City Travel Guide – Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador is an expat mecca which means you’re going to hear more English (and French and German) and see more North American and European faces here than anywhere else in Ecuador except maybe the Galapagos Islands. But Cuenca is also full of history, culture, hotels, and good food (you can thank the expats for that last one), as you’ll see in this travel guide to Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca.

Plaza de las Flores - Cuenca, Ecuador

Plaza de las Flores in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Cuenca was first inhabited by nomadic cave men and more securely established in 500 AD. The place has been important to the Cañari people, the Incas, Spanish conquistadors, and now people from all over the world including the proud Cholas Cuencanas who swish around the city in their layered skirts, bright colors, and braids.

Architecture in the Historic Center of Cuenca, Ecuador

Architecture in the historic center of Cuenca, Ecuador.

Situated at 8,200 feet (2,500 meters), the Tomebamba River runs through the city whose historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999 on the merits of the colonial architecture there. When you’re done exploring the city, Cuenca makes a good base for visits to the Ingapirca archaeological site and Cajas National Park.

Historic Center - Cuenca, Ecuador

A typical street scene in Cuenca, Ecuador.

 What to do in Cuenca

Churches ofCuenca, Ecuador

Just a few of the 52 churches in Cuenca, Ecuador.

There are 52 churches in Cuenca, so you could spend your whole visit just peeking into them. Instead, focus on the best of the churches and save some time for the architecture, art, and culture in Cuenca too.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception or the New Cathedral - Cuenca, Ecuador

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, aka the New Cathedral.

We took the guided tour (US$3, in English) of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, commonly referred to as the New Cathedral, which includes the crypt and a hike up to the terrace on top for views of the city.

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception - Cuenca, Ecuador

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

The Museo de Arte Moderno (better known as MMAM) is located in a peaceful renovated house which was originally built in the 17th century. It’s any small rooms and outdoor courtyards now provide the right setting for a changing selection of modern art (free, donation requested).

 Museo de Arte Moderno (MMAM) - Cuenca, Ecuador

A playful sculpture at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MMAM).

Cuenca shows its Incan roots at the Pumapungo archaeological site (free) which preserves some of what remains of the city of Pumapungo (“the door of the puma”) which the Incas established after narrowly defeating the Cañari people. Researchers believe Pumapungo was second only to the Incan capital of Cusco. Located in the historic center of the city on a hillock over the Tomebamba River, this site is primarily a collection of stone walls and foundations and a re-constructed building.

Pumapungo archaeological site, Cuenca, Ecuador

The Pumapungo archaeological site is an Incan construction that’s right in the middle of modern Cuenca.

The nearby Pumapungo Museum (free) is the city’s biggest museum and it delivers a colorful, comprehensive deep dive into the different cultures and ethnic groups in Ecuador including clothing, customs, money, pottery, textiles, and more. The museum also has some shrunken heads from the Shuar people. Most display explanations are in Spanish.

Pumapungo Museum - Cuenca, Ecuador

A display in the Pumapungo Museum.

So-called Panama hats actually come from Ecuador (they got their misleading name with US President Theodore Roosevelt was given one to shield him from the sun while touring the Panama Canal). Hat making is a revered art in the country and Cuenca is home to a number of master hat makers. The most famous is Homero Ortega. We also found good quality hats (at cheaper prices) at La Paja Toquilla.

Architecture Historic Center - Cuenca, Ecuador

More architecture in the historic center of Cuenca.

Many walking tours of the city are offered as well and some of them are free (but tip if you can). This can be a good way to quickly get a taste of the architecture and history of Cuenca.

On a hillside on the outskirts of the city is the Amaru Bioparque Cuenca Zoologico  ($4) where some animal enclosures at the self-funded zoo appear to be made from chicken wire and ingenuity. This worked well to craft a kind of monkey habi-trail that allowed the monkeys to roam further without getting out, but it did seem like the puma could probably escape if she really wanted to.

Spectacled Bear - Amaru Bioparque Cuenca Zoologico

Andean bears at the Amaru zoo in Cuenca.

We also saw Andean bears (the zoo was also home to the first Andean bear cubs born in captivity in Ecuador), lions, condors, and a wide range of reptiles in an exhibit completed in association with the young and passionate herpetologists and tour guides at Tropical Herping.

To tour the zoo you have to walk along a 1.5 mile (2 km) dirt trail that is steep and uneven in places, so wear walking shoes and clothes. Allow at least an hour and a half.

