Guayabo National Park is Costa Rica’s most important and largest archaeological area so far discovered. Although Guayabo cannot be compared with some Aztec and Maya sites further north in Central America, it is nevertheless of great importance as it gives a fascinating insight into the way of life of the people who lived here 2500 years ago, in pre-Colombian times.
Guayabo is part of the cultural region known as the Central Intermontane and Atlantic Basin, which is located in the premontane rain forest life zone, and as such has mild temperatures and abundant rain fall. The site was discovered in the late 1800′s, most probably by colonists who were clearing the land for coffee plantations, and in 1882 the first excavations took place under the guidance of Anastasio Alfaro, who was director of the National Museum at that time. Following those initial digs, many years passed until in 1968 Carlos Aguilar, working through the University of Costa Rica, established a program of permanent excavations on the site. Much of what is known today about Guayabo is owed to the efforts of Aguilar and his colleagues. Realizing its importance, the government made Guayabo a protected site on August 13th, 1973, when 65ha were preserved due to their archeological significance. In 1980, another executive decree enlarged the site to its present 217ha, mainly to protect areas of forested habitat along the Guayabo River canyon.
Although there is evidence that people may have inhabited in the area since as much as 2,500 years ago, it was only during a 500 year period from 1200 to 700 years ago that Guayabo reached its summit both culturally and politically. Based on the geographic position of the site, in the mountains between the Atlantic coast and the Central Valley, and the excellent quality of the craftsmanship found in excavated pieces of ceramics, stone, and gold, it is thought that this chieftainship was one of power and privilege. However, for unknown reasons, prior to the beginning of the Spanish Conquest in the New World, this once thriving indigenous settlement slid into decline and finally abandonment.
The main problem at Guayabo National Monument is a shortage of funds and as the initial US grant has dwindled away, the future looks bleak. The site covers some 20ha (50 acres), of which only about one tenth has been excavated. In fact, archeologists estimate that half of the village area still awaits excavation. The excavations have revealed paved roads, bridges, houses, temple foundations, retaining walls, mounds used as bases for dwellings, open and closed aqueducts -many of which are still operative- tanks for storing water from the aqueducts and burial sites. Guayabo held a prominent political and religious position, and in the surrounding area there were villages holding an estimated population of around 1,500 to 2,000 people. What has emerged is a township that may have supported as many as 10,000 people up to around AD1400, after which the site was abandoned. The reason why it was abandoned is not clear yet. It could have been an epidemic or perhaps a war with a neighboring tribe. The site appears to have been populated from the year 1000 B.C. although the local chiefdom developed most around 300 to 700 A.D. when the stone structures that can be seen today were built. It appears to have been abandoned around the year 1400 A.D.
It is clear that the inhabitants were skillful in water management, having built aqueducts (some still functioning) and water storage tanks. They were also able to bring large stones from distance, some of which bear petroglyphs and monoliths – which was the objects that catch most of the visitors’ attention –showing an Alligator and a Jaguar, suggesting a primitive form of written language. The latter are everywhere and some have as yet undeciphered symbols. The more valuable gold and ceramic artifacts with other archaeological pieces found on the site are now in the National Museum in San Jose.
The areas near the archaeological site show secondary vegetation, product of a former wood extraction operation. In the Guayabo River Canyon near the protected area, is an example of the high evergreen forests typical of the region, with trees like the elm (Ulmus mexicana) and the manni (Symphonia globulifera). Nevertheless, there is little animal life due to the small area covered.
The fact that surrounding land is protected has fortunately meant that sizeable chunk of pre-montane forest has survived on the site, supporting a rich and varied bird life. In fact, the colonial nests of Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma), are common, as well as hummingbirds such as the Crowned Woodnymph and Rofus-crested Coquette have been seen, along with the Green Honeycreeper, the Collared Aricari of the toucan family and billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus). Other wildlife includes the Nine-banded Armadillo and Blue Morpho butterfly, the White-nosed coatis (Nasua narica), the margay (Leopardus wiedii), Central American Coral Snake and there is a good variety of orchids.
The protected area is the only remaining pre-Columbian settlement in the country. Though significantly smaller than similar remains in Latin America, the Guayabo Monument National Park is a fascinating place to visit. In fact, currently some 20,000 tourists visit the park annually to witness the still functioning aqueducts that supplied the whole village with water. A large portion of its cobblestone roads remain intact and reveal the intricate layout of the village that dates back to the year 1,400 B.C.
The park recently received the International Engineering World Heritage Award thanks to its aqueduct system as well as road system. Turrialba hotels are normally in the Bed & Breakfast category and are conveniently located near the park. Other areas of interest near Guayabo include the Turrialba Volcano, white water rafting on the Pacuare River and coffee tours among others.
There is a ranger station with an exhibition full of pre-Colombian artifacts found on the site, which is 50 m in before the park entrance; this is the start of a trail that goes down to the Guayabo River. In the Monument there is an archaeological research station, an exhibition room, a viewing point from which the whole archaeological area can be seen and a picnic area with tables, camping area, toilets and drinking water. There is a bus service between Turrialba and Colonia Guayabo, a town located 2 km before the park. In Turrialba there are hotels, restaurants and markets, and taxis can be hired.
Getting to Guayabo National Monument:
Take the road East from San José to Cartago and take the exit following the signs to Guayabo National Monument and Turrialba Volcano National Park on Route No.230, passing through the villages of Cot, Pacayas, Capellades and La Pastora to Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz turn left always following the signs and continue for about 10 km (6 miles )until you reach the Guayabo National Monument.
Another option, which is slightly longer and with more curves, is taking the road from San José to Cartago and taking the exit to Paraiso on Route No.10 until you reach Turrialba. From the city of Turrialba, continue for about 18 km (11 miles), following the signs to the Guayabo National Monument.
Take a bus from the route San Jose – Turrialba, (Transtusa, 2556-4233 / 2222-4464) which takes about 1.5 hours, and then take another bus with the route Turrialba – Guayabo (Transportes Rivera, 2556-0362) which takes about 1 hour.
Location: 18km (11 miles) northeast of Turrialba town in Cartago, Costa Rica
GPS Coordinates: 9.970467,-83.690146 (9°58’13.68″N, 83°41’24.52″W)
Size: 232ha (573 acres)
Altitude: from 1200m (3937ft) rising to 1300m (4265ft)
Schedule: from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Guayabo National Monument Telephone: +(506) 2559-1220 / 2559-0117
Central Volcanic Cordillera Conservation Area (ACCVC) Telephone: +(506) 2551-9398 / 2268-8091
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192