Monumento Nacional Guayabo

The road from Turrialba passes the village of Colonia Guayabo, 20 kilometers to the northeast on the northern slope of the Volcan Turrialba. The entrance to Guayabo National Monument (officially named a national monument in 1973) is just beyond. The ruins cover 218 hectares and are the most important archeological site in Costa Rica. Although smaller and less spectacular than the Mayan ruins in Chiapas, Yucatan and Guatemala, Guayabo is an important key to Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian past.

Anthropologists estimate that the site was inhabited before 1000 B.C. Around that time, the 10,000 people who lived in the city left for reasons that still remain unclear. Perhaps they were driven away by a natural catastrophe or they left because of war with a rival city in the neighboring Talamanca area.

Naturalist Anastasio Alfaro discovered the ruins at the end of the 19th century, but systematic excavation only began in 1968. Until then, white governments had tried to repress the Indian heritage in many Latin American countries. Dr. Carlos Aguilar Piedra, archeologist at the University of Costa Rica, has taken charge of the excavations; about 10 percent of the area has been cleared so far.

A path that is easy to climb leads to a lookout which offers a panoramic view of the old Indian settlement built between two rivers. From this vantage point it is easy to pick out the large rounded crossshaped formations made of stones smoothed by the river. These monticulos probably served as foundations for wooden huts.

A broad, paved ceremonial avenue (calzada) points, straight as an arrow, toward the summit of the Volcan Turrialba. This amazing road is similar to the famous Calzada de los Muertos in Teotihuacan near Mexico City. In many places sacrificial altars and pottery jars are still to be found. Most were religious. Unfortunately, the artifacts that remain represent only a small part of what the original inhabitants left behind. As in most Latin American countries, huaceros, or grave robbers, got to the site long before the archeologists.

An aqueduct that still functions carried water to a cleverly-designed reservoir, assuring that the inhabitants had plenty of water throughout the dry season. How many people did the water serve? And for how long? Perhaps Guayabo served as a ceremonial center rather than a permanent settlement.

The massive stone graves, overgrown with moss and vines, and petroglyphs on a monolithic structure depicting a jaguar and a crocodile give researchers yet another mystery to solve.

A visit to Guayabo becomes an unforgettable experience when you observe the symbiosis between the ruins and the unstoppable forces of nature. The jungle vegetation that has encroached and nearly obliterated the ruins, and the bird world, with its toucans, hummingbirds, oropendolas and other exotic creatures, create an incomparable backdrop for this symbol of an Indian culture that has long since disappeared.

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