It’s funny how many Unesco World Heritage Sites exist you have never heard of. Even in your own city, region or country. Tierradentro is a case in point: so far off the beaten track even most Colombians never visited this magical underworld.
Tierradentro (meaning ‘inside the earth’) was discovered by several archaelogists in stages over the last century. There are five archaelogical sites with hypogea (tombs). Hundreds of years ago the local civilizations dug these tombs, made steep stairwells into them and put vases / potts with human remains in them.
These tombs are pretty much unique in the world. Over the last decades the Colombians put in a lot of effort to conserve them, which even granted them Unesco World Heritage status. Climbing into these tombs is a grand experience. But the biggest draw of Tierradentro might even be the hike that connects the five sites, providing jaw-dropping views over several valleys.
Off the beaten track
So why isn’t Tierradentro on everyone’s bucket list? Well, it’s far off the beaten track. The easiest way to get there is from Popayan. Sootrocauca has several mini-buses a day that stop at El Cruce (ask the driver’s assistant to stop there, there are no signs or buildings). From here you can walk into the valley (20-30 minutes) where the administrative buildings are. There are also several guesthouses and one or two hotels here.
Most people will continue for another 20-30 minutes though to San Andres de Pisimbala, a small village. There is more accommodation here, the most famous being La Portada which is also one of the few eating options here. Luxurious it ain’t, but we don’t want this to turn into Disneyland, right?
Once daily (usually at 10am or 10.30am) there is even a direct bus going to San Andres de Pisimbala. But be aware: all bus rides here are bumpy, the road conditions get worse and worse, and road reconstructions and landslide repairs are taking place everywhere. Which means your scheduled 3,5 hours journey could easily end up two hours longer. The direct return bus leaves at 6am or 7am in the morning, otherwise you have to walk down to El Cruce again and stop one of the passing buses.
Guide for the hike
Tickets are valid for two days. Lots of visitors opt to do two shorter hikes on separate days. But I actually considered the one-day hike as the almost perfect walking trip. Not too hard, not too easy, not too long, and definitely one you won’t forget.
There are several ways to do this hike. You can also do it clockwise. You can start near the administrative building. But below is my way, and I considered it to be very practical as the hardest climb was in the morning. Here goes:
- from San Andres de Pisimbala you go down the main road for five minutes until you see a signpost to Alto San Andres. Go down this path, over the wooden bridge, up the hill. You will soon see a gate on your right side you should open. Ten minutes later you are on the first site, with some minor tombs. There is a guard on every site checking your ticket and answering your questions
- the next 90 minutes is the biggest climb of the day. You first move over the ridge into the next valley. You will then go down a bit, passing several small farms, before going up again. You will end on a magnificent ridge, looking into yet another valley into the town of Inza. The El Aguacate site is on the ridge and contains many interesting tombs
- after a well-deserved rest it’s time to go downhill. Going down the ridge you look into yet another valley, towards the El Cruce drop-off for buses. Vultures will guide you along this path, that goes down ever steeper. After 60 to 90 minutes you will get to the park entrance again
- time for lunch. On the main road on the left side is guesthouse Pisimbala that has a daily menu. It’s one of the very few options here
- after lunch it’s time to visit the two small museums about the history of the site. You can of course also visit thes at the beginning of the day, especially if you want to start here
- behind the administrative building / ticket office the path winds up again. It’s maybe 30 minutes to Alto Segovia, the biggest of the five sites. You will need quite some time to have a look at several of them. In the highest part of this site are the tombs with colored paint
- up a bit more is El Duende. By this time the climbing legs of the guy from the Netherlands had started to crumble. Duende is a nice site, not too big
- the last climb of the day awaits you, a short and steep one. It brings you to a normal gravel road. Turn left and walk towards San Andres de Pisimbala. Just before the village you will find the last site, El Tablon, on your left side. There are no hypogea here, but all kinds of sculptures and objects that were also found in the many tombs in this area
- from El Tablon you can either follow the path down the hill (after ten minutes you will find the main road through the heart of the park) or go back to the gravel road into Pisimbala
As said, you can do the walk clockwise, or counterclockwise like me. You can start in Pisimbala or near the park entrance. You can spread the hike over two days. It’s up to you. You can even stay one or two days longer and explore some other sites in the area. Locals will tell you there is a sixth site close to Tierradentro. And closer to Inza is another interesting hike to La Pyramida. If you have energy left…