Anival, our guide in the San Agustín Archaeological Park, took out a pen and drew a perfect circle on the white space available on the promotional leaflet. He then divided the circle with a horizontal line. “Life for the people who lived here,” he explained, “was a full circle. The first part, life on earth, was the semi-circle above the line, slowing rising to manhood, then declining into death as we know it. The second part, underground, would end in reincarnation and a new beginning.”
Such thoughts seemed perfectly apt for the tranquil and beautiful surroundings of San Agustín, which dates back to 3,000 B.C. This is a huge cemetery where the tombs of the ancient civilization’s leaders have been placed above ground, allowing us to intrude upon their life beyond death, or rather their life beyond life on earth. The statues, the immortalizations of the leaders, stand tall at the entrance to each tomb, with smaller statues standing guard on either side. Their faces, flat-nosed and full cheeked, stare out at the visitor, impassive and empty eyed.
Anival stands in front of them, his indigenous features mirroring theirs, and we can see the same quiet certainty that he, too, will complete the full circle, just like his ancestors.
The Huila department has attracted national and international tourists for years, ever since the San Agustín tombs started to be exploited, more than half a century ago. Despite being ransacked for the gold and other provisions that the dead were left with, the tombs’ unique artistic quality, in particular the work in sculpture and ceramic, led San Agustín to be recognized as the most prominent example of pre-Colombian civilizations in the region.
During the 90s, San Agustin unfortunately became a no-go area, a renowned guerrilla territory, and tourism duly tailed off. But now security, like the statues themselves, has been restored, and San Agustín can rightfully reclaim its position as one of Colombia’s main attractions, one of only a handful of places in the country to be granted the title of Cultural Patrimony of Humanity.
San Agustín is something special, but Huila has much more to offer, in terms of breathtaking scenery, ecotourism and adventure sports. The Tatacoa desert, for example, just minutes away from the capital city Neiva, is an amazing natural attraction, a huge open area consisting of multi-coloured “islands” of semi-eroded earth in a red desert “sea.” There are a variety of short and long walks through the desert, together with options for camping.
The Magdalena river, which crosses the whole of Colombia before reaching the sea at Barranquilla, has its source in Huila and remains a constant presence throughout the department, weaving its way through open plains and deep canyons, where silent streams and crashing waterfalls feed it. This early stretch of the Magdalena, near San Agustín, is ideal for one of the department’s new attractions, rafting, since the water is fast moving, but still safe for tourists. Two hours rafting is an invigorating contrast to the contemplation of the San Agustín civilization. The river is also the centre of attention in the newly-launched “Festival del Rio”, which takes places in Neiva every October.
Huila’s most famous festival, however, is the Bambuco Festival (Festival Folclórico y Reinado nacional del Bambuco), which is patrimony of Colombia and celebrated every year at the end of June. If Colomia is famous for its dances and dancing, then the “Bambuco” is possibly the most famous of them all, and most probably native to the country rather than brought from African by imported slaves. The Folklore Festival is a celebration of the Bambuco tradition and attracts thousands of national and international tourists to the region.
Huila is a good getaway option for a long weekend, provided you travel by air from Bogotá to Neiva, three hours from San Agustín by road. If traveling by road, take the Girardot/Melgar route, then onwards through Tolima until you reach Neiva in about six hours. Whatever route you take, Huila is well worth it.