Ancient Civ 101

Trip Start Nov 24, 2007
Trip End May 15, 2008

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Leaving the white-walled colonial city of Popayan I headed to east to visit two important archaeological sites far off the beaten track but supposedly well worth the pain it takes to get there and finally much more secure than they used to be. Nestled between a panorama of green mountains in a remote region of Colombia six hours east of Popayan, is the small town of San Agustin - home to the most important archaeological site in Colombia as well as the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America (not including Easter Island if they count).

Arriving in San Agustin I set up shop at the beautiful and highly recommended (by me) Casa del Sol. If you are coming, stay here, it won't disappoint. Although it is a little far out of the way and you might have to pass uninviting rabid dogs along the way, it is well worth the hassle. Myself and a good ól Dutch guy Steef ended up having it all to ourselves for three nights and enjoyed quiet evenings and beautiful sunrises over the Rio Magdalena, the vein of Colombia which flows from Southern Colombia all the way north to the Caribbean Coast. To top it off, the place had an open air shower supplied with water from the nearby creek that was hidden by tons of beautiful trees and plants so that you could wash as freely and naked as you wished. I did it under the stars. One of the coolest showers I´ve seen so far. Far more technologically advanced than the electric-heated shower heads you find in other places and which I have honestly been electrocuted by. See Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. In addition, Casa del Sol is owned by a lady from Baranquilla, run by a local family and is constructed to be environmentally green. My least favorite part being that the toilets, flushed with the force of a bucket of water, were sometimes not as efficient as you'd hope for. Since we were the only ones, we stayed in the best rooms looking over the Magdalena cayon, Steef in the honeymoon suite and me in the family suite. Views to die for...

Back to my time. We spent the next few days exploring the spectacular landscape, riding horses, drinking chicha and checking out the incredible statues that range from gods and shamans to mythical animals all creatively represented through different ways of expression and that date back as far as 4K  to 6K years. There have been many suggestions and arguments as to what were the origins of the the civilization and the purpose the statues held but in truth, there is no definite answer and to this day their legacy along with their name largely remains a mystery. From what can be gathered, the group that made these statues (500 of which are uncovered today) disappeared sporadically, possibly from an Inca invasion but many other theories exist. Some even believe that it was an alien society that inhabited and then sporadically left Earth. What we do know however, was that the area around San Agustin was a city of dead. A place where the elite were buried and their graves marked and guarded by these impressive statues that remain today.

What struck me more than anything was the fact that many of the statues shared symbolic resemblances to other ancient civilizations all over the world such as the Maya, the Aztec, the infamous Egyptian and even greek mythology. It is quite hard to fathom this because they existed at different points in history and didn't directly share many cultural ties. Some statues bore signs of the egyptians - the distinctive Egyptian headdress and two dimensional artistic design so unique to egyptian drawing. One in particular had the cupid heart of love, a greek symbol on one side and they other side was the entire cross section of what a heart would look like if it were cut open and each valve and ventricle drawn out. Crazy huh? They obviously must have done it...yet to make the connection between what the true heart looks like with the symbollic shape of the heart known today so far back and so isolated from ancient greece is rather mind blowing. Doctors come from around the world to study it. In addition to that there were engravings of animals on some statues not found anywhere on the entire continent of South America, such as the Tiger and Elephants of SE Asia. Some statues obviously bore the signs of eperimental health treatments such as open brain surgery in which for them to appear the way that they did, they must have had to live for at least a few months after the surgery was performed as they showed signs of healing. Not to be finished, there were also symbolic references to the ying-yang balance of ancient chinese tradition as well as a statue with an eagle holding a snake in its talons, obviously resembling Mexico´s ancient Aztec civilization. The statues seemed to give a glimpse into the complexity of an ancient civilization which shared bits and pieces of its identity with other civilizations from all across the world. Where did they come from? How did they gather all of this knowledge from other great civilizations before and after their time? Did post-san agustin civilizations rise because the san agustin group of people dispersed and began their own civilizations? Did they travel by sea? Why did they retain symbolic forms seen around the world when other nearby groups did not? Definitely a thought-provoking trip, a worthwhile experience and an excursion I recommend to others.

The region itself is gorgeous but be aware, San Agustin is home to the most relentless group of people trying to get you to go places and do things with them, not to mention those trying to sell you drugs. Cock fights take place on sundays in the main square...
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