Ancient Costa Rica Pt. 2: The narrow road to Guayabo

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

theentrypath.jpg

A thousand years ago, there wouldn't have been much jungle here, just terraced plots of maize and clear view off the mountain slopes to the valley far below. Visitors got a dizzying look at the drop from either side of a cobblestone road that lurched upward along the back of a steep ridge. At the edge of town, they'd find themselves funneled into a stairway shadowed on either side by stone walls and tall guard houses. Up the steps, a cobble-paved causeway stretched ahead, rising gradually, its edges lined with sculptures and the piked heads of conquered enemies. At the end, the chiefs' house stood on a tall stone foundation, its conical roof mirrored by the peak of the volcano in the distance.

The modern entrance to the ancient city of Guayabo is not nearly so dramatic. There's a pockmarked gravel road up a mountain, with chasms that threaten to swallow the front wheel of our boxy, little Honda. A wooden ticket booth, like a lemonade stand, marks the spot were you park the car on the roadside. Carefully maintained nature trails wind through rainforest less than a century old—this land was a dairy farm not so very long ago—and spit you out in the center of what was once a city of several thousand inhabitants.

Guayabo—pronounce it "Why-ahbo"—is one of many ancient cities in eastern and central Costa Rica that get overlooked by the general public, largely because their builders worked mostly with materials—wood, thatch, cane—that disintegrated in the tropical climate. The massive communal houses rotted away long ago. But the stone foundations, roads, tombs and aqueduct systems that remain are, in themselves, impressive enough to be named an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

mensnarskis.jpg

I travelled to Guayabo—about two-and-a-half hours east of the Costa Rican capital of San Jose—with Michael Snarskis, Ph.D., an archaeologist who has spent his career living and working in Costa Rica.

guayabofromabove.jpg

Although Guayabo had been known (and looted) since the 1800s, true archaeology didn't begin there until the late 1960s. When Snarskis first visited the site in the 1970s, it was still mostly cow pasture. Today, though, the central part of the city has been cleared and a stretch of the main entry road painstakingly restored. At the city's heart is a piece of urban design that Snarskis said was as common to ancient Costa Rica as the grid-with-a-park-in-the-center is to small-town America.

diorama .jpg

Diorama showing what the center of Guayabo probably looked like during its heyday.

"You had the main road that led into the city and ended at the stairway of the chiefs' house, after passing through a sunken plaza. The plaza is quite a bit lower actually, because it's the pit left behind by digging earth fill for the principal mounds. The caciques, Spanish for chiefs, would all have lived in the house on the tallest mound. And the adjacent secondary mound would have been for the wives and female slaves who took care of their domestic maintenance. The Spanish, when they first arrived, actually described this same basic design and the division of residence by sex at other places in Costa Rica, though they never made it to Guayabo," Snarskis said.

Around what Snarskis calls the "elite precinct"—think of it as Guayabo's gated community—are other, lower house mounds, plazas and pathways and the stone rings that once formed the foundations of commoners' houses.

Standing there today, the city seems too small to have packed in a peak population of several thousand, but, Snarskis points out, you have to remember that only 1/4 to a 1/3 of Guayabo is visible. The jungle on all sides is littered with house foundations and tombs, which have never been fully excavated. In a way, most of Guayabo is still a lost city, waiting to be discovered.

lajastomb2.jpg

Open tomb in the jungle surrounding Guayabo. The walls, floor and lids of these tombs were made from lajas—slabs of volcanic flagstone.

buriedfoundation.jpg

This still-buried ring of stones marks the foundation of a small house.

All the remains are stone: Either car tire-sized river cobbles hauled up from far-flung valleys or massive lajas—slabs of volcanic flagstone, some as long as a human body. Simply getting these rocks to the city is a big deal. Snarskis said the river cobbles were probably hauled up the mountain one-by-one in slings thrown over the backs of workers and slaves. The flagstones would have been even more difficult to pry out of the ground and move—remember, there weren't any pack animals around to help out.

citycenter.jpg

Some of the principal mounds.

chiefshouse.jpg

The chiefs' house. Multiple male elites would have lived here. Snarskis thinks the grassy plaza at the base of the steps may have once been a reflecting pool that's now filled with silt.

The work that went into building Guayabo isn't just impressive, it's also important, because it proves the existence of a fairly complex political system. Leaders need a sophisticated power structure backing them up to get monuments like this built. Without it, orders like, "Hey, I really think you should carry that 200-pound rock uphill for several miles," tend to get ignored. No ancient Chibchan calendars or writing systems have been preserved, but Guayabo and its sister cities weren't the work of cultural pushovers.

glyphside1.jpg

A carved stone, about the size of a large coffee table, found near Guayabo's center. Snarskis said that this side depicts a very stylized version of an alligator.

glyphside2.jpg

The other side, he said, shows a picture of an upside-down jaguar.

