Tierradentro archeological park: an elaborate home for the dead

A tiny friendly village accessible only by a bumpy unpaved road, traversed using a fumey old bus or colectivo complete with passengers on the roof and local drunk dribbling and murmuring to himself. The reward? Rolling green hills painted by Colombian coffee and sugar cane plantations, mysterious tombs and unbroken tranquility. Teirradentro is a real authentic travel destination, and on top of all this it’s one of the most historically important archeological sites in Colombia. Spend a day or two hiking the picturesque hills, climbing in and out of elaborate underground caverns scooped out of the rock to pay homage to the dead. Tierradentro is a must visit location on any history hungry travellers itinerary.

hypogeum

ˌhʌɪpə(ʊ)ˈdʒiːəm/noun

plural noun hypogea: an underground chamber.

Tierradentro archeological park is a collection of 5 sites spread over 7kms. The main attraction for us was the hypogea, the underground tombs said to have been dug around 700ad by an unknown culture. These domed underground chambers are between 5m and 8m deep and are accessible by steep, snail like spiralling stairs. The main chambers vary in size and some are supported by large beams through the centre. Throughout the park 100s of tombs have been uncovered but unfortunately a lot of the initial discoveries were by tomb raiders so a lot were looted and even destroyed before any real research could be done. 

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Climbing up out of one of the tombs, the stairs are in their original formation but have been reinforced.

What is known about these peoples is sketchy at best. We know that they would bury their dead in shallow graves with offerings of pottery and beads, then after decomposition, would gather the bones into large funerary pots which were left open and interred into the underground tombs. The tombs themselves were painted first in white (said to signify hope of uniting with the life beyond our physical realm) and then with striking black, red and yellow geometric, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs. All of the hypogeum are in varying conditions and some are in better preserved states than others but most are unlit so a torch is a necessity.

The 5 sites and 2 museums can be visited on a 14km loop hike which is medium difficulty. Combined with climbing in and out of 8m underground tombs makes for either A: one physically testing full day or B: a beautifully tranquil and interesting 2 days. We opted to cram it into one day and went the opposite way to the norm, which we would highly recommend!

Starting with the museums, at the 1st you can learn about the current and more recent cultures who lived in the Tierradentro region. They have nicely put together exhibits about the way the people would use the resources available to weave and die fabrics, make music and turn sugar cane and wheat into delicious breads. At the second museum you will see more information about the tombs and stone statues found in the park. Unfortunately nothing is known about the culture who created them or how they dug into the rock, where they put the earth when they were done or how they lit the tombs to create such fabulous art under the suffocating subterranean darkness.

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The gorgeous view from Alto Aguacate

From here we headed straight up the hill to the highest site: Alto Aguacate. An hour or so hike straight up the hills, here over 100 hypogea have been uncovered and although not very well preserved this is an awe inspiring place to start. The tombs have been placed along a high ridge which offers stunning views over the valley and villages below.

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One of the tombs that has caved in on itself at the San Andres site offers a good insight into the structure of the tombs.

The next site is Alto San Andres and is the closest site to the small pueblo “San Andres de Pisimbala”. Here you will encounter another 5 or so tombs, of which one stands out ahead of the rest. According to the friendly security man many people skip this site but in his opinion this is the most beautiful of all the hypogea. And he might be right. Down 5 metres inside the domed cavern the air is hot and thick but the walls are vibrantly decorated by painted red and black geometric designs and the most vivid we have seen yet.

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It is very hard to get a good photo in the dark, so how they managed to paint these beautiful designs by the light of a flame is impressive!

Al Tablon is the next site along the way yet you will not find any tombs here. Instead you will encounter a collection of about 10 monolithic statues, similar in concept to those found in San Agustín however slightly different features and adornments.

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Statues up at Al Tablon all have their hands in front of them and interesting head dresses or long hair and accessories.

We left Al Tablon around 1pm and from here were well over half way. Following the road for the 1st time all day we reached the sign for the next point of interest Alto Al Duende. This was the 1st site we’d visited where the security man didn’t come and offer us his torch or show us each tomb, because he was busy with someone else (one of the 1st other visitors we had bumped into all day). Luckily we had our own torch and by now we knew the drill. Here we visited 5 more tombs all in varying conditions but quite well maintained as well.

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Each tomb is similar but unique in its own right

The last site when you take the trail in this direction is Alto Segovia and we were very happy because going this way means you’ve saved the best for last. This is the gem of the park, is the easiest to access and has the most electrically illuminated hypogea. Here I believe there are 25 tombs in total, but about 5 of them really stand out. They were the only ones we had seen to actually have faces carved into their pillars as well as having been painted and well looked after.

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This was the best photo I got but the tombs are much more impressive up close.

This is a fascinating and beautiful destination, but to get here from San Agustín we ended up takin a shared car to Pitalito (40 minutes), another shared car to La Plata which actually stopped in Garzón (1.5 hours) where we had to wait for another shared ute to fill up (but didn’t have to pay again) before continuing on to La Plata (1.5hours). In La Plata we waited another hour for a shared pickup truck to San Andre de Pisimbala which was supposed to leave at 4pm. We arrived at 3.55 to find it packed to the gills with only one tight space in the tray. A nice local man offered to ride on the roof and gave up his seat for me so we were off. This is where we enjoyed the entertaining coma induced rambling of the local drunk and 2 hours more we found ourselves outside our hotel.

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The view of Alto de Segovia

we stayed near the entrance of the park at Hospedaje Ricabet as apposed to staying in the pueblo. We enjoyed the vibe here and our hostess cooked us dinner and breakfast for a small fee extra. To get out we took the 6am bus to Popayan which technically got out of Tierradentro  around 7am and arrived at about 11am. From there we headed straight to Cali!

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