Explore San Augustin|Our guide to viewing the archaeological site

The road from Popayan to San Agustín climbs quite steeply to over three thousand metres and then just seems to disappear. This is one of those destinations where getting there makes it feel like an amazing adventure. The next two hours are what can only be described as off-roading in a mini bus as we bounced down a narrow unpaved track with incredible views on either side.  The track takes you through Purace National Park and on clear days you can see the massive form of the volcano looming out of the flat paramo landscape in the distance.

Then you start to descend down through the coffee plantations into the valley of the upper reaches of the Magdelena river and then again climb until you reach the green and white painted town of San Agustín from where you can explore the amazing archeological treasures that have sat undisturbed for over a thousand years.

San Agustín
Painted idol

How to get to San Agustin

The easiest way to reach San Agustín is via the city of Popayan. Buses leave from the main bus terminal about four times a day and cost around 45,000 COP.  The 125 kilometres take about four and a half hours to cover normally, but it can take drastically longer than this due to traffic and road conditions.  As mentioned above over half of the time is spent on an unpaved road that is prone to landslides and blockages so I would try and set off on an early bus if you want to make it before nightfall.

Popayan has an airport which is served by most major cities in Colombia.  It is also on the main Pan-American highway which makes it very accessible by public transport.  The bus from Cali for example will take about three hours and Bogota eight.  We arrived into Popayan from Salento and this took about eight hours also.

Where to stay in San Agustin

There’s is a good variation of accommodation options in and around San Agustín such as Cafe farms out in the countryside to hostels near the centre.  We decided on Bambu Hostal which is close to the the centre of town and just a couple of blocks away from where the bus drops you off.
 
As the archaeological sites are spread out over quite a wide area we decided it would be better to be near the facilities of the town, although we didn’t really need to worry, as you will find out as you read this post, there are plenty of options to visit the sites from wherever in the area you have made your base.
San Agustin Street
San Agustin Street

Exploring the archaeological sites of San Agustin

There’s more than one archaeological site to visit and plenty of exploring to be done. From the main site close to town to community museums in small villages.  These can be quite difficult to reach independently but don’t worry we will, in this post, give you all the options we used to give you the most cost effective way of reaching all the mains sites and a few of the other things to do round and about the area.

Parque Arqueológico De San Agustin

How to get there?

The park entrance is quite close to San Agustin and it can be reached by taxi at a cost of around 8000 COP or you can walk.  You will find the route on the maps.me app.  It’s about a three and a half kilometre walk on quite quiet roads and tracks.

Cost of entrance

At the time of writing it cost 50,000 COP per person to get in for non Colombian nationals.  This gives you a two day passport that includes entry to the Archaeological park and also two other sites, Alto de los Piedras and Alto de los Idolos. 

San Agustín
lynne at the archaeological park
What to see

The park is split into seven,  well sign posted, areas the first of which is the very well laid out and informative Museum just before the actual entrance into the park.  Some of the information boards have English translations which makes it well worth a look.

As you enter the park itself your passport gets embossed with an idol stamp which is a very nice touch.  Here there is a small cafe and you can hire a guide for your tour of the park.  We didn’t bother with the guide as we wanted to take our time around the site.  I believe the charge is about 35,000 COP but I’m not exactly sure of the price.

You enter the park through a trail called the forest of the statues.  This winding route takes you past 39 statues which are out of their original context.  I believe most of these statues have been recovered from around the world having been sold to private individuals by grave robbers sometime in the past. 

San Agustin archaeological park
Eagle Statue Mesita B

You pop out of the forest at a covered bridge that leads to the sign posts, which shows the way to the three mains sites where you’ll find the statues & tombs and these are called Mesitas and are signposted as A,B and C.  Each Mesita which is a group of burial mounds has a board with a little map and some information.  You can stroll around these areas freely and there are little covered seats to rest or in our case to shelter from the rain.

After a good look round at the three areas of tombs you can then head up a signed path towards the view point Alto de Lavapatas.  On the way up you pass a river bed with some carvings of serpents.  The water has been diverted so you can see them, I must admit though, I struggled to make them out.  Continuing on up the path you pass some restaurants and vendors who have cut holes through the fence for people to enter.  At the top of the steps you come out onto the hill top with a tomb and great views over the surrounding hills and valleys.

When we where there it rained all morning but was fine in the afternoon so we ended up spending all day there visiting each area twice once wet and once dry.  We then walked back to the town.  The walk back is mainly downhill so not too strenuous.

