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Posted by: HoboSylvain | 2015-01-08 14:18:37 | San Andres, Cauca, Colombia
Keywords: pre-hispanic, UNESCO, WHS
Although it's considered the second most important archeological site in Colombia, and receives far less visitors than the one in San Augustin, I believe this site is more important because of the complexity of the site. Both sites have similar statues but in Tierradentro they are placed in richly decorated underground burial chambers while in San Augustin they are showcased in an exterior environment. The Tierradentro thumbs were created around years 600 to 900, before their people apparently vanished.

The tombs are almost the only traces that remains from the people who built them, and our main source of knowledge about them.  The tombs, which seem to have been shaped and decorated to represent the houses the people were living in give a good indication about their way of living.  We know they were mostly farmers (growing corn, beans and yucca/potato) and made small settlements in the valleys while some families were living on the slopes near their fields.  They lived in oval-shaped houses made out of wood and dirt with thatched roofs.   

The tombs are carved from the semi-hard volcanic rock making up the mountains in this area.  They  come in various sizes, from about 2 m wide up to 12 m wide.  The smaller ones were most probably individual burial sites while the larger were collective ones or destined for the elite of the community which was led by chiefs and priests.

Model of one of the larger tombs.

All tombs are richly decorated by paintings made of red and black pigments representing geometrical forms or animals.  Many statues representing either animals or humans were also found in the area, and it's believed the statues came a few centuries after the tombs were created.

The tombs are grouped in four different clusters: Segovia (the largest number of tombs accessible) and the close-by El Duende, El Aguacate which offer a stunning view over the valleys and San Andrés.  There's also another location of interest (El Tablón) which feature statues gathered there from various locations.

Hard to visit

Tourists guides will indicate you the approximate distance and time between each of those locations, but that they don't tell you is that you have to hike though the mountains... going up and down following the curves of the relief.  It's only a small trail on the side of the mountains.  The tombs are usually located on top of mountains.  To go from one site to the other, for the closest ones, you have to drop about 150 m down to the valley, then rise yourself another 200 m, over a path of maybe 2 km.

I have very good legs so hiking up on the side of the mountain isn't really an issue for me.  My problem is going back down because I have vertigo and a not-so-good sense of balance.  I usually sweat more going down than up, because of the stress.  It usually takes me more time going down than going up, to give you an idea of my challenge.   I did reach one of the burial site but then I returned along my path instead of continuing to the next location because the terrain was quite hard and I the anticipation of going back down the major mountain ahead wasn't thrilling at all.

Site of Alto San Andres.

Then, once at the tombs sites, the passageway to get down to the rooms is very small, so for big and tall people like myself, it's not a piece of cake... neither for my large feet on the small narrow steps.  Again, I had an obstacle there.  So, no, I can't say I have fully explored the sites or have fully appreciated them, but the archaeological museum on the site presents replicas of the tombs and illustrations.

The whole loop through the various 5 locations and the museums is about 14 km.  They say it can be done in about 7 hours, plus the museums.  The sites are opened from 8 AM to 4 PM... so a total duration of 8 hours, leaving you no margin for pauses.  Some people do all that in a single day, but it's preferable to do it in two days.  The grand loop is cut in halves roughly by the road passing through the area... so you can do one half of the loop one day, the other the next day.  Your admission passport is good for two days anyway, so you don't have to pay again the second day.

If you have only one day and are good at hiking, I would suggest you do the large trail going through the San Andres and the Aguacate sites, that offers you great sites to visit and a wonderful view from the top of the mountains at the Aguacate location.  That trail will take you about 4 hours to complete.  Then go the museums and hike to the nearby sites of Segovia and El Duende before returning to the museums and your hostal.


This kind of underground burial chambers can be found from Mexico to Argentina, but nowhere in such quantity and concentration as in Colombia, especially in the Tierradentro area.  But more importantly than the numbers, the ones here are unique by the care of their architecture and decoration.  That's why the site was placed on the UNESCO list in 1995.

Paintings on one the walls

Related posts:
Ouro Preto
Modern Ensemble of Pampulha
San Agustin site
Stone spheres of the Diquís valley
Southern Guatemala


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