Looking for some nature and culture to refresh your level of energy? The ancient National Guayabo Monument is your perfect day trip from San José. Just a two-hour ride away from the capital, you’ll find this quiet spot between rolling green hills, coffee and farm fields on the south side of the smoking Turrialba Volcano.
Guayabao is the most important archeological and pre-Columbian site of Costa Rica, and the first one ever opened to the public. Though rather small compared to other archeological findings in Central America (for example the Mexican temples), Costa Ricans consider the place as very important and even sacred.
A lot, well let’s say basically everything, is still unknown about Guayabo. Due to that lack of knowledge, the lush place feels very mysterious, and leaves a lot to the imagination for its visitors. After all, why would 10,000 people want to live right here in the middle of the country between 1500 B.C. and 1400 A.D.? How did they name themselves? And why did all of them suddenly leave? Nobody knows. There even aren’t records left with descriptions of the ancient civilization.
Indiana Jones and the unknown kingdom
After the Guayabo site was deserted, jungle swallowed the place, covering up all its previous vivacity. It took a while before people would again conquer this piece of forest. At the end of the 18th century, Anastasio Alfaro, explorer and the director of the National Museum of Costa Rica, rediscovered the site. He thought he had discovered a cemetery. Guayabo’s true archaeological significance was uncovered in 1968, by Carlos Aguilar Piedra. Piedra was an archeologist from the University of Costa Rica, and together with his team began to excavate a big part of the area.
Currently approximately five hectares of Guayabo is exposed. A large stretch is still to be explored, but nevertheless you can already admire the hills, view petroglyphs and aqueducts that are even fully restored. The excavations give a nice glimpse of a lost culture that was developed in fields, such as architecture, engineering and urbanism.
Senderos (paths) for the visitors
There are two routes that will guide you through the area: the Sendero de los Montículos (a 1.6 km long path that leads next to El Mirador Encuentro con Nuestros Origines), and the Sendero de los Cantarillos (a path that leads straight through the jungle, where you can encounter a lot of birds and some mammals).
The most remarkable sites are to be found along the Sendero de los Montículos. The ‘Monolitho Jaguar y Lagarto’ for example – a petroglyph that depicts a mythical creature. The stone shows both the head of a jaguar and a lizard, and each side was created by a different person. Archeologists think this stone had to symbolize the cultural bridge between the settlements that once existed to the north and south.
If you want to continue exploring the pre-Columbian ancient civilization after your visit to Guayabo, you might consider heading to the National Museum in San José. A lot of findings (tools and ornaments) of the civilization are glistering inside the former fortress. They will give you further insights into this fascinating and mysterious piece of pre-Hispanic culture.
Informative signs are situated next to the roads, but you might consider a guide for some extra insight explanations.
Guayabo National Monument is open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Admission: $6 non-residents (₡1000 residents)
Descriptions for the photos included in this article:
Header Photo – From ‘El Mirador’ on the Sendero de los Montículos you have a beautiful view over the stone foundations dating from 300-700 A.D. Archeologists of the university suppose they were the basis of wooden cone-shaped buildings. (used at the header photo)
PHOTO #2 – Water reservoirs are located on the west side of the settlement. The network of aqueducts, in fact, still carry water to the reservoirs. It only proves that the engineers back then had made quite a lasting invention.
PHOTO #3 – The ‘Calzada’ is a 6-meter wide road that probably ran pretty far into the jungle. Archaeologists currently have reconstructed 225 meters of that road. They haven’t figured out yet what the point and purpose of the road was, or why it is situated on the south side of the Turrialba Volcano at all. Nevertheless it is spectacular to behold the path. It even looks broader than most current Costa Rican highways!
PHOTO #4 – The Sendero de los Cantarillos offer some spectacular views and great bird watching.
WRITTEN BY: Kristel Segeren
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