Top 5 Archeological Sites for Discovering Colombia’s Past


NEWS FLASH: The U.S. dollar now buys almost twice as much as it did just one year ago in Colombia..! This historic high — combined with the vastly improved security situation — means that never has there been a better time to visit Colombia.


As a traveler, you can avail yourself of the unprecedented present situation in Colombia to visit some of the sites from that country’s unparalleled ancient past.

We have selected five of the top archeological sites that you can take in while visiting Colombia – each providing you a unique experience for learning about a different chapter of Colombian history and heritage.

1) The Lost City (Ciudad Perdida): 

     Where ‘Indian Jones Fantasies’ Become Real

Lost City   flickr credit McKay Savage SMLL

 Photo: McKay Savage

 Everyone wants to visit an undiscovered region before it becomes swamped with “gringos,” and few places other than Colombia’s famed “Lost City” (Ciudad Perdida) will give you the feeling of crossing into one of the last undiscovered frontiers of travel.

Offering a healthy dose of the unknown, this mysterious archaeological site was built around 800 A.D. – some 650 years before Peru’s Machu Picchu – and remained hidden in the jungle for over 1,000 years.

While this isolated site currently consists of 169 terraces, small circular plazas and an entangled network of stone-tiled paths that cascade down a mountain, only about 10% of the Lost City has been excavated by archaeologists.

Because of its dense jungle location isolation, in addition to a raging drug war, the Lost City remained virtually unknown to the outside world (local indigenous people had known about the site previously but kept quiet for fear of attracting those who might bring disruption).

In the early 1970s, however, after treasure-seeking looters stumbled upon the archaeological site, gold figurines and ceramic urns from this city began to turn up on the local black market, which tipped off archaeologists.

Since that time, the Lost City has grown in popularity among archaeologists and travellers alike, especially since the Colombian army actively patrols the area and the country in general has slowly become safer. Like these safety concerns, environmental concerns have also been assuaged as a non-profit organization has been working in Ciudad Perdida to preserve and protect the historic site against neglect and looting. In addition, local indigenous communities are engaged as major stakeholders in the preservation and sustainable development of the site, which they consider sacred.

Today, tour operators such as Surtrek and a small but growing number of travel agencies arrange 3 to 6-day trekking expeditions up to the 1,263 stone steps that take you into the city. In fact, the number of visitors to the site increased to about 8,500 in 2014 from only 2,000 in 2007.

Though the Lost City is accessible only by trekking through inhospitable terrain, this hike is just as awesome as the site itself – giving you a real chance to live out your Indiana Jones fantasies.

Leading from the city of Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, this 14-mile (22-km) one-way route takes intrepid travelers through lush farmland and deep into pristine jungle. Not for the faint of heart, the trek to the Lost City means hiking along stone paths, crossing rushing rivers, penetrating dense jungle and climbing steep ascents. Along the way, travelers have to bathe under waterfalls and sleep in hammocks in indigenous villages, though this allows them to absorb the unique cultures in which life has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

This adventure will allow you to explore the abandoned ruins at your leisure, contemplate its secrets, and speculate as to what must have existed here so many centuries earlier.


2) San Agustín Archeological Park:

      A Necropolis of 600 Gods and Warriors

San Agustin

 Photo: Surtrek Tour Operator

The largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America is found at the mysterious San Agustín Archaeological Park (a UNESCO-declared “World Heritage Site”).

Located in the foothills of the Andes in southwest Colombia, the ancient site is also described as “the world’s largest necropolis” – as it is a funeral and burial site filled with statues of deities, warriors, monsters and heroes, as well as representations of sacred animals such as jaguars, snakes, frogs and great birds.

For the native people of Colombia, the statues have a unique power which lies beyond their visual appearance; though for others as well, the beautifully carved emit a power that touches on many levels.

Also found in the park are ceremonial sites containing large burial mounds connected to one another by terraces, paths, and earthen causeways. These earthen mounds, some measuring 30 meters in diameter, covered large stone tombs of the most powerful individuals of the time.

Though these works are concentrated in the park outside of the town of the same name, the San Agustín “zone” is actually a collection of ceremonial and burial sites scattered over an area of 250 square miles (645 sq. km). The park is at the core of San Agustín archaeological zone featuring the host of funerary monuments and statuary, burial mounds, as well as terraces, funerary structures, stone statuary and the Fuente de Lavapatas (the “Foot-washing Fountain” site, a religious monument carved in the stone bed of a stream).

Archeologists believe that people settled in this region of San Agustín sometime around 3,300 BC, though it was not until later that they began to skillfully represent styles that ranged from abstract to realist, creating the 600 anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures that can be found here today.

The size of these magnificent guardians of stone range from just 8-inches (20 cm) to more than 23 feet high (seven meters). Among the most famous statues is the figure of a warrior with two bodies and one head (called the “Double Self”) and one of a man delivering a child, known as El Partero (“the male midwife”).

These works of art display the creativity and imagination of a northern Andean culture that flourished especially from the 1st to the 8th century, representing the mythology of pre-Hispanic people who inhabited the area during that time.

The San Agustín site was rediscovered in 18th century, with the first description of it made by a Spanish monk who asserted that the statues were carved by the devil to warn the natives of the coming of the Spanish missionaries.

Due to the obscurity of the culture that produced these statues, various other theories have been forwarded about their meaning, though archaeologists generally agree that the statues were used in a funerary context, functioning as guardians of the dead.


3) Tierradentro:

      A Testimony to Pre-Hispanic Culture

Tierradentro mod

Photo: Wikipedia

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tierradentro Archaeological Park contains the largest and most elaborate concentration of pre-Columbian underground graves, with these containing a number of unique and intricate murals painted on their inner walls.

