Naturally Mummified Bodies of the Museum of Mummies in Colombia

When you think of mummies, you surely think about Egypt, and its famous mummified pharaohs buried in their imposing pyramids. Yes, Egypt is known for its magical history and its gigantic cultural contribution, with their special techniques to mummify their bodies. But did you know that you can find naturally mummified bodies in the museum of mummies of Colombia?

In a hidden village, approximately 99 km from Bogota, there is San Bernardo, a cozy village with very friendly locals. In the cemetery of San Bernardo, many of the dead become mummies for unknown reasons. It happens so often that the Church decided to build a mausoleum to keep them in glass urns, when the families allow it.

It is known for being the only town in Colombia where the dead buried there have a layer of skin between white and brown tones that gives them a very peculiar appearance.

In San Bernardo, death acquires a fantastic and mystical touch, since there is no scientific explanation for this process.

The following is the information you need to make the most of your visit to San Bernardo, the town of mummies in Colombia.

Exploring San Bernardo

The municipality of San Bernardo is the agricultural pantry of Sumapaz region, charming, magical and quiet land. Its gastronomy is recognized regionally and its agro-ecological fairs are the best in Sumapaz.

Its landscapes offer a great variety of climates and agricultural products; a natural paradise rich in natural niches such as the Sumapaz National Natural Park, its people are friendly and welcoming and always welcome you with open arms.

San Bernardo is the only place in Colombia where there is a natural mummification process that has not been explained.

Why are they mummified?

It all started in the 1950’s, when the new cemetery was inaugurated. The old one was on the banks of a river in the lower part of the municipality, but the current swept away some of the dead when the waters rose.

When they began to remove bodies for exhumations, mummified bodies began to appear.

Environmental Context for Mummification

The context in each case may be different, but in principle an extreme environment is needed: very hot, very dry or very cold.

After death, our cells begin to break down and release all sorts of substances – including enzymes – that create an ideal environment for bacteria and fungi, which enter this mixture and begin to break down the body.

In most cases, enzymes need an aqueous environment to work. But if the temperature is too high, the body dehydrates before the enzymes can take action, and this results in mummification.

When the temperature is too low this can also happen because the cold inhibits bacterial activity. Especially if the body remains covered with ice or snow.

Swamps (wet by nature) are another natural environment that favors mummification. This is because they are generally cold, acidic and anaerobic environments.

Another influencing factor is the composition of the soil, e.g. the presence of heavy metals in the soil can retard the action of enzymes. The material of the coffin, as well as the textiles that cover the body and absorb the liquids, can also have an impact on the process.

Finally, it also depends on the body characteristics of each individual.

What can be happening in San Bernardo?

San Bernardo lies on the hills of Sumapaz, in the south of Cundinamarca, and the cemetery was built on the side of a mountain where it smells of pine trees and flowers. This cemetery is placed in the highest part of the village, near to the Paramo.

The gravedigger tells that the dead are exhumed every five years, and it always happens that they are intact… when they are cut they still have blood, they have flesh and they have everything. Even the eyes!

But there is a particular detail, according to the gravedigger, when the bodies come out “exact”, there is a thin layer of ice that covers the whole body. His testimony may suggest the very cold environment cause for mummification.

However, there are no studies to support the hypothesis of freezing, in spite of the testimonies.

Funerary and Cultural Heritage

Recently, the mummies of San Bernardo, and all the natural process is proposed to be declared as Funerary and Cultural Heritage.

The aim is to promote the Mummies of San Bernardo as Funerary and Cultural Heritage given the characteristics of the phenomenon that occurs naturally and the manifestations and identities that derive from it.

It is Funerary Heritage because it generates alternative visions of the meaning of death and the transcendence of the body after death. It is Cultural Heritage because through popular and daily orality emerge all kinds of myths connected with others transmitted by generations about the reason for the phenomenon. The mummies are the living memory and identity of a region that resists oblivion.

How to get to San Bernardo

The town is located in the south-east of the Department of Cundinamarca in the Sumapaz Province. San Bernardo has an average temperature of 21°C (69º F), making it a pleasant climate for tourists.

To get to San Bernardo you must take a 3-hour road trip from the south of the city of Bogotá for 99 km. On your way you will pass through towns like Fusagasuga and Arbelaez. When you passing Arbelaez  you must take an unpaved road that will take you to the center of town.

Where to stay in San Bernardo

Being a very small town we tell you to dedicate a whole day to walk the streets and points of interest.  In the afternoon you can stay in the town of Fusagasuga which is to 36 km away. In Fusagasuga we recommend you to stay in the following hotels:

Attractions and activities in San Bernardo

San Bernardo has two attractions that you will have the opportunity to visit. So we recommend some other nearby activities and attractions that you will love.

