This is the travel diary of two South African ladies who have taken time off to backpack around the world. Roxy has qualified as an attorney and Joy as a teacher but before we settle down into the world of responsibility, we decided to break free and take this opportunity to discover more about the world, the people who live in it and ourselves. We welcome any comments, advice and insight that our readers may have. Hope you enjoy following our adventure with us as much as we enjoy living it! =)
Thursday, 15 October 2015
09/08 - 12/08
We eventually arrived in San Agustin after having survived a flat tire and an 8 hour journey from Popayan on a gravel road. We took a taxi to just outside the town and secured accommodation at the lovely Casa de Nelly Hostel, which certainly lived up to its reputation of having the prettiest garden in town. Before coming here we knew that there were these big stone statue things but had little other insight into what they were, who had built them and how to actually visit the sites, so we were thrilled when we bumped into the manager of the hostel. He could speak English, something which seemed to be rather rare in these parts and gave us vital info on activities to do in the area. After picking his brain and having a quick shower, we headed back into town in search of a late lunch. Some greasy hamburgers and fried chicken were chosen to make us feel human again. We then decided to walk around the little town and get our bearings. We found the local market and stocked up with supplies for our out-of-town accommodation. We walked the pedestrian short cut back to the hostel (approximately 2 kms uphill), planned our adventures for the next day and then hit the sack. We were completely exhausted after the nearly 20 hour journey in total to get to this place - hope it will be worth it in the morning...
Long ago San Agustin was a place that was occupied by a group of people who used to bury their dead and honour them by erecting amazing statues carved out of volcanic rock above their tombs. To date more than 500 statues have been discovered and excavated ranging from 20cm to 7m. Thus making this area one of the continents most important archaeological sites - And the reason we journeyed so far and so wide to visit this town!
After a hearty breakfast, we headed by foot the 2.5kms to the first stop on our list, Parque Arqueologicao. This was the biggest of all the archaeological sites in the area (78 hectares) and boasted not only statues but the burial mounds and tombs as well. We paid for the combo ticket which would allow us to enter multiple parks. We then quickly got stuck into it - time to get our history nerd on!!
A sea of ants marching one by one...
We past a little school on the way there
Joy at the entrance to the Park.
The first stop on the trail was the museum. This Park was set up in 1937 and is comprised of the collective knowledge of over a hundred years of research into the lives of the pre-hispanic societies that occupied this land.
Map of the area which is surrounded by peaks and valleys. It is quite a difficult landscape to farm and on which to exist. This ancient civilisation must have been made up of a tough bunch of people.
Apparently the round eyes have been interpreted as those of a fish
A little family of statues
Many of the statues make representations of claws and sharp canines. Figures with both human and animal elements are thought to have represented individuals with super natural powers
Through carbon dating and the similarities in the nature of the statues, it has been suggested that the same culture had occupied the region for over 2000 years!
Fangs - must have been a scary character ... or maybe vampires were a craze back then as well...?
Sarcophagus - made from wood and stone used to bury important people
There have been many theories as to what these statues represent - most people think either deities, shamans or warriors - but these are just theories and each must decide for themselves.
Tools, ceramics, musical instruments, ornaments, gold objects and food containers (like these pots below), were buried with the dead as offerings for their passage into the next life. Unfortunately most of these precious items have been looted over the years - but the ones that were salvaged can be found in the gold museum in Bogota (which luckily we plan to visit later in our trip...)
Even though their are over 500 statues located here, each one is unique from the next - a way to show individuality and complexity. Apparently some were even painted with colours of red, black, yellow, white and brown - but nobody can say for sure why. There were definitely more questions than answers to be found in this mysterious place.
Some of the statues appear to be holding objects in their hands like tools, weapons and even animals like fish, snakes and monkeys (perhaps pets of theirs?)
All different shapes and sizes
Apparently carbon dating from coal samples collected support the though that various societies lived here for over 6000 years. Also thanks to the modern technology like geo-radar and magnetometers, the researches have been able to find evidence of circular houses and roads without disturbing the remains. They have also been able to deduce that these societies farmed, built elaborate drainage systems, spun threads, carved stone and moulded pottery.
