Tierradentro is one of Colombia's great pre-Columbian attractions. Scattered throughout the area are man-made burial caves painted with red, black and white geometric patterns. Some are shallow, others up to 8 m deep. The surrounding hills are spectacular, and there are many small indigenous villages to explore (get exact directions before setting out). For many years the unforgiving mountains of this region were a FARC stronghold, which stunted any kind of tourism development. Today, the guerrilla presence is no more but the area is still emerging from its isolation and the volume of visitors is only a trickle.
Try to go to Tierradentro for a week and just walk in the hills. The people are very friendly, and you can stop and ask at almost any house to buy
, a local slightly fermented drink. It's great to sit and talk and enjoy the hospitality and at night enjoy the spectacular night skies. If you don't have that much time, do try to stay at least two days.
Indigenous Páez can be seen on market days at Inzá (Saturday), and Belalcázar (Saturday).
The road from Popayán to Tierradentro is extremely rough, but this is compensated by the beautiful scenery; 67 km beyond Totoró is
. There are several stone statues in the new plaza. About 9 km beyond Inzá is the Cruce de Pisimbalá, sometimes known as the Cruce de San Andrés or simply El Cruce, where a road turns off to
San Andrés de Pisimbalá
(4 km), the village at the far end of the Tierradentro Park.
Casa de Cultura
, in a building just as you enter the village, has good information. Helpful, they can organize guides to local indigenous villages.
Before reaching Pisimbalá, you pass the Tierradentro Museum. The well-maintained museum is in two parts, an archaeological section including a model of the Tierradentro region with details of the sites and what has been found. The second floor is dedicated to an overview of the Páez and their culture, past and present. This is all very well worth visiting before going to the sites and the staff are very helpful also with local information.
Tierradentro Archaeological Park
At Pisimbalá, about 2 km beyond and up the hill from the museum, there is a unique and beautiful
colonial missionary church
with a thatched roof, dating back to the 17th century. This is a charming village, peaceful and friendly. Around the cobbled square, the locals lay their coffee to dry on the grass outside their chocolate box houses, while chickens wander in and out of the church and swallows dive between its eaves.
At the archway directly opposite the museum, or at Pisimbalá village, you can hire horses - or you can walk - to the burial caves. There are four cave sites - Segovia, El Duende, Alto de San Andrés and El Aguacate. The main caves are lit, but a torch (your own or one borrowed from the park administration) is advisable.
At Segovia (15 minutes' walk up behind the museum across the river), the guard is very informative and turns lights on in the main tombs. Segovia has around 30 tombs, five of which are lit: Nos 9, 10 and 12 are best decorated; Nos 8 and 28 are also impressive. Some 15 minutes up the hill beyond Segovia is El Duende (two of the four tombs are very good). From El Duende continue directly up to a rough road descending to Pisimbalá (40 minutes). El Tablón, with eight stone statues, is just off the road 20-30 minutes' walk down. El Alto de San Andrés is 20 minutes from Pisimbalá (Nos 1 and 5 tombs the best - the guard is very helpful). From the back of El Alto it's 1½ hours up and down hills, with a final long climb to El Aguacate. Only one tomb is maintained although there may be 30 more. The views from El Aguacate are superb. You can continue to the museum.
Some say it's better to do this section starting from the museum. Either way, it is a splendid walk. The whole area is good for birdwatching. For a longer hike, ask about the Páez reserve at Tumbichutzwe, a strenuous three- to four-day walk, or less on horseback. When walking between the sites, take a hat and plenty of water. It gets crowded at Easter. Women are advised not to wander around this area alone at night.