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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 dugout space – like entering a crude cellar.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia
Here’s more about Archaeological Sites
this is an awesome write up!
my friend shared this to me..great story!! cheers!!
Thanks for sharing. Awesome pictures too.
I live in Popayán, the capitol of the Cauca Department. I arrived in 2013 and travel often. It was years before I was able to visit Tierradentro due to the ever changing security situation. I would plan a trip then hear from local sources that it wasn’t safe, a week or two in advance. Sometimes nothing happened and sometimes the police station was bombed or the military was attacked.
I was disappointed that your New Worlder piece implied the Colombian government was touting a tourist attraction without sufficient security information saying what they, “tend not to bring up is the fact that while Tierradentro and the surrounding villages have been considered safe in recent years, this region is dotted with ‘red zones’…” Generally speaking the security situation in Colombia can change from week to week, particularly in Cauca. Local tourism offices (Popayán would be best for Tierradentro, but Cali might know), police or military posts will be able to tell you where violence is problematic or expected to pop up. It may be a bit harder if you drive yourself (when a bus company cancels a route – that’s a sign) but the government makes every effort to keep tourists informed and safe. Sometimes you just need to know to ask.
It sounds like you have a lot of experiences traveling independently in Central and South America. So you may know much of what I’ve said. I just wanted to let you know how I received those couple of lines of your story. I want people to know that traveling to Colombia is safe, particularly if you’re willing to change your plans and ask locally about the current security situation. I’m sorry you experienced this fear and violence first hand.
The ELN (Another guerilla group) and a faction of the FARC that refused the terms of the peace plan are still active in southern Colombia. Plus the void left by disarming FARC members is being fought over – with assignations of local leaders up 50% in 2017. There are still many problems. But generally speaking civilians, particularly tourists, are no targets and traveling safely in this region to totally possible. The cities and PanAmerican Highway are safe. But you should always ask locally before venturing outside those safe areas.
Hi Miriam and thank you for your informed and thoughtful comment. You make many good points about travel in Colombia and the current (and ever-shifting) safety issues and we appreciate you taking the time to share all of this with us and with our readers. Anyone traveling to Colombia will benefit from your insights.