Street Art, Cuenca, Ecuador

Street art in Cuenca.

Restaurants in Cuenca

Another great thing to do in Cuenca is eat. Thanks, in part, to the large expat community the city has a lot of restaurants catering to a many different tastes.

Fabianos pizza, Cuenca, Ecuador

Dinner at Fabiana’s pizza.

Fabiano’s Pizza serves legit pizza (see above) at great prices to a crowd that’s heavy on the expats (the place had a festive nursing home vibe). The most expensive 12 slice pizza was around US$17.00 and a generous glass of wine was US$3.50. Cash only. English is spoken (did we mention the expats?).

Arepas Moliendo Café, Cuenca, Ecuador

Amped up arepas at Moliendo Cafe.

Arepas are a humble thing, unless you get them at Moliendo Café where this simple cornmeal patty is topped with heaping portions of home cooked Colombian favorites including beans, hogao (a rich sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables), chorizo, chicharron (fried cubes of meaty pork skin), and much more. Portions (around US$3.50 per order) are huge. The Colombian owners also import Postobon soda and Aguila and Poker beer from Colombia.

El Mercado restaurant, Cuenca, Ecuador

Part of the most impressive meal we had in Cuenca, at El Mercado restaurant.

One of the best meals we had in Cuenca was at El Mercado, overlooking the river where polished international cuisine (rack of lamb, grilled octopus, risotto) is served along with creative cocktails (don’t miss their version of a Moscow Mule made with fresh ginger, agave syrup, aguardiente and soda water) and an extensive (for Ecuador) wine list. The excellent bread is homemade, the tableware is chic, and the service is good. The owners also have their own organic farm outside the city and we hope they never take the luscious grilled salad off the menu.

Thirsty? The Far Out brewery makes German style craft beer which you can get at their brew pub in the historic center of Cuenca. 

Ristorante Trastavere, Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Massimo is from Rome and his Ristorante Trastavere is super Italian.

Ristorante Trastavere, on the corner near the intersection of Honorata Vazquez and Presidente Borrara Streets, is the creation of Rome-born chef Massimo. He opened the place in 2015 and continues to make homemade pasta, gnocchi, bread, and sauces. He makes his own mozzarella, smokes his own fish, and cures his own meats too. The food, served on red and white checked tablecloths in a small dining room above his even smaller open kitchen, is extraordinary. He now has a pizza joint across the street so Fabiano’s has some competition.

La Chalupa, Cuenca, Ecuador

Just one of the inventive cocktails at La Chalupa.

La Chalupa Mediterranean restaurant was opened in 2015 by a young Basque chef. It’s a festive place, equally good for a meal or one of the cocktails created by bartender  Bernardo Arias. Order his Cajas Spirit cocktail which, he says, was inspired by nearby Cajas National Park. It’s made with rum or tequila that he infuses with herbs harvested from the park. Then tonic water, lime juice, and Angostura bitters are added (around US$5). It’s bracing and refreshing, just like a hike in its namesake park.

Cuenca is full of coffee shops and cafes. We had great brews at Goza Espresso Bar and at Café de Nucallacta where they only serve Ecuadorean coffee that they’ve roasted themselves.

Tiesto's, Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Juan Carlos Solano in a rare quiet moment at Tiesto’s.

Sure you can order off the menu of Ecuadorean classics at Tiesto’s, but it’s much more fun to let Juan Carlos Solano, the self-taught chef and owner, tell you what you should eat. The well-trained waiters will make sure you understand the wide variety of house made condiments which are meant to be eaten in a specific order and in specific combinations. Solano is all about playing with flavors and whether he’s cooking prawns or pork he’s got a vision of the final dish and how it should be enjoyed. Buckle up and go along for the ride.

For a snack or light lunch head to the corner of Juan Jaramillo and Estrella Streets. Here you’ll find a cluster of small places selling sanduches de pernil (roasted pork leg sandwiches) for about US$2. Pick a place (they’re all good) and enjoy.

Rio Tomebamba, Cuenca, Ecuador

Part of what defines Cuenca is the Rio Tomebamba which runs through it.

Hotels in Cuenca

Hotel Los Balcones is a long-standing favorite in Cuenca because it’s right in the center, moderately priced for a mid-range hotel in this city, and is a comfortable combination of history (the building was constructed as a private home in the 18th century) and modern amenities. Service is excellent, many rooms have small balconies (as the name would imply) and the sunny upstairs breakfast room is a great place to start your day.

