When I caught wind of a stunt riding competition to be held in the tiny town of San Agustín, Colombia, I knew I had to be there. The town’s location in southwestern Colombia would attract some of the country’s best riders, but it wasn’t just stunt riding that convinced me. I had visited the town before, and it had left an impression on me. It was one of the most beautiful and mysterious places I had ever been, and I was eager to go back.
San Agustín is a village in the department of Huila, nestled in the Andes Mountains of Colombia. Though it sits close to the equator, the altitude lends the region a cool, spring-like climate year-round. Fertile soils make it ideal for farming, which is what most people do for a living in the region.
A few hours outside of town, one can find the headwaters of Colombia’s most important river – the Magdalena – which crosses the entire country, supplying some 70% of the country’s drinking water before emptying into the Caribbean Sea. But what is most fascinating about this village is its reputation as the archaeological capital of Colombia and the mystery surrounding the culture that once lived there.
San Agustín is an ancient necropolis – a large, designed cemetery with elaborate tomb monuments. But it isn’t just any necropolis – it’s the largest in the world. It is also home to the largest collection of Pre-Columbian religious statues and funerary monuments in all of Latin America. The site is so important, in fact, that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
This region was once home to an incredibly advanced civilization that began constructing monuments and tombs for their elite around the year 1000 BC. This civilization, referred to by archaeologists as the “Agustinian culture”, flourished for a few thousand years before mysteriously disappearing around 1350 AD – a couple hundred years before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.
There are many theories that speculate about the history and fate of this mysterious culture. While some believe the civilization simply migrated further south towards the Amazonian region, others believe that aliens were involved—both in the creation of the monuments and the disappearance of its inhabitants. The “Agustinians” left behind little clues as to who they were or what happened to them. All that remains are hundreds of statues, tombs, and monuments scattered over an area of more than 30 square miles—much of which remains unexplored today, except by grave robbers who continue to search the region in secret for Pre-Columbian treasure.
The area is lush, beautiful, and fascinating, making it a particularly popular destination for tourists and hippy ex-pats, which relish in the laid-back vibe of the village. But according to stunt rider Jonathan “Tatán” Muñoz, a native to San Agustín, the best part about San Agustín are the people who call it home.
“We basically live in a paradise…but the most beautiful part of San Agustín is the people. We never lose touch with our culture, we conserve our traditions and our indigenous roots,” he said.
Muñoz has been practicing stunt riding for about two years. Growing up racing dirt bikes, his motorcycle-related interests later gave way to stunt riding, which has been growing wildly in popularity in Colombia over the past 6 or 7 years.
Though San Agustín is a small town made up mostly of humble farmers, Muñoz tells me that there are 40 or 50 kids who practice stunt riding.
But despite the sport’s popularity, it remains illegal and difficult to practice without getting in trouble with the police. While in bigger cities riders can practice in unused soccer courts hidden among neighborhoods, San Agustín is small enough that the cops can hear engines revving from any point in the town, making it particularly difficult for the area’s riders.
This lack of a legal space to practice means riders take to the streets, despite the dangers involved.
“We normally get together after dark along the highway that leads to the archaeological park,” Muñoz tells me. The stretch of well-paved road is far enough out of town that they can get a good amount of riding in before the cops show up.
“We go out together, and post two guys to keep eyes out for the cops,” he says. Nevertheless, the cops always show up sooner or later.
“It’s really hard because the cops aren’t forgiving at all. They confiscate our bikes and write us tickets for not having stuff like lights or mirrors. On top of that, they treat us like criminals and say that we come out here to use drugs and that what we’re doing is a waste of time; that stunt riding isn’t even a sport.”
Muñoz and other riders have petitioned for a legal space to practice, but have had no luck.
“We even took our case to the mayor’s office. They just made up a bunch of excuses to not help us. No one likes to support this sport. They consider that we’re all vagabonds and street urchins,” he says.
The stunt riding event that brought me to town was the first of its kind in San Agustín. For such a small town, the show was totally packed, with over three thousand people jammed into the bleachers of the typical town sport complex. The majority of the crowd was under 25 years old, a clear vital sign of stunt riding’s popularity among the younger generation.
Sebastian Urban, the event’s organizer, is aware of the changing tides in Colombia, which, in the realm of sports, is mainly known for its world-class soccer and cycling athletes.
He also recognizes the difficulties faced by riders throughout the country who are struggling for recognition and support, which is part of why he decided to plan the event.
“One way to help stunt riders is to organize championships and shows in a legitimate setting. That helps people begin to see stunt riding as a discipline instead of delinquency,” he says.
“I organized this event because I like doing things no one else has the courage to do. Stunt riding is a sport that we have to push for, it’s not just 100% soccer anymore in Colombia.”