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Popayan, San Agustin, Tierradentro – Colombia’s Ignored South


Iglesia La Ermita, Popayan, la “Ciudad Blanca” or the “White City”

Though slightly more popular than it was 7 years ago, the South of Colombia still remains Off The Beaten Track, with mostly Colombian visitors. This is of course easy to understand considering the difficulty to reach this part of Colombia in the first place, though things have improved recently.

You can now fly directly from Bogota to Popayan (3 flights a day with Avianca) or take a very comfortable Doble Piso bus from Coomotor (try to secure one of those large seats downstairs) to or from Bogota or Medellin and on the way stop in Neiva and experience the Desierto de Tatacoa – Avoid weekends in the desert, though, as this place has now turned very popular amongst young Colombians who enjoy going there for long parties and try to be at a time with no moon to enjoy the stars & the Milky Way…

A short walk from the Observatory takes you into amidst incredible rock formation of different reddish colours, the ?Laberintos de Cusco? (Cusco Labyrinths), dotted with different cactuses. The little towers, cliff and ravines were sculptured by the wind and infrequent rain

Desierto de Tatacoa – Picture taken in 2009

But probably even more challenging is traveling around in Colombia’s South…

  • Popayan to San Agustin is no less than 5 hours for 136 kilometers on one of the worst roads I have experienced so far, and major delays are no exception…
  • San Agustin to Tierradentro (120 kilometers) is even worse, and takes a mind-boggling 7 hours if nothing goes wrong… Well, it was 9 hours when I did this leg back in 2009!
  • Last but not least, Tierradentro to Popayan (130 kilometers) also takes at least 7 hours on no better roads.

So it is perfectly understandable that visitors with only 3 or 4 weeks at hand will think twice before wandering through this part of the country… Nonetheless, if you have enough time available, or are not bothered with challenging travel conditions, do not overlook this area, which in my opinion offers some of the highlights of Colombia, and the possibility to travel Off The Beaten Track…



I ran out of time in 2016 and unfortunately couldn’t return to Tierradentro, which I truly regret… Read about our experience there back in 2009 and in the surrounding villages.

Tombs dug out of soft volcanic rock to place urns filled with bones, Segovia site, Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia, South America

Tombs dug out of soft volcanic rock to place urns filled with bones, Segovia site, Tierradentro – Picture taken in 2009


San Agustin’s mysterious sculptures

Little to nothing is known about the civilization that chiseled these mysterious sculptures from volcanic rocks about 2.000 years ago, making it one the oldest cultures in the Americas.

Unfortunately, as so many ancient civilizations in the Americas, it had no writing and had disappeared before the Spanish arrived. So scientists provide this or that hypothesis to explain the statues large and small. Nevertheless, the true meaning of them might very well remain a mystery forever.

First excavations began in 1913 and 1914, and several sites have only been discovered as recently as 1993. Local farmers were the first to discover the stone slabs, but they were only interested in the offerings inside the tombs next to the sculpture…

You should plan at least 2 days in San Agustin if you want to see it all…

  • El Parque Archeologico – You can easily spend half a day strolling through a lush forest where about 130 sculptures peek from around every corner. Some are really fine work, others look a bit weathered… Only a few were originally found in that area but most of them were taken here from the surrounding hills. The museum itself exhibits pottery, jewelry and some background information about the San Agustin culture. Local guides are absurdly expensive (100.000 COP or 30 € for an English speaking guide, 70.000 COP or 22 € for a tour in Spanish) and can only give little information, soon repeating the same explanations again and again…
    Parque Archeologico, San Agustin, Colombia

    Parque Archeologico, San Agustin

    Parque Archeologico, San Agustin, Colombia

    Parque Archeologico, San Agustin

    Parque Archeologico, San Agustin, Colombia

    Parque Archeologico, San Agustin

  • Horseback Riding to more remote sites – This afternoon takes you on patient but not very obedient horses through scenic hills and beautiful scenery. This is definitely the best way to reach the remote sites of El Tablon, La Chaquira, La Pelota and El Purutal. La Chaquira is really special: there, faces are carved into the rocks and the view of the still tiny Rio Magdalena deep down below is stunning.
    La Chaquira, San Agustin, Colombia

