To get to San Agustin from Popoyan, you have to cross over the Colombian Massif on a sketchy road that switched from asphalt to gravel to dirt as we went along. We'd been warned at our hostel that the road was very rough and that if it was raining it was better to wait in Popoyan than risk getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. However, the weather seemed clear and the bus was running on schedule so we were soon on our way. Annie took a precautionary Dromamine and was soon asleep while I enjoyed the scenery whizzing by outside. The Colombian Massif is an upswelling of mountains in the Andes of southern Colombia and it is the source of 70% of Colombia's drinking water - which means it is wet. The road took us across a rolling green paramo landscape with picturesque rivers meandering lazily down from the mountains. Then our route went up into a dripping cloudforest where (predictably) it started to rain. Besides from being a little slow and a little rough, especially one spot where the road had washed out, we made it to San Agustin safe and sound.
San Agustin is a small town tucked into the forested foothills of the Andes in southern Colombia. Its more temperate than tropical due to it's elevation but still verdant and 'jungley'. The town itself is only a few blocks but the surrounding area is cultivated by coffee growers and their plantations are scattered throughout. We stayed about a kilometer outside of town at Hotel Casa de Nelly where we had a private cabana set amidst a gorgeous tropical garden with our own balcony overlooking the town. Not bad for $25 a night. If you arrange in advance, Casa de Nelly will also arrange dinner for you, which saves you a bumpy and expensive taxi ride into town. The food was fantastic, fresh, and included large portions. This was one of our favorite hotels in all of our travels.
The statues of San Agustin are something of a mystery. People have lived and flourished in this region for thousands of years; taking advantage of the lush landscape The earliest evidence of human habitation in the San Agustin region dates back to 3300 BCE. However the statues were made by a civilization the existed in the upper Magdelana river valley for almost a thousand years from 100 BCE to 900 CE. These people were skilled farmers and constructed massive earthworks - ramparts and burial mounds - as well as master stone carvers. These suggest an advanced civilization with a developed system of social heirarchy, however little is know about these people as the jungle has since devoured other evidence of their lives. Their artisans, possibly influenced by the shamanic visions brought on by psychotropic jungle plants like ayahuasca, carved massive stone idols - part animal, part man that stood guard over the tombs of elite individuals. These statues have threatening, smiling, or somber faces: some appear to be divine guards, armed with clubs, rounded eyes, and jaguar teeth; some depict serenity and wisdom; others fear and darkness. No one knows their true significance, but they are undeniably striking and well worth the diversion off the beaten path for history nerds such as ourselves.
There are hundreds of statues scattered throughout the hills surrounding San Agustin. Almost a hundred are concentrated at the San Agustin Archeological Park. We were able to walk there from Casa de Nelly and so we ambled through coffee fincas and forest for 2 km or so enjoying the views and admiring the flowers along the way. At Archeological Park we paid our entrance fee and got sweet visitors' 'passports' to record our experience. The park has a wonderful and informative Museum in Spanish which we tried to get the most out of. By the time we made it through the exhibits it had started raining. However, we'd come prepared with our raingear - 'los impermeables' in Spanish - and walked out into the downpour to check out some creepy statues.
On our second day in San Agustin I took my second ever ride on a horse as we saddled up to see some of the more far-flung statues located in the hills above town. Just getting to the horses proved to be an adventure as we were picked up by moto-taxi. This, to be clear, was a first for both of us, and so we nervously clung to the back of dirt bike as our drivers whisked us back to town to meet our horses - Annie hugged her driver unashamedly while I tried my best to retain my manly cool by hanging on to the seat (with limited success).
From town, we rode our horses along country roads to 3 more burial sites. Some of these statues still had remains of color which made them even neater. As we went along we were able to see the lives of the local people - farmers out in their fields, children on their way to school - as well as enjoy the unbelievable green landscape. Our guide even picked a few exotic fruits for us to try including a giant peapod-like fruit called 'guama' which was full of sweet white pith. After a full afternoon we caught an overnight bus to Bogotá.