San Agustín Archaeological Park – Colombia (23.08.18)

Colombia is a classic example of a thrilling new destination opening up in front of our very eyes. It famously offers magical Andean peaks, lush Amazon jungle, colonial settlements and miles of unspoilt coast. What is not so well known is the pre-Colombian archaeological site of San Agustín, located in the heart of south Colombia.

Remarkable for boasting South America’s largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

The immaculate stone carvings at San Agustín display a quite astonishing body of work dating back to a period between the 1st and 8th century. The carvings are all that is left of an extraordinarily creative and little-known Andean culture, and are an exciting surprise for anyone touring this under-visited part of Colombia.

My long-standing friend and Nomadic Thoughts colleague Caroline Findlay de Concha, who has just returned from an extended family trip to the country, claims visiting San Agustín was ‘fascinating, offering a window into an otherwise unknown world of mythical creatures’. As her photos here show, this necropolis – the largest in the world – is a sight to behold.

Very little is known about the society that created them. The lack of documentation, as well as the huge areas of yet-to-be excavated burial mounds, mean that it is difficult to understand the significance of the statues and carvings. Fierce yet enchanting, the faces and regalia of the immaculate stone figures is as impressive as the collection of animal carvings. Birds, snakes and frogs were clearly of great significance.

Scattered over a 50sq km area in the foothills of the Archaeological Park’s Colombian Massif, the carvings’ setting only adds to the lost world feeling. Initially abandoned around 1350, they were rediscovered during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Despite excessive looting over the centuries, a visit today is nevertheless hugely rewarding. The sixteen funerary mound reconstructions, with hundreds of megalithic sculptures, is one of the region’s cultural highlights and was declared a National Monument and Archaeological Park in 1993.

The carvings offer an example of a well-preserved culture undamaged by the passage of time – a fact not lost on a country coming out of a decades-long struggle between armed groups, drug cartels and government forces.