Inside this ‘Andean Easter Island,’ these volcanic statues are the rock stars

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Megalithic Sculptures

In a mysterious corner of South America, ancient statues crafted from volcanic rock have taken on the role of rock stars. Deep within misty forests, these enigmatic sculptures, depicting creatures like crocodiles, anthropomorphic birds, and two-headed deities, have been discovered buried in clusters of mounds near San Agustín, a town in southern Colombia. These enigmatic artworks, chiseled sometime between the first and eighth centuries A.D., can tower up to 14 feet in height.

This collection of volcanic rock statues is the largest group of religious and megalithic sculptures in South America, often compared to the famous statues of Easter Island in the Andean context. Despite the area’s historical backdrop of armed conflicts, recent developments including new hotels, improved roads, and a prevailing sense of peace have led to a surge in tourism to this region. Jorge Peña from Ivantours Colombia notes that the number of lodging options has grown from about 30 to over a hundred in just two decades, showcasing the area’s newfound accessibility.

The megalithic sculptures, shrouded in a rich aura of mystery, were created by a culture known alternately as the Cultura del Alto Magdalena or the Pueblo Escultor (Sculptor People). These sculptures, carved with intricate details and standing as symbols of ideological dominance, bear resemblances to native creatures such as reptiles, felines, and monkeys. Despite years of study, the fate of these sculptors and the reasons behind their disappearance in the ninth century remain uncertain.

The San Agustín Archaeological Park, located near the town of San Agustín, is the largest of the trio of associated archaeological parks in the region. With its forested trails and a small museum, this park showcases both exposed burial mounds and sculptures integrated into the natural environment. Visitors often begin their exploration here before venturing further afield on horseback or off-road vehicles to sites like La Chaquira and El Purutal, where more statues and captivating landscapes await.

These archaeological parks, once overshadowed by the long-standing armed conflict in the region, are now thriving centers of ecotourism. Communities have embraced peace, opening up to visitors and developing better infrastructure to accommodate them. The region’s shift toward tourism is exemplified by the remote village of Puerto Quinchana, which was once secluded due to its role in drug smuggling during the conflict. Now, it welcomes tourists to explore lesser-known ruins and experience the local culture.

Improved accessibility is facilitated by the reduction of conflict and the gradual improvement of infrastructure, including roads connecting San Agustín to nearby major cities like Popayán. As the road networks continue to develop, these remote hills, home to ancient treasures and captivating landscapes, are becoming increasingly accessible.

For travelers interested in experiencing this unique destination, the closest airport lies in Pitalito, while Popayán offers more frequent connections. A range of accommodation options, from eco-lodges to boutique luxury hotels, have sprung up in recent years to cater to different preferences. Tour guides, such as those from Ivantours and Chaska Tours, can provide valuable context for exploring the statues and the surrounding natural wonders.

Beyond the sculptures, the region offers opportunities for coffee tourism, with coffee farms open to visitors and specialty shops showcasing regional coffee varieties. Hiking enthusiasts can enjoy the pleasant highland weather, embarking on treks to sites like Salto de Bordones and Laguna Magdalena. These landscapes, characterized by cascading waterfalls and serene high-altitude lakes, offer diverse options for day trips and multi-day excursions.

Written by Mark Johanson, a travel writer based in Chile, and photographed by Florence Goupil, a photographer based in Peru.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Megalithic Sculptures

What are the megalithic sculptures near San Agustín?

The megalithic sculptures near San Agustín are ancient artworks carved from volcanic rock. These enigmatic sculptures, dating from the first to eighth centuries A.D., depict creatures like crocodiles, birds, and deities. They are part of the largest group of religious megalithic sculptures in South America and are often likened to the statues of Easter Island.

Who created these sculptures and what happened to them?

The creators of these sculptures are often referred to as the Cultura del Alto Magdalena or the Pueblo Escultor (Sculptor People). However, very little is known about this culture and why they disappeared in the ninth century. The reasons for their disappearance remain a mystery, with possibilities ranging from climatic changes to conflicts with other pre-Hispanic cultures.

How accessible are these sculptures for tourists?

Thanks to recent developments like new hotels, improved roads, and peace agreements, the region has experienced a surge in tourism. Visitors can explore the San Agustín Archaeological Park and other associated parks. There are accommodations ranging from eco-lodges to boutique luxury hotels, and guided tours are available to provide context and insights into the sculptures and surrounding natural wonders.

What’s the significance of these megalithic sculptures?

The sculptures were likely crafted with the intention of ideological dominance. They depict native creatures like reptiles, felines, and monkeys, and many were created in sitting positions. These sculptures are thought to transcend life and potentially act as protectors of the living. They also offer clues about ancient shamanic practices through their embedded messages.

How has the region’s history of conflict impacted tourism?

The region was once considered dangerous due to the activities of armed groups like FARC. However, a peace deal in 2016 led to a shift towards ecotourism and improved infrastructure. Communities have embraced this change, welcoming visitors to explore archaeological sites and experience local culture.

What are some other attractions in the region?

Apart from the megalithic sculptures, visitors can enjoy coffee tourism, exploring coffee farms and specialty shops. Hiking is also popular in the region, with sites like Salto de Bordones and Laguna Magdalena offering breathtaking landscapes for day trips and multi-day treks.

What’s the future outlook for tourism in the area?

With ongoing improvements in infrastructure, including road networks, the region’s remote hills and ancient treasures are becoming increasingly accessible. The area’s rich history and newfound ecotourism focus make it an enticing destination for travelers seeking a unique blend of cultural heritage and natural beauty.

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