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Rear View Mirror: Colombia Travel Tips After 17 Months Exploring the Country

There is one big reason that we spent 516 days (that’s 17 months) in Colombia, drove 9,923 miles (15,969 km) around the country, and published 150 posts about travel in Colombia: it’s the people. Despite decades of violence from political conflict, drug wars, and, until the peace treaty which was signed in 2017, a civil war with FARC guerrillas, Colombians are consistently ranked as the happiest people on the planet by orgs like Gallup and the Happy Planet Index. We’re here to tell you that Colombians aren’t just happy. They’re proud, smart, and generous and their love for their country is contagious. Here are our Colombia travel tips for this South American country.

Colombia flag Cartagena fort

The Colombian flag flying high above the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fort in Cartagena, Colombia.

Colombia travel tips

A three-day holiday weekend is called a puente (bridge) and there are a lot of them in Colombia.

We were very surprised by how little English is spoken in Colombia. In many areas, even cities that attract tourists, hotel staff, waiters, etc. often speak only Spanish. That is, of course, their prerogative. Colombia is a Spanish-speaking country. However, if you don’t have at least a basic grasp on the language be warned that you could have some communication issues.

Escobar Hippos Colombia

One of the hippos left over from Pablo Escobar’s herd at Hacienda Napoles.

Colombia has the largest population of wild hippos outside of Africa. They escaped from a small herd brought to Colombia by Pablo Escobar. A few hippos remain in half-hearted captivity on Escobar’s hacienda which the Colombian government turned into a weird amusement park called Hacienda Napoles. It’s all part of controversial “Escobar Tourism” in Colombia, something we wrote about in our award-winning story for Roads and Kingdoms and more in our Hacienda Napoles travel blog post.

In Colombia, people can choose to pay off a credit card charge in multiple installments. This will not work with foreign credit cards, so be sure to say una cuota (one total) every time you use your credit card.

Yes, there are lots of soldiers and military checkpoints on the roads in Colombia. These days the soldiers are mainly there to maintain the order, security, and confidence which has slowly returned to the country in recent years. The many soldiers we encountered were always smiling and quick with a handshake and hopeful questions about how we liked their country.

2 million Colombian Pesos COP

Colombian cash.

Davivienda Bank ATMs was the only ATM that did not charge us a fee to use the ATM card issued by our US bank. Davivienda ATMS also had the highest withdrawal limit (720,000 COP) which you could withdraw twice back to back.

Check your mattress before you check in. They love rock hard mattresses in Colombia.

Viva Colombia airlines offers incredibly cheap internal flights. For example, it’s possible to fly from Medellin (our favorite unsung Colombian city) to Cartagena (our favorite famous-for-a-reason Colombian city) for less than US$50 round trip. Yes, service sucks and you pay a bit more for every little thing including checked bags and failure to print out your own boarding pass. However, flying is often a better choice than taking the bus because road infrastructure is not great in Colombia and road journeys take a very long time.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Bogota street art Toxicomano

Gabriel Garcia Marquez immortalized in street art by Toxicomano in Bogotá.

A whole host of internationally famous celebrities were born in Colombia including artist Fernando Botero, singers Juanes, Carlos Vives, and Shakira, actors John Leguzamo and Sofia Vergara, and Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marques who inspired our story about traveling in Colombia in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for Bio.com. Find more about the town where Gabo was born in our travel blog post about Aracataca.

Colombia is also producing major sport stars like soccer star James Rodríguez, bike racer Nairo Quintana who won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and placed second in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015, and race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya who won the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Justin Bieber is also said to have purchased a “mansion” near Cartagena and rumor has it that Lady Gaga and George Clooney have houses in Colombia too.

Colombia for adventure travelers and nature lovers

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon Colombia

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia.

There are currently 59 National Parks in Colombia but only about half of them are open to visitors and more than 80% of travelers to Colombia flock to just two of the parks, including Tayrona National Park which, honestly, we were not blown away by. Branch out and try some of the country’s other parks while you’re there. Go to Los Nevados National for condors and volcanoes. Go paragliding over the enormous Chicamocha Canyon. Or check out the petite Tatacoa Desert which (spoiler alert) isn’t a true desert at all.

Wax Palms Salento La Carbonera, Colombia

A stunning (and semi-secret) stand of was palms, the tallest palm in the world and the national tree of Colombia.

