When I woke up in the morning, there was no electricity. It was actually a relief when I discovered that it wasn’t just my equipment failing me, as so often has been the case. My plan was to head straight to the archaeological park while it was still early.
San Agustin is a large funeral site with a number of burial mounds and tombs. It hosts the largest collection of megalithic sculptures in South America, many of them gods or mythical animals. I’d been there fourteen years earlier, and it was the last trip I ever took a 35-millimeter camera on, switching over to digital shortly after. As it was back in those days, you sometimes thought twice before taking a picture, since you needed to not only pay for the film, but also to have it developed. I’d get back from a big trip with eight to ten rolls of film I’d shot, and that was the entire documentation.
It wasn’t until I picked up my pictures at the drugstore, that I even knew what I’d captured on the trip. Most of the pictures were disappointing. Animals shot from too far away. Shots from a moving vehicle that were all blurry. A huge mountain that only looked like a blip on the horizon. There was the rare surprise, however, the one masterpiece from the trip that you couldn’t have calculated. My Haunted Rock logo is an example. It was taken on a trip to Machu Picchu, on the first roll of film I’d shot in over a decade. Nowadays, I get some good pictures, but the percentages haven’t improved. Most of what I shoot on a phone is garbage, and until very recently, often doesn’t even get looked at.
Although I could’ve walked to the park, I took a taxi, figuring I’d walk back once I had my bearings. It was a quiet day when I arrived. Only a few attendants sat at the ticket booth. The entrance fee was expensive for Colombia, almost ten dollars, but for that they issued me a small passport that was good for a few other sites in the area.
There is a small museum and exhibit hall you pass through to get into the park, but they didn’t have electricity either, so it was more like a tunnel, the featured statues resembling shadows. Outside, the tombs and statues are arranged in three groupings, or mesitas. The first, and longest, heads downhill and loops through the trees. The statues are interspersed every thirty yards or so. These are the guardians of the graves; warriors, jaguars, monkeys, musicians, many strange creatures, all frowning, if any of their features remain. Many of the stones have been so eroded you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be.
The second mesita is probably the most definitive, as there are actual tombs in a clearing. Some of them are just pits and piled stones. The most complete of them have columns and roofs, with sculptures standing sentry at the door.
It is a long walk to get to the third mesita. It is reached by first passing a series of engraved pools called the lavapatas. From there it is all uphill, up a long flight of many stairs. At the top there are only a few tombs and figures, but you have a view of the whole valley and the vast jungle below. The park, like Colombia itself, is something to behold.
As I was leaving, I passed a vendor selling hand-carved sculptures. I’d just bought a few refrigerator magnets coming down from the third mesita, and wasn’t inclined to spend any more money. Still, I took the small statue he handed me and inspected it. He said it was a jaguar. This piqued my interest. I’d once been told that my Mayan astrological sign was the jaguar, and had come away flattered, thinking, well yes, I am kind of like that, an elusive creature of great power and stealth. Still, for some reason I decided not to invest a measly ten dollars in what was a very fine piece of art.
As soon as I got back to the hostel I regretted it, to the point where I considered taking a taxi all the way back just to grab it. It was too late, however. The park was closing in a few minutes. There were many little tourist shops in town. I figured that my chances of finding a similar piece were very good. Instead, every piece I looked at was a kitschy replica of one of the statues, with the name of the park printed on the base.
I’d almost given up, when I happened to pass a shop that only had four or five items sitting on a shelf. Four men were sitting there chatting. I asked if I could look at the pieces, and one of them was a hand-carved sculpture, smaller, but still very similar to what the man at the park had been selling. It looked like it could be a jaguar, with the bared fangs and claws, but I wanted to be sure. I asked, and a short man with a limp, jumped up and started telling me the whole story behind the statue. The word he repeated a few times was simian. Simian, I thought, means monkey, but it wasn’t until after buying it, and then looking it up on Google that I confirmed this.
That is how I came into possession of the war monkey. It wasn’t what I was after, but grew on me over time. It seems to have a fierce power, all its own. The next time someone tries to rattle me, I’m going to get it out and warn them.
Don’t mess with the war monkey.