We arrived into popayan the weekend of the Colombian presidential elections. The streets were unnaturally quiet with the anticipation that something monumental may happen.
Hike the ancient tombs of Tierradentro | San Andrés de Pisimbalá
To visit Tierradentro you need to head to the tiny pueblo of San Andrés de Pisimbalá. It’s about a 4 hour bus ride, from Popayan, through landslides and dirt roads but that’s not the end of it. The bus drops you off at a road junction about four and a half kilometres from the village, but more about that later.
Tierradentro is a series of underground burial chambers known as hypogea. Even though it’s one of Colombia’s most treasured archeological sites, it’s very much an off the beaten track destination for tourists. We first discovered Tierradentro when researching San Agustin Archaeological Park.
The plan to visit was formulated with the help of Tony and Kim our Hosts at El Caracol Hostal in Popayan. They’re an absolute goldmine of information of all things Colombian and further afield. I don’t think we would have gotten to visit this wonderful place without their help.
How to get to Tierradentro
When you arrive at the crossroads, it feels like you’ve been left in the middle of nowhere. Your next objective is to get to the village itself which is four and a half kilometres up the road. We had arranged a pick up with La Portada, the hostel we were saying at, however another option is to flag down one of the passing jeeps that do the run to Inza and back. Personally I would contact your hotel/hostal and not leave it to chance. Getting back is the same but in reverse you catch the jeep to Inza then from there get a bus or a car back to Popayan.
Don’t be alarmed if the change over in Inza happens quite quickly as it did with us. Our bags we exchanged into the boot of a shared taxi before we could get out of the first car but it all ended well thankfully. The bus from popayan to the Cruce (crossroads) was 35,000 COP and a jeep will cost you 5000 COP per person. Coming back is roughly the same price.
Where to stay to hike Tierradentro
There’s not much accomodation choice in the area and San Andrés de Pisimbalá is the nearest village to the tomb sites. It’s a small pueblo of mainly indigenous peoples from the Paez community though they are not thought to be directly connected to the tomb builders of the past. When it comes to places to stay in San Andres the choice is limited and you will not find much by searching the usual booking sites.
However luckily for us Tony from El Caracol knew of a place he uses, it’s called La Portada and they have rooms with private bathrooms. They also run the restaurant across the road where you get your free breakfast that is included in the room rate. When we were there it was also the only place open to get food. There were signs of other restaurants but they all appeared to be closed down as things have not really picked up since covid and visitor numbers are still low.
Hiking the ancient tombs of Tierradentro
The archaeological sites sit in a 17 kilometre loop starting from the main entrance of the park which is about twenty minutes back down the road from La Portada. It is here where you get your Passport to enter each individual site as described below. You can do the loop in one go although if, like us, you want to take your time exploring the tombs it’s better to split the loop into two smaller hikes.
Route one takes you from the park office up a well paved route, first to Altos de Segovia then El Duende and finally the site of El Tablon before finishing back in the village of San Andres. Route two can be started from the path at the side of La Portada restaurant, first visiting Alto de San Andrés then climbing over a ridge and up to the high point of El Aguacate then down the ridge to the park entrance.
We chose to do this loop in reverse starting from the path behind the museum opposite the Park entrance as we didn’t want the walk back up the hill on the road after the hike. The passport costs 50,000 COP per person and is valid for two days which is plenty of time to do all the main sites.
I would advise you wear a good stout pair of walking boots and take waterproof layers in case of rain. It was very sunny when we did the hikes so we also needed plenty of water, sun cream and a hat. Take your time and enjoy the views, breath it all in, it’s one of those places you won’t want to forget.
Altos de Segovia
Altos de Segovia is the first group of tombs you reach on route one. It’s reached from behind the park entrance. There are sixty four tombs in total at this site but not all are open to the public. The site also has a fews tombs with well preserved colours and elaborate patterns. One of the tombs is the biggest so far discovered and if you do not have time to visit every site this one should be at the top of your list. It is also the easiest to reach as it has a well made path all the way to the tombs.
Continuing up on a less well made path through farmland and homesteads you come to the next group of tombs El Duende. Here there are another five tombs to explore. Some still have traces of colouring and patterning on the ceilings of the tombs. it is believed that the tombs were meant to represent houses for the dead as they seem to be carved out to look like they have traditional roof beams.
El Tablon has not got tombs to explore, instead it has a number of statues that were found in the area. Two of the statues on display reach a height of over two metres. They are carved from volcanic stone called tuff. These statues are believed to be well over a thousand years old and are similar in style and form to the statues at San Agustin.
The statues are the last site found on this side of the valley and are located on the track back down to where we started in San Andrés. The entire circular route is about six miles long most of which is on well made paths and tracks.
It appears to show two museums on the map, however when we visited only one seemed to be open. When you enter, the custodian turns on a video for you to watch. It’s narrated in Spanish but is still quite interesting to watch and the guard was so pleased he got to switch it on that we didn’t want to let him down.
Continuing round there are some good displays showing how the tombs were made and some artefacts that were found inside them. We found it very interesting and worth the half hour we spent looking around.
Route two starts at the side of the museum and the attendant will show you the way. The path climbs very steeply up the hill until it makes the ridge. Following the ridge still upwards with ever improving views into the valleys on all sides, you will reach El Aguacate. This is the largest burial site found to date although most of the tombs were robbed out long ago and they have not been looked after in the same way as the others. You can however scramble around in most without restriction. You do need to make sure you can get back out though as no one will hear your screams!
Alto de San Andrés
At this site there is one of the best preserved tombs in the whole valley but unfortunately it was closed to the public when we visited. This second route is about five miles long but with greater elevation so we found it to be slightly harder to complete than route one. Having said that, it’s not extremely challenging and brings you out right by the side of the restaurant where there’s a nice cool ice cream on a stick waiting.
Other things to do around San Andrés de Pisimbalá & Tierradentro
Iglesia de Pisimbala
There are other things to do in and around the village, the closest being the church of San Andrés. Unfortunately over the past years the church, having a thatched roof, has burned down twice. The current rebuild was finished in 1918. It is still worth taking the time to visit as it is a beautiful area to walk round.
The Piramide is the large pyramid shaped mountain that you can see if you went up to the top of the ridge on route two. It has some mysterious tunnels believed to have been carved out by the Spanish conquistadors but nobody knows why. Ask at the Hostal if you want to visit. Again this is one of the places we didn’t have time to visit.
Our hosts at La Portada advised us that there are many other paths to hike in the surrounding area, saying its almost impossible to get lost as you can always see the village. We didn’t take the chance, however, if we visit again we would give ourselves more time as it is a beautiful and unspoilt part of Colombia.
What to eat
For us this was one of the unmissable places that we had to find a way to visit. In the end we were grateful for all the help we got from Tony and Kim which made it possible. If you want to see it for yourself don’t hesitate to contact them at El Caracol they will be very happy to help.
Booking resources for your visit to Tierradentro
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.
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