Off the beaten track in Colombia: Tierradentro

The Desierto de la Tatacoa was just a short detour to the North for us, because once back in San Augustin the Mexican and me would continue our way South. We‘d already decided to keep on travelling together for a little while, first to Mocoa – close to the Amazon – and then further to Pasto, the last big city before Ale would cross his first South American border on his bike and I would continue my travels to Medellin. – what I thought at the time I would do… surpriseeee, I crossed the same South American border as well – First, after a tuk-tuk ride, a collectivo and two buses, we were back in San Augustin, ready to pack our bags again for a goodbye that would last 3 nights and 4 days. Also, this would be the only time Ale correctly calculated the time necessary to reach his destination! But, I’m running ahead of the story. Those calculations gave me a bit of time to do some travelling on my own. Why wouldn’t I head to a not-so-well-known place, called Tierradentro?

The only picture I took in La Plata. Sitting and using wifi in the central square.

The day started with packing, breakfast and a quick stop at the bank for Ale before we went both our ways, Ale jumping on his bike and me showing him which way to go. Which was the wrong direction, I realized when sitting comfortable in my first collectivo direction Pitalito. Woops. – No worries, he realized quickly after he left and already forgave me – Once in Pitalito, I had to take a bus to La Plata and finally, to reach Tierradentro, a last pick-up-truck-collectivo to the tiny town hidden in the mountains. I would only go to La Plata that day, I needed a place with internet to make an international phone call. Since I still have a job in summer – the same one since I went to Montenegro, which gives me the opportunity to take time off in winter to travel – I have to be available from time to time to sign my contract or, in this case, to take a German test. I decided to find a place to sleep in La Plata – where I was literally the only white girl in town – and move towards Tierradentro the next morning after I made my phone call. Even though staying in Tierradentro is way nicer then La Plata. Anyhow, I said goodbye to the only – quiet – backpacker in the collectivo and headed to the cheapest private room I could find in Colombia, which was just around the corner of the bus station. Like everything was just around the corner actually, La Plata really isn’t that big and not really worth spending a night, but I managed to find the best FRIES I’ve ever tasted in Colombia. Anyhow, I’m not going to bore you more with the time I’ve spent in La Plata, only that I didn’t manage to call through Whatsapp, had to find a shop which sold international phone calls, walked around the city between 7 and 9 in the morning until the shops opened, was being stared at for several minutes by a young guy in the park while connecting to the free wifi – that’s where I realized I was the only tourist / traveller / white person in the whole town -, decided to run away from Mr. Creep to have breakfast and in the end I couldn’t find any place where they still did international phone calls. Hmpf. My German test had to wait until Mocoa.

View upon the mountains in Tierradentro.
Entrance to the National Park at the right side. Mountains are the hike and the way to El Aguacate.

So at 10.30 I was already sitting on a collectivo – the back of a pick-up truck this time – direction Tierradentro. But why did I want to go there in the first place? Coming from San Augustin, Ale and me visited already a good chunk of pre-Columbian burial sites, but Tierradentro tops them all. Yes, I loved spending a day in the National Park and see all those beautifully carved antropomorphic statues, but Tierradentro is next level. The National Park there lies in the middle of the mountains, with the entrance of the park in the village of San Andres de Pisimbala. Several mountains and hills have been used to make beautifully painted pre-Columbian hypogea, basically tombs inside the top of the mountains and hills in the area. Each tomb lays between 5 and 8 meters underground, with giant spiralling stairs to reach the bottom and its main burial chamber, with several smaller chambers surrounding it, each holding a corpse. All painted lively with antropomorphic and geometric patterns, one tomb prettier and better preserved than the other. Since they are all underground but also on the top of the mountains, there’s a lot of walking involved. Which was exactly where I came for.

