The Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayas may get all the attention, but there’s far more to ancient civilisations in Latin America than Machu Picchu. Five hours by bus from Popayán in the south of Colombia down an extremely bad and bumpy road lies the town of San Agustín, where a long-forgotten culture once held sway in this remote area almost two thousand years ago.
Little is known about the people who lived here, in fact we don’t even know what they were called, since they disappeared well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. However, they left behind some extraordinary sculptures which often guarded their tombs. The first excavations were done only a hundred years ago and there has been a great deal of tomb raiding since. Plus, this area was controlled by the guerilla army, FARC, until just a few years ago. My guidebook still warns against travelling the road at night, although things seem very safe to me.
The mountain setting is imposing and the area overlooks the spectacular gorge of the Rio Magdalena. The source of the river is just a few days’ horse ride away. The indigenous people built many of their tombs on prominent hills, so when visiting the sites you get not just a cultural insight, but a chance to appreciate the verdant scenery.
On the first morning I set off to visit the main attraction, the Parque Archeológico, just a few kilometres outside the town. It’s a vast area and I spent at least three hours exploring. Many of the statues have been moved here and placed under protective shelters, but they are still fascinating.
In the afternoon I toured around four other sites close by, the highlight of which was La Chaquira, which has a viewing platform over the Magdalena canyon. Most people visit by horse, but travelling alone it worked out cheaper for me to hire a moto taxi.
On the second day I went on a full day jeep tour to more remote sites, as well as natural attractions such as huge waterfalls. The trip includes the Alto de los Idolos, which has the statues in their original location guarding tombs and the Estrecho del Magdalena where the waters of the river are forced through a narrow crevice in the rocks. The road is for the most part in extremely bad condition, but the route is picturesque as it takes you through planations of sugar cane, banana trees and the delicious local fruit, lulo.
Like many civilisations around the world no one knows exactly why the people abandoned their cities or were wiped out. Climate change, war, conquest, depletion of resources are often cited as possible reasons. Sounds familiar? Today, perhaps, we are arrogant enough to believe that we have reached a level of advancement which means our own civilisation will endure. But I’m sure the people here, like those in Cuzco, Egypt and Ancient Rome, all thought the same thing.