The wax palm is the tallest palm in the world. It can grow up to 200 feet (60 meters) tall. It’s also the national tree of Colombia and most travelers head to Salento to see wax palms in the Cocora Valley. However, found an even better place to see Colombia’s national tree.

Colors of Cano Cristales Colombia

Yes, that color is real (and rare) in Colombia’s Caño Cristales.

Colombia is home to a natural phenomenon that happens nowhere else on earth. For part of the year, a short stretch of a remote river appears to run in a rainbow of colors thanks to a fragile bloom of an aquatic plant. The river is called Caño Cristales (or the Rainbow River, the River of Five Colors, the Liquid Rainbow, or the Most Beautiful River in the World) and it’s worth every bit of expense and effort to see this stunning natural wonder. You’ll find more temptation in our complete travel guide to Caño Cristales and our photo essay about the river for BBC Travel.

And where else can you travel on a road called The Trampoline of Death?

Colombia for culture lovers

Tombs San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia

Tombs and stone statue sentinels at the San Agustin Archaeological Park in Colombia.

There are currently eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Colombia. We can vouch for the mysterious carved stone figures in the archaeological sites of San Agustín, the slow, easy, classically Colombian pace you get in the historic river town of Mompox, and the Colombian cowboy charm of the country’s coffee country with its deep traditions, quality caffeine, and range of terrific hotels.

Tejo Colombia

Karen playing tejo by tossing a metal ball toward explosives…

Colombia’s national pass time is a game is called tejo. It involves heavy metal balls and explosives. It’s fun

Street art Bogota

The street art in Bogotá is breathtaking (and legal).

Yes, street art is becoming a staple of many cities around the world, but the amount, diversity, and quality of the street art in Bogotá stands out.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

The Dinsey-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia.

The Las Lajas Sanctuary, near the Ecuador border, looks like something straight out of Europe. Or Disneyland. The stone church, which is built across a deep ravine, is lavish and steeped in stories of miracles which attract thousands of pilgrims each year.

Salt Cathedral Colombia

Inside the Salt Cathedral.

A totally different kind of church is the Salt Cathedral not far from Bogotá where the stations of the cross and a church have been carved into the walls of a defunct salt mine up to 600 feet (180 meters) underground.

Medellin Flower Festival

Every August the city of Medellin hosts the vibrant Flower Festival.

Every August the city of Medellin hosts the Flower Festival, a week-long, no-holds-barred celebration of the history and culture of the Antioquia province of the country (which is basically the Texas of Colombia). We somehow managed to attend back-to-back Flower Festivals and here’s what it’s all about.

Barrichara Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia

If you ask us, this is the most beautiful town in Colombia.

The Colombian government has established  a network of Colonial towns called Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio de Colombia. The list currently includes 17 towns and we visited 14 of them including Jardin, Aguadas, Cienega, Giron, Guaduas, Honda, La Playa de Belen, Lorico, Mompox, Mongui, Salamina, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Villa de Leyva, and what we consider to be the prettiest town in Colombia: Barichara.

Colombia for food lovers

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Bogotá is shaping up to be South America’s next food capital. Chefs in all price ranges and food styles are creating exciting, daring dining experienced. There are not two chefs with Michelin stars in town. Cocktail bars are killing it. Craft beer is thriving. Local ingredients are front and center. Food festivals like the Bogotá Wine & Food Festival are thriving. No wonder the awards ceremony for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants will be held in Bogotá in 2017 and in 2018.

 bandeja paisa colombia

Bandeja paisa in all it’s glory.

The most emblematic dish in Antioquia province, and perhaps all of Colombia, is a gut-buster called bandeja paisa. Trust us. It’s big enough to share.

Craft beer Medellin micro breweries Apostle cerveceria

Craft beer in Colombia? You bet.

Colombia is having a craft beer boom. Here’s our guide to microbreweries and brewery tours in Medellin.

Crackeña Colombia

Really?

There’s a brand of crackers called Crackeña, which seems like a bad idea in a country that’s trying to shed it’s “cocaine capital” image.

Aguardiente Colombia

Aguardiente: pick your poison.

Here’s a short list of stuff to eat and drink in Colombia wherever and whenever you find them:

The national drink of Colombia is aguardiente which is made by fermenting and distilling sugar cane juice. It often has a slight licorice taste, but brands and styles vary from province to province. Read about our first sip of aguardiente in our story for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Corozo juice which is made from palm berries and it reminds us of jamaica which is increasingly hard/impossible to find south of Mexico.