Hotel Los Balcones , Cuenca, Ecuador

Our room at Hotel Los Balcones in Cuenca.

Hotel Santa Lucia, a bit musty and dusty around the edges, is located in the historic center in a building that was built in 1859. The place is full of antiques and history. Read our full review of Hotel Santa Lucia for Luxury Latin America.

Hotel Santa Lucia - Cuenca, Ecuador

A room at Hotel Santa Lucia in Cuenca.

Hotel Victoria is owned by the Duran family, pioneers in tourism in Cuenca (they also own Posada Ingapirca near the Ingapirca archaeological site). The riverfront hotel is iconic in the city as is its El Jardin restaurant which is modern incarnation of a restaurant created in the 1970s.

Hotel Victoria - Cuenca, Ecuador

Our room at Hotel Victoria in Cuenca.

Hotel Victoria is not a fancy place in the traditional sense of luxury, but it is flawlessly dignified. Rooms vary greatly and some (like ours) are small, but we had a great river view and lots of ambiance. A great full breakfast with made-to-order eggs is served daily in the El Jardin dining room with river views.

Hotel Zahir 360 is a real anomaly in Cuenca. In a city where almost every hotel exists in a historic building full of antiques, the Zahir is sleek and modern. It’s also not in the historic center but on the other side of the river. Read our full review of Hotel Zahir 360 for Luxury Latin America.

Zahir 360 hotel - Cuenca, Ecuador

The Zahir 360 breaks from the hotel crowd in Cuenca with a very modern design.

We walked past the Siena Hotel on our last day in Cuenca. We did not stay at this central hotel, but we did quickly tour some rooms and it was stylish and comfortable and nailed a boutique hotel vibe better than any other hotel we saw in the city.

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Exploring the Nazca Lines on the Ground – Nazca, Peru

The Nazca Lines, which were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, are best seen on a Nazca Lines flightseeing tour because the mysterious man-made figures and designs are so big that you need get high above them to see the whole picture. However, there are a bunch of ways to explore the Nazca Lines on the ground too.

Nazca lines Peru

Welcome to our ground tour of the Nazca Lines.

Exploring the Nazca Lines on the ground

Heading out of Nazca on the Pan-American Highway you will pass through a toll booth. About 10 miles (16 km) past the toll booth you’ll see a dirt road to the left. Take it, then  walk up a low hill from which you can look down on a massive plain full of straight lines and geometric shapes. The spot is spectacular at sunset. 

Nazca lines at sunset

Try to be at this hill, with views over geometric Nazca Lines, around sunset.

Get back on the PanAm and continue about one more mile away from town and you’ll reach a viewing platform on the side of the PanAm (3 PEN or about US$0.90). A steep flight of stairs leads up to a top deck where you can look down on The Hands and The Tree. The view of these glyphs from the platform is not as spectacular as it is from a flightseeing tour, but it does give you a different perspective.

Nazca lines tree from observation tower

The Tree seen from the observation tower on the side of the PanAm Highway just outside of Nazca.

Nazca lines hands from observation tower

The Hands seen from the observation tower on the PanAm Highway just outside of Nazca.

Continue 2 miles (3 km) further down the PanAm to reach the small Maria Reiche Museum (10 PEN or about US$3) which tells the story of the German mathematician who studied and protected the Nazca Lines for decades, following on from work done by Peruvians which began in the 1920s. Pictures of Maria in the museum, which is in her former home, show a woman who looks tough as nails even as she’s mapping the decorated desert in a skirt.

Maria Reiche Museum

This van was used by Maria Reiche, aka the Lady of the Lines, as she mapped and advocated for the Nazca Lines. We love that the van has “Nazca Lines Security” painted on the door.

Maria, who some people call The Lady of the Lines, also built the viewing platform over The Hands and The Tree. She is credited with mapping the lines and fighting for their protection right up to her death in 1998. She’s buried on the museum grounds.

Maria Reiche Nazca lines observation tower

A still from our drone footage over the observation tower overlooking The Tree and The Hands.

Head about 3 miles (5 km) north of Nazca on the road that goes into the mountains toward Cusco and you’ll find a group of glyphs called Telar de Nazca (The Loom of Nazca). After walking up a small rise at this site (10 PEN or about US$3) you can look down on a formation called Las Agujas (The Needles), but the best part is the view of the massive Cerro Blanco in the background.

Cerro Blanco is said to be the world’s highest sand dune at 8,884 feet (2,708 meters), though a dune in Oman and another in Namibia have also been called the world’s tallest. Guided trips take travelers up the dune (about a three-hour hike) before sand boarding down.

