Communing with saints in the Guatemalan highlands

A visit to the shrine of Maximon

A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons

Forty quetzales for an audience with a saint: it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

I practise looking pious and respectful as Francisco leads the way, past the mango sellers in their shawls of handwoven cloth, over the cobblestones of Santiago Atitilán’s central square and into the network of alleyways beyond. Ill-kept dogs with the weary look of strays patrol a courtyard that smells faintly of incense and rotting fruit. My newly appointed guide grins and motions to the doorway ahead of us.

I don’t know what I was expecting, a church perhaps, but not this low room with its breeze block walls or the trestle tables with their detritus of soft-drinks bottles and dried flowers. In the far corner, an elderly man with a stoop is conversing with the plastic statues of apostles, while another lies dozing on a bench, his chin on his chest and the brim of his hat pulled down low over his eyes. Most surprising of all are the Christmas jingles that play through crackly, consumptive old speakers. This is no ordinary shrine. But then Maximon, the wooden figure who stands before me in studded leather boots and robes of coloured silk, is no ordinary Saint.

His cult has its origins in the 16th century, or so they say, a fusion of the militarised Catholicism of the Conquistadors and the religious practices of the Maya which continue to thrive here, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The Saint’s power is legendary. He can cure disease, bring rain and make the waters teem with fish and, despite the best efforts of the modern-day Catholic Church, he is still both respected and feared by many within Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population. “There are people here who say that Maximon is the Devil,” Francisco tells me, “but as soon as they become ill, they run to him and beg for his forgiveness.”

As if on cue, a thickset man with a neatly clipped moustache enters the shrine and kneels before the Saint. I watch as he lays out his gifts – a dog-eared packet of cigarettes, a bottle of rum, a twenty quetzal note – placing them on the floor at Maximon‘s feet.

His prayer sounds odd in the cold acoustic of the room, a strident monotone devoid of emotion. “He’s asking Maximon to protect him from a woman,” Francisco whispers, “a temptress.”

For a moment, I feel as if I’m intruding, but then the worshipper breaks off to offer Maximon a cigarette. Francisco seems to have lost interest and is talking loudly on his mobile phone, topping-up his credit. The sleeping attendant is yet to stir.

I glance over my shoulder as I slip out into the sunshine, savouring my last image of this curious backstreet saint. Maximon remains inscrutable behind his mask of dun-coloured wood, the butt of a cigarette dangling from his lips.

– Thomas Rees

– Photo credit: A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons

You’ll find Maximon in the backstreets of Santiago, on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán. The shrine moves on a regular basis. Ask around at the jetty for a guide and be prepared to haggle. 

La Venencia

Madrid has more bars per capita than any other city in Europe, but they aren’t all made equal. Find out what makes La Venencia, a historic drinking hole near Plaza Santa Ana, one of the very best.

La Venencia: The One Bar You Must Visit In Madrid

If you want to know what Madrid was like in the 1930s, there’s a bar on Calle Echegaray that you should visit. It isn’t somewhere you’re likely to stumble upon. It doesn’t have a prime location or a flash new website, and there’s nothing informing you that Hemingway once drank there, though he did. On the contrary, its owners shun publicity preferring to rely on the patronage of their regulars, word of mouth and the simple green and white sign that hangs above the lintel. But that’s all as it should be.

Step inside La Venencia and you’ll see that it’s more than just this marketing strategy that has remained unchanged over the years. The bar’s interior is much the same as it was in the days of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) when republican soldiers and supporters of the anti-fascist cause met to exchange stories of battlefield heroism and to lament the advance of General Franco’s forces, passing snippets of information to sympathetic foreign journalists like ‘Don Ernesto’, as Hemingway came to be known.

A wooden bar runs the length of the room and at the far end, by an ancient till with a handle like a one armed bandit, is a stack of barrels stained the color of molasses. Motionless wooden fans hang from the ceiling and covering the walls are shelves of dust-smeared bottles and faded posters for sherry festivals that have long ceased to exist.

On the raised level at the back, reached by a short flight of steps and separated by a white silk screen, is an assortment of antique tables and chairs, a wooden luggage rail, a glass fronted cabinet filled with tattered books and a heavy mirror, curiously angled towards the floor. But, of all the antiques in La Venencia, the bar’s namesake – an elegant silver serving device used for extracting sherry from the barrel – is the most fitting. Don’t come here in search of a beer, because carefully sourced Spanish sherry (jerez) is the only thing that La Venencia serves.

