In Southwest Colombia, Treasures Are Forbidden No More

Desierto de la Tatacoa, in southwest Colombia, is a disorienting badland of prickly pear cactuses and wild goats, trenches, crags and bluffs.

The morning my guide, Juliana Chávez, met me in Popayán, at the southern point of Colombia’s verdant Valle de Cauca, she warned me that the drive ahead of us that day would be rough and long. Our destination was San Agustín, home to some of South America’s most compelling archaeological finds that during the more than five decades of war here had been difficult if not impossible to visit — yet only 80 miles from Popayán, the nearest city.

But we planned to drive via the Parque National Natural Puracé, and the road bisecting this jungle and rain forest landscape is mostly unpaved, so we would be at a crawl much of the day. And then, as we headed out of town, Ms. Chávez offered details more concerning than a bumpy ride. Like about guerrilla ambushes and kidnappings.

In the 1990s, as war swept across Colombia, FARC guerrillas set up base camps in Puracé. The remote highlands and the road we would be on was especially notorious for kidnappings. Entering the park, which lies at the crux of a V-shape formed by two branches of the Colombian Andes, the Cordilleras Occidental and Oriental, I recalled how in 2002, government forces had defeated guerrillas in the region, making Puracé, which was established in 1961, safe. Nevertheless, Ms. Chávez later told me, her uncle had been kidnapped in the region in 2004.

Credit...Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

Ms. Chávez, originally from San Agustín, had studied international business in Ibague, in central Colombia, and attended a winter camp, too, in Denver, and later traveled around the United States for a month. By her mid-20s — she’s now 28 — she recognized that her education, fluency in English and overseas experience could make for a more fulfilling profession in tourism than in office work. She said she believes her country’s natural resources (sun, coffee, beach, mountains) attract tourists, but also that Colombia’s dramatic history of war — and now peace — offer even more to the curious traveler.

“When I was growing up here,” she told me, “I didn’t see the violence. The guerrillas lived in the countryside. They kidnapped stock breeders and merchants, and they had what we called vaccines, whereby people would pay them a monthly amount of money to just stay away.”

There was also the guerrilla fighter who once showed up at her grandfather’s doorstep with a rifle — which, it turned out, he wanted to sell.

“We later knew that he was back living with his family, working on a farm,” she said. “Until the guerrillas found him, took him to the back of his house and shot him in the head. That was how it was: you could become a guerrilla easily enough. But you couldn’t leave that life.”

The FARC rebels signed a peace accord with the Colombian government in 2016, but many Colombians remain skeptical and dissatisfied with the agreement.

As it turns out, Puracé, like much of Colombia today, is safe to travel and eager for tourists. Earlier in the week, I had visited Medellín, once the murder capital of the world, with one of Pablo Escobar’s cousins as my guide; he offers a tour of the cocaine emperor’s haunts and legacy, including the slums he had tried to rehabilitate. I had also spent a lazy afternoon pleasantly blinded by Cartagena’s kaleidoscopic facades.

But I would spend most of my time in the country’s southwest pocket, a region largely overlooked by tourists. In fact, I was Ms. Chávez’s second American charge ever, a fact she mentioned several times with bewilderment, if not some dismay. (I paid $450 a day, including hotels, breakfast and transportation — double occupancy would reduce that by about half. She can be booked by email at

Travelers to the southwestern states of Huila and Cauca, I had read, could pass through desert, jungle and alpine conditions within a day, albeit on some rugged roads like through Puracé, which ranges across 320 square miles. They could also do what I was now doing: romancing the stone, if you will, as we made our way to San Agustín to see some of South America’s most compelling archaeological finds, once forbidden treasures during five decades of war.

Moreover, some small towns, like Popayán, whose elegant whitewashed colonial facades have earned it the moniker La Ciudad Blanca, were miraculously left alone during the fighting, revered for their historical significance and sheer beauty, Ms. Chávez said. I stayed one night in a grand former Franciscan monastery, where my room overlooked a tranquil arcaded courtyard. And at dusk one day, Ms. Chávez led me across Popayán’s refined plaza. There, we stepped into the massive cathedral, which underwent nearly 50 years of reconstruction following an earthquake in 1859.

Other area towns, like Silvia, were spared carnage because of their large indigenous community, the Guambiano, who had declared their territory a peace reservation, and had prohibited the establishment of police stations or guerrilla bases.

Silvia lies in a small valley, and as we approached, it appeared almost like a Swiss hamlet. Arriving at the main square, colors flooded my eyes: finely woven purple skirts and jackets worn by both men and women; open-aired Dodge commuter buses painted every color of the psychedelic spectrum. Ms. Chávez, though, cautioned me that the Guambiano, who number about 12,000 and still hew to their own language and traditional farming practices, don’t like to be photographed.