The Needles Lineas telar Nazca

The Needles.

Cerro Blanco sand dune Nazca, Peru

Cerro Blanco, near Nazca, is said to be the world’s highest sand dune at 8,884 feet (2,708 meters).

Not Nazca

Nazca isn’t the only town with massive, mysterious glyphs. Continue past the Maria Reiche Museum on the PamAm away from Nazca and you’ll see a turn off to the left that leads to another viewing platform. This one is positioned over a configuration of glyphs on a hillside called The Family (2 PEN or about US$0.65). This set of glyphs was not included in our flightseeing tour at all and was not made by the Nazca people but by the Paracas people.

Oaracas Royal family Palpa lines Nazca

The Family glyph, part of the Palpa Lines made by the Paracas people, as seen from an observation tower.

Additional figures Paracas Royal family Palpa lines Nazca

Additional glypsh near The Family.

Return to the PanAm and keep traveling away from Nazca to the nearby town of Palpa to find more of the so-called Palpa Lines made by the Paracas people. Follow the signs that lead you out of town and down a short dirt road to arrive at a hilltop viewing platform over a glyph called The Sundial.

Sundial Palpa Lines Nazca Reloj solar

The Sundial, as seen from a hilltop observation tower in Palpa.

Palpa is also known for its oranges, so be sure to stop for a glass of fresh squeezed juice at on of the roadside stands.

Our drone video, below, will give you a look at The Clock, along with The Hummingbird, The Tree, The Hands, The Family, and The Spider.

The Nazca Lines under threat

New glyphs are still being discovered in Nazca and despite protections, all of the glyphs are still threatened. When the PanAm Highway was built it bisected some glyphs and we can’t help but wonder what the Nazca spirits (or the aliens) think of this new never-ending line among their own. Wind continues to erode the glyphs and humans are still doing damage as well. In 2014 Greenpeace, for example, apologized for damage done to the The Hummingbird glyph by activists who unintentionally walked over it to install a message about climate change.

Where to sleep in Nazca

It must be said that the dusty, ramshackle town of Nazca is pretty grim, but thousands of travelers come anyway to see those famous lines. That means there are a lot of hotels in town from extremely basic hostels to higher end offerings catering to organized tour groups.

Somewhere in the middle is B Hotel Nasca Suites (doubles around US$40). Opened in 2017, this place is right across the highway from the airport (convenient for morning flight seeing) but about a mile from town. There’s a pool and full breakfast included, along with Wi-Fi, and more style than most mid-range places in Nazca.

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Flightseeing Over the Nazca Lines – Nazca, Peru

People travel to the town of Nazca (spelled Nasca in Peru) to see the famous Nazca Lines and marvel at their mass (up to 1,200 feet / 370 meters long) and their mystery (why were they made and who was meant to see them?). Here’s what we saw (and wondered) during our flightseeing tour to see the Nazca Lines from the air.

Nazca lines hummingbird colibri picafloe

The Hummingbird – 305 feet (93 meters) long

To fly or not to fly?

We were surprised when some fellow long-term travelers said they thought flying over the Nazca Lines, which were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, wasn’t necessary. True, there are a few viewing platforms over a few of the lines around Nazca (more about them in our next post about exploring the Nazca Ines on the ground), but the Nazca Lines are so enormous that they’re virtually impossible to see except from the air.

For example, despite existing in the desert for hundreds and hundreds of years (most researchers agree that the glyphs were made by Nazca people between 500 BC and 500 AD), yet the lines and designs weren’t really discovered by modern science until someone spotted them from a plane.

We decided to fly.

Nazca lines flightseeing

The Cesna 206 that took us on our flightseeing tur over the Nazca Lines in Peru with Alas Peruana.

Flightseeing tour over the Nazca Lines

There are many fight tour companies in Nazca. Alas Peruanas took us up for their 30 minute flight (US$80 per person) to view 13 different figures in a Cesna 206 four passenger plane with a pilot and co-pilot. All passengers got headphones to cut out some of the engine noise and allow us to hear the running commentary about the shapes we would be seeing (in Spanish) from the pilots.

Spider Nazca lines araña

The Spider – 151 feet (46 meters) long

These tourist flights travel in a set circuit over an area with a high concentration of geoglyphs (man-made designs in the earth). To ensure that everyone gets a good look at each of the images, the planes dip their wings on one side, then circle the glyph and dip their wings on the other side.