On a faded sheet of paper near the barrels there’s a poem and it goes something like this: ‘Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado, Palo cortado’. Five Spanish sherries all for €1.70/€2 a glass or €11/ €12 the bottle, ranging from crisp and refreshing (the Manzanilla) to something more rounded (the Fino), with nut brown Oloroso the darkest and richest of the five and Amontillado and Palo cortado somewhere in between. There’s nothing else to drink. Just sherry (jerez) and tap water, but with wines as good as these, from selected bodegas in Andalucia, that isn’t the slightest bit of a problem.

Then comes the tapas; crisp, emerald green olives in herb scented oil that arrive with your first drink; slices of pale manchego cheese; preserved meats and chorizo sausage marbled with ivory coloured fat; and leathery mojama – cured tuna the colour of red wine. Sufficiently saline to make you drink like a fish, all of it is delicious, not to mention cheap.

Manzanilla sherry and olives at La Venencia

You can watch the barmen write up your order in chalk on the surface of the bar, but don’t expect much in the way of conversation. Just as in many of the best places in Madrid, the staff at La Venencia are as brief and uncompromising as the menu, elderly Castilians who pride themselves on their surliness and work, as far as possible, in silence.

When they do say something it’s usually to cut you down to size. On this, my second visit, in the company of Gonzalo (a friend and La Venencia regular) we come to the aid of a group of American tourists looking for the sweetest sherry on the menu. “We don’t have sweet sherries,” comes the barman’s curt reply. Gonzalo smiles weakly and recommends the Oloroso. “Technically they wouldn’t consider any of them sweet,” he says.

The staff will speak up to enforce the rules of the house too, rules that have their origins in La Venencia’s Civil War days. There’s an outright ban on tipping, in line with the socialist principles of the Spanish republicans, and taking photographs is frowned upon because La Venencia’s clientele once had to be wary of fascist spies. Thankfully, the final rule, ‘no spitting on the floor’, now seems like common sense. Some things are best left in the Thirties.

If anything has changed over the years, aside from attitudes to hygiene, it’s the people who drink here. On a typical night, you’ll find elderly couples clutching slender glasses of Fino and groups of Spanish students gossiping over plates of salsichon. Socialites and flamboyant thespians prop up the bar and well-informed tourists snap furtive photos of the black cat, which stalks between the chair legs.

The quality of the air has improved a little too. “You used to be able to smoke in here,” says Gonzalo, motioning to the leathery, nicotine-stained walls. “It was like entering another world.” Though the fug of tobacco smoke and the republican soldiers may be gone, it still is.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Thomas Rees and Krista/Flickr

La Venencia, Calle de Echegaray 7, Madrid, Spain, +34 914 29 73 13 Open daily between 12.30 and 3.30pm and from 7.30pm until around midnight

Matadero Madrid

A former slaughterhouse in the south of Madrid, Matadero is fast earning a reputation as one of the most exciting arts venues in Europe, aided by creative programming and a fiercely contemporary setting that’s as chilling as it is beautiful

Taller. Interior

There’s a passage in For Whom the Bell Tolls about prophecy and the smell of death. It’s a smell that consists of three parts, writes Ernest Hemingway (putting words in the mouth of Pilar, a Spanish civil war fighter and gypsy mystic) and recreating it is a messy business. First, you must head out to sea. ‘Put your nose against the brass handle of the screwed-tight porthole on a rolling ship that is swaying under you so that you are faint and hollow in the stomach and you have part of that smell,’ he writes. You’ll find another, ‘the odor of wet earth, the dead flowers, and the doings of the night,’ at the botanic gardens in Madrid where prostitutes once plied their trade against the railings. And the remaining part? For that you must go down to the city’s matadero early in the morning. ‘Wait for one of the old women who go before daylight to drink the blood of the beasts that are slaughtered. When such an old woman comes out…hold her to you and kiss her on the mouth,’ then you will have it.

At the time Hemingway was writing, the elegant naves that line the north bank of the Manzanares river housed Madrid’s largest livestock market and slaughterhouse. But, just as the botanic gardens have long been prostitute-free and the blood of freshly slaughtered cattle has, despite its supposed health benefits, ceased to appeal to the city’s elderly residents, a lot has changed. Visit the site today, and you’ll still find rooms divided by heavy plastic curtains and interior walls of crumbling concrete and sheet metal. You can still see the cavernous refrigeration unit with its ribbed floor tiles and fire blackened ceiling and look out across a plaza filled with strangely beautiful warehouses built from sandstone, red brick and patches of coloured mosaic. The grim machinery and the taint of death, however, are long gone.