Bunuelos Colombia

Buñuelos!

Pan de bono are little discs of chewy, cheesy bread and everyone’s mother makes the very best ones. Another beloved carb bomb is the buñuelo (pictured above) which are light, fluffy, fried orbs best eaten hot and fresh. Some sprinkle sugar on them, which is delightful.

Empanadas come in many forms – deep fried, griddle cooked, baked, etc. They’re so popular that McDonald’s in Colombia sell empanadas.

Technically speaking, sancocho is a soup. In reality, it’s Colombia in a bowl.

Driving in Colombia road trip tips

truck off the road Colombia

Oops.

Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, but much of the country is road less.

In 2016 the World Bank ranked Colombia 96th out of 160 countries in terms of infrastructure–below Burkino Faso and Rwanda. That means you can expect some pretty bad roads and some pretty slow going.

Panamerican Highway sign Colombia

Driving the PanAm in Colombia.

Diesel is called ACPM at the pump.

Road tolls can add up in Colombia. Over the 9,923 miles (15,969 km) we drove around Colombia we spent more than 1,300,000 COP, which was more than US$600 at the exchange rate at the time. And that total represents just the hundreds of toll receipts we had on hand. Many were lost along the way.  For example, the tolls from Medellin to Cali, a route we have driven several times, cost us around US$40 for a mere 265 miles (425 km). One stretch of this route is called the Autopista del Cafe and is probably the most expensive highway in the country. In just 35 miles (56 km) on this Autopista we went through three toll booths where we handed over about US$16. At least the pricey Autopista del Cafe is a modern, multi-lane, divided highway. Often in Colombia drivers pay nearly as much in tolls for the pleasure of driving on narrow, unsafe, single-lane highways in mediocre to horrible condition.

Colombia toll receipts

Here are 125 Colombian road toll receipts adding up to nearly 1 million COP and representing about 70% of the road tolls we paid in Colombia.

Here’s a good resource that helps you anticipate and calculate Colombia’s tolls, which are called peajes.

If you get a two-part receipt from a toll booth, keep the longer half handy. You will be asked to show it at the following toll booth to be exempted from that toll.

waiting for Colombian road block

Eric reading a book on the side of the road during a particularly looooong road block protest in Colombia.

Expect to encounter random roadblocks. Putting tree trunks or burning tires across main roads is a common form of public protest in Colombia. We once spent six hours in stopped traffic on our way from Cartagena to Medellin (a route that came with US$30 in tolls).

Don’t believe us? Here’s what Jalopnik had to say about driving in Colombia.

Colombia Sunset Salento

A Colombian sunset on the road through the Cocora Valley near Salento.

More Colombia information resources

Read the book Unseen Colombia by Andres Hurtado Garcia, an intrepid hiker and photographer who documented most of the amazing natural areas in Colombia, including the most inaccessible areas down in the Amazon.

Longtime expat Richard McColl interviews interesting guests about all things Colombian (including yours truly) on his Colombia Calling radio podcast program.

The Colombia Facil website and micro guidebook is not comprehensive, but it does provide good info, options, and tips.

Colombia Reports is an English language news site that covers all things Colombian with smarts and wit from within Colombia.

And remember: It’s Colombia, not Columbia.

 

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The Most Interesting Border (So Far) – Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia and Topiary Cemetery in Ecuador

We’ve crossed nearly 60 borders in the Americas so far on our little road trip and they’re usually dead boring. But not this one. When you cross between Ipiales, Colombia and Tulcán, Ecuador you can visit two totally travel worthy sites, the Disney-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary on the Colombia side and a massive topiary filled cemetery on the Ecuador side, in a single day.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia near the border with Ecuador.

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia

Less than 10 miles (16 km) from the border with Ecuador you will find the most elaborate and unexpected church in Colombia. The Gothic revival style Las Lajas Sanctuary dominates a narrow gorge and was built between 1916 and 1949. The massive stone church rises 330 feet from the bottom of the canyon where the Guáitara River rages. The elaborate Roman Catholic church is accessed via a 160-foot-long stone foot bridge. 

The Las Lajas Sanctuary may look a bit Disney-esque, but it’s a serious pilgrimage site.