    La Chaquira, San Agustin

    El Purutal, San Agustin, Colombia

    El Purutal, San Agustin

    Horseback Riding in San Agustin, Colombia

    Horseback Riding in San Agustin

  • Jeep Tour – Yes, I should have known better than just booking a tour at my Hostal (Casa de Nelly, that I do not particularly recommend) without clearly specifying what we would get… We were 11 tourists, mostly Colombians marveling at about everything, squeezed in a pick-up truck for a long day on bumpy and dusty roads. The experience was hence far less pleasant than the one in 2009, when we were sharing a Jeep with a nice couple from Salento. Also disappointing was that we did not visited a “Trapiche” but instead some completely uninteresting museum… Our first stop was at the El Estrecho, the narrowest part of the Rio Magdalena, with only slightly more than 2 meters. A deadly place, where 15 people drowned.
    El Estrecho, Rio Magdalena, near San Agustin, Colombia

    El Estrecho, Rio Magdalena

    Alto de los Idolos, among many sculptures, is home of the largest statue (7 meters) in San Agustin.

    Alto de los Idolos, San Agustin, Colombia

    Alto de los Idolos, San Agustin

    Alto de los Idolos, San Agustin, Colombia

    Alto de los Idolos, San Agustin

    In Alto de Los Piedras, we marveled at the famous Doble Yo, a statue with four figures carved from a single block. And of course, we stopped at 2 waterfalls, a good occasion for the young Colombians traveling with us to pose for some dairy picture…

    Salto de Bordones, San Agustin, Colombia

    Salto de Bordones

    Salto de Bordones, San Agustin, Colombia

    Salto de Bordones


La Ciudad Blanca – Popayan

Yes, Popayan’s historic center truly deserves to be called “La Ciudad Blanca” or “The With City”! Literally every building is plain white, beautifully restored with elegant iron grills in front of the windows and massive wooden doors also decorated with iron works. Most of the historic buildings house busy government offices, banks or insurance companies. The city is also famous for its many colonial churches, and there surely is a demand – they are packed with worshippers in the evening, even on weekdays.

We arrived there on a Sunday, the eve of August 15th, and discovered an empty city, with everything closed… Locals promptly warned us that on the 15th, it would be even worse… Quite depressing, though offering great photo opportunities! On Tuesday, normality settled back, and the center was again milling with people lining up for whatever service they have come for, and congested with heavy, noisy, smelly traffic.


Silvia – Guambiano Indigenous Market

Silvia, a village situated at 2.650 meters, about an hour drive from Popayan, is the center of the Guambiano region, one of Columbia’s most traditional indigenous groups. The Guambiano still use their language and dress in colorful clothes, especially for market day. Then the men wear blue skirts, wrapped around their waste, thin hand-woven ponchos and a bowler hat. The women sport voluminous black skirts, large blue shawls around their shoulder held together by safety pins.

They live in the surrounding villages and arrive in throngs for the Tuesday market in Silvia to sell their agricultural products, turning this picturesque village in a sea of blue. But considering the large groups of Guambianos who just hang out at the plaza, it also seems a social event to meet up with friends. When they leave Silvia early afternoon, sacks full of newly purchased goods pile up high on the roof of their colorful Chiva busses.

Though much more popular than it was 7 years ago, Silvia’s Guambiano Indigenous Market remains very genuine and little touristy. How long this will last, is hard to say…


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2 Responses to Popayan, San Agustin, Tierradentro – Colombia’s Ignored South

  1. David 23. August 2016 at 7:50 #

    These look like some really interesting places to visit. I only saw Bogota and the north coast when I visited, so it would be good to go further afield next time. It’s nice to see people in a more traditional style, something you don’t see in the north really. Thanks for sharing.

    • Gilles Barbier 23. August 2016 at 9:37 #

      Hi David,
      Thanks for your feedback. Yes, the south is very, very different from the North Coast & Bogota. More challenging to travel, but definitely rewarding.
      Unfortunately, traditions are disappearing and people dressed in their traditional clothes are now rare, but Silvia is (still now) amazing.
      Do not hesitate if you have specific questions, I spent altogether 3 months in Colombia… I will write a Travel Guide anyway, should be online by the end of next week.
      Cheers, Gilles