Thursday, September 15, 2011

Colombia – Tierradentro, Tomb raiders

Burial places seem to be the recent theme. No, we haven't turned into vampires or werewolves haunting "haunted grounds." Strangely though, we've gone from Maya to Inca ruins in the beginning of our trip to now cemeteries and burial caves. What an ending to 9 month's on the road.

Follow us now on a rough and rugged journey from the colonial city of Popayán to San Andrés where the site Tierradentro is nestled.

Our lovely guesthouse owners in Popayán informed us that there is only one bus per day reaching this far outreach in the jungle. Otherwise we could walk the last 2 kms and take another couple buses. Still not many buses reach this remote area. We read on the internet that it can take 5-10 hours from previous travelers. In the rainy season, this road is a nightmare...well, all year this road is a nightmare, but the only difference is that it can be your worst nightmare. So we decide to store our big backpacks at the guesthouse and bring just the bare necessities, just in case we need to the walk some part of this trip.

Time for a break, the bus and the
passengers are exhausted. 
The bus is a primitive beast that has had a few lifetimes of overwork. It groaned and huffed on every slight incline on the paved road that we start the journey on. Every single vehicle passes us. Yes, we are the absolute slowest; we only hope it still has enough force left for this journey as clearly it is near death. But we have comfortable seats in the center of bus that we bought a day in advance. Warning: avoid back seats unless you are a masochist!

This is not the road for a
fancy SUV with chrome rims
We turn from the main road to Cali and head inland. The road is dirt, at best; then mud at frequent intervals. There hadn't been rain for about a week, so how come there is so much mud? Ah, the answer is that the steep mountains beside us are melting! There are waterfalls cascading down everywhere from trickles to torrents. The fertile land is rich with dense jungle and water is everywhere. We see the effects of borrowing a road through this steep terrain, the land has no support and is constantly releasing landslides. We pass uncountable landslides both new and old. There are an army of road-workers in bright uniforms working like ants to plow out the suffocating road mass. We see innumerable bright yellow new! caterpillars bull-dozing the molten tierra (earth) and dump trucks hauling mud and boulders out. Clearly these road-workers have life-time employment guarantees. This road will always be a mess. We wonder why the government is investing so much money into this area with so few people?

Roadside assistance
We are lucky that we don't encounter any new landslides and are only detained by "day old" ones. The route is gorgeous. It is lush beyond lush. Besides the green jungle there is a rainbow of color in the moss clinging to the 90 degree edge, the exposed rock resembles the reds and oranges of the Grand Canyon. Thankfully, it's a beautiful trip as we will need to repeat this trip tomorrow. Maybe we are masochists or perhaps tempters of fate!

Bad roads but great views 
We arrive after 5½ hours and are dropped off at the museum entrance just 5 minutes before they close at 4pm. Thankfully, we can buy our tickets (valid 2 days and costing 10,000 pesos); the guards allow us to visit the two museums which are rather small but give us preview for tomorrows excursion. It takes about 20 mins to see. There are a couple of military men in cool khakis who also seem to be "tourists" too. We later discover the rest of the troupe down the road dismantling the camp and taking off just before sunset. They will camp elsewhere later in the night. We realize that the heavy presence of military is due to the fact that this region is/was a stronghold for the FARC. So now we know why not many tourists venture this way: it's not just the bad roads that deter them. We are told by the museum's personnel that there hasn't ever been a case of FARC harming a tourist in Tierradentro. This is reassuring news since we will get up very early to walk along the surrounding mountains where the archaeological ruins are. This place is getting more interesting by the minute.

Indiana Stossel!
We go to the rather well known “Lucerna” guesthouse run by two elderly folks and look at a room. It's bare-bones with outside toilets. The mattresses look like they've been in use for a few decades and dampness permeates the room. They want 10,000 pesos each (expensive) for these decrepit twin beds. Luckily we move on. We don't find a Matrimonial but fortunately we find another newer family run place just up the road. Cute rooms with ensuite and hot showers, nicely decorated and even towels and soap. She wants 12,000 pesos each but quickly agrees to 20,000 ($11) pesos for the room. Since it's a restaurant and we are hungry, we order dinner for later and go off for a quick stroll before dark.

Harrison Ford?
He's ready to do some tomb raiding
Dinner is okay. Typical fare: rice, platanos, a nice grated carrot and egg mixture for 5,000 pesos. It's a bit small even for Patrick who orders the meat version for 6,000 pesos. Most of the time when you order carne, it turns out to be a tough, thin piece of beef... jaw grinding! Patrick longs for Argentina tonight! Julane longs for Ecuador's pastries!