But the Las Lajas Sanctuary isn’t just famous for its location and architecture (which looks like something straight out of Europe, or Disneyland). In 1754, an indigenous woman named Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, were walking through the gorge when Rosa wandered into a cave and suddenly spoke.

What the previously deaf and mute woman said was that she’d seen a woman carrying a baby. This was eventually interpreted as a sighting of the Virgin Mary and the deaf-mute woman’s sudden ability to speak was considered a miracle. Now thousands of pilgrims visit Las Lajas each year.

Tourist lama photo Las Lajas Sanctuary - Ipiales, Colombia

We’re not sure what photo opps with dressed up llamas have to do with purported miracles, but it’s a thing at Las Lajas Sanctuary.

When we were there a cable car was in the final stages of construction. If you visit now you can ride the teleferico instead of walking up and down to the sanctuary. You will also find the cheapest bed in Colombia at the sanctuary where you can sleep in a spartan nun’s room at a nearby cloister for less than US$10 for two people

Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

The topiary-filled Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán, Ecuador near the border with Colombia.

Municipal Cemetery in Ecuador

About five miles (8 km) from the border on the outskirts of the town of Tulcán you’ll find the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

Flora and fauna and Aztec and Egyptian imagery inspired the elaborate topiary in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

In the 1930s, local gardener Josè Maria Azael Franco began sculpting the cypress bushes that grow in the cemetery where he worked. Inspired by Ecuadorian flora, fauna and indigenous cultures, including animals from the Galapagos Islands plus themes from Roman, Incan, Aztec, and Egyptian culture, Mr. Franco shaped the plants, which can live for 500 years and grow more than 100 feet (33 meters) tall.

Gardening Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

A gardener keeps things tidy in the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Over the years every cypress was transformed until the cemetery was, in Mr. Franco’s own words, “so beautiful it invites one to die.” The Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán now has more than 100 enormous, intricate creations covering the three-acre site, which some of Mr. Franco’s sons now maintain following the creator’s death.

Topiary gardens Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

We loved the topiary crucifix in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

These cross-border sites were so interesting that we did a story about them for Atlas Obscura, where you’ll find even more details about what could be the most interesting border in the Americas.

Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

You can walk through this topiary tunnel in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

 

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Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

 

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Go Green – Laguna Verde & Volcán Azufral, Colombia

It is not easy to get to Laguna Verde, the very green lake inside the very active Azufral Volcano, but it’s worth the effort required on the road and on the trail to enjoy this place as a day trip from Pasto or Ipiales, Colombia.

Laguna Verde Colombia

Laguna Verde inside the active Azufral Volcano in Colombia.

Getting to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From Pasto it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the square in the town of Túquerres where we asked for directions to the volcano and were told to continue on a paved road out of town. That turned into a dirt road for a few miles before we reached a small shop and living quarters for the caretakers of the Azufral Natural Reserve. There’s a large parking lot there along with clean bathrooms (500 COP or about US$0.15). When we were there we were not charged an entry fee, but some travelers are now reporting a 2,000 COP (about US$0.70) entry fee.

Click here to see a full size image of this panoramic shot of Laguna Verde.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, check out this Laguna Verde post from Emily and Andrew of Along Dusty Roads. It has detailed information about getting to Laguna Verde from Pasto using public transportation and taxis.

Hiking trail to Laguna Verde Colombia

Karen braving high winds on the hike to Laguna Verde.

The hike to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From the parking lot it’s a 3 mile (5 km) hike (each way) along a narrow, disused dirt road to reach the rim of the volcano where you get views inside the crater–unless things are clouded in which happens a lot.

Laguna Verde, living up to its name.

Inside the crater you’ll actually see two lakes, a green one and a greener one. It’s intense color comes from high levels of sulphur emitted by the active volcano which has many vents and lets out many gasses.

Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral volcanic vents Colombia

Volcanic vents made white by gasses expelled by the very active Azufral Volcano.

Getting to Laguna Verde itself requires another half mile walk down from the rim along a steep trail that is a slippery, muddy nightmare when wet.

Be prepared for the cold, the wind. At times gusts were so strong we had to plant our feet, turn our backs to the wind, and brace for impact, which explains why this section of trail is called the Wind Trail. Overall weather conditions can change quickly so layer up. And be prepared for strong sun (wear your highest SPF even on cloudy days) and the altitude. The parking lot is at 11,950 feet (3,642 meters) and the volcano rim is up above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). 