Located near Cali, in southwestern Colombia’s Andean central cordillera, these 162 in situ pre-Columbian subterranean tombs with side chambers (known as “hypogea”) were carved in the volcanic tuff below hilltops and mountain ridges.

These crypts, some measuring up to 39 feet (12 m.) wide and 23 feet (7 m.) deep, were made from 600 to 900 AD, and served as collective secondary burial for elite groups.

The tombs are often decorated with murals featuring elaborate geometric, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs in red and black paint on a white background. The chambers of the more impressive underground structures were also decorated with elaborate anthropomorphic carvings.

Underground tombs with side chambers have been found over the whole of America, from Mexico to north-western Argentina, but their largest concentration is here in Colombia. However, it is not only the number and concentration of these tombs at Tierradentro that is unique, but also their structural and internal features. 

As UNESCO notes: “The archaeological area of Tierradentro, with its complex of hypogeal, is a unique testimony to the everyday life, ritual and the singular conception of burial space, of a developed and stable society. It also reveals the social complexity and cultural wealth of a pre-Hispanic society in the northern Andean region of South America.  The site provides a unique testimony to the high level of artistic and social culture of the region over its long pre-Hispanic history.”

The park also includes the El Tablón site, where stone sculptures associated to tombs of earlier periods are protected and have been placed on display.

The sites were abandoned before the 13th century AD and modern occupation gradually uncovered the tombs, many of which were opened and looted during the 18th and 19th centuries. During the early 20th century the Colombian government created the park, protecting them and starting inventory and scientific research.


4) El Infiernito:

      Colombia’s X-rated Stonehenge

Infiernito    flickr  credit JleoCar

Photo: JleoCar

Located in the Colombian department of Boyacá close to the attractive colonial town of Villa de Leyva, Infiernito (meaning “little hell”) is an archaeological site that also once served as a burial and religious ceremony site in what was once the territory of the early Muisca people.

The site is composed of several earthworks surrounding a setting of “menhirs” (upright standing stones that are in some ways similar to Stonehenge); several burial mounds are also present.

Due to the structures and placement of a series of upright stones, the site was initially deemed diabolical site of Pagan worship by the Spaniards when they discovered it. Upon finding the large penile-like structures, the Spanish thought these were obscene and tried to destroy them.

Much to the contrary, however, the stones stood for fertility to the Muisca people. Moreover, the space was used to perform their religious and funerary ceremonies and spiritual purification rites. Also, as the monoliths were organized according to the calendar, these served as a rudimentary astronomical observatory. In fact, Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt studied the site and concluded that it could be used to anticipate astronomical phenomena such as solstices and equinoxes, as indicated by the alignment of the stones with the sun and moon.

The lithic pieces are carved in pink sandstone, many of them in columnar shapes with an incised ring. A total of 109 monoliths have been excavated to date: 54 in the north stone row and 55 in the south, aligned in an east-west orientation to represent the Muisca calendar.

Villa de Leyva                                                                                                                  Photo: Mario Carvajal 

La Infiernito is located near the charming pueblo of Villa de Leyva, itself well worth a visit

Villa de Leyva: La Infiernito can be found just outside the town of Villa de Leyva, which Colombia has declared a National Monument to preserve the village’s 400-year-old architecture. The town retains much of its original colonial style, as the streets and large central plaza are still paved with cobblestones, and many buildings date from the sixteenth century. As a result, Villa de Leyva is becoming one of Colombia’s principal international tourist attractions, as well as a popular weekend destination for residents of nearby Bogota.


5) El Museo de Oro (“Gold Museum”)

     55,000 Items of Pre-Hispanic Cultures

Flickr   Gold Mus  8784016741_a92ee20633_o

Photo: McKay Savage

Though not an “archeological site” in the traditional sense, Bogota’s famous Museo de Oro (“Gold Museum”) is one of the most fascinating archeological treasure houses in all of South America.

The museum displays a selection of pre-Hispanic gold work — the largest such collection in the world — consisting of about 55,000 items (of these, 35,000 pieces are goldsmith work, while 20,000 additional objects are made of stone, ceramic, textile and precious stones).

These items and artifacts belonged to all of South America’s major pre-Hispanic cultures – including the Quimbaya, Calima, Tayrona, Sinú, Muisca, Tolima, Tumaco and Malagana peoples.

The principal items were made of what indigenous cultures considered a sacred metal: gold, which gives us a clue as to the life and thought of different societies that inhabited what is now known as Colombia before the arrival of the first Europeans.

At the museum, visitors can admire exquisite gold pieces such as breastplates, masks, poporos, pendants, bracelets, necklaces, vessels and hundreds of figures of remarkable quality.

All of this is laid out in logical, thematic rooms over three floors – with descriptions in Spanish and English. However, there’s more to understanding the stories than the descriptions tell, so try taking a free one-hour tour Tuesday through Saturday (in Spanish and English; at 11:00 a.m. and at 4:00 p.m.), though the schedule may vary according to the part of the museum highlighted.

Also, keep in mind that the Gold Museum is located in Bogota’s cultural epicenter: The “La Candelaria” district. Most travelers gravitate to this cobblestoned historic downtown area in any case, as almost all of Bogota’s traditional attractions are found here. In this potpourri of well-preserved colonial buildings, house museums, restaurants, hotels and bars, you’ll also find yourself in the heart of the city’s bohemian life – a real treat.




 Contact Surtrek Tour Operator for more information on these and other destinations in Colombia, mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and/or Venezuela. We offer tons of opportunities for you to get “off the beaten track” – places where travelers are still rare — yet without compromising on your comfort and style.


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