My traveller friends. Long time no see. I have been busy finishing lots of work before a long trip, which is also work, but then in a more beautiful office, which is the amazing country of Colombia. This is my third time in this fascinating place, and I ask you to forget everything you ever heard about this country. The representation in movies is just very poor, and it is a safe and wonderful place to travel. The people are extremely friendly and helpful, the landscapes diverse (sometimes it is said that it is the whole world in one country), and the music makes you shake your booty. There will be many more post following from here, today I will take you to the South of Colombia, to San Agustín.
San Agustín is famous for its archeological sites, which mostly consist of statues and tombstones. Some of the statues they found date back to 3,000 years ago. Many archeologists and anthropologists have tried to solve the mystery about the people and their statues, but truth be told, they don’t really know a lot about them. The ancient people of San Agustín remain a mystery, and their statues are open to interpretation (which is good fun you can do with your travel mates).
The best place to start your exploration is in the archeological park, just 2 km outside of the village. You can either walk along the main street leading out of town, or catch a minibus (colectivo) for only COP$1,200 (about 50 cent) per person. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and makes for an excellent visit. The entrance fee is only COP$ 20,000 (about 7 Euros/6 Pounds) for an adult and gives you access to 3 archeological parks in the surroundings of San Agustín for 2 days. You will get a really cool passport as a ticket, which makes for a nice souvenir. In the park you could start with the excellent museum, which is only one year old and super interesting. It doesn’t kill you with information, and there are many interactive displays. Then there are 5 major sites in the park, Mesita A, B and C, as well as the spring of Lavapatas and the Hight of Lavapatas. All five sites can be accesses by beautiful walkways within the cloud forest. There are signs everywhere and they explain the best route to you, so you will definitely not get lost. There are explanatory signs at each site, but no more signs at every statue (for a more through tour you could hire a guide at the entrance). From the Height of Lavapatas you have a great view over the neighbouring mountains. All in all, we really enjoyed the park, its excellent infrastructure, setting and of course the statues. We spend about 6 hours there, also spending much time taking pictures, talking to other tourists and relaxing. You could also do it in 2 or 3 hours. But relax, you are on holidays.
The next day we went on a tour, which they call the “touristic circle”. It is a tour in a jeep with a driver-guide, and you will share your jeep with about five or six other people (costs are about COP$50,000 (about 17 Euros/14 Pound) per person). It is also a great way to meet Colombian tourists, and practice your Spanish, as there are few or none English-speaking driver-guides. Maybe one of your fellow travellers will help you with translations if you don’t speak Spanish. We booked our jeep through the hostel owner (see below), who has a personal contact to Don Rafael, and I can absolutely recommend this charming old fellow. The tour lasts all day and takes you to two waterfalls, three smaller archeological parks (two of them already included in your “passport”, the other one is COP$2,000 (about 0.75 cent)), and the Magdalena stretch.
The waterfalls are nice, both about 200 metres deep. The landscapes you pass through with the jeep are quite a view too; lots of mountains, coffee farms, rural villages. Since the surroundings of San Agustín are mountainous, the archeological parks are in beautiful settings, and oasis of tranquility. Even though we went in high season, it is absolutely nothing in comparison to Europe or the Mexican archeological sites. There is almost nobody here. Highlight of the tour is the Magdalena stretch. In this part of the mighty Magdalena river (the biggest river in Colombia – apart from the Amazon in the very South) is just 2 metres wide, but 17 metres deep. The surroundings are beautiful and it is a place to hang out for a while, relax and ponder at life. Other activities you could do in San Agustín include horseback riding, hiking or just relaxing in beautiful nature.
Now where would you rest your head at night, after such wonderful experiences? We decided on the lovely eco-hostel El Casa del Sol Naciente, run by the well-travelled Clemencia. She is a great host who has built the hostel in the past 30 years. It is all ecological, using mostly bamboo in its construction, and is surrounded by a wonderful garden, which is an eco reserve. There is a main house with various bedrooms, and also two cabañas at the Magdalena Canyon just across the street. The views are breathtaking. The prices are cheap and cheerful (about COP$20,000 per person, depending on the room you are getting). The hostel is not luxurious, but absolutely charming. There is a hot shower indoors, and also a cold outdoor shower in the garden, if you want to bath underneath the stars. You can also make a bonfire with Clemencia in the garden, and it is magical. A big plus for me were the cute kittens to cuddle. The hostel is a 10-15 minute walk from the village centre, and highly recommended.
For food, there are various options in the village for a veggie. First of all, there is a vegetarian restaurant run by a German, called El Tomate. It is only open for lunch, so I did not have the chance to visit. Instead, I had quite a few meals at the lovely SaludArte, open for breakfast until dinner. They have executive menus from as little as COP$6,000 (about 2 Euros/1.5 Pounds), including a soup, a main, a small desert, and a lemonade. I especially loved their breakfast arepa with tomato sauce, and their lentil and beetroot patties (croquetas). You can also take away food there, as we did for the day trip and for some nights. One night we went to an Italian restaurant on the street towards the archeological park. The owner/chef is really helpful, a “real” Italian from Torino, and made me some vegan pasta without a problem.
All in all, San Agustín is a great place to see and stay if you are travelling around Colombia. We loved the three days we spend there, in this peaceful and tranquil surroundings, enjoying nature and historic sites.
Historic sites: ++ (great archeological park(s) set in beautiful surroundings)
Food: ++ (for a small, rural village surprisingly many and tasty options)
Best time to go: all year round (Colombia is near the Equator, so in a big part of the country the weather is quite stable, especially in the mountains); days are quite warm (in the 20-ies°C, but nights are chilly, so bring a thicker jumper or jacket – after all you are at over 1,700 metres above sea level), there is a little more rain from October to December, with the driest months being July and August.
Transport: fly or take a bus to Neiva and take a bus from there to Pitalito (about 4 hours), then a minibus up to San Agustín (about 40 minutes)
Money: pay in Colombian Pesos (1 Euro is about 2,800 Pesos, 1 Pound about 3,600 Pesos at the moment in Jan. 2015); price level is relatively cheap in San Agustín (see prices above for reference)