Pura vida

Discovering Guayabo: Costa Rica’s largest archeological site

More stories from Alanna Huggett

Pura Vida
May 15, 2019

Traveling in our pastel purple tourist bus, my classmates and I were starting to get a little impatient as we bumped along past colorful houses, lines of laundry, cows lazily chewing on grass and breathtaking views of green mountains and steep slopes as we continued toward our final destination: Guayabo National Monument. 

Guayabo National Monument is an indigenous archeological site located about 2.5 hours by personal tour bus from Heredia near the Turrialba volcano in the Talamanca mountain range. According to our tour guide/park ranger Angie, Guayabo was a bustling city of intelligent indigenous people with advanced engineering skills. 

Guayabo had aqueducts (they still function today), a large central mound (likely belonging to the leader of the settlement), cobblestone roads, checkpoints to enter the city, rectangular mounds (believed to be guard posts), a main square, drawer tombs (tumbas de cajón) filled with precious elements such as jade and gold and figure-eight shaped mounds (unique in that they’re only found here in Guayabo). 

A typical house or palenque in Guayabo had a circular foundation and thatched cone-shaped roofs. The materials typically used for the palenques included: stone, wood, liana (vine-like plant) and palm tree leaves.

Guayabo had two main cobblestone roads: Palomo and Caragra. They averaged between four and five kilometers in length and were expensive and time-consuming to build as the workers needed to bring the rock in and cut down trees. The roads connected Guayabo with other indigenous settlements. 

The checkpoints (los retenes) of Guayabo were located at the entrance to the city and only one person was allowed to enter the city at a time. It was very difficult to enter in groups and was a way for the people of Guayabo to control who came in and out of their city. In order to get to the checkpoint people needed to walk up a set of stairs to reach the city, these stairs were short and allowed the traveler to look up as they entered the city. This is believed to have been symbolic as Guayabo was the capital city.

Angie, our tour guide, said when the indigenous people of Guayabo were constructing their buildings, they would ask animals such as the jaguar, snake and the eagle to help them with the construction. The indigenous people believed the houses served as the connection between this life and the next life after death. 

Additionally, the indigenous people of Guayabo created petroglyphs. These were carved out of rocks and they had two different kinds: spiritual monoliths and ones to leave messages. They used different parts of animals (tail of a fish, antenna of a butterfly, body of a jaguar etc.) to represent elements such as water.

Guayabo National Monument has worked hard to preserve its archaeological site. It won an award, Premio Patrimonio Mundial de la ingeniería, in 2009. This award was also given to the archaeological site Machu Picchu, Peru. 

Huggett can be reached at [email protected].