Apparently the people didn't live separately from the tombs; life and death existed in a state of constant interaction and harmony. About 75 homes have been located around the burial mounds.
After obtaining the background knowledge from the Museum, it was time to see the history in reality. The Park was divided into various sections and first up was Mesita D.
We looked around on the map and found where we thought the Mesita should be but we just couldn´t seem to see it. After revisiting the map, flipping it around and trying to get our bearings again, we had to ask a security guard, ¨¿Donde esta Mesita D?¨. As he lifted his hand, we prepared to take mental notes of the complicated directions but to our surprise they ended at him pointing to the piece of excavated land right next to us...we were there, this was it! A little embarrassing! But in our defence, it was our first exposure to the burial grounds and this was a small one and we did not really know what to expect and the sign post was faded and...we might need glasses and...we are obviously not archaeologists.
Which way to go next...hopefully we shall recognise this one
Let's start at the very beginning, its a very good place to start... off to find Mesita A.
This was thought to be a snake. Both reptiles and amphibians are thought to represent water.
Beautifully maintained walkways
Map of the layout of the Park
A family of graves
Because the burial mounds were built with the huge stone slabs that were supported by columns, they looked like little tables, which is why the Spanish referred to them as Mesitas meaning 'Table'.
Impressive balancing act
Interesting tree life - not only were these sites archaeologically interesting, they were also in a beautiful natural setting. Just walking around the park was wonderful enough.
After getting our first taste of the past, it was off to Mesita C. This site comprised of a single funerary mound surrounded by 15 statues and 49 tombs.
Joy finding creative ways to fit into the picture - nice tree climbing!
Rox mimicking the immortalised pose
Shade to protect these relics from the elements (although they seemed to have survived just fine by themselves for the past few THOUSANDS of years)
Next fork in the road
This statue is thought to be a toad or a frog but with human hands. It was thought to be placed here to signify that water was close by, especially since its head points to the creek of the nearby Lavapatas Fountain.
Notice the man-made canals, pools and engravings
Obviously the bridge was built later
To us this looked like a place that the inhabitants would use to do washing and laundry
Keeping the place spick and span
Archaeological site selfie
The next site involved scaling an endless flight of stairs - go figure!!
One of our new sayings (Which experience has shown us to be quite accurate)...
Everything beautiful or worth seeing is always on top of a mountain or up a flight of stairs.
Alto de Lavapatas
This site is the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Upper Magdalena River Basin (around 3300 B.C.). We thought this place looked like a soccer field with a great view and when we found out that archaeologists found 11 small and shallow graves of children, it made sense that the community would want the kids to have a playground in their afterlives.
This statue with two heads is nicknamed double self and it said to represent a warrior. Maybe he had a split personality.
Monkey see and monkey do...
This guy was really sporting some high tech gear and properly documenting his trip - we thought that it might be a Google Maps type thing. If it is, we were definitely caught on camera!
We noticed that most of the tombs seemed to have a main statue (in this case one holding a baby/monkey) with two guard dogs on either side. Three is company.
You can see by the soil line that only half of this statue was buried underground and that just the eyes and the nose must have stuck out to watch passers-by.
Eagle statue with a snack in its mouth
Another small sarcophagus
Guarding the precious rocks (in case they run away) and watering the grass around them. The one thing we did notice is that the whole park was extremely well maintained.
After we had completed the Mesitas, it was time to take a wander down the Bosque de las Estatuas (the forest of statues).
Bosque de las Estatuas
Placed on a stone mound
Joy looking petrified of her PET hate - monkeys
Short husband and tall wife
Demon looking statue
Statue showing the irreversible damage caused by being defaced by graffiti, even after trying to have it restored
Monkey in front of its tree
Woman playing a musical instrument
Holding a child - Notice the crack through the middle
Bending over backwards
Once we had walked through the forest of statues we had seen all that the Park had to offer us. We quickly freshened up, ate some apples and were off again in search of the next archaeological site.
