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.
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.
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.
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.
The ethnographic museum shows how the indigenous people of the area have lived for centuries and how their culture has shaped the region.
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.
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.
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.
It was a short 15 minute walk to scenic Segovia, which has the most and best tombs to visit.
One of the tombs I entered contained pottery, some had colorful geometric designs, and others were plain or damaged.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.