San Agustin archaeological park
River bed with serpents

Alto de las Piedras

Alto de las Piedras is one of the three sites included on the passport.  It’s quite a way out of San Agustin, nearer the town of Isnos. We did this one on the jeep tour; see below for more details of the tour.  This is the smaller of the three sites included on the passport but its not to be missed as it contains probably the most well known of all the statues El doble yo which is a depiction of a person with two heads of differing expressions thought to be a representation of the psychology of the human mind, though we will never know for sure.
There are also tombs here with interesting statues guarding them.  It will take you about half an hour to wonder round.  when we were there no guard was present so we couldn’t get our passport stamped unfortunately.
Alto de las Piedras
El doble yo, Alto de las Piedras

Alto de los Idolos

Alto de los Idolos is the other of the three sites included on the passport.  This one is a larger site with many tombs and statues.  Including a very large standing stone which is very impressive.  As you get to the top of the hill from the entrance there are tombs both left and right.  Make sure you carry on when going to the left passed the first series of tombs  to two tombs hidden behind a mound which contain representations of crocodiles.

This site again is nearer to Isnos than San Agustin and we visited as part of the jeep tour, described below.  At the entrance to the park there a nice area with cafes and a gift shop were you can relax for a while.
Alto de las Idolos
Chris with the big fella

La Chaquira

La Chaquira is an out crop of volcanic rock into which are carved some depictions of a shaman and some animal figures which are quite hard to pick out.  Our guide pointed these out but I struggled to see them.  The outcrop overlooks the Magdalena valley and has a viewing point.  Its on private land and its recommend to go with a guide.  It’s about a five to six hour walk from the centre of town.

You can however do it as part of a horse riding tour, as we did; see below for more details.  Although it’s just a small site it’s well worth a visit.  I thought the carving looked like an alien but that’s just my imagination running wild.

La Chaquira
Rock carved figure, la Chaquira

El Purutal

El Purutal is a small site, again on private land and  we were charged 8000 COP each to enter.  There are only two tombs here both with painted statues which are very striking.  As the previous site we did this as part of the horse back riding tour.  Our guide showed us where they got the pigment from to colour the statues.  It comes from the surrounding trees which made us wonder if perhaps they had been touched up over the years.

El Tablon

This site is quite small it only contains one series of headstones like standing stones.  We had to sneak in here under the fence as the road had been blocked by some Colombian tourists who had managed somehow to get their car stuck down the muddy track.  Unfortunately they could not get it back up again.  I did however get a chance to help them and many other locals tried to shift the car but to no avail.
El Purutal
Painted statue, El Purutal

Obando

Obando is a small village across the valley from San Agustin.  Here there are a series of tombs on display right in the centre of the town.  There is also a small museum which tells the story of Columbian history in the context of world history with pictures and some artefacts.

It’s 3000 COP to get in and you can get guided round the site by the children of the town from the nearby school but unfortunately the tour is in Spanish so not worth an extra charge for us.  We did watch them show some Colombian tourists round and it seemed very interesting.  The visit here is part of the Jeep tour.

Other things to do around San Augustin

There are a couple of other archeological sites in the area but unfortunately we couldn’t find a way of getting to them as they are well off the beaten path.  Other than the archaeology there are other things to see and do in the region and below we give details of the ones we visited.  This is not comprehensive list and there are others we didn’t get to so can’t really describe all the attractions to you. 
Horse Trek San Agustin
Lynne's pony for the day

Waterfalls

There are many waterfalls in this area of Colombia including the second longest waterfall in the country, Salto des Bordones as well as this one  there are many more that are just as impressive.  Here’s the ones that we visited. 

Salto des Bordones

Mentioned above this waterfall is Colombia’s second longest uninterrupted waterfall, free falling for more than 400mtrs.  Its located near the town of Isnos, just north of San Agustin and we visited this place as part of the jeep tour that we took.  On our tour it wasn’t possible to visit the base of this waterfall but we were able to view it from a look out point on the other side of the valley.  We believe that there is another tour that you can take which takes you to the base of the waterfall if that’s something you want to do. 

Salto el Mortino

This waterfall was another we visited on the Jeep Tour.  This one was more of an adrenalin junkies paradise as the waterfall was somewhat obscured by about 10 different wires hooked up to various extreme sport activities strung across the valley.  You could zip line your way across the canyon to the waterfall, spend time in a hammock suspended over the ravine, you could swing on a giant pendulum or take your chances on the glass walkway.  We opted for stepping onto the 2 separate viewpoints to see the gushing water force its way down into the ravine.  Definitely worth a visit if you want to add a bit of spice to your waterfall viewing. 