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Epic Drives: The Trampoline of Death Road, Mocoa to Lago de la Cocha, Colombia

This post is part 2 of 2 in the series Epic Drives

The Trampoline of Death road in Colombia is said to have taken hundreds of lives due to the dirt road’s dangerously narrow, winding, eroded, and often foggy conditions. Of course, we had to this epic drive (and film it).

Driving the Trampoline of Death Colombia

On Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

Driving the Trampoline of Death road

The Trampoline of Death is also known as the Devil’s Trampoline (which sounds even grimmer in Spanish: Trampolín de Diablo), the Most Dangerous Road in Colombia, and Adios Mi Vida (Goodbye My Life). It was built in the 1930s to transport troops through mountain terrain in Southern Colombia and it remains a narrow dirt road (single lane in some places) with blind corners and hairpin turns often rendered even more perilous by descending fog and periodic washouts.

Trampolin de la muerte Colombia

The Trampoline of Death cutting a swatch through the jungly terrain near Mocoa.

The most notorious road in Colombia is just 45 miles (70 km) long and rises (or descends, depending on which way you’re traveling) between 1,968 feet (600 meters) in Mocoa, at the edge of Colombia’s steamy Amazon, to 9,120 feet (2,780 meters).

Then the road drops 2,000 feet (600 meters) into an inhabited valley where it becomes paved and is no longer The Trampoline of Death but just another mediocre Colombian road. Beyond the valley, the road climbs again to the route’s high point of nearly 10,700 feet (3,261 meters) before dropping down to Laguna de la Cocha at 9,200 feet (2,800 meters) and finally to the city of Pasto at 8,300 feet (2,529 meters).

We embarked on our Trampoline of Death drive from Mocoa at 9:30 am on a drizzly Saturday morning with the usual excitement from Eric and gnawing apprehension and crossed fingers from Karen. Water bottles were filled. Engine fluids and tire pressure were checked. We even charged up our walkie-talkies thinking Karen might have to scout ahead and direct Eric over particularly perilous patches.

Trampoline of death Colombia

It look innocent enough from a distance…

We were prepared for steep grades, blind corners, and narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass. Pot holes? No problem. Rock slides? Been there. Precipitous drops? Our middle name.

You call this a death road?

What we weren’t prepared for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs alerting drivers to particularly narrow spots, and what appeared to be newly installed guard rails along many of the sketchy sections. Guard rails? What kind of a death road has guard rails? There were even a few pleasant turnouts…

Trampoline of Death dangerous road Colombia

“Danger Narrow Road”

Still, we drove slowly and carefully. During our four-hour drive on The Trampoline of Death we saw about 40 other vehicles including motorcycles, private cars, taxis, minivans, and medium-sized cargo trucks (no 18 wheelers). Some areas were washed out by the many waterfalls which tumble onto the road and yellow tape, helpfully printed with peligro no pase (danger don’t pass), was up in areas where road erosion was particularly bad. There were also numerous roadside shrines marking spots where loved ones lost their lives.

Trampoline of Death shrines

Just a few of the roadside memorials to those who lost their lives on Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

There were many blind corners and long one lane stretches hugging the cliffs. More than once the road was so narrow that we sat for a few minutes and waited for an oncoming truck to chug past us before continuing. This concept of “discretion is the better part of valor” is very anti-Latin. Most drivers just continue moving until they’re face to face with a truck or bus at which point a game of chicken ensues until one driver backs up to a wider spot in the road so the vehicles can pass each other.

After four hours we reached the end of The Trampoline of Death without incident. No trampolines, no death, and we never even used our walkie-talkies.

Check out our dash cam video of our Trampoline of Death drive, below to see this infamous road (and some close calls) for yourself.

Even the guys at Top Gear took their chances on Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

From the death road to a hotel inspired by The Shining

Six hours after leaving Mocoa we arrived at Lago de la Cocha. About an hour from the city of Pasto, this is a glacier fed reservoir which is the second largest body of water in Colombia behind Lake Tota.

Lago de la Cocha Colombia

Lago de Cocha, the second largest body of water in Colombia.