“They believe in the spirits,” she explained. “They try to live in harmony with them, to avoid disrespect, knowing the spirits can take your soul, make you ill, even kill you. Taking their pictures can irritate the spirits.”

It was Tuesday, and the weekly market was in full swing. We circled the plaza, admiring the handmade purses, scarves and jewelry and then headed for the enclosed market. There, Ms. Chávez pointed to bags of marijuana (it’s not legal, but decriminalized) alongside a cornucopia of potatoes, dozens of varieties, including neon pink miniatures that looked like candied jawbreakers. We passed through corridors lined with burlap sacks overflowing with rosemary, quinoa, jayo and large bricks of panela, or raw cane sugar, along with those Colombian staples, coffee and coca leaves.

It was also possible to buy frailejónes, a plant in the sunflower family that is processed as a tea and is said to possess medicinal qualities, particularly for lung ailments. Like the coca leaves I saw for sale, frailejón is generally illegal for consumption. The Guambiano have their own laws, Ms. Chávez explained, and are exempt from the prohibition. (She later conceded that she also keeps a coca plant at home.)

As it happened, our drive into Puracé would take us higher into the Andes until we reached a vast moor carpeted in frailejónes and stretching to the Puracé Volcano which rose to over 15,000 feet and was shrouded in mist. It is the most active volcano in Colombia, and the powerhouse behind dozens of hot springs in the area that we had driven past.

The road for dozens of miles then ascended through pockets of rain forest that included colonies of wax palms — Colombia’s national tree and the world’s tallest palms — and jungle passes, and across bridges spanning the Cauca and Mazamorras Rivers. We also lumbered across miles of unpaved, potholed passages — precisely what Ms. Chávez had warned me about. And while we didn’t encounter any guerrillas, we did face another hazard — semi-trucks hauling both passengers and goods, slowly navigating turns and nudging us to the shoulders until we finally pulled off the road in the village of Paletará.

The higher we climbed in the park, the temperature dropped considerably, and so at a small restaurant, Ms. Chávez ordered bowls of hot and sweet agua panela (sugar cane juice) for us, and curded cheese which she immersed in her own. She talked with me about kidnappings in the region, including that of her uncle, whose captors took him hostage for his motorcycle which they eventually returned to him, she said.

By early evening, I stood on the wraparound balcony at the sprawling and rustic Akawanka Lodge, which affords an indulgent view of the lush hills surrounding San Agustín. A formerly abandoned livestock pasture, the hacienda abode is today like a modern-day Garden of Eden, with sculptured hedges enclosing beds of impatiens, a hillside lawn, and bougainvillea and hibiscus draped everywhere. My whitewashed room was painstakingly decorated with indigenous art, as was each room, with a distinct flourish.

Carolina Guilleztegui Ibeth, the Akawanka owner’s daughter in-law, later guided me around the hotel and its open-aired passageways enshrined with mosaics made by Eliza, her mother-in-law. Her family had sought out local artisans to contribute wood work and murals to the décor. Each room, she told me, is named for native flora and fauna. Mine was called Zariqüeya, or opossum, exemplified by a painting of one and her babies dangling from a tree branch.

This same creative spirit was on display later as Ms. Chávez and our guide, Alirio Semanate, led me among the mysterious stone sculptures at San Agustín’s Parque Arqueológico, which was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995. According to historians, two indigenous tribes settled in the Magdalena and Cauca river valleys some 5,000 years ago. They mysteriously vanished, but left behind hundreds of solemn anthropomorphic sculptures, most of them tombstones. Walking among the figures at the park, some with fierce expressions, others conveying delight, Mr. Semanate carried a notebook to sketch galactic movements that seem to have guided the ancient stonemasons’ understanding of how to position their works in supplication for fertility, or to protect one in the afterlife.

We saw more later on, after riding horseback from San Agustín through the muddy hills to La Chaquira, where three figures carved into stone face the sun at different times of the year, likely reflecting solstice or equinox rituals. But the view there was just as mesmerizing as the figures, which look out onto a misty, magnificent gorge spliced by the Magdalena River.

Along the four-hour drive north from San Agustín and halfway to Bogotá, the soaring Andes gradually flatten, and the contours morphed as we arrived at the Desierto de la Tatacoa, a disorienting badland of prickly pear cactuses and wild goats, trenches, crags and bluffs. It was late afternoon and still hot as we navigated gullies and, at one point, watched amusedly as a flock of goats galloped along a ridge.

As darkness fell, we headed to an observatory adjacent to Tatacoa’s entrance. Through a powerful telescope there, I looked up at a moon you could practically reach out and touch, and at the stars that remained constants across civilizations, colonization, war and violence, and now hung still in an eternal, pacific sky.

Elizabeth Zach is a journalism fellow with the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

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