Tombs and Tuco

Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
Trip End Aug 18, 2010

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Friday, January 26, 2007

Tierradentro, meaning, "inside the earth" is one of the 3 main archaeological sites in the grand country of Colombia.  Although quite a chore to get to (5 hours on a very bumpy road...), we chose to go there due to its remote location and non-touristy feel.  The site is situated beside the tiny community of 400 inhabitants, known as San Andres de Pisimbala.  With just a couple of restaurants, a classy discotheque, and a simple thatched roof church, it seemed like the perfect place to spend a few days.  But more importantly, we came to realize its hospitable people and spectacular surroundings were its true charm.  We snuck into a tiny rustic guest house, Hotel Ricabet, which was a 25 minute walk from the town and close to the archaeological park. 

Every evening, we would undergo a brisk hike uphill to town with our 2 Swedish companions, Emil and Sara, in order to have our meals and to mingle with the town´s folk.  Our return home to our rustic cabin would be down the hill in the pitch dark, crossing tiny streams over wooden bridges, only lit by fireflies and moonlight...and filled with our discussions of nonsensical things.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Tierradentro is significant for its underground tombs dating back to the 7th century AD.  The tombs were created by pre-Colombian / Hispanic civilizations that existed in the region before the Spanish conquistadors erased their traces.  We spent a couple of days exploring the area amidst coffee plantations on horseback and foot. 

The tombs dug from 7-9 meters under volcanic earth, once contained the remains and ashes of deceased Indian tribes of that civilization, along with a multitude of gold artifacts.  We descended into these tombs down steep spiral staircases, flashlight in hand, and found a large cavern decorated with red and black geometric motifs.  Most sites were bare of their adornments due to the rampant pillaging by tomb raiders.  However, quite a few artifacts were recovered and are on display in Bogota's gold museum (Museo del Oro).

The sites were situated atop beautiful hillsides in a lush emerald green valley.  To get around, we rented horses for "the day", which actually became a 6-hour ball busting, groin-pulling, ass-cracking "cowboys are crazy bastards" sort of day.  It was quite an adventure, and after we got over the initial psychological fears of being wildly flung and tossed off the animal´s back, and having to lay aside our empathetic feelings of  "doesn´t kicking the horse qualify as animal cruelty?", we managed to control our steeds and "gracefully" trot and gallop our way through the countryside.  At one point we crossed a river where the water rose to the horse´s thigh!

Never having galloped on a horse before, we soon found out that galloping at full speed should only be left to Bandits and well...Clint Eastwood of course.  Our longest and most rewarding ride was to a rock outcropping carved like a pyramid by the ancient Indians located some 10km near the village of Insa.  We made our way through the spectacular valley at heights along a great river, the Rio Cauca.  By the end of the day, we felt accomplished acquiring our equestrian skills, and lucky to have seen such majestic terrain and ancient history.  But, ultimately, we felt sorry for the plight of horses throughout the world, carrying the weight of humanity for centuries.  We were also surprised to feel pain in places we´d never felt before.  Emil, one of our Swedish compadres who joined in the fun, found out that night that he had lost large chunks of skin from both butt cheeks.  

Our last night there, we celebrated Reeshma´s 31st birthday with the villagers whom we had become so fond of.  On the list of invitees were Alex, the guest house owner who serenaded Reeshma with his guitar and a Spanish rendition of "Happy Birthday", Abel, the mustache-sporting, poncho-clad man who kindly donated 7 litres of Chicha to the party (maize fermented beverage), "Marcel el Gordo", the town´s talkative visionary whom everyone looked to for inspiration and information, and finally our favourite, right out of a Clint Eastwood flick, Leonardo or "THE UGLY".  His striking resemblance to Blondie´s arch nemesis in The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, was so apparent that we had to nickname him "TUCO"

A warm and gentle creature, he ran the town´s best restaurant with his wife Maria Eva (who was also the town nurse).  He would sit with us, night after night, quietly absorbing our foreign habits, and lending to us his local insight.  He told us how he was born on these lands, and toiled the soil for more than 50 years.  He made us realize how the foreign media has painted an incorrect picture of most of the regions of his country.  It has been years since any guerrilla activity has caused insurgency in Tierradentro, although most foreign reports indicate otherwise.  
Towards the wee hours of the morning, after polishing down 4 litres of the Chicha and a bottle of Coca Wine with the gang, we even got Tuco to join us in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose...which induced a series of giggles from our host.   

Although we´ve just visited 2 cities so far, we´re starting to get the feeling that Colombians are quite endearing, and their desire to paint a more truthful and optimistic picture of their beloved country, and welcome tourism with open arms, leaves us more willing to push aside our hesitations and false fears, and spend more time here.    

DID YOU KNOW?  The common Spanish expression, Ni Chicha ni limonada is roughly equivalent to the English "Neither fish nor fowl."

- From Popayan to Tierradentro (4.5 hours, 15 000 pesos), sometimes the buses fill up, so its a good idea to buy your tickets the day before or at least a couple of hours before you want to leave.  Always bargain the price of travel tickets in Colombia.  By just talking to a few offices, you'll find you can knock off a few pesos with the extra bargaining power.
-Hotel Ricabet is in between the town of San Andres and the Archeological Park.  It has a nice courtyard and garden, and the restaurant across the street serves meals.  There is also a convenience store.  They're a lovely family. (10 000 pesos per person including a morning Tinto (black coffee).
-"Rico Jugos" is a great spot to refresh yourself with a Jugo or Batido, for 1500 pesos.  Its located between the museum and the Hotel Ricabet.
-Archeological Park entrance (7000 pesos, includes 2 excellent museums)
-Horseback Riding costs about 3000 pesos per hour, and then an additional 3000 pesos per hour for the guide and his horse.
-Restaurant La Portada is excellent, just near the entrance of the town of San Andres. That's where you´ll find TUCO (see if he remembers how to play Duck Duck Goose).

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