San Agustin & the Southwest
Despite boasting immense biodiversity, archaeological treasures and beautifully preserved colonial gems, the southwest of Colombia remains largely untouched, a region of secret sites and hidden marvels without the crowds. From the mysterious civilisation of San Agustín, to the faded beauty of Popayán and the underground tombs of Tierradentro, this corner of Colombia waits to be discovered.
Though fascinating in itself, the small colonial city of San Agustín is a gateway to a far more ancient and mysterious archaeological site, one dating back 5000 years. The pre-Columbian civilisation that inhabited the area around San Agustín may not have left any written materials but we’re given a glimpse of their rituals, sacrificial practises and belief systems through ritual edifices and burial chambers, alongside over 500 statues carved from volcanic rocks to depict sacred animals and anthropomorphic figures. Situated in nearby Isnos, the Alto de los Ídolos and the Alto de las Piedras demonstrate the same carvings of humans and mythical animals, with tombs and small temples in a tranquil setting.
While less visited than San Agustin, Tierradentro shares in its mysterious origins, with elaborate underground tombs that date back as far as AD 500 to AD 900 and are the only burial sites of their kind in the Americas. Surrounded by striking mountain scenery and lush foliage, this is a peaceful, serene setting to be enjoyed as you follow a 14km loop around the tombs.
Leaving behind the ancient indigenous history of San Agustin and Tierradentro, the colonial town of Popayán seems almost modern by comparison, though a gentle stroll around its leafy plazas and peaceful streets will transport you back to the period of the Spanish conquistadors. Considered to be one of Colombia’s best-preserved historic centres, Popayán is brimming with chalk-white colonial architecture, baroque churches and a beautiful neoclassical cathedral. These churches and cathedrals have gained Popayán a UNESCO World Heritage listing, and it remains one of the most important religious destinations in Colombia with world-famous Easter processions and one of the oldest traditional celebrations in Colombia.
Northeast of Popayán, the small mountain town of Silvia lies at the heart of the Guambiano region. Though the indigenous Guambiano communities live in the surrounding villages, the weekly market brings them into Silvia to sell their beautiful woven items alongside colourful fruit and vegetables.
From the sublime to the surreal, the Tatacoa Desert is an almost alien landscape of red cliffs and gullies that lies midway between San Agustín and Bogotá. Despite its name, this is actually a dry tropical forest, but home to flora and fauna commonly found in the desert including scorpions and cacti. Renowned for its clear, open skies, Tatacoa has a small observatory and is a dream destination for stargazers.
With ancient indigenous ruins, mysterious archaeological sites, dramatic landscapes, beautifully-preserved colonial history and traditional indigenous markets, it can only be a matter of time before the southwest of Colombia is discovered; visit now before it is.