Now, the collectivo La Plata – Tierradentro. You can’t escape that one and the road is horrible. They’re still building it actually, which means huge traffic jams when they close off parts of the sand road the collectivo is using and clouds of dust are coming your way, especially when you’re sitting in the back of a truck. The ride took at least 2 hours, with several stops in order to let the workmen to their job. Besides that, the views where utterly stunning. Valleys, rivers, mountains, Mother Nature did a good job in this part of the world. Luckily, I survived the ride and arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala where I stepped into a hostel right next to the entrance of the National Park’s museum. I booked a room and discovered I picked the only hostel with occasional free wifi, which came in handy later on. Hungry, I took some lunch in one of the only restaurants along the road, before heading to the National Park where I visited the museum – only visitor – to then climb up to the Alto de Segovia, the most famous part of the park.

Way to Segovia, where the old bridge had been washed away a couple of months before. There’s a bamboo replacement now.
My little guard dog and me on the way up to Segovia.
Views along the road are not that bad. Not that bad at all.
Really not that bad. I loved the views up there.

ALTO DE SEGOVIA

The Park is spread out over the whole village and into the mountains, with several hikes in order to see all of it. I had only limited time because of the remoteness of the village and it’s surroundings, so I decided to go to the part where the best preserved hypogeas were supposed to be. It happened to be also the part that’s the easiest accesible and closest to my hostel, lucky me. During my walk uphill – a steep way with little shadow, prepare yourself better than I did – I got the company of a dog, following me from the village all the way up to the entrance of the tombs. No chasing or barking this time, – remember our adventure in San Augustin, when looking for a waterfall? – instead a nice calm dog accompanying me and waiting for me when I took some pictures along the way. – I could even pet him, wohow! – Once reaching the top, the view is absolutely breathtaking – or is it the hike? – and worth to stare at for a while. When you reach the entrance, you’ll have a guard asking you for your ticket – which is a passport you bought at the entrance all the way down and you can use it for the whole visit, taking several days if necessary – and he will lead you to the different tombs, acting as a guide at the same time. This is obligatory, the guides are the ones responsible for opening the protection above the entrance of the tombs, turning on the light and making sure you don’t break your neck while trying to crawl down on the first steps. The staircases are made for giants, huge blocks spiralling down in the darkness and you need to be very carefull when walking down. Once you’ve conquered the steps, you’ll see the main burial chamber in all its splendor. The guard / guide will tell you more about it.

Those are the stairs. Made for giants. Glad I didn’t fall down and broke my neck.
My iPhone is not used to shooting in the dark. But you do recognize a head…
Figures and geometrical paintings. Only a thousand years old.
Some of the prettiest tombs.
More tomb.
Geometrical patterns.
Faces and patterns.

Now. This is a part I actually didn’t want to write, because I prefered it not to have happened, and I’m sad I have to warn people about it when visiting the park. I’m most of my time travelling alone and besides a couple of small incidents, I never have had any problems. People are friendly and polite, let me keep my space. Maybe travelling with Ale let me put my guard down a little bit, since I didn’t have any issues at all walking on the street / travelling with him. Alone is still another story and while most of the time I’m not bothered with some catcalling, I’m not happy with what happened while visiting the tombs. My guard / guide was a 50 year old local man, being very friendly and talkative when I showed him my ‘passport’ and told me he was going to accompany me to the tombs, while explaining a bit more about the visit. He explained me how everything worked and showed me around the first tombes without any issues. – The dog was still following me to every entrance of every tomb, waiting for me to show up above ground again. – In the whole park I didn’t see any other visitors besides one young guy, which I later recognized as my companion on the collectivo the day before, being guided around by his own personal guard. When reaching one of the tombs further up, which were promising to be the prettiest ones, with more paintings, the guard asked me if I wanted to enter one of the burial chambers. Now, when you enter the tomb, the chamber is perfectly visible, but blocked by a small fence of +/- 1 meter high. Nothing you can’t climb, just protection enough to let you know NOT to enter the burial chamber. The moment he asked me if I wanted to enter the chamber, I knew something was off. The fences are there for a reason, so I asked if it was allowed, since it’s blocked off. He told me I could climb over it and would help me a hand. Only when he reached for my hips and almost swung me over the fence I realized this was something I was not supposed to do at all. It was just a cheap excuse to touch me. While walking in this beautifully preserved burial chamber, covered in geometrical paintings, I was so embarrased and furious with myself that I’d let this happen, too slow to realize what was going on. He had made some comments about my legs and figure before, but I didn’t think anything about it. I felt so so stupid. When trying to get back over the fence, his hands were there again to ‘help me’ get over it.

