That Time We Went to San Agustín, Colombia

by Brenna Holeman

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Kerri and I arrived in Cartagena by boat at the end of August. We had very vague plans for Colombia; we had heard of certain cities, Bogotá and Medellín and Cali, and had been told of the beauty of Tayrona Park. We didn’t know much else about the country, though, despite our research beforehand. Often it’s difficult to figure out exactly where you want to go until you’re actually standing on a country’s land, the terra firma beneath your feet and the promise of a new location in the air.

One month later, after a fabulous journey that lead us from Cartagena to Santa Marta, Taganga, Tayrona, Medellín, Guatapé, Salento, Cali, Popayán, and Silvia, our appetite for Colombia was not quite satisfied. One of us read something, or heard something, or saw something: how the seed was actually planted to visit San Agustín, I can’t remember. Somehow, however, we decided to leave our heavy packs in our beloved Popayán and travel for a few days to the centre of the country, to the place of the ancient megaliths: San Agustín, Colombia.

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Famous for its Archaeological Parks and its fascinating history, San Agustín is home to the largest collection of megalithic sculptures in South America. Beautiful and ornate, these statues date back to the Andean times, ranging as far back as the 1st century. Some are nothing more than crumbled piles of rocks by now, but many, so many, are still standing. Despite a few photos I had seen before arriving, I wasn’t prepared for the endless sea of fanged creatures, of stoic gods and monsters.

There was quiet and beauty in this windswept place, its green hills surrounded by valleys and mountains, raging rivers and crashing waterfalls. In the park, all of that seemed lifetimes away. With few tourists around, Kerri and I had the place to ourselves. Every so often we’d hear the low rumble of wind or the faint sound of birds in the trees. We imagined that not much had changed since these statues were carved all those centuries ago, when that great stone was manipulated into characters from stories, figures from myths.

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We did not do a tour that day, and chose to wander on our own; armed with a guidebook and dutifully reading all of the signs, we learned what we could and what we wanted to. I wonder if my opinion of the place would have changed if I had taken a tour, or if my memories are good enough. My memories: walking through a mossy forest, condensation from the trees dropping on our heads in great plops; gawking at the intricacy of these massive statues, imagining the passion and the skill that the carving took; listening to the Rolling Stones as we climbed up the mountain to the final Mesita. Our memories cannot always be sculpted by the actual history and circumstances of the place we’re in; sometimes, oftentimes, our memories only hold the history and the circumstances we’ve made for ourselves.

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I learned a lot that day, and rereading the history of San Agustín makes me once again marvel at the sheer awesomeness of the place. That there are 600 known statues. That they’ve stood through earthquakes and erosion and lootings. That we still don’t know very much about the people who created them.

But, if I’m being completely honest, what I remember most is laughing with my best friend, of taking silly photos, and of stories, both of the statues we travelled all that way to see and of our own. We learned a lot, yes, but we also had a damn good time; to me, that is the best kind of day, that is the apex of a trip. The bus ride from Popayan was horrible and we couldn’t find any decent food in town and in an attempt to get into rural life I ordered a pint of fresh milk which turned out to be freshly squeezed from an udder and had mysterious creamy chunks floating in it (but I still drank it, using my teeth as a sieve) but all of that gets washed away, all of those strange and trying times become smaller beats in a bigger rhythm.

San Agustín is marvellous; I cannot recommend it enough. Go there, go with an open mind, go with someone who makes you laugh. Go with sensitivity and respect and appreciation. Go there and create a history of your own.

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 It is good to have friends

Getting to San Agustín is a bit difficult; the roads from Popayán are very bumpy and can be dangerous. You can also take buses from Bogotá or Tierradentro, but always try to travel by day. The best time to visit San Agustín is probably from December to February, the driest months, as April to June is quite rainy and wet. We went in September and the weather was cool and enjoyable. We stayed at La Casa de Francois and it was one of my favourite places to stay in all of South America; a farm located just outside the city, the food (all grown on the farm itself) was amazing, the service impeccable, and the showers hot. There is plenty to do in San Agustín and the surrounding areas, so just walk around and see what you find!

Have you heard of San Agustín before? Would you like to go? Do you often remember the details of a place, or are your memories shaped by your own circumstances and by the people you’re with?

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Alyssa March 27, 2014 - 6:34 pm

Matching shirts. Cuuuute!

I love wandering around places – especially after reading a guidebook!

Brenna Holeman March 27, 2014 - 10:34 pm

We didn’t even mean to match! Whoops…

Flora March 27, 2014 - 8:03 pm

This is such impeccable timing Brenna – I was researching San Agustin for an article at the newspaper yesterday and now I really want to go! I wonder how long it’ll me from Medellin though..!

Brenna Holeman March 27, 2014 - 10:34 pm

Oh cool… you really should go, I’m sure that you’d love it. I think it would be quite difficult to get to from Medellin, though…

Katrina March 27, 2014 - 9:33 pm

I had never heard of this place before, but LOVE ancient sites! Going to have to add this to my ever-expanding bucket list!

Brenna Holeman March 27, 2014 - 10:35 pm

Oh great, I hope you get there one day!

Naomi March 27, 2014 - 10:55 pm

Next time I go to Colombia, I really want to go to San Augustin (the list gets longer day by day!) I hear Neiva close by is cool too so I will have to make a trip of it.

Brenna Holeman March 28, 2014 - 11:49 am

Yes, Neiva isn’t far away (relatively, at least). I love Colombia, it is my favourite country… I can’t wait to go back.

Camille March 30, 2014 - 2:32 am

I can’t imagine having such a place all to myself. The more I see and read of Colombia, the more I want to go! My memories are mostly shaped by how I feel when I’m experiencing something. Que bueno es tener amigos 🙂

Brenna Holeman March 30, 2014 - 8:19 pm

Colombia is simply incredible – I really hope that you get to visit soon!

Expatkerri March 30, 2014 - 7:38 pm

I love that last photo as the final thought on this post: que bueno es tenir amigos <3 I had a wonderful time in San Agustin with you!

Brenna Holeman March 30, 2014 - 8:19 pm

Let’s go back! I love all of our memories from South America, I always get so happy when I think about our time there together.

Sofia March 31, 2014 - 7:52 am

The archaeological park indeed is worth a visit, at least once in your life. We also didn’t hire a tour guide, because we want to explore and enjoy it as long as we want; one thing you couldn’t do with a tour guide around.

Brenna Holeman March 31, 2014 - 12:27 pm

Absolutely – we felt the same way.

Zalie March 31, 2014 - 3:52 pm

I need to go back to Colombia!!!

Brenna Holeman April 1, 2014 - 9:21 pm

Yes, you really do!

Glamourous Traveller April 1, 2014 - 5:27 am

I’m heading off to Colombia this June! The plan is to go to Cartagena, but it looks like the list is about to get longer. Ah! if only I didnt live on this side of the world (and have limited vacation days)

Brenna Holeman April 1, 2014 - 4:01 pm

You’ll have an amazing time in Colombia!

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Katie @ The World on my Necklace January 13, 2015 - 1:42 am

We ended up spending a week in San Agustin when the coffee farmers were striking and blocking roads. A week was too long but I loved the place we stayed, also on a farm outside of town, and we visited some other ancient sites with rock drawings on horseback, as well as the statue park. Very interesting place and although it was a stressful time, I have fond memories of the place

Brenna Holeman January 13, 2015 - 2:19 am

I can see how a week would be too long… but I’m glad that you made the most of it!


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