In the late 1980s, town council bureaucrats moved into the site’s administrative buildings. Just a few years later, the Spanish National Ballet and National Dance Company were leaping about the former cattle stalls, converted into their new headquarters by architect Antonio Fernández Alba. And, in the last decade, the majority of the remaining warehouses, covering an area of 55,000m2 in total, have been transformed into Matadero Madrid, one of Europe’s most innovative centres for culture and the arts.

Hailed as the ‘cultural future’ of the city by the Spanish press and the ‘place that all contemporary Spanish artists want to see their work exhibited’, the centre aims to promote dialogue between disciplines, provide funding and support for new artistic projects, and to help strengthen Madrid’s identity as a modern cultural metropolis.

To that end, its activities extend to all areas of the arts. Three of the central warehouses have been taken over by the distinguished theatre company Teatro Español, and have staged regular productions since opening in 2007, among them La cortesía de España by Lope de Vega and the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Closeby you’ll find the Cineteca, a cutting edge arthouse cinema complex that specialises in documentaries and independent releases both from Spain and overseas, which holds the Documenta film festival in the first two weeks of May each year.

The vast spaces between the warehouses have also been put to good use and provide the setting for several of Madrid’s foremost music festivals. The Dia del la Musica, which takes place in June, packs thousands of party goers into Plaza Matadero, the complex’s main square, for sets from pop acts, rock bands and DJs. Local groups are always there in force, but previous festivals have seen appearances from Two Door Cinema Club and James Blake.

In May you can catch world class funk and soul bands at annual festival Black is Back. This year’s incarnation featured up-and-coming Spanish group Freedonia alongside US legends Swamp Dogg, and Martha Reeves, the voice behind Motown smash hit ‘Dancing in the Street’.

Casa del Lector (‘the house of the reader’) is the latest addition to the complex. Under the umbrella of the Germán Sánchez Ruipérez Foundation, a fund for the promotion of literature established by one of Spain’s most important 20th century publishers, it holds regular exhibitions, along with film screenings, lectures and book presentations given by leading authors and literary specialists. Recent events have included a digital installation displaying treasures from the National Library of Israel and an award-winning exhibition on the Villa of the Papyri, an ancient library discovered beneath the volcanic ash that buried the Roman city of Herculaneum.

Then there are Matadero’s contemporary art exhibitions. Scattered about the complex, they’ve ranged from miniature landscapes constructed from cryogenically frozen plants, to collaborative warehouse takeovers by groups of international artists, slumbering crop sprayers adorned with striped canopies and hanging baskets, and video installations tackling themes like propaganda and capitalism.

On top of all that, there’s a centre for contemporary design and another coordinating city wide outreach projects. The slaughterhouse’s old water tower has been converted into a species deposit for plants and there are plans to create a garden in an empty patch of land near the site’s eastern entrance. In fact, so lively and ambitious is Matadero’s programming, if it falls under the umbrella of the arts or so much as touches on creativity, you’re likely to find it here. Just don’t come looking for blood-thirsty old women or the smell of death.

Matadero Madrid, Paseo de la Chopera 14, Madrid, Spain, +34 915 17 73 09 | mataderomadrid.org | Open Tuesday to Friday 16.00 – 21.00, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 11.00 – 21.00. Closed on Mondays | Entrance to the site and to many of the exhibitions is free.

Breakfast in Madrid: Pan con tomate

Homemade pan con tomate (Thomas Rees)

Catalan-style pan con tomate (Thomas Rees)

The madrileño breakfast par excellence, you’ll find pan con tomate (tomato bread) at cafes and bars all over the Spanish capital. Pick a good one and you’ll be presented with crisp slices of toasted baguette that glisten with olive oil and fragrant, fresh tomato.

It’s just as popular elsewhere in Spain and different regions have different ideas about how it should be done. At the risk of upsetting my host city, where common practice is to blend the tomatoes before spreading the resulting salsa onto the bread, I more often make the Catalan version at home and rub a cut tomato directly onto the toast. While this method saves on washing up it isn’t without its downsides. You need exceptionally flavourful tomatoes to make it work as the toast softens before it has had a chance to pick up more than a thin layer of the flesh.