Sadly, this really ruined my visit a bit. Those tombs are amazing, dating from the 6th to the 9th century, perfectly preserved burial chambers, but I couldn’t enjoy anymore. The only thought I had, was ‘when can I get rid of this guy’. After visiting all the tombs – me refusing to get over the fence again, telling him I could take enough pictures from behind it as well – he asked me if he needed to bring me to another part of the park, he could drive me there on his motorbike and I would be able to see the sunset. Politely refusing, I got the hell out of there. Somehow, the dog was stille waiting for me, having followed me to every single tomb I descended into. When I left, he followed me again and I had the impression that somehow, he was there to keep me safe, to make sure that I was alright. He accompanied me all the way down to the village and once I reached my hostel, he was gone. Later on, I heared the dog has been doing that a lot, mainly accompanying solo travellers up the hill. Strange story, isn’t it?

It was already late in the afternoon at that point and thirsty as I was, I decided to have a guanabana drink at the hostel. On the front porch, sitting on the bench, was the backpacker I’ve seen twice before but whom I’ve never spoken to. Time for a conversation with…another Mexican. – since I met Ale, I’ve met plenty of Mexicans, always in the moments he was riding his bike, never meeting any of them – Talking about the usual who / what / where’s, the topic came to ‘the difference in solo travelling between women and men’ and that was the ideal moment to explain what just happened. Fernando – the other Mexican – was stunned. Working in antropology, he knew what the value of those tombs is and knows that, in no possible way, regular visitors are allowed to step inside. Stand alone being encouraged by the guys guarding and guiding the place. Ha. Discussing got us both hungry and we were still not done talking, so obviously we went to eat something together. We said our goodbyes at the entrance of the hostel and after a quick shower, I went to bed, ready to conquer El Aguacate the next day.

Start of the hike up to El Aguacate.
All the way up.
Path that you follow up the mountain. Quite easy to see.
Views from the top.
Proud to have reached the top.

ALTO DEL AGUACATE

Fernando told me the day before it was perfectly possible to hike El Aguacate alone – a part of the National Park high up in the mountains -, so I was ready for it. Just follow the white columns up and the path would be clear. But first: breakfast, made by the lady of the house and of course, as everywhere in Colombia, accompanied by some fresh fruit juice. I also asked if they could arrange me a seat on the last collectivo passing to La Plata and she promised me I would have a first class seat in the front of the car. – First class seat here means inside of the car I reckon…when there’s no space anymore, you’re biting dust in the back of the pick-up – Happy to have everything arranged and weaponed with a cap, my bottle of water and tons of sunscreen on my face, I started the climb up. First, you walk to the entrance of the Museum at the right side of the road, where some arrows point you in the right direction. Then you have this huge green hill rising in front of you and if nobody told you to follow the white columns, this should be the moment to find out. Luckily, Fernando had told me, I wouldn’t have had a clue. From then on, it’s easy. Besides the steep climb up, I mean. You’ll meet some friendly cows chewing grass at the other side of a fence and maybe some guys mowing the weeds, not losing a single drop of sweat while you’re sweating buckets. Anyhow, I was glad I started early in the morning, since the sun was coming up and it proved to be a sunny, but hot day.

Somewhere, in the middle of the hike up, I decided it was time to twist my foot. I mean, things were going great, I was really enjoying my trip, found a nice travel partner, so why should everything be so good and easy? I took a wrong step on one of the rocks, tried to keep my balance and twisted some muscles in my foot while doing all this. It hurt. It hurt, but after a minute or two I didn’t feel anything bad anymore, so I continued going up. Already walking for an hour, I wasn’t going to give up until at least, I’ve reached the top. I continued. I made it all the way up and the feeling was great. This girl who didn’t even know she liked hiking and walking before she took of on her first Central America trip two years before, was now hiking by herself and even with some obstacles along the way, managed to reach the top. I thought. There was this little bamboo fence, leading to a road a bit further; I had no idea if I was meant to open it or not. – Afterwards, I realized I should have, since the other tombs where only half an hour further from there. But they weren’t as pretty as the once I’d already seen in Segovia, so I didn’t miss that much – Being a bit insecure, I decided to go back. I didn’t want to waste too much time eather, given that I had a ‘bus’ to catch at 3 o’clock and figured I wanted to eat something before I was going to be shaken for an hour and a half.