Mausoleum José Arquímedes Castro, or the Museum of Mummies

Mummies of the Mausoleum of Mummies © Mausoleum of Mummies

This is a museum that exhibits the mummies. Their bodies did not decompose but were calcified, keeping the skin and some parts of the body intact.

Currently, there are 14 mummies exhibited, since their number was reduced for health reasons, but at some point there were about 180.

The inhabitants of the village believe that the origin of the mummification is based on the diet of the Sanbernardinos, based on the consumption of Guatila and Balú. Both foods are part of the food tradition and grow wild and naturally, without chemicals that alter them.

However, all the surrounding municipalities consume the same food, and do not present mummified dead, thus refuting this local hypothesis.

The Mausoleum is open every day except Tuesdays from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. The entrance fee is 5000 pesos for adults and 4000 pesos for children. It is recommended to visit early in the morning so that you can make your visit at your leisure.

Before visiting the museum of mummies remember:

  • The mummies are deceased people so it is very important to maintain the due respect.
  • Avoid taking pictures of the mummies out of respect for the deceased and their families.
  • Do not throw garbage on the floor during your trip.
  • Your early visit allows you to go to places in and around San Bernardo with beautiful scenery.
  • Keep your hands clean and wear your mask correctly.

Macaracuay Ecological Farm

At the farm you can learn about the flora and fauna present in the village, have a sample of each of the products that are harvested. You will learn about the traditional farming techniques used in the village. It is possible to have contact with the animals of the farm and eat typical food of the area.

Water activities

In the Negro River, near the village, you can do activities such as rappel, rappel and hike through caves near the river. You should keep in mind that these activities can only be done with certified guides that you can find in the different agencies located in the center of town.

Horseback riding

If you are a horse lover you can take the horseback riding service available in town, the marked trails will take you through traditional paths used by the villagers to get around. In addition, you can also ride to the Rio Negro River or the Macacuay Ecological Farm. Please note that most horseback riding hours are between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

La Chapa Viewpoint

In the neighboring town of Pandi, you will find an imposing viewpoint, from which you will have a view of the Sumapaz River canyon, the municipalities of Pandi, Icononzo, Venecia, Alto de Boquerón, Chinauta and the Natural Park of the Nevados del Tolima, Ruiz and Santa Isabel. It is located 8.3 km (26 minutes) from the center of San Bernardo, so it is necessary to take a car service to reach this point.

Green and Aquatic Park

This beautiful park is located 3 km from the town of Fusagasuga and 40 km from San Bernardo (1.5 – Hours); during your stay in the park you can enjoy beautiful and unimaginable landscapes, abundant in water, and a majestic diversity of green in the mountains.

You will be able to do activities such as hiking where you will be able to do bird watching and recognize the species thanks to the information offered by the park guides. You can have the opportunity to stay in individual cabins or there is also a camping area.

Quinini Hill

In the municipality of Tibacuy is this beautiful nature reserve with a beautiful viewpoint, located 60 km from San Bernardo (2 – hours). Quininí refers to the “Sacred Mountain of the Moon or Moon Goddess”, which is what it means in the language of the indigenous communities that lived there. Quinini is also a recommender destination for birdwatching near Bogotá.

About the authors

Sara Colmenares.

Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences and Specialist in Tourism Management and Nature Tourism. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody

The Biggest Páramo in the World is in Colombia: Know the Sumapaz Park

The Páramo de Sumapaz National Natural Park is an important reservoir of biological, ecological and genetic diversity in Colombia, and the world, with high presence of endemic plants and animals. It is also one of the largest water reserves in the country.

Under the post-conflict scenario, the Páramo of Sumapaz ceased to be a military corridor, as it happened for almost 54 years during the war conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict left a sad mark in some areas of the park: antipersonnel mines.

Currently, the government and some international NGOs are making progress in a process for humanitarian demining in the context of the PEACE process.

These areas are closed to visitors, but it is recommended to have authorized touristic service providers to visit the place.

Despite all of this, nowadays the park it becomes one of Colombia’s natural treasures, important to be better explored and conserved. It is a great compromise to protect this place from extensive agriculture and livestock, from mining, construction and real estate projects, and from irresponsible tourism.

Undoubtedly, Colombia has the largest and most beautiful Páramo in Colombia, and perhaps the planet. To be there is to contemplate the mastery of nature and feel gratitude for such a fabulous gift.