At the risk of upsetting everyone, I sometimes add a few slices of avocado, while slivers of ruby-red jamón serrano are a common addition, especially at brunch. Then of course there’s the garlic, which at breakfast-time many restaurants choose to omit. Personally, I’d rather take my chances. It’s the garlicky punch that lifts a piece of pan con tomate from the ordinary to the sublime.

However you go about it, it’s hard to think of a simpler way to feel both immensely satisfied and disgustingly virtuous before nine o’clock in the morning. ¡Buen aprovecho!

– Thomas Rees

For the recipe, along with an edited version of this article, head over to wanderlust.co.uk

Review: Paolo Fresu and Dino Rubino bring a touch of class to Sala Clamores, Madrid

Paulo Fresu| © Svíčková/WikiCommons

Were it not for the pink neon sign outside, or the hastily hung photographs of jazz greats on the walls, you would think that you were in the wrong place. With its mirrored pillars, mustard coloured paintwork and patterned wallpaper, Sala Clamores feels more like a neglected working men’s club than a top draw performance space in a European capital city. But if this first experience of a Madrid jazz venue didn’t quite match my expectations, the music – from veteran Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and pianist Dino Rubino – easily exceeded them.

Appearing as one of the headline acts in city-wide music festival Festimad, the duo have only been performing together since 2012, yet they displayed the kind of sensitivity and communication that usually comes from a far longer musical relationship. Trading ideas and basking in the warmth of Fresu’s flugelhorn, they segued between playfully rendered standards, including ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Almost Like Being in Love’, lilting Rubino originals, and the odd Breton folk song.

Improvisations displayed a similar blend of old and new. At times, Fresu’s elegant lines were pure Chet Baker, yet they took unexpected turns with touches of dissonance and sudden leaps in intensity as they broke into the upper register. Accompanied by the click of Fresu’s ringed finger on the side of the flugel, Rubino unfurled classic bebop phrases that whispered of the blues, unleashing cluster chords and fistfuls of notes on up-tempo numbers before slipping back into the groove.

Fresu’s subtle use of electronics added another dimension to the performance, allowing him to layer and counterpoint his lines while decorating and rounding-off melodies with gentle reverb and puffs of air. Though at times a little clichéd, it provided a welcome change of texture and the only truly misjudged moment of the set was a guest feature from comic Hispano-Italian pop sensation Tonino Caratone who had been lurking in the audience. His strained, over-amplified, vocals on ‘Guarda Che Luna’ elicited grimaces from around the room, and there was audible relief when we quickly returned to the gently swinging melodies and rolling piano chords of the Italian duo.

Filing out in the early hours, there was a contented buzz among the audience and with my mind on the music I hardly noticed the frayed yellow curtains behind the stage, the crudely painted quavers on the air ducts, or the bewildering abundance of fire extinguishers. With acts of this quality, Sala Clamores can get away with it.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on JazzwiseMagazine.com

Guernica and Reina Sofia

Over seven metres long and three metres tall, it dwarfs the other canvases in the room, a riot of severed limbs and contorted faces painted in black, white and grey. You can’t help but meet the wild eyes of the horse, trace the outline of its bared teeth and the diamond shaped gash down its side, or feel the pain of the mother who cradles a dead child in her arms. I claim no expertise when it comes to art, but I know that few paintings have gripped me the way that this one does.

You shouldn’t leave Madrid without visiting Reina Sofia, the city’s museum of 20th century art, and you can’t end a visit without fighting through the crowds and seeing the meticulously rendered chaos of Guernica, Picasso’s depiction of a Civil War bombing raid on a town in northern Spain.

Yet, while Guernica is the artwork that garners the most attention, it’s far from the only thing worth seeing in the museum’s galleries. There are the sun-dappled marble fountains and modernist creations in the sculpture garden and a series of unsettling bronze busts by Thomas Schütte in the hallway on the ground floor. Amongst the bare brickwork of the museum’s vaults is a temporary installation by South African artist Tracy Rose. Dimly lit, featuring a striped parasol, a mound of glitter and powdered pigment, a disco ball, and a speaker that rattles and wheezes like an iron lung, it’s disorientating in the best of senses.

On the second floor are works by Palencia and Miró and an impressive collection of Dalís, filled with surrealist symbolism. A group of portly Americans in shorts are huddled around one entitled El enigma de Hitler which depicts a twisted black form recalling the jaws of an ant, a dripping umbrella, and a crumpled photograph of the dictator.

