Exploring the tombs of Tierradentro

27 Feb

Surrounded by jaw dropping scenery, Tierradentro is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in the whole of Latin America and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s famous for beautifully decorated underground tombs and stone statues which were discovered in the hills around the tiny settlement of San Andres de Pisimbala. We were already sold on visiting Tierradentro, which translates as “inner land”, but when someone tipped us off that the site only receives a small number of visitors each year and it was likely we’d have the whole atmospheric place to ourselves, we were rushing to buy our bus tickets to take us there.

We soon discovered the main reason the site remains relatively deserted is due to its isolation and a long, bum-numbing bus ride down a dirt track which leaves you feeling like you’ve gone ten rounds in a boxing ring. A paved road is under construction but for now Teirradentro remains very peaceful and wonderfully slow-paced. We stayed at the rustic but cosy Residencias Lucerna, just a few metres up from the park entrance and museums. The place was run by a friendly elderly couple who must have been well into their seventies and, despite a slight deafness (not a good combination with our basic Spanish), and their concern about where our children were (couples over twenty-one in Colombia are always quizzed about this), they thoroughly looked after us.

We purchased our tickets, valid for two days, from the park office (10,000 pesos or 5 USD per person) and planned to spend the rest of the afternoon and the following morning (returning early afternoon to Popayan) exploring the archaeological delights. Even though little is known about who built the tombs and statues and why, the ethnological and archaeological museums at the entrance offered some history and explanation about the sites before we set off. Historians believe the tombs were built between the 7th and 9th centuries and the statues about 500 years afterwards. The tombs were only rediscovered and excavated between 1930 and 1995 and there are now around 100 recorded sites. Work was initially labour intensive and time-consuming as the tombs were completely filled with mud, leaves and rainwater and needed to be dug out by hand to avoid causing any damage. The sites have been subject to robberies over the years so some tombs were less complete than others. Some, however, had offered rich rewards and along with bones, they discovered ceramics, utensils and ceremonial jewelery.

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To visit the five different sites in the park, a 14 kilometre walking trail has been created (maps provided by the park office) which loops around some steep but utterly gorgeous mountain scenery which is well worth the walk in its own right.

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The first site we visited was Segovia which is twenty minutes uphill from the visitors centre. The twenty-eight tombs found here are considered to be the most important and the site is one of the best preserved. Wooden porches have been constructed over the burial chambers to protect them from the rain and details about each individual tomb (dimensions, when the tomb was excavated and by whom, what was found there) were recorded on small plaques.

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We were the only tourists in the whole place and we were greeted by a security guard who opened each tomb door for us and answered any questions we posed. Twelve of the Segovia chambers had lighting but it was still a pretty spooky sensation to look down a hole in the ground and see steep steps leading down. We’d taken our head torches along for the unlit tombs but most of the guards had flashlights we could use.

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Dan was first to head down into the darkness. The steps were uneven and circled around the edge of the entrance. The initial step took him thigh deep and with the second he had disappeared from sight. The tombs all vary in height, with some appearing just below the surface of the earth and others up to nine metres deep. Stone in the area is soft volcanic matter which would have been scooped out by hand with basic tools and subject to cave ins. The size of the chambers would have varied according to the number of people buried there and the prestige of the person to be buried. It is generally believed that the more important people such as community leaders or spiritual men would have been given the largest tombs in the best locations.

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We edged down the stairs with the sound of our footsteps becoming muffled by the impenetrable walls. The air was thick and stuffy and we felt beads of sweat forming on our backs. The tombs were very impressive and had a mystical feeling about them. Each individual space had been created in a unique style.

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Some of the larger ones had domed ceilings and were supported by pillars. Some of the pillars had faces carved into them. These guardians would have looked after the bodies which once lay there. Many of the walls and pillars had been painted with striking red and black lines and patterns of white backgrounds and despite their age they were remarkably well-preserved.

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The second site we visited was El Duende, a further twenty minutes up hill where there were a further four tombs. These were less well-preserved than the first group but were still interesting to see.

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We’d climbed up high by this point and the views were great.

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We really got a sense that we were a long way from bustling civilisation, looking at clusters of small settlements, forested mountains and single tracks of unpaved roads winding into the distance. Cows and horses roaming in the pasture-land gave a new meaning to ‘free-range’.

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From El Duende, it was a further 30 minutes walk skirting around several fields and then down a dirt road to El Tablon which contains nine stone carved statues depicting sacred animals and anthropomorphic figures.

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Colombia’s other well-preserved archaeological site of San Augustin is home to over 500 of these statues and offers better preserved pieces from the same era. However, the life-size statues at Tierradentro were a bonus for us and we were pleased to see them. It is thought that the statues were linked to the burial tombs and acted as guardians for the dead and/or honourable symbols. Several of the statues were taller than us and very imposing.

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Our sightseeing was done for the day and we sat on the ground feeling the warmth of the setting sun on our skin while playing with a friendly dog who’d appeared from nowhere.

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As promised, we’d not seen a single tourist all day and it was like we’d had private guided tours of the sites. Back at the village we sat outside the local store with a big beer and chatted to the super friendly locals before going to dinner in a family run restaurant which was basically the owner’s converted living room. No English was spoken in the whole area so once again our best ‘Spanglish’ was put to the test with much smiling and gesticulating.

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The following morning we rose early and headed off at 8am to see the last two remaining sites. Climbing from behind the museum on a steep and grassy path, it took us 1.5 hours, climbing at a good pace, to reach El Aguacate.

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It seemed far too early to have burning legs and red faces but the views were the best of all. We climbed along a ridge and could see into the valleys either side.

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The rock formations in the surrounding scenery caught our eye. They looked like sheets of melted candle wax which had at one time oozed and dripped down the mountain side.

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Discovering the tombs at this site gave us the feeling of being intrepid explorers. We wondered if anyone else actually knew these gaping chasms in the ground were here? We chuckled about discovering skeletons and hidden treasures beyond our wildest dreams.

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There were no guards at this site and no protective covers or doors so we could enter the tombs at our leisure. Several were overgrown and some still filled with mud but an injection of funds to Tierradentro means protection and restoration of these tombs will eventually take place as it has with the others.

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In a couple of the vaults our torches were able to pick out remnants of the original decoration and when we were brave enough to turn the lights out we squealed uncomfortably imagining a large boulder being rolled in front of the open door and sealing us in forever!

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The final tombs at Alto de San Andres had some of the best preserved decoration and the enthusiastic guard was keen to show us his personal favourite filled with vivid decorations and huge pillars.

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The Tierradentro tombs are the only known example of its kind in the Americas and they were a completely different experience for us. Exploring tombs may sound like a gruesome way to spend a few days but we have to admit we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Part of the joy of this site was the lack of visitors and the friendly locals. We’d had a chance to immerse ourselves in an almost forgotten rural way of life which may not be around for long as the hand of modern life reaches out along a paved highway.

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