanta to Panama.

Paul has no plan.

Paul and I are going to get along just fine.

Along with an English couple - Andy and Sarah - we are planning on leaving for San Agustín tomorrow morning on the same bus. We all have dinner together and split a bottle of wine.

San Agustín

In the morning, we walk to the bus station about a mile away and buy tickets to San Agustín.

The bus is very small with only about 20 seats - more like an airport service shuttle than a coach. This seems to make sense considering San Agustín is a small town in the mountains. Not a lot of traffic.

But less than an hour outside of the city, it becomes clear that it would be impossible for anything larger to take the route we are on.

For starters, there is little more than a dirt road winding its way through the hills around tight corners and narrow spaces with rocky walls on either side.

Then there are the bridges. The land is strewn with little creeks and streams that carve jagged crevices into the earth. Most of these are crossed easily on stubby wooden bridges that need only span a good two meters. But later, we cross a much wider gap over an apparently ancient steel truss bridge. The driver brings the bus to a stop just before the bridge and eases us onto it at a crawl. The structure responds to our weight by shuddering and vibrating at every rivet.

It is a very long sixty seconds to the other side.

Vehicular cessation of one's existence is the risk taken for being in such a beautiful place with immaculate air and virtually no tourists.

After a few hours, we arrive in the small town of San Agustín - which is little more than a grid of a few streets nestled between some green mountains.

The driver drops us off on the main street in front of the tourist center. An older woman inside gives us direction to a hostel up the street. She also signs us up for a horseback riding tour of the ruins for tomorrow. The ruins are scattered all over the area, so this will be the best way to see everything.


The four of us are up in time for a leisurely breakfast downstairs before heading off to the tourist office.

Once there, we find a guide preparing the horses. They are all impressive looking - not the sad, pudgy mules you usually see in places like this in the US. I ask the guide about them and he tells me that they are actually owned by a local rancher and are only rented out for tours when needed. They spend most of their days free on the land. Good.

I get mine last - a tall, muscular black horse named Lauro. I climb up into the saddle and get comfortable.

Sarah looks him over from her own steed. She is an experienced equestrian.

"Tony I think you got an Arabian...that is a nice horse."
"Definitely strong," I say as he shuffles around in response to my weight.

Once everyone is mounted, the guide leads us down a paved road to the edge of town toward the low green mountains.

As soon as we hit a straightaway, Lauro begins to jerk his head around in frustration from our position at the back of the line. He breaks rank to the left and trots to the lead well beyond the guide and his horse.

"Aye Lauro," the guide says without much surprise.

I wonder if Sarah should have taken this one.

Not far out of town, I hear someone call my name over my shoulder. I look back and realize that everyone else has turned off onto a trail and that Lauro has no intention of stopping. I pull on the reins and attempt to get him to turn back. He just thrashes his head in protest.


The guide is waiting at the mouth of the trail and calls to me.

"Gotta show that one who's boss. Just be firm."

I get a better grip on the reins, pull left, and give Lauro a good kick in the side. He finally responds and we head back to the trail.

Normally I would now try to give a bit of background about the archaeological site we are about to explore. But the fact is that almost nothing is known about the
civilization that inhabited the Magdalena river valley. The sites were not discovered until the 20th century, and most researchers estimate that only about 10% of ruins in the area have been discovered.

What has been discovered is a number burial sites that are guarded by large megalithic sculptures of volcanic rock depicting animals, people, and gods. The significance of these sculptures is not well understood. Perhaps they represent qualities of the people or families buried beneath them.

Not much is known about the society that lived here - not even the name by which they called themselves. But archaeologists have been able to piece together some fragments. They flourished primarily between the 1st and 8th centuries, women had a prominent role in society and government, and advanced mathematics was used.

Rebel activity over the past few decades has hampered further research. It is presumed that temples and other structures have yet to be discovered far beneath the surface.

We spend about half an hour on various trails that wind through the green foothills. Above us, the sun has cracked open in the radiant blue sky and gentle warmth cascades down onto the valley. It is a perfect day.

After a while, we climb down off the horses and tether them to a wooden fence. We walk down a more narrow path that takes us past several clusters of statues. They depict all sorts of animals, and illustrious looking people that resemble Egyptian pharos. There are a few that would appear to be aliens. I'm sure the theories run rampant.

Later, we walk down the slope of a mountain toward the Magdalena river - a stunning view. There are no burial sites here, but there are several petroglyphs carved into the rocks. I pass a small, insignificant one on my right and look back at it. It is the profile of a bear on all fours. I check the location of the sun and confirm that his nose points east to Ursaria.

The rest of the day carries on in the same rhythm. We ride to another part of the valley and hike some trails to find another site.

One of the unexpected highlights is the horses themselves. They are in great shape and are obviously well-cared for. The actually seem to enjoy being out. This is most evident whenever we reach a large stretch of even trail. One of the horses - usually Lauro - will inevitably break into a trot which quickly spreads to the rest of the group.

For the rider, a trot is not the ideal mode of travel. The horses body jostles up and down along the path, treating your spinal column like a slinky. This forces you to stand in the stirrups and transfer the impact to the more suited knees.

But these horses are not in a hurry to just get the trip over with and get back to the stables for some food. As it is, when they do want something, they stop on the side of the path to eat from a shrub that grows all over the area. These horses run because they want to. So the trot only lasts a few seconds before each breaks into a full gallop. The horse's body contorts into a different shape for which it was designed as it traces a gentle sine wave through the valley.

In this manner, you are able to return down to the saddle, lower your head to aid with the aerodynamics, and enjoy the exhilaration of speed.

Later in the afternoon, we complete the loop and end up on the outskirts of San Agustín. We meet the owner of the horses on a gravel road leading into town. He is with his kids who run up to start tending to the horses after we dismount. The owner takes Lauro by the reins and begins to adjust the mouthpiece.

"That's a good horse," I tell him.
"One of my best," he grunts with pride.

Back in town, we see Andy and Sarah off. Andy is actually half Colombian, and they are here to see his family in Bogotá. for Christmas. Paul and I will go on to Tierradentro in the morning.

The subject of Christmas reminds me of the nagging decision of what exactly I plan on doing for the holiday - only two weeks away. Spending it alone isn't the issue. It's a question of finding a hostel or hotel somewhere that will be open for business without having to pay a ridiculous sum. But it's also a matter of finding a place where something interesting will be going on.

I'm going to need a solution.

Additional photos below
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20th June 2010

I LOVED your "Digging in the Dirt" post! It was so interesting, and the photos were great! It reminded me of my own time there and how much I loved it! My blog is looking for travel stories, photos, reviews, etc, to share. If you have the time, check it out at dirty-hippies.blogspot.com, or email me at dirtyhippiesblog@gmail.com. Continued fun on your travels! Heather

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