San Agustín is home to the largest group of megalithic sculptures in South America, making it the most important pre-Columbian archaeological site between Peru and Guatemala. These statues, carved from volcanic rock, representing gods and mythical creatures, are probably the reason you are willing to spend a very long, rough car ride from Popayán to get here, though they may not be the only reason you decide to stay. The colonial town that forms the base of explorations for the region is rather charming, with cobblestone streets and a lively marketplace. Accommodations are attractive and inexpensive. The weather is like spring every day. Most importantly, the natural beauty surrounding the town and archaeological site is absolutely incredible. There are misty green hills lined with coffee plantations, and steep cliffs drip with waterfalls hundreds of meters high. There are few tourists to be seen, and horses are a primary method of transportation to some attractions.
Archaeologists are still piecing together the origins of the early culture that developed as far back as 5,000 years ago in Colombia’s southern Andes, at the headwaters of the Magdalena and Cauca rivers near present-day San Agustín. The chiefdom society reached its peak from around the 1st to the 9th centuries, leaving behind remnants of large burial mounds surrounded by terraces and connected by walkways. Tombs, often marked by the famed statues ranging between 1 and 7 meters high and some weighing more than a ton, sometimes contained stone columns, sarcophagi, and stone corridors. There are about 600 total statues that have been discovered, and most of them are found within the archaeological park and its environs. It’s believed that the culture abandoned the sites around A.D. 1350, and no one is exactly sure why. There was no written language, and there weren’t gold artifacts like with the Tayrona and other important pre-Columbian cultures in the region. Due to the remote location, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that they were rediscovered. While looters sometimes reached the tombs first, the archaeological park was established early on, in 1931, providing reliable protection and ensuring that someday the mystery of who the San Agustín were might be revealed.