El Salto del Mortino Waterfall
El Salto del Mortino Waterfall

Estrecho del Magdalena

One of the other sites we visited on our Jeep Tour was Estrecho del Magdalena which is a narrow fissure of rock, approx 2.2 mtrs, which the river flows through at an alarming pace.   This is the narrowest stretch of river in Colombia and is, nowadays, very much a tourist attraction.  The river is deep in a gorge and almost immediately after passing through the narrow rock it makes a dramatic 90 degree turn right and continues on.  When you arrive at Estrecho you walk down some stone stairs before arriving at the rivers edge.  One word of caution is that the stones can be a bit slippy so take care and make sure you wear some good sturdy footwear.   

Jeep Tour

The jeep tour can be booked through your accommodation and is a really cost affective way to visit some of the more distant archeological sites as well as other attractions.  The cost was 50,000 COP per person with an English speaking guide at an extra cost which we decided we didn’t need on this occasion.

The vehicle we did the tour in turned out to be a mini bus which was quite surprising considering some of the unpaved roads it needed to navigate.  The van picks you up between 8.30am and 9am depending on where your pick up point is then you’re off for a full day out which we thought was amazing value for money.

As well as the three archaeological sites of Alto de los Idolos , Alto de los Piedras and Obando you also get the two waterfalls mentioned above and the Estrecho.  There’s a lunch stop with the cost of the lunch being at an extra charge.  We also had an unscheduled stop at a Panela factory which was really interesting. 

Estrecho
Estrecho del Magdalena

Horseback riding

The horse back riding tour is the easiest and most interesting way to reach the other three sites we visited, La Chaquira, El Purutal and El Tablon.  You can walk from San Agustin but you will still have to pay for the recommended guide and it’s a six hour trek in some pretty muddy conditions.

I was pretty nervous about the horse riding as I hadn’t done it before, Lynne on the other hand was really looking forward to it.  I had no need to worry as the horses were pretty tame and knew where to go.  For me it was just a case of hanging on and going with the flow.

The tour costs 50,000 COP per person with an extra cost of 25,000 COP per person for the English speaking guide which we thought necessary as we could then get instructions for the horse riding.  It turned out to be a great choice as the guide was a mine of information about the area, the tombs, the local fruits and how nature was used to produce pigments. 

Panela

One of the Colombian tourists on our jeep tour had bought some Panela blocks at one of the stops we had made and was very interested in how it was produced so our driver took us to a factory were it is made.  Panela is a form of brown sugar which is produced from boiling down the juice from sugar cane in huge vats of bubbling liquid. It’s is almost caramelised during the process and has a very distinctive taste.

During the visit we learned that back in the bad old days it was a by-product of the Cocaine industry as the husks left over after the juice is extracted is used to heat the vats.  The factory would alternate between Panela production and Cocaine production on a weekly basis as the process used the same method of production. 
Panela Factory
Panela Factory

Guaqueros

Guaqueros is the Colombian name for a tomb raider.  This is how most of the tombs that have now been preserved were discovered.  This is not a thing of the past it’s still going on today.  Our guide, on the horse riding tour, showed us tombs that had been robbed out behind peoples houses.  There is a big distrust of the authorities which stops these stolen items being handed in. They are instead offered for sale to tourists and collectors.

The guide’s brother showed us items he claimed were genuine artefacts that he had himself taken from tombs. unknown to archaeologists, which will quite probably end up in private collections or round the neck of a random tourist as a memento.  Of course it is completely illegal to remove these items from the country.

What to eat

Interestingly one of the specialities of the area is Guinea Pig which we didn’t see anywhere for sale, only live ones in the market.  This was something we didn’t try.  We did however have the Asado Huilense which is the local pork dish.  It’s twice cooked in a wood fired oven.  The meat was lovely and juicy it’s served with rice, potatoes and Patacone.  To be honest we found the whole thing a little lacking in a sauce, however, after our meal we discovered a little pot of sauce in the middle of the table!
Asado Huilenese
Asado Huilenese

Our view

This was a fantastic, full on, three days of exploration in a beautiful and very interesting area of Colombia.  It felt like a real adventure.  We would wholeheartedly recommend a visit if your in the area it’s an amazing way to find out about some of Colombia’s history. 

Booking resources for your trip to San Agustin

Flights

You can compare cheap flights on the Expedia platform or here on the Aviasales website.  Both will give you a good idea of how much its going to cost you to get to your chosen destination.

Accommodation

We have always tended to use Booking.com having said that if your on a tight budget another good site to try as a comparison is Hostelworld, If your looking to compare different sites you can do that on Hotellook, we tend to look on here first to make sure we are getting the best deal.

Tours & Tickets

You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site.  Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.

For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.

Some of the links on this page contain affiliate marketing links, which means we may get paid commission on sales of those products or services we write about. You will never be charged a fee for shopping through one of our affiliate links. You may even get a discounted rate and we will make a small commission. Our editorial content is not influenced by advertisers or affiliate partnerships.

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