Tierradentro, near the small village of San Andres, is in the same mountainous part of Colombia as San Agustin. It took me two days to get there though because I attempted the journey on New Year’s Day. I made it out of San Agustin around 6.30am on a jeep to the nearby town of Pitalito where I was put on a bus north arriving in Garzon just after nine. But there I was stuck, with nothing going west over the mountains. So after spending most of the day in the bus station reading (just in case everyone turned out to be wrong) I accepted my fate and checked into a cheap guest house close by. Next morning I returned to the bus terminal, said hello to the security men who were by now my chums, and two journeys over unmade roads later, one by car and one in the back of a pick-up truck (buses here are not always buses) I was there.
The park is extensive and comprises a four groups of tombs, plus one of sculptures, connected by a strenuous (for me) hiking route. The tombs are underground excavations, now under concrete caps and locked gates with protective roofs over. When you arrive at a group, the guide/guardian comes to meet you with his bunch of keys and a torch to lend you. He then proceeds to unlock each hatchway in turn allowing you to clamber down, admire and clamber back. After about six tombs at the first site I was exhausted, but was glad I kept going because the best ones came later.
The tombs date from the sixth to tenth century and comprise large up to 12m long) generally oval chambers accessed via a vertical shaft. The shafts had a staircase of steep knee-high steps, often in a helical layout. These steps have been consolidated with concrete but are otherwise unimproved, which means the visitor has to clamber down carefully, clinging on to the walls whilst trying not to plunge into the darkness below.
The larger of the chambers have two supporting pillars down the middle and many have niches around the edge. The interiors were painted in red, white and black with mostly geometric designs and are thought to replicate the interior of the wattle and daub houses of the builders. Only a few of the tombs still have the decoration visible.
The tombs were used for secondary burials: that is, the interment of the bones (in large ceramic pots here) after the rest of the body had decayed during the primary burial.
In the park I bumped into the German man I’d chatted to and eaten dinner with the night before and the Kiwi/French couple he’d met on the bus in. In fact, along with a German woman who works in Bogotá, I think we may have been the only visitors that day. Certainly when I arrived, puffing and red faced, at one tomb site at 1.30pm I was the first visitor of the day there. I gave up at that point and did not visit the fourth group of tombs, high up on a ridge above the valley, not wishing to push my luck as the most unfit tourist in the village.
Since there is no outside to build in Lego I decided to build a cut-away model to try to show the entrance stairs in relation to the tomb chamber. I have had to square things off so please imagine everything curved. Also, the nearer of the two chamber columns is indicated by just the base.