Tierradentro Archaeological Park

Tierradentro is an archaeological park in Colombia with a fascinating collection of underground tombs, the largest in the Americas. The tombs are at least 1,000 years old. Many contain painted geometric designs or rock carvings. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site but is endangered due to landslides and human interference.

Tierradentro, which is the second most important archaeological site in Colombia after San Agustín, appealed to me for one simple reason. It combined my love of archaeology and history with the enjoyment of hiking through a beautiful mountainous area.

 

Visiting Tierradentro

The entrance to the park is about a 20 minute walk downhill from the tiny town of San Andrés de Pisimbalá. Admission is COP$25,000 (as of April 2017). Visitors are given a passport book which is stamped at each location they visit. The locations, open from 8am to 4pm, are along a 16km loop trail and each has a spectacular view. At each location (except for one), there is a set of tombs which can be visited by climbing down into them.

Entrance to the park at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Entrance to the park

The loop can be done in a full day if starting early, but I highly recommend splitting it into two days. First of all, it’s good to spend some time at each location to visit some of the tombs. Secondly, the hiking can be strenuous at times (see below). Bring as much water as you can carry because there’s nowhere along the trail to buy any. Also wear good hiking boots. There were some German tourists in flip-flops and I had no idea how they were able to manage.

If you do split up the hiking, it’s best to start at La Portada Hotel each time. On one day, go clockwise. On another, go counterclockwise. This helps avoid the difficult uphill hiking.

The tombs at most sites are marked with a photo of what’s inside and a description in Spanish and English. This can help save time by allowing you to decide which tombs you want to climb into.

Description of one of the tombs at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Description of one of the tombs

 

Museums

Before doing any hiking at all, it’s worth visiting the two museums near the park entrance. One is an archaeological museum and the other is an ethnographic museum. They’ll help give a better understanding of what you’re seeing while on the hike and about the indigenous culture that dominates the area.

The archaeological museum contains pottery, stone and replica tombs that can be seen along the trail.

Archaeological Museum at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Archaeological Museum

Archaeological Museum at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Archaeological Museum

The ethnographic museum shows how the indigenous people of the area have lived for centuries and how their culture has shaped the region.

Ethnographic Museum at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Ethnographic Museum

Ethnographic Museum at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Ethnographic Museum

 

El Tablón

On our first day, after buying our passports and visiting the museums, we did the easier part of the trail. Heading back up to San Andrés, we walked to El Tablón. This was the least impressive site to visit. It’s the only site with no tombs, and instead contains large stone statues similar to the ones found at San Agustín.

El Tablón at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

El Tablón

El Tablón at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

El Tablón

The view from El Tablón at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The view from El Tablón

 

El Duende

Next, it was a good hour walk to El Duende. The first part was down a road until we came to a steep downhill path. Then it was along a narrow ridge through thick mud until we reached El Duende.

Steep downhill to El Duende at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Steep downhill to El Duende

The trail to El Duende at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The trail to El Duende

There are only a few tombs at El Duende, and we ended up visiting with two children who live in a small house underneath. We gave them some coins and snacks that we brought with and they were very happy. From El Duende, we were able to see the next stop, Segovia.

El Duende at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

El Duende

Marisol with two local children at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Marisol with two local children

View of Segovia at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

View of Segovia

 

Segovia

It was a short 15 minute walk to scenic Segovia, which has the most and best tombs to visit.

Segovia at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Segovia

A tomb at Segovia at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

A tomb at Segovia

Stairs heading into a tomb at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Stairs heading into a tomb

One of the tombs I entered contained pottery, some had colorful geometric designs, and others were plain or damaged.

Inside a tomb at Segovia at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Inside a tomb at Segovia

Pottery inside a tomb at Segovia at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Pottery inside a tomb at Segovia

One of the more decorated tombs at Segovia at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

One of the more decorated tombs at Segovia

When we finished, we walked down to the entrance to complete our first day at the park. It was time to rest up for the second day.

 

Alto de San Andrés

On our second day, we did the more difficult hike. By difficult, I mean brutal! The first part of the hike was easy and took us to Alto de San Andrés, which has a few interesting tombs to visit.

The trail to Alto de San Andrés at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The trail to Alto de San Andrés

Alto de San Andrés at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Alto de San Andrés

Inside a tomb at Alto de San Andrés at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Inside a tomb at Alto de San Andrés

Inside a tomb at Alto de San Andrés at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Inside a tomb at Alto de San Andrés

 

Hiking to El Aguacate

After that, it was a difficult march uphill for a good half hour, followed by 15 minutes of downhill. The views from the top were breathtaking, and when we reached the bottom we had to cross a small creek.

Alto de San Andrés from the trail at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Alto de San Andrés from the trail

The trail between Alto de San Andrés and El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The trail between Alto de San Andrés and El Aguacate

Our view after the first climb at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Our view after the first climb

The trail between Alto de San Andrés and El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The trail between Alto de San Andrés and El Aguacate

Crossing a creek at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Crossing a creek

Next, it was an agonizing uphill hike that lasted over an hour. The trail was mostly a deep and narrow rut, sometimes with mud in the middle. It seemed like it was never going to end, but we finally reached our destination, El Aguacate.

The view from the trail heading up at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The view from the trail heading up

The view from the trail heading up at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The view from the trail heading up

Almost there! at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Almost there!

El Aguacate

At El Aguacate, there are several damaged tombs that can’t be entered along with a few that aren’t spectacular. The highlight is a tomb that features a carving of the sun and the moon. Many of the tombs there are entered by the original steps.

El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

El Aguacate

El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

El Aguacate

A tomb at El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

A tomb at El Aguacate

Representation of the sun and moon in a tomb at El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

The sun and moon in a tomb at El Aguacate

The views from El Aguacate are incredible. We were able to see both sides of the ridge clearly, with a good look at the town of Inzá in the distance.

Inzá from El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Inzá from El Aguacate

Inzá from El Aguacate at Tierradentro, Cauca, Colombia

Inzá from El Aguacate

The rest of the hike was about two hours of extremely steep downhill. Some scrambling was involved near the end. I can’t imagine how the people who decided to walk up this way would have felt at the end because going down was bad enough! Our knees definitely needed a break once we reached the bottom.

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