Trail marker. Go this way: UP!
We sleep well and take off at 7am. There are 5 sites to visit in this UNESCO heritage site called Tierradentro which translates to mean: inside the earth. This will be a very physical and long day so we start with the steep climb up to the most remote part where the Aguacate ruins lie. During weekdays they are unguarded, but make sure you buy your ticket at the museum before setting of on the 1½ climb up – just in case. You can’t buy the ticket at any of the sites, only at the museum.

It really does look like an
Avocado... minus the pit.
At Aguacate, the tops of hills were leveled and later tombs dug (or chiseled) from the brittle volcanic stone. They are like pock-marked recessions now where the real "tomb raiders" have excavated all the valuable grave goodies. Aguacate (which means Avocado, maybe because the flat green top of the hill with all the collapsed tombs actually looks like half of an avocado) also affords incredible views after the 70 minute uphill climb. It's more about the views than the tombs here. We were greeted by cobwebs and monster spiders guarding the entrances and Julane came precariously close to wearing a live hair ornament as she enters into one to snap a photo. The sun started to bake us by 8:30am, so off we go downhill to the other easier to reach sites. One of the most beautiful tombs is just before the town of San Andrés.

Aguacate in the early morning. 
View from Aguacate to the nearby
town of  Inza

 San Andrés village is in time warp
We excitedly beeline to town for lunch and discover that lunch is only served from noon onwards, it’s 11am. We watch the pack of school kids (all cutesy in their matching uniforms) holding colorful popsicles and decide to do as the locals. Our lunch is a tasty mora (blackberry) frozen chunk of milk. We've gone through a couple of liters of water already so this hits the spot.
Look who's watching you now!
Is this a trophy to hang on the
wall or for cow-head soup?
After spying the local butcher who's hung out the cow parts for sale just in front of his shop, we decide that bread is perhaps our best option. The little popsicle/general tienda also sells home-baked bread which is the best bread that we've had since Bolivia. It tastes just like Swiss Zopf. Fueled up, Laura Croft and India Jones are ready to explore the remaining 3 sites. We don't have too much time left as we need to catch the LAST bus back to Popayán which passes the junction between 3:30-4pm. The junction is 30 minutes walk from the museum and the guesthouse where we stored our luggage.

This tienda will be the biggest one in
a 50 mile radius...once (if) it's finished.
So far, we have only seen one other person visiting the tombs: another gringo. We confirm with the tomb-guard that: Yes, today we are the only three visitors in the entire site. Seems hard to believe that Tierradentro is so unvisited. Do so few people venture to the south of Colombia or did we miss some warnings on FARC activity?
 Lonesome sculpture, the nearest
buddies are a 10 hr bus ride away
We actually haven't run into too many other gringos since reaching Colombia, especially compared to Bolivia or Peru there are no French folks, they all seem to congregate down south. Maybe they are all afraid to be sharing the same faith as their compatriot Íngrid Betancourt, who got to stay a bit longer in Colombia than planned.

There are only a few sculptures in the Tierradentro area, at a site called El Tablón... stay tuned for that theme in the next San Agustín blog.

Laura Croft or Alaska Jones?
This place is about going underground. There are even many unopened tombs still hidden. The most prolific site is called Alto de Segovia. By the time we arrive there, Patrick has hit the saturation point and only climbs down 6 tombs that are illuminated. Julane clamps on her best Lara Croft smile and grabs the camera and "ray-gun" (aka torch).
I've had enough tombs!
She conquers the knee height steps that spiral down into the tomb's womb. She is on a mission: the pursuit of capturing some spirit paintings. Most are still very vibrant and densely painted. The cave's walls, ceiling, and support columns are painted in mainly reds and blacks with some white. Plus, there are many carved bas relief areas depicting faces or perhaps guardians. About a dozen tombs are electrically illuminated by the friendly guard that escorts us around. His job is to unlocking/relock each one in this expansive site and answer weird questions in gringo-lingo. After about 15 ups and downs, even Julane reaches tomb overdose.

Here the best tomb shots (mostly from Alto de Segovia)

Map of our hike
View Tierradentro in a larger map

No machine guns allowed!
...and no popsicles either. 
On the way to the bus, Julane enjoys not only the rich jungle floral-scape, but also joyfully starts to collect free food along the way. The road is lined with ripe guava trees and they are all over the place. At the road junction, we find again school kids indulging in popsicles at the tienda. Watching the kids get a second round, we decide to do the same, only to discover that we've wiped out the freezer's supply. So when the ambulance breaks down beside us, they are left with dry tongues… sorry!

The return to Popayán is uneventful and horribly bumpy. The bus is visually in worse shape but moves faster...perhaps because it's dark and the driver is hungry for home.

Join us for the next long bus journey to the other (more popular) burial site of San Agustín.