Nazca lines from above flight

The Nazca Lines include about 700 straight line formations and 300 geometric shapes, human forms or animal forms with more being discovered all the time.

Seeing the glyphs, including The Hummingbird, The Spider, The Tree, The Dog, The Monkey, The Flamingo, The Parrot, The Astronaut, The Frigatebird, The Hands, The Condor, The Baby Condor and The Whale, in their entirety was undeniably powerful.

Nazca lines flightseeing landing

Coming in for a landing after our 30 minute flight over the Nazca Lines.

After half an hour of dipping and circling, we were ready to be on solid ground. Small shops selling sodas at the airport do a brisk business to travelers (including us) anxious to settle wobbly post-flight stomachs.

Frigate bird, Flamingo Nazca lines

The Frigatebird (bottom) and The Flamingo which is 984 feet (300 meters) long but is still hard to see.

Wear sunscreen and sunglasses for the flight and you must show your passport before boarding. Flights are often delayed if it’s cloudy or foggy (we waited for more than an hour for our take off), so be prepared to wait. Also, there’s also a 25 PEN (US$10) airport tax that’s not included in the price you pay the tour company.

flying over the Nazca lines

The skies about the Nazca Lines are crowded. Note the plane under ours in the lower portion of this shot we took as we flew over The Frigatebird, The Flamingo, and The Parrot.

Naza Lines flightseeing safety

While we felt safe during our flight, on any given day there are a lot of small planes in the air flying close and low and accidents do happen. Many, many people have died. The worst year was 1986 when 28 tourist aircraft crashed into the Nazca Desert, killing 130 people.

Safety and oversight have improved since the cowboy days pre-1999. However in 2016, there were still reportedly 19 tourists death in Nazca Lines flightseeing accidents.

Monkey Nazca Lines

The Monkey – 295 feet (90 meters) long

Get a glimpse of the Nazca Lines from the air in the video we shot from our flightseeing tour, below.

Nazca Lines mysteries

Seeing some of the glyphs from the air only amplified our questions about them: How were the Nazca Lines made? And why? Many people far smarter than us have been pondering those questions for a very long time.

Condor Nazca Lines

The Condor – 443 feet (135 meters) long

The easiest question to answer is about how the glyphs around Nazca were made. There are about 700 glyphs composed of straight lines plus another 300 or so that depict geometric shapes and stylized animals. Researchers say dark pebbles, which exist naturally on the surface of the desert, were removed to reveal the light-colored sand beneath, thus creating shapes in the ground (which is the basic definition of a geoglyph).

Astronaut Nazca Lines

The Astronaut – 115 feet (35 meters) long

Crude surveying tools, like wooden stakes, have been found around the glyphs hinting at how the precise designs and straight lines might have been mapped out and achieved.

Nazca Lines Whale ballena

The Whale – 213 feet (65 meters) long

That leaves the trickiest question of all: Why were the glyphs made and who was meant to see them?

The lines were created long, long before humans had the ability to travel through the air so the Nazca people may never have seen the images in their entirety since many of the hills in the area aren’t high enough to provide a vantage point. Some theorize that the Nazca made the designs for their Gods to see. Others think the designs might make up some sort of astrological map used by the Nazca people. Or perhaps the glyphs marked ceremonial areas.

Nazca lines Parrot loro

The Parrot – 213 feet (65 meters) long

Also, aliens. You can’t have a proper archaeological mystery without someone suggesting that aliens were involved. Recent controversial alien theories in Nazca inspired this necessary-read in The Atlantic.

Nazca lines baby condor or dinosaur

Baby Condor – 115 feet (35 meters) long

Frigate bird nazca lines

The Frigatebird – 443 feet (135 meters) long

The Nazca Lines under threat

New glyphs are still being discovered around Nazca and despite protections, all of the glyphs are still threatened.

When the PanAm Highway was built it bisected a huge glyph called The Iguana and we can’t help but wonder what the Nazca spirits (or the aliens) think about this new never-ending line in the midst of their own. Wind continues to erode the glyphs and humans are still doing damage as well. In 2014 Greenpeace, for example, apologized for damage done to The Hummingbird glyph by activists who unintentionally walked over it to install a message about climate change.

flying over nazca lines tree, hands, iguana observation tower

The observation tower where you can look down on The Tree (213 feet/65 meters long) and The Hands (213 feet/65 meters long). You can also see the PanAm highway bisecting The Iguana.

