It takes a bit of commitment to reach Tierradentro, one of Colombia’s most important archaeological sites, though it’s definitely worth it. The legend on our map calls the track we’re on a “Secondary Road (partially surfaced)” and the heavy rains, and the trucks hauling agricultural produce, have left it pockmarked, greasy and in need of the occasional bridge. Today is a Sunday and the bulk of the traffic constitutes motorcycles making their way from the market in El Plato, which is handy, as it is principally a single-track road weaving through a rural splendour. Out here there is never a sign when the road forks, though the locals are quick to point us in the right direction. The motorcycles are heavily laden: a family of four will travel on a 125 cc bike, wobbling precariously over the ruts. Some bikes carry huge bags of produce, milk urns, chain saws and several metres of pipework, for repairing the plumbing, which sometime become entangled in the bushes as we slow to pass. One rider carries a large piglet in a bag slung over his back. After an hour of pitching and rolling the road becomes so doubtful we stop an approaching motorcyclist to ask if we are still going in the right direction. ‘Si, si. But it’s muy feo,‘ he says. We baulk at his description…bad, nasty, ugly… Could a road be so bad it’s actually ugly? ‘Muy, muy feo,’ the man adds, so we should be in no doubt. Wishing us a nice day he rides off in the direction we’ve come. And he’s spot on with his description. The landscape is beautiful. But the road? Yeah….it gets pretty ugly.
The statuary and tombs of both San Agustin and Tierradentro date back over two thousand years. By the time of the conquistadors, when the pre-Hispanic period began to be chronicled, the burial sites had been abandoned and the civilisations that created them had vanished. One cannot help wondering what became of them as you wander these hills.
Many of the tombs of Tierradentro were robbed during the 18th and 19th centuries. When they were excavated in the early part of the 20th century, and later in the 1940s, what remained were funeral urns containing charred bones, a scattering of smooth quartz stones and shattered ceramics. Mythical animals – the jaguar, lizard, snake and caterpillar – feature on much of their pottery, symbols of a new life, a resurrection.
The way in which the human remains were disposed of inside the tombs are said to indicate the existence of a hierarchical social and political structure based on chiefs with priestly functions. No written record exists though these people were considered to be a stable and developed society occupying the hills and valleys of the region.