Usually I would launch into a review of the El Monasterio Hotel right away, but this time I felt I really needed to talk about the site of San Agustin. I have never quite understood why so few people make it down to San Agustin. It is a short plane ride south of Bogota and is one of the world’s most magical spots.
Nestled in the Magdelena River gorge, the lovely colonial town of San Agustin is the gateway to the most important pre-Columbian archaeological site on the entire continent. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, San Agustin is home to the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America. According to UNESCO these monuments “bears vivid witness to the artistic creativity and imagination of a pre-Hispanic culture that flowered in the hostile tropical environment of the Northern Andes.”
With hardly another person in sight, you can discover, among a stunning verdant landscape, hundreds of elaborate stone funerary statues and burial sites of a people and culture that flourished between the 1st and the 8th century BC and disappeared long before the Spanish arrived. Indeed one of the greatest mysteries of ancient civilizations can be seen here and if you book your visit with Distant Horizons, the former mayor will proudly show you statues in situ alongside the tombs they once adorned, often in remarkable condition.
Statues and Monumental Burial Mounds
There are around 600 known statues and at least 40 monumental burial mounds dispersed throughout the Alto Magdalena region. The iconic statues range from tiny monuments measuring less than half a meter, to imposing figures up to 7m high! They vary in style, depending on the period in which they were built. Some are highly abstract, depicting anthropomorphic figures, and some are much more realistic, with images of soldiers and mothers. Images of sacred animals such as jaguars, frogs, and eagles can also be seen. Almost half of the sites are located within the boundaries of the San Agustín archaeological park. A good 30 others are very close by making it easy to get a sense of this culture.
But who were the people behind this culture?
The real mystery of San Agustín is the identity of the people who built these remarkable statues and burial sites. Archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to piece together some parts of their story. The earliest remnants of their culture date back to 3300 BC, and these archaeological sites were abandoned around 1350 AD. They sites were rediscovered in the 18th and 19th-centuries. Most of the burial sites were looted in search of gold (which turned out to be very scarce). Archaeologists continue to look for answers but whoever they were they had no written language and had already disappeared several centuries before Europeans arrived in this part of the world.
Often with remote sites that are not often visited you have to settle for a less than comfortable hotel and basic food. That is not the case at all in San Agustin where the lovely boutique hotel – Hotel Monasterio is waiting for you – just a few miles from the archaeological park.
Hotel Monasterio Review
The hotel, built on the grounds of a coffee plantation, once housed a monastery. Architectural features, including the monastery’s intimate chapel, have been beautifully preserved. The main part of the hotel is new but they did a fabulous job incorporating the new with the old. From the moment you arrive, you are immediately impressed with the hotel’s incredible landscaping.
Equally impressive is the colonial feel of the hotel which has heavy tiled roofs, russet colored walls, wooden balconies and rafters. All of this pictured against the verdant countryside around San Agustin. It’s stunning. The check in area is open and the charming Angelica is often there to check guests in, a speedy process.
As she gets your paperwork squared away (you will have to let her copy your passport) soak in the tasteful ambiance. Note the antique clock behind the reception, the tasteful furnishings and the vases full of fresh flowers. Raise your eyes beyond to the incredible views from the lobby knowing that you will soon be able to explore this lush, verdant area where a mysterious civilization once produced extraordinary art still visible today.
A short walk along a covered wooden gallery (packed with more tasteful art) brings you to the rooms.
The rooms and hotel grounds
The earthy toned rooms have a traditional style and wood polished floors. The large shuttered windows allow natural light to flood in. The domed roofs are a special feature in the guest rooms. In addition, they all have panoramic balconies (except rooms 5 and 6), private bathrooms and open brick fireplaces.
The bathrooms are large with glass-enclosed showers and plenty of towels and amenities. There could be a bit more room for your toiletries but in the grand scheme of things, a small complaint.
The numerous sitting areas dotted around the hotel are delightful. In the gardens, carefully placed chairs and tables allow you to enjoy the expansive views over the pretty rolling countryside.
I once spent an entire afternoon in the sitting area off of the reception just reading. I got to meet the owner’s very young son who came over to play with the water in the fountain but found me more interesting, I think!
Enjoy leisurely walks around the extensive grounds and admire the small coffee plantation and fruit orchards at this sprawling property. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, climb up to the watchtower for spectacular views of the surrounding highlands.
When hunger strikes, rest assured that you will be well-looked after at El Monasterio. The breakfast – which can be eaten in the gardens – is gorgeous. They have an impressive array of fruits and freshly squeezed juices. The eggs are made to order and there is an extensive selection of local cheeses, yogurts, and freshly baked goods. I have not had lunch at the hotel (there are great places in town), but the dinners are wonderful. There is one of those colonial style fire-places and on cool evenings, a roaring fire is always going.
I have had some of the best soups ever here and the main courses are creative and use local ingredients. The menu is not extensive but the Italian chef does well creating a fusion of delicate flavors.
If you want really to be completely alone, sneak into the chapel which is open at all hours and think about the once faint echoes of distant steps as priests went about their timeless work here in San Agustin.