Random Nazca lines flower spiral

Random Nazca Lines that we liked…

Where to sleep in Nazca

It must be said that the dusty, ramshackle town of Nazca is pretty grim, but thousands of travelers come anyway to see those famous lines. That means there are a lot of hotels in town from extremely basic hostels to higher-end offerings catering to organized tour groups.

Somewhere in the middle is B Hotel Nasca Suites (doubles around US$40). Opened in 2017, this place is right across the highway from the airport (convenient for morning flight seeing) but about a mile from town. There’s a pool and full breakfast included, along with Wi-Fi, and more style than most mid-range places in Nazca.

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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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FARC, Firefights, and Burial Sites – Tierradentro, Colombia

The Tierradentro National Archaeological Park is home to what is believed to be the greatest number of cave tombs in Latin America. There are dozens of them, some dating back 1,400 years. It’s a highlight for many travelers to Colombia and the place is unlike any other archaeological site in the country. However, we were a little distracted by the firefights between Colombian soldiers and FARC rebels in the surrounding foothills when we were there…

San Andres de Pisimbala, Colombia Tierradentro Archaeological park

The foothills around the Tierradentro Archaeological Park in Southern Colombia are usually peaceful.

FARC guerrillas near Tierradentro

During the more than 18 months we spent traveling in Colombia we heard many personal stories about the FARC and the ongoing violence associated with the rebel group which has been operating in the country for decades. These stories brought the grim reality of living in a country that’s been essentially fighting a civil war with guerrillas into stark relief.

But nothing prepared us for our one and only firsthand encounter with the FARC as we arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala, the village in southern Colombia which is the gateway town to the nearby Tierradentro site.

Soldiers San Andres de Pisimbala Tierradento Colombia

NOT what you want to see when you rock into town: Colombian soldiers in the streets of San Andres de Pisimbala after FARC guerrillas booby-trapped the local school with land mines.

And when we say “first hand” we mean the town’s school, just one block from our guesthouse, was booby-trapped with land mines, Colombian soldiers were in the streets, and FARC rebels were in the hills. When those opposing groups began shooting at and shelling each other, we hid in the kitchen of our guesthouse (La Portada Hospedaje) numbly trying to process the tense, powerless reality of being caught in the crossfire. 

The two-day saga is chronicled in our Breakfast with the FARC story for New Worlder. 

Tierradentro Archaeological Park Colombia

Structures protecting entrances to the elaborately painted and carved underground tombs at the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

Exploring Tierradentro (finally)

Once the FARC and the Colombian soldiers had moved on, things returned to normal remarkably quickly in sleepy San Andres de Pisimbala. The Tierradentro Archaeological Park (20,000 COP or about US$7 per person for a ticket that’s good for two days) also opened up again so we finally had a chance to explore what we’d come to see in the first place.

Tierradentro hypogeas cave tombs

The decorated interior of one of the man-made underground tombs at Tierradentro.

As we said, Tierradentro is unlike any other archaeological site in Colombia because it’s home to a very high concentration of elaborate cave tombs – more than 160 of them. The area has been excavated since the 1930s and experts say some of the tombs date back up to 1,400 years.

Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Geometric shapes in red or black pigment are the main motifs inside the tombs at Tierradentro.

The tombs exist inside man-made “caves” called hypogeas which were dug into the ground. These are accessed via hand cut steps that form steep, curved staircases that take you from ground level directly down into the dug out space – like entering a crude cellar.

Step entrance Tierradentro tombs

Hand-cut staircases like this descend steeply into each tomb.

Once inside, the spaces are impressively large. Big enough to stand up in and walk around. There is lighting inside, but bring a flashlight to be sure you can really see the tomb decorations.

UNESCO Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Tomb painting at Tierradentro.

Almost every interior surface is painted using red or black pigment to create geometric shapes, animals and human faces. Niches are also dug into the walls of the tombs along with carvings.

Tombs Tierradentro Colombia

Human figures and carved niches inside a tomb at Tierradentro.

There are also two small museums on the site, but it’s the tombs, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, that are the highlight. They’re spread out over a fairly large distance on sloping hillsides, so be prepared to do some walking. And, as we said, bring a flashlight. If you have a tripod, bring that too to assist with your shots inside the tombs.

In addition to the underground tombs, the El Tablón area of the site also has carved volcanic stone statues which you can hike to when FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers aren’t trying to kill each other in the hills, which we hope has stopped since both sides signed a peace treaty in 2017.

 

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