Adventures in Tierradentro

The stone tombs of Tierradentro are part of the UNESCO world heritage sites.
The stone tombs of Tierradentro are part of the UNESCO world heritage sites.

Trailblazing through Cauca. Beating dust and stones direction to Tierradentro feeling as if on some sort of adventure, not far removed from Indiana of Spielberg fame. Lush green rolling hills take our mind off the winding, and at times nauseating, curves in the road.

Situated 100 kms east Popayan, the quite town of Tierradentro takes on a different dimension. As the number of people left in the bus diminishes we step off to be greeted by a family of chickens pecking at grit strewn under our tracks.

Hotel and hostel options are few and far between in Tierradentro, and a refreshing concept from the usual touristic sensory overload. My two friends and I opt for the Hospedaje Pisimbalá – a simple and homey hostel that produces its own coca wine.

The PNN Tierradentro is under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Inza in the corregimiento of San Andres de Pisimbalá. Spread over several square kms, there are 162 tombs – not all of which can be explored – and in four main areas: Alto de San Andrés, Alto de Segovia, Alto del Duende, El Tablón and the Alto del Aguacate which sits outside the park. Having had our bones rattled during the bus odyssey we decide to leave our Spielbergesque explorations until morning.

I would advise setting your alarm whilst staying in Tierradentro, as even my ancient camera managed to snap some fantastic shots of a new day breaking. After a hearty breakfast of coca tea and homemade arepas we set off to discover the Parque.

There is a small museum outlining the importance of the site and its similarity to San Agustín 250 kms away. At both sites there are statues depicting important members of the community; from priests to dignitaries, warriors and even mythical beasts. Having been declared a site of archeological interest since 1945, Tierradentro was named a National Monument and National Archaeological Park by UNESCO in 1993. The park is state property and under the administration of Colombia’s Institute of Anthropology and History ICANH, in charge of protecting of what remains of the red and black patterned tombs.

We are shown around 12 cavernous spaces. Our guide takes great delight in undoing the large padlock and opening the rabbit-hutch style door. The tombs vary greatly in size and appearance: sadly most of which were subjected to grave robbers over the centuries. The smaller tombs are only two to three meters wide, whilst we are told that the larger tombs can be up to twelve meters.

A succession of roughly hewn stone steps lead down from the first tomb. The walls are adorned with motifs and stripes, whilst the tomb itself has two ‘rooms’ – the hallway into which I descend and the chamber itself. The archeological term for the tombs is Hypogeum, dug sometime between the 6th to 9th cen- turies AD. It is an incredibly serene and calming experience being several meters underground staring at the intrinsic patterns on the walls. The tombs were dug specifically for the elite members of this pre-Columbian culture. As I lose sight of the morning sunshine I feel privileged to enter this hollow underworld. The importance of the afterlife and the ornate decoration of the tombs is a resonant presence in all of the tombs we visit, despite many damaged due to exposure to tropical moisture.

After a morning leaping in and out of tombs we head back to the controled chaos of colonial Popayan. Recognized as one of Colombia’s natural Seven Wonders in 2007, I highly recommend a visit to Tierradentro before it becomes an overcrowded, well trodden hotspot. The scenery from lush rolling hills to craggy valleys is stunning. So lace up your boots and crack that whip. It’s never too late to fall in love with archaeology.


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