Nestled in the Magdelena River gorge, San Agustin is a small town fairly indistinct from the rest in Colombia - a main plaza perpetually filled with people of all ages watching the world go by, a hodge podge of local shops, the odd man calmly walking the streets with a machete and the ubiquitous sizzling street food carts.
However, San Agustin has a historical curiosity which sets it apart. Scattered throughout the surrounding countryside, you will find Colombia's most important archeological sites and the remnants of a civilisation that to this day remains largely a mystery.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the San Agustin Archeological Park is home to hundreds of elaborate stone funerary statues and burial sites of a people that disappeared long before the Spanish arrived.
Heralded by the Lonely Planet as one of the innumerable 'must-dos' in the country, we set off down the long unpaved and bumpy road from Popayan to investigate not only the archeology, but also to see what else the town had to offer.
#1 horseback riding
The best thing about jumping on the back of a horse in a developing country, until it all goes wrong of course, is the lack of health and safety concerns. Roughly translated here, this meant no helmets, no rules and a lot of speed.
Fat and Thin (our imaginatively named horses) responded purely to our toothless guide Pompocho's loud whistles - setting off at break neck speeds along dusty roads or tracks high up in the hills. It was great fun!
Officially this is a way to explore three of four archeological sites outside of the main park. This includes seeing one of the few coloured statues remaining and the iconic Chaquira which is carved in rock overlooking a magnificent river valley. The sites weren't too interesting, with the highlight definitely being more about the horses and the scenery - it was simply a beautiful way to enjoy a little more of the countryside off the beaten path.
Cost: The pricing system for this tour is a little funky - you pay for each person that wants to ride, then an additional fee for both the guide AND his horse. This meant that our tour should have cost $140,000 - far too much in our opinion. So we haggled, settling on a much more reasonable $100,000 ($25,000 each). The tour lasts around four hours.
We arranged our guide and horses at the main office as opposed to one of the touts in town, and this is probably the only reason we could haggle them down so easily. To find them, simply walk along Calle 5, as if heading toward the archeological park and you'll soon see lots of horses, and probably quickly get accosted by one of the guides. Thankfully, the horses we saw were all in good condition and looked well-cared for.
You are able to walk to the sites that we visited if you don't feel like spending this much. However, we would definitely recommend going with the horses.
Also, be aware that your guide is really only a guide to help you on the horses and along the route; he isn't there to tell you the history of the statues etc.
Word of warning: At the end of our ride, when we were dismounting, a number of official looking men approached us trying to sell some sort of trip. It took a while to realise what they were offering but eventually we established it was an offer of a trip to a cocaine 'factory' outside of town, masquerading as a brewery. Be a responsible tourist guys, Colombia is recovering its reputation, don't ruin it.
#2 archeological park
Whilst the burial sites span an area of at least 250km, the main spot to explore what little history we know and get a chance to see the statues up close is during a trip to the main archeological park, which is essentially one big outdoor museum exhibit.
Although the majority have been uprooted to protect the fragile stone from the elements, it is here that you will also find a number of statues in situ, along side the tombs they once adorned, often in remarkable condition.
The park is well put-together with a museum, forest walk, five well-demarcated statue zones and a waterway. You'll probably spend at least three hours there, and if you're anything like us, will get more than your fill of history during this time!
How to get there: The main park is situated around 3km from the town centre. Buses leave regularly from the town ($1,200 per person), but you can easily walk to the park on your own.
Cost: The pricing system has recently changed. Now, you have to pay $20,000 per person for a 'passport' - this gives you access to the main park and Alto de los Idolos, which is situated outside of town.
For those who only want to visit the park, this is a frustrating doubling of the previous price.
#3 eat at el tomate restaurant
Take it from us, GOOD vegetarian food is pretty hard to come by in Latin America. So whenever we find a place that specialises in food without a face we hot foot in over there pretty sharpish to check it out.
Recommended by every guidebook on the town, we had high expectations for Swiss-owned El Tomate - and were not disappointed! Outdone only by Sin Nombre Quesadillas in San Cristobal, this little restaurant provided some of the best vegetarian food thus far on this trip.
With a menu that changes every day, if you're here for a little while we recommend going back at least a couple of times - just make sure to get there early. We went at 1 p.m. one day and they had run out of food!
How to get there: Tomate is on Calle 5, which is the same road you walk along to reach the national park.
Cost: For $8,000 you got a starter of soup, a freshly-squeezed juice and a large main. This was EXTREMELY good value.
#4 gorge on delicious pastries
Colombians LOVE their sugary treats, and you can find a bakery on almost every corner in the southern part of the country. San Agustin, is no exception.
We are not ashamed to admit that we went to the same little place ('Ricuras') for coffee and cake at least once a day during our stay, determined to enjoy as much arequipe (dulce de leche) as possible before crossing the border.
Cost: Two substantial pastries and two GOOD coffees (not instant) will cost around $4,500 pesos.
How to get there: Ricuras is located one block to the right of the main plaza in a large green building with red doors, you can't miss it! (see photo)
#5 indulge in some 'local specialities'
Whilst one of us would certainly not encourage the eating of a popular British pet, guinea pig does seem to be very popular here. Most of the restaurants in town seem to stick to more standard fare, but on the way to the archeological site and you will find plenty of road-side eateries keen to welcome you in for a spit-roasted treat. By all accounts it's delicious!
Where to stay in San Agustin
As with so many places, this really comes down to budget.
For those that are really watching the pennies, we'd recommend El Jardin in the town centre. It's basic but comfortable and has a kitchen (albeit pretty terrible) and it's by far the best cheap option in town.
Even we however opted to move to the most popular hostel in town for our final night. Hotel Casa de Nelly is hands-down our top pick for San Agustin. Beautiful setting with fantastic views, nice rooms and great staff. It's 15 mins walk out of town but totally worth the extra exercise! Click here to make a reservation.
is San Agustin worth the visit?
We're not entirely sure.
Despite having seen some of the world's most impressive archeological sites on this trip and a number of others on our travels, we'll both admit that we were underwhelmed. Admittedly, neither of us are huge fans of certain types of archeological sites and San Agustin's park falls into this category. It is an enjoyable place to spend a morning or afternoon, but given that we travelled quite a distance out of the way to come here, it fell a little flat.
By far the best bit of this town (if we're not including anything that went in our mouths) was the horse ride. As soon as we focused on the actual experience of being on the back of horse, rather than being impressed by the history, we had great fun.
There are a few other activities around the town - waterfalls, treks and other statue sites - but none of this really attracted us.
As we said in the introduction, the town itself really is nothing out of the ordinary, and the countryside surrounding it, whilst beautiful, is common to much of southern Colombia.
If you have a genuine interest in archeology or are on a slow trip like us, then by all means, check out San Agustin - we did actually enjoy our time there overall. If however, you are on a tighter schedule or are the sort of person who never visits museums, this probably shouldn't be at the top of your list.