Elsewhere, there are more Picassos – including Mujer en azul, a portrait of a sour-faced woman wearing a meringue of a dress and a black hat garlanded with flowers – cubist still lifes by Juan Gris and photographs of posturing matadors by Alfonso Sánchez Portela. There’s a room filled with pot plants that is dominated by a wooden bird cage housing live parrots, and there are screens showing black and white films of Spanish guerillas with old carbines and cloth caps.

In fact, there’s so much worth seeing that it becomes a little overwhelming and I opt to take a break before exploring the rest in the afternoon. Choosing the stairs over the glass lifts that glide up and down the outside of the building, I find myself confronted by a silent group of women in pale blue uniforms that look like doctors’ scrubs.

Maybe it’s my art befuddled brain or the fact that I’ve come to expect masterpieces wherever I look, but there’s something calming about the hiss of their mops on the rough stone steps and for a split second I wonder if I’ve stumbled upon a mundane but strangely engaging piece of performance art. It says a lot about a gallery when even the cleaners are artists.

– Thomas Rees

For more information: http://www.museoreinasofia.es/en

The Madrileño Aesthetic

The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

The Madrileño aesthetic: Cafe, Lavapies, Madrid (Thomas Rees)

Perhaps it’s the pale brickwork and the sandstone, the wrought iron balconies, or the fierce sunlight that bleaches the city of colour and renders it in the sepia tones of an old photograph, but living in Madrid feels as much like being in another time as it does another country. 

It’s a city in which extravagant churches, palaces, and sweeping plazas stand beside tired looking cafes and dingy bars populated by cigarette machines and austere septuagenarians perched on tall metal stools.

Done out in formica and faux marble, many of these establishments have an air of old world formality. Waiters wear waistcoats or matching pullovers and your change arrives on a little metal dish. Yet, the floors are littered with scrunched-up napkins and discarded sugar packets, the paintwork is peeling and the awnings are frayed at the edges. It’s hard to tell a good bar from a bad one when so many look a little like dives.

Outside, the city is just as shabby, graffiti-daubed, and dated. Gaggles of old women in shift dresses and shawls sit at wooden benches surrounded by pigeons and bags full of shopping. Restaurant frontages sport faded photographs of seafood platters and cups of strong black coffee that look as grim as they taste, faintly of headaches and civil war rationing.

Even crossing the street involves a nostalgia trip of a decade or so. The laser-beam chirp of the traffic lights means you tread the tarmac to the soundtrack of a ’90s arcade game.

But this old fashioned feel, this air of gentle decay and dilapidation, adds much to Madrid’s charm. Like the noise of shouted conversations on the street below or the frenzy of extravagant beeping that erupts during rush hour, it endears you to the city and it makes you smile.

Moreover, it chimes with a lack of pretension or concern for polish that feels thoroughly Spanish. Why sweep the floors or buy new curtains when you could pour your energy into shouting orders to the kitchen, arguing about the football with your clientele, or dashing about with hastily poured glasses of beer and bowls of complementary olives? Character and attitude beat style hands down. Modernity can wait.

– Thomas Rees

Late arrival

La Cultura Madrileña: Metropolis building, Madrid by night (Thomas Rees)

La Cultura Madrileña: Metropolis building, Madrid by night (Thomas Rees)

They say that Madrid is a city that never sleeps, but all is quiet as we make our way from the airport and along Jaime el Conquistador. The entrance hall to the apartment building is dark. The walls are clad in cool marble and a heavy mirror stands in one corner. A caged lift takes us to the fourth floor, with its beige tiles and scuffed banisters, where the air smells sweetly of old varnish.

The flat is just what I expect: a long corridor that wraps itself around a central courtyard, lit by moonlight and crisscrossed with washing lines. The floors are old laminate and the walls are whitewashed and uneven. Pains of yellow glass sit in dark wooden door frames that shudder when you pull them to.

Outside my window is a treelined avenue scattered with fragile, dried blossoms. There are more on the floor of my bedroom and on the soles of my shoes.

At 2am, a street sweeper passes beneath my window with a soft whirr of brushes and at 2:30 a white taxi stops by the apartment building opposite. Snatches of conversation drift on the breeze, strings of hard-edged consonants and clipped Iberian vowels that clatter like the keys of a typewriter.