Horses seem to roam free in this part of the world - Joy tried to feed it her apple core but it was not interested...rejected!
Signs pointing us in the right direction to sites
Most tourists that come to this part of the world either take a jeep tour or go horse back riding to see the sites. However, these are hugely over priced and of course - WE LOVE WALKING, so we decided to go at it by ourselves and with our own two feet.
Tracks from the horseback riding tours - at least we know we are on the right road
This site seemed to have more flat statues with pictures carved into them
This site also had its own Museum attached. There was a cover charge to go in, so only Joy was going to take a look around for 'the colllective' but the lady was sweet enough to let Rox in for free.
Old school oven
The museum was not that exciting so we were pretty chuffed we only had to pay for one ticket.
Exit from the Museum
On the muddy road again
Appreciating the nature
After much walking we finally arrived at the next site.
Mason replicating the archaeological finds out of stone
Incredible views of the valley
One of the many waterfalls surrounding this site
We had decided to come to this site specifically (out of the many in the surrounding area) not because the remains themselves were that impressive but because it was said to have the best view. It certainly lived up to that reputation, but where were the actual archaeological stones?
Rox searching for the statues - surely we couldn't be that blind not to find them?
More stairs, but still no statues down there...
Eventually we turned around and saw something carved into the rocks far away. We had to go off the designated path to get a proper look. After all that effort, this is what all the fuss was about...
A few little figures carved into the rocks
Rox illegally getting as close as she dared
As you can see, they were certainly hidden away and only a trained eye could spot them - luckily we had spent most of the day looking at statues and knew what to look for
Joy pulling the Kem pose in this scenic spot
Now to face the stairs back up....
Stopping for a short break on this conveniently placed bench
It took us about another 1.5 hours to get back to the town. We had literally been walking the entire day and had probably covered about 15 kms! We were bushed!
Welcomed view of the town - the end was in sight.
After our long day of unearthing the secrets of the past, it was time for a quick home made supper (spaghetti and stock cube) and then off to bed for the adventures that lay ahead the next day.
We had only left one Archaeological site to cover today. It was on the other side of the town and quite out of the way, but since it housed the largest of the statues (supposedly a 7m one) and the entrance was included in our ticket, we decided to give it a go... Big mistake!!
Firstly the guide book said that it was only a few kilometres from the town and that you could walk there in about two hours- they were wrong!
Secondly, the book said that you could easily take a cheap single collectivo from the town to the site - wrong again!
We ended up having to take three separate modes of transport to get there. First a truck to the fork in the road 5kms from town), then a bus to the next town (about 15kms away) and then finally a taxi to the site (about another 10kms). After this mission we finally arrived at Alto de LosIdolos. It seemed empty and a bit run down and all we could think was 'Park for the Idiots.'
Pretty sunflowers to welcome us in.
According to studies this site was a political centre of a chiefdom and said to house the largest statue in this region - a 7m tall figure. We climbed up a long hill and eventually we came across the first area of statues.
So far these statues were looking very similar to all the ones we saw yesterday.
Hopefully the next section of this Park will hold more for us...
This site consisted of two graves that were buried with crocodile statues, which was strange because these animals did not usually exist in this area.
Don't know if we quite saw the crocodile in this one
The second 'crocodile' figure
Back down the hill to see the rest of Mesita A to find the illusive 7m statue.
Some guinea fowl guarding the stones
Quite a wonderful view if nothing else
So eventually we found what we thought must be the main man (but since it is known as the Bishop or the Midwife we guessed it was actually a woman) of the Park, as it was the biggest statue we could find, but it certainly wasn't 7m tall - not by a long shot!!
Joy giving the statue scale - we guessed it was a maximum of 4m. So yet again the book was mistaken. Think the author must have been drunk on his trip to San Agustin and got all his facts wrong! Definitely not worth all the effort of getting here.
This spectacular flower does start to make up for it though
Small grave and a mysterious hole in a rock
Another child sacrophagus
Stairs in the wall of the tomb
We weren't quite sure what these skew pillars were meant to be
These complex and colossal funerary structures are said to be guarded by deities.