We splurged on a room at the Hotel Sindamanoy. On the outside its got a Swiss-ish chalet look and feel with a bit of old-school US National Park Lodge style tossed in, all shaken up with a dash of inspiration from The Shining. Inside it’s like a time machine back to the 1970s:  Carpeting, rotary phones, gingham curtains, creepy red towels. We half expected a Thousand Fingers massaging bed with a slot for quarters. No luck.

Hotel Sindamanoy Lago de la Cocha Colombia

Swiss-ish Hotel Sindamanoy on Lago de la Cocha.

However, the hotel is right on the lake and has great views. Unfortunately, the weather was too wet and cold to make the boat transfer to La Corota Island in the lake which is the smallest national park in Colombia. But we did venture out to a nearby restaurant for a trout dinner, a local specialty.

 

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Stone Statues with a Secret – San Agustín, Colombia

The San Agustín Archaeological Park in the town of San Agustín, Colombia is home to a collection of stone statues with a secret that makes this archaeological site even more compelling than most.

Tombs San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia

These carved statues are guarding a tomb at the San Agustín Archaeological Park in Colombia. But why?

The stone statues of San Agustín

In 1995 the San Agustín Archaeological Park (25,000 COP, about US$8.50, for a ticket that’s good for two days and includes other sites we talk about later in this post) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s home to what’s been called the biggest collection of pre-Columbian religious monuments and sculptures in South America. It’s also considered the largest necropolis in the world.

Visit San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia

The peaceful setting of the San Agustín Archaeological Park in Colombia makes it feel more like an art-filled sculpture park than an archaeological site.

San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia megalithic sculptures

A stele-like megalithic sculpture at the San Agustín Archaeological Park.

All of that is a fancy way of saying this place is full of really old graves, thought to have been created between the 1st and the 8th century AD, which are marked with carved stone statues, some of which are enormous and weigh many tons. And no one knows all of their secrets. Exactly why and how were the graves created? Who’s buried there? And what are the stone figures all about?

San Agustin Archaeological Park tomb

Stone statues guarding another mysterious tomb.

San Agustin megalithic sculptures

Images carved into stone varied greatly and included animals, faces like this, and fantastical creatures.

That’s a lot of hype to live up to, but we were immediately impressed. The site, located about 2.5 miles (4 km) from the town of San Agustín covers about 290 acres (116 hectares) in total, but the area that’s been set up to visit covers just a few acres where you can see 130 stone statues (out of the 500 or so in the area in total).

San Agustin megalithic sculptures UNESCO World Heritage Site

Two megalithic stone carvings.

Mesita A, B, C, and D, which are funeral complexes, clearings with groupings of sculptures, and tombs in situ, have the majority of large sculptures and tombs. Don’t miss the ceremonial Fuente de Lavapatas which features figures carved into rocks in a flowing stream bed. Visiting Alto de Lavapatas, home to a group of stele-like carved stones, requires a climb to a plateau.

The Bosque de Estatuas trail winds among 39 carved stone figures and is sloping, and mostly shaded.  

San Agustin Colombia megalithic sculptures

Most of the carvings depict humans or fantastical animals but this bird was pretty true to life right down to the worm (or snake?) in its beak.

It’s a peaceful setting for the amazingly distinct and intact stone statues. We were amazed at how much the carving styles differed from stone to stone and many areas were more like outdoor sculpture gardens or very mysterious cemeteries rather than archaeological sites.

San Agustin Colombia sculpture park

You will see a wide range of styles in the carvings at the San Agustín Archaeological Park.

By the time you get to San Agustín, there may be even more stone figures to admire. In July of 2017 the Colombian government asked for the return of 35 statues from San Agustín which are currently in a museum in Germany.

Also, when we were at the site the museum was closed and a new facility was being finished. Even without the museum, we spent 2.5 hours at this site. Be sure you’ve set aside enough time for a thorough visit. Taxis and minibuses go from town to the site, which gets busy on weekends though there were only about 20 other people at the site when we visited on a Tuesday.

San Agustin Archaeological Park sculptures

It’s hard to believe these two very different versions of humans were found at the same archaeological site.

More archaeology around San Agustín

Your ticket to the San Agustín Archaeological Park also covers a few smaller sites nearby, so bring your ticket with you as you explore the area.

El Tablon archaeology site near San Augustin Colombia

Stone statues at the El Tablon site.

Just outside of San Agustín you will find two smaller sites called El Tablon and La Chaquira.