My sleep is broken and filled with images of the cities that looked like islets of liquid light from the window of the plane. I wake at sunrise to the sound of car horns and the hum of traffic. Rousing itself from a weekend stupor, Madrid is beginning to stir.

– Thomas Rees

Exploring the tombs of Tierradentro, Colombia

Exploring the tombs of Tierradentro, Colombia (shutterstock)

We sat under the scant shade of a guava tree, listening to the hum of insects in the long grass and watching a late afternoon shower soften the outlines of the statues. Vultures with ragged wings hung in the valley below and circled the tops of the hills as groves of banana trees tumbled down the slopes ahead of us, breaking the lines of the coffee terraces that striped the landscape. For a while Juan was silent, then conversation turned back to the tombs, to the columns carved with ancient faces and the rock-hewn walls with their riddle of geometric patterns.

The seductive charm of colonial Cartagena and the lure of the Caribbean means that few travellers make it to the west of Colombia. Fewer still venture into the hills and valleys of Cauca, to the village of San Andrés de Pisimbalá and the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro.

It’s unsurprising. Though many are now being paved, most of the surrounding roads are deeply rutted and disagreeable. Come via the town of Popayán, en route from the Ecuadorian border, and you’ll spend several hours lurching along dirt tracks through a landscape of mist-shrouded Andean moorland in a hand-me-down American school bus.

But don’t be dissuaded. It would be worth it for the rural tranquility and the scenery alone. It’s all the more worth it for the sense of adventure and, once you learn that the hills surrounding San Andrés are riddled with tombs carved into the rock and decorated with pre-Columbian cave paintings, the decision becomes an easy one.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these scattered hypogea range from claustrophobic earthen hollows to elaborate burial chambers set nine meters deep in the volcanic bedrock and reached by spiralling staircases. Designed to house the  remains of Tierradentro’s pre-Columbian elite, they offer all manner of intriguing insights into a north Andean culture that flourished between the 6th and the 10th centuries.

Descend the steps of  the tombs at Alto de San Andrés or Alto de Segovia, wait for the lamps to flicker into life, and you’ll be greeted by swirls of mineral pigment, riotous zigzag patterns and delicately painted animals picked out in red, yellow and black.

In some you’ll find human figures, inquisitive faces and birds. At Alto del Aguacate, the beam of my torch illuminated the shapes of salamanders, agents of the underworld, separated from a celestial sphere that hung with coloured moons by a black line representing the earth. Just as fascinating were a series of shallow pits dug into the floor. A trip to the site’s museum later that morning confirmed that they were for the servants of the deceased. Their sunken graves were indicative of lower status and evidence of a hierarchy that continued into the afterlife.

At El Tablón a number of monolithic stone statues depicting broad-shouldered warriors, priests and women in turbans, are also on display. It was here that I met Juan, a barrel chested park ranger with a thick black moustache. He spoke wistfully of the 1980s when many of the painted tombs were first exhumed and of the intensity of the colours. “There are  hundreds more,” he said, “you can find them all over these hills”. I was due to leave for Bogotá the next day but my plans were fast beginning to change. The rest of Colombia could wait.

The logistics:

Tierradentro can be reached by bus or in one of the pickup trucks used as collective taxis (colectivos) throughout the region. They run sporadically throughout the day and drop you at a crossroads a short walk from the museum or further up the hill in San Andrés itself. The journey from Popayán takes between 4 and 6 hours. La Plata (en route to San Agustín) is 4-5 hours to the south east.

The tombs are scattered throughout the hills and must be reached by walking or on horseback. Maps and information are available at the Casa de Cultura in San Andrés and at the museum where you can hire horses for around US$2 an hour.

Though it’s possible to visit all of the sites in the valley in a single day if you start early, it’s best not to rush. The climb to Alto del Aguacate, in particular, is steep and requires a good level of fitness. At the time of writing a day ticket valid for the museum and all of the surrounding tombs cost US$8.

The larger tombs are lit and looked after by park rangers, many of whom are extremely knowledgeable about the area and its history. A torch is recommended, however. Ask permission before taking photos and don’t, under any circumstances, use flash.

There are a number of small restaurants and guest houses in San Andrés and along the road to the museum. Hospedaje Luzerna, run by doting octogenarian couple Don Secundario and his wife Carmelita, comes highly recommended.

The area is fantastic for birdwatching and there are many spectacular hiking trails connecting nearby villages. It’s a great place for an extended stay.

– Thomas Rees

This article was originally published on wanderlust.co.uk