Paramo de Sumapaz

7 Facts about the Páramo de Sumapaz

  1. The Sumapaz Páramo is one of the largest and the biggest protected paramo in the world.
  2. It is part of the 36 páramos complexes present in Colombia.
  3. It has a unique ecosystem, fauna and flora to the planet.
  4. There have been reported about 260 species of mammals.
  5. It is the origin of crystalline rivers that cover the Andean geography and the center of the country.
  6. It is located in five municipalities of the department of Cundinamarca (Pasca, Arbeláez, San Bernardo, Cabrera and Gutiérrez); six municipalities of the department of Meta (Acacias, Guamal, Cubarral, El Castillo, Lejanías and Uribe), one municipality in the department of Huila (Colombia) and two districts in Bogotá (Usme and Sumapaz).
  7. It is monitored by several environmental authorities, such as Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the National Unit of Natural Parks, the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Cundinamarca (CAR), the Autonomous Corporation of Huila (CAM) and the Autonomous Corporation of Macarena (CORMACARENA).

Birding at Páramo de Sumapaz

This beautiful, huge national Park of Colombia encompasses large protected Paramo and is a large watershed for the city of Bogotá. Reached by a smooth, roughly 1 1/2-hour ride from the city center (get there early to avoid the traffic jam in the city) it makes it, together with Chingaza National Park, a prime destination for high altitude species.

Birding is easy and done mainly from a very dusty road, as access to the National Park is restricted. The road is currently being paved, which will make birding much more comfortable in near future!

Once you leave the suburban sprawl of Bogota in Usme, the shear uncontrolled growth of this Megapolis is visible below you and on the close mountain slopes.

Finally, higher up, concrete gets replaced by potato fields, cars by horses and noise by birdsongs! Once you reach the tree-line (Elfin forest) good birding starts.

Apolinar’s Wren – Cistothorus apolinari – ENDEMIC

Listen for the endemic Silvery-throated Spinetail and Pale-bellied Tapaculo, both skulking species. Tawny Antpitta is one of the easiest Antpittas to see, as it often sings from exposes perches. Here, it is represented by subspecies alticola.

Mixed flocks can contain Andean Tit-Spinetail, White-throated Tyrannulet, Rufous Wren, the gaudy Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, several Flowerpiercers, Rufous-browed Conebill, Pale-naped Brush Finch & others.

A little further along the road, before your reach the pass, two of the main attractions occur side by side, and both are Hummingbirds.

Bronze-tailed Thornbill – Chalcostigma heteropogon

The range-restricted Bronze-tailed Thornbill & endemic Green-bearded Helmetcrest! The Thornbill is a territorial species. Look for it in vegetation close to the road.

The Helmetcrest is fond of Espeletia (local name “Frailejones”, a plant from the Asteraceae Family) which is in full bloom from late June – August. This might be the best time to see the Helmetcrest. And that’s when this spectacular, unique landscape looks even better.

Green-bearded Helmetcrest – Oxypogon guerinii, female – ENDEMIC

Both species can be seen fairly reliably at most other times, too. If lucky, both species can be observed feeding, clinging to flowers, as many highland Hummingbird species do!

Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager – Dubusia taeinatia

A particular good spot for the Helmetcrest is immediately adjacent to the large lagoon at the park entrance (There’s a sign of the Helmetcrest and a parking area to the right if coming from Bogotá). The lagoon to your left has typical cushion plants bordering it. That makes it perfect habitat for the critically endangered and endemic Bogota Rail and the more common Noble Snipe.

Many-striped Canastero – Asthenes flammulata

Many-striped Canastero and White-chinned Thistletail are to be looked for too, but it’s certainly the endemic Apolinar’s Wren which most people expect to see here. It occurs in fact in good numbers here, especially where there is Dwarf Bamboo – a plant required – for nesting.

The Wren is represented by the subspecies hernandezi, different from apolinari, the race occurring in the Sabana de Bogotá. Locate Apolinar’s Wren by its regularly performed song duets. The similar Sedge Wren occurs side by side with Apolinar’s Wren. Look and listen carefully…Exploring further along the Road can be good for Paramo Seedeater and more of the mentioned above.

Plain-colored Seedeater – Catamenia inornata

If you visit first time, remember that Sumapaz is a high-altitude site. Protect yourself from sun, hydrate properly and take things slow. The air is thin up there. Also protect your equipment from heavy dust (know how to do it here).

About the authors

Jérôme Fischer

Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. He has been focused in bird identification. He also travelled many countries, starting in Switzerland and then exploring south America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.

Sara Colmenares

Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.