After we had seen all that the outside park had to offer, we headed inside into the small Museum located on the property.
It contained photographs, statues and information boards about all the excavation projects that were carried out in the area over the years
Local tribe's people who helped to unearth these archaeological treasures
Even though this site was a bit disappointing for us, it is apparently still a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right.
As this Park is so off the beaten track and most people only get here through an organised tour agency with their own private vehicles, there was no public transport waiting outside for us. And all the tour companies were only starting to arrive there when we wanted to leave - so no chance of catching a quick ride with them either. There was no other choice so we began to walk the 10kms back into town. But as our legs were still weary from our marathon hiking session the day before so we soon decided to make another plan...
We decided to try and hitchhike. Once we made the decision it was just about finding a suitable vehicle to transport the both of us. A few drove past, but none with space for two. Until along came a single man on a motorbike. We promptly stuck out our fingers and waved him down. In our own kind of broken Spanish we communicated that we wanted a lift into town and he seemed to agree so we just went with it and happily jumped on. It was exhilarating - our first hitchhike of our trip! He seemed like a really responsible driver and thankfully didn't take the corners too wildly. However, we probably should have put Rox at the back because Joy's longer legs hit the ground a couple of times and she actually burnt her leg a bit on the exhaust (All part of the risk and excitement of hitching a ride). But all in all, it was a successful trip and he dutifully dropped us in town, we said thanks and he simply went on his way. From there we still had to catch another truck and then a passing big bus to get back to San Agustin.
It was our last night in this pretty little place so we decided to go around the garden and take a few pictures of the place that had been our colourful home for the past couple of days.
We are no botanists but it is always interesting for us to observe which plants we can recognise from home and which ones are totally new and foreign.
Down the garden path
Beautiful little garden spots where you could just read, relax and enjoy the stunning scenery
After our stroll around the garden it was time to cook our last supper in the cosy kitchen. And as usual, it was pasta and stock cooked by Rox and it was Joy on dish duty afterwards.
As a 'collective' we really do have our roles down.
For the first time since our stay here, we had roommates. A rowdy crowd of about 7 mismatched travellers from everywhere who had decided to travel together for a while. They had had quite a rough night the night before (the pictures they showed us couldn't lie... hanging naked and upside down from the rafters sort of stuff...) but it seemed they had gotten it out their systems and were keen for a chilled night, especially since they were going to be on the same 5am bus as us which was heading to Cali the next morning. We agreed to wake each other up in the morning and said goodnight to the crazy kids.
We up before the crack of dawn to catch our bus. Unfortunately Rox had left her sleeping bag in the room in which we had stayed on our first night, which was in the main house. The only problem was that we were now staying in one of the outside rooms and that at this early hour of the morning, the main house was all locked up - or so they thought. Luckily, Rox found an open window above the sink in the kitchen area. She stealthily moved the dishes out the way and climbed through the window. It really is a necessary life skill to know how to break into one's own house!
After that it was up the creaky wooden stairs and to the room. There was obviously a family staying in the room, because the door had been lock with a latch from the inside. She tried to knock several times on the door to see if anyone was awake to open for her - they were not! Luckily again, Rox has tiny hands and her fingers could fit through the gap and unlatch the bolt. From there she tip toed across the floor past the sleeping bodies, retrieved the rogue sleeping bag at the head of her previous bed and then quickly retreated. Once downstairs, she left through the front door (which she could now open). Rox told one of the roommates, who wasn´t taking the bus with us (instead he was leisurely sleeping in, having breakfast and then catching up with the bus on his zippy motorbike), to tell the owners that she had 'broken' into the place to get the sleeping bag and not to be alarmed and think that there was an actual burglar around. It was really early when we woke him to relay this info so we really hope he did pass on this message.
Nevertheless, Rox had her sleeping bag and nobody woke up from their sleep to attack her. All was good. We walked down the road to where the bus was to meet us and just as the dawn was breaking we were on our way to Cali. We had certainly had our fill of historical knowledge and now we were in the mood to party in the Salsa Capital of the country...