La Chiquira archaeology site near San Augustin Colombia

This rock face carving at the La Chiquira site overlooks the gorge carved by the Magdelena River.

About 3 miles (4 km) southwest of the town of Isnos is the Alto de los Ídolos site. It is the second most important site after San Agustín and contains 23 anthropomorphic and zoomorphic monoliths including the tallest statue in the area at 22 feet (7 meters). However, only 13 feet (4 meters) is visible since the rest of this statue is buried underground.

Alto de los Idolos San Agustin Archaeology Park

This carved stone image guards the tomb in the photo below.

Alto de los Idolos sarcaphogus

A sarcaphogus at the Alto de los Idolos site.

Alto de las Piedras, 4.5 miles (7 km) north of Isnos on a rough road, is a smaller site but contains one of the most famous sculptures in the area, the Doble Yo.

Doble Yo Alto de las Piedras - San Agustin, Colombia

The famous Doble Yo at the Alto de las Piedras site.

Alto de las Piedras San Augustin Colombia

Alto de las Piedras

Continuing another rough 6 miles (10 km) past Alto de las Piedras you reach a viewpoint for the dramatic Salto de Bordones, a 984 foot (300 meter) high waterfall. Sadly, only the top half of the falls are visible from the viewpoint. A more accessible if somewhat smaller waterfall, Salto de Mortiño, is just off the highway on the way into San Agustín. When we visited this waterfall there were hundreds of parrots flying around. 

Salto de Bordones and Salto de Mortiño - San Agustin Colombia

Salto de Bordones (left) and Salto de Mortiño (right).

While we were in the area we also drove about 6 miles (10 km) from San Agustín town to Estrecho del Magdalena to see the mighty Magdalena River power through a very narrow stone chute (estrecho means narrow in Spanish).

 Estrecho del Magdalena near San Agustin Colombia

The Magdalena River as it squeezes through a narrow rock chute at Estrecho del Magdalena.

Hotels in San Agustín

While we loved the archaeological site and all the stone figures, it must be said that the town of San Agustín was substantially less charming than we’d hoped. We spent quite a few hours popping into one dumpy hotel after another before we found these recommendable hotels in San Agustín.

Yes, you can find someplace to sleep for as little as 15,000 COP (about US$5) per person in San Agustín town. If you’re after a bit more comfort, cleanliness, and working Wi-Fi (as we were), then we suggest you head to the El Fogon restaurant in town and ask about the rooms they have upstairs which are clean, have lots of light, and working Wi-Fi. The downstairs restaurant offers decent food at decent prices too.

Awanka Lodge San Agustin Colombia

The atmospheric and art-filled Akawanka Lodge just outside San Agustín town.

People rave about Finca Ecologico El Maco, just outside of town, but it was full when we were there (and, honestly, looked a bit run down). Just past El Maco is the Akawanka Lodge where we stayed during the second half of our time in San Agustín. This restored traditional farmhouse is full of art and has an easy, eclectic vibe. Ample wrap-around porches (check out the hammocks made from strips of leather – they’re more comfortable than they look), a sprawling lawn and garden, a fireplace in the bar/restaurant, no TVs, and art everywhere make this a very relaxing place. A spa was in the works when we were there.

Here are other hotels that caught our eye in and around San Agustín, though we did not stay at any of these hotels so we can’t personally vouch for them: Terazas de San AgustínHotel La CasonaFinca el Cielo, and Hotel Casa Tarzan.

Richard manning the grill at Donde Richard restaurant in San Agustín.

Where to eat in San Agustín

As we said, decent food at decent prices is available at the El Fogon restaurant in town. For expertly grilled meat, head to Donde Richard on the road between town and the San Agustín site. Huge plates of pork loin, chicken, beef, and chorizo (around 23,000 COP or about US$8) are big enough to share. Don’t miss the cerdo asado of tender slow cooked pork. Richard himself is usually manning the grill.

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Photo Essay: The Mystery & History of the Doors & Windows of Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 7 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The restored Colonial architecture in the center of Cartagena, Colombia, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984, is so gorgeous that the overall effect can be overwhelming. So much stone! So much color! So many balconies! When we traveled to Cartagena we particularly loved the mystery and history of the doors and windows of Cartagena, as you can see in this photo essay. Often shut to keep the Caribbean sun at bay, we couldn’t help but wonder what we’d see if we could just peek inside.

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