Views on the way down. Kind of the same as when going up.
Last hill down before I reached Tierradentro again. Most painfull part for my foot.

Going down again. And while going up wasn’t a problem for my hurt muscles, going down proved to be a hell of a lot thougher. In the beginning I didn’t feel anything, but the longer I went and especially when I took a little break on a bench, I noticed I could feel my foot. Pretty. Badly. Awtch. I continued, because once walking, it wasn’t too bad. Around noon, I reached the hostel, where I sat down on the bench in the front porch to try and catch the wifi and connect with Ale. To my big surprise, my work had send me the next destination I would be working at the next summer, my number one choice: Malaga. – Yes, I’m writing this now from Sunny Spain, even though my contract is almost finished – Then I started to feel it. I couldn’t set my heel down anymore and I definitely couldn’t put a lot of weight on my foot. Hell, I could only place the tip down and jump half limping around without crying out in pain. Ohoow. Half limping and half crying I managed to go out and eat, only to end up at my bench again. So that’s how I spend my last 2 hours in Tierradentro, on a bench, trying not to move to much, because everything my foot touched, hurt. In the end, I managed to have a small messenger conversation with Ale, who told me that he would be reaching Mocoa probably ahead of me the next day and who would wait for me at the hostel. I, on the other hand, told him that I had a little accident, but ‘nothing was wrong, he wouldn’t need to worry’. – I’m good at that shit, downsizing my problems so they wouldn’t worry about me

My collectivo came, half an hour too late, with…almost no space left. Luckily, the lady of the hostel told them that I already paid – her husband made the reservation for me in the village – and that I was supposed to have the front seat. Well, I guess one or two people in the front, it doesn’t really matter…so there I was, talking to the driver and my fellow traveller with whom I was sharing a seat with, trying not to let my foot touch anything else besides the floor, because it still hurt like hell. I survived the ride without bursting out in tears and the nice driver drove me all the way to La Plata, almost right in front of my hostel. Where I spent the last night watching ‘Club de Cuervos’ on Netflix – Ale got me hooked and I absolutely love the Mexican Spanish – and hoping to catch some sleep before taking off to Mocoa the next day. – Didn’t work out. Couldn’t sleep because of the pain. Wasn’t smart enough to think about the painkillers in my backpack.

Still following my story in Colombia? Wondering if I could use my foot ever again? Ready for more? Stay tuned for my next blogpost: Until the end of the world in Mocoa: visiting the Fin del Mundo waterfalls!

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HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in Tierradentro, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Bus San Augustin – Pitalito: one way – 6000 COP / 1,80€

Bus Pitalito – La Plata: one way – 25.000 COP / 7,50€

Collectivo La Plata – Tierradentro: one way – 13.000 COP / 3,90€

Accommodation

1 night in Hospedaje Exclusivo, La Plata: private room with bathroom – 18.000 COP per night / 5,40€

1 night in Hospedaje Tierradentro, Tierradentro: private room with bathroom – 25.000 COP per night / 7,50€

1 night in Hospedaje Exclusivo, La Plata: private room with shared bathroom – 10.000 COP per night / 3,00€

Activities

Entrance museum Tierradentro: 17.000 COP / 5,10€

Food

Diner in restaurant Tierradentro: rice with chicken, platanos, etc. and a drink – 14.000 COP / 4,20€

Breakfast in Hospedaje Tierradentro: 9.000 COP / 2,70€

Batido de Guanabana: 3.000 COP / 0,90€

Hamburger + Fries + Batido de Guanabana in La Plata: 15.000 COP / 4,50€

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