Nor were the Chibchan people technologically deficient—in fact, they were excellent engineers. Guayabo sits between two streams, which the ancient inhabitants tapped to bring fresh water into the city center. Aqueducts criss-cross the city, both in exposed stone-lined trenches and under the cobblestone-paved streets, carrying water to collecting pools. Some of these have been running continuously since they were built a millennium ago.

"In fact, the entire site is tilted slightly, and that's on purpose," Snarskis said. "It ensured the constant flow and circulation of water from the stream at higher elevation, through the city, and out the stream at lower elevation."

Runningpool.jpg

An aqueduct brings water from a nearby stream to fill this pool.

acquaduct.jpg

An aqueduct flows below this street, taking water from the pool in the previous shot, to another one at slightly lower elevation.

So far, Guayabo is the only ancient city in Costa Rica open to tourists. But there are others out there. At one time, they were probably connected by networks of roads. Less than 50 miles north of Guayabo, archaeologist John Hoopes, Ph.D., is currently digging at a similar city. He compares the ancient Caribbean to the ancient Mediterranean—two similarly sized seas, ringed by a host of cultures that were all individually unique, but constantly in contact, each trading ideas and incorporating foreign elements into their own, distinct style. The Maya may have been Central America's answer to the ancient Greeks, but that doesn't mean Chibchan culture wasn't also important. The more we learn about sites like Guayabo, the more we'll understand about the ancient Costa Ricans and how they contributed to the overall Caribbean cultural network.

Michael Snarskis offers guided tours of Costa Rica's National Museum, Jade Museum, Gold Museum and the ancient city of Guayabo. If you'll be visiting Costa Rica and you're interested in archaeology, you can contact him by email or by phone at 011-506-2235-8824.

Published 5:00 am Tue, Jan 12, 2010

,

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

14 Responses to “Ancient Costa Rica Pt. 2: The narrow road to Guayabo”

  1. Javier Zumbado says:

    As a costarican, I’m grateful for this post, Guayabo is one of my favorite National Parks. ¡Muchas gracias y pura vida!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Would Costa Rica be the best bet to visit if I want to see real artifacts and locations of the pre-Spanish culture of Central America?

    It looks like there are a ton of museums and national parks with this kind of thing: http://www.paradisehunter.com/CountryInformation/Costa-Rica/THINGS-TO-SEE-DO/Attractions

    I really want to hit the area and see some of the temples and monuments. Is Costa Rica the place or would you recommend I start with Mexico or Guatemala or elsewhere?

  3. Anonymous says:

    For my taste Mexico has soooooo much to offer someone interested in Pre-colombian art/culture that it’s hard to top (and hard to decide where to start). Other countries have amazing places to see as well, but Mexico has so much more. Plus Mexico has the best food in the Americas. Don’t let the bad news and drug war stuff get you spooked.
    Costa rica IS amazing and has such beautiful geography that you’d have a great time… but in terms of pre-spanish art and artifacts, the national archaeology museum in Mexico City alone will blow your mind.
    but hey, anywhere you go in Latin America is great so don’t sweat it too hard.

    • cinemajay says:

      As you pointed out, Mexico’s is already documented, but then this is the second part of a series of posts highlighting the very little pre-Columbian culture of Costa Rica.

  4. bwcbwc says:

    There are some good sites that I’ve heard about in Belize and closer to home (no passport required for US citizens), Puerto Rico has a couple as well. The level of tech and stonework varies. But as mentioned in the article, lack of stonework doesn’t necessarily indicate low-tech. Just that they used organic materials like wood or thatch.

  5. Anonymous says:

    So maybe Costa Rica is better for visiting nature preserves, wild animal sightseeing etc. and Mexico is the place most worthwhile to visit and “see the ruins”?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Interesting similarities in the name, Guayabo and names in Puerto Rico such as Guaynabo, Guayama, etc.

    • Anonymous says:

      Excuse me – but I believe, that the frequently use of “Guay….” in latinamerican names is deriving from Spanish – like Guadalupe, Guadalquivir, Guadaiana, – the word remains to the rule of the Moros in Andalucia and means “river” in Arabic.
      The article is very interesting and thanks for the links in the reader’s comments!

  7. revansatoda says:

    Thanks for doing this. Can I link to these articles from my web page?

    Here’s a link to a 20 minute video about Chibchan stone spheres. English and Spanish versions. About 16 minutes each in two 8 minute parts. Or download to your PC. There are lots more amateur archaeological photos and articles by clicking on the double left pointing triangles on the top right.
    http://www.atoda.com/pg_video.php

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this interesting piece.

    I went to Costa Rica recently as an eco-tourist… stayed at a vegetarian hotel, went on the hiking and adventure tours, learned about the rainforest… even became one with it, considering the humidity and my personal moisture level.

    I still loved it.

    The fact that the people of Costa Rica are choosing to allow the rainforest to recover in lieu of an agrarian export market should encourage those of us who care to visit and reward them for that choice.

    The Rainforest and tourism are now business in Costa Rica. It was beautiful and I loved it.

    Go visit.

  9. Anonymous says:

    We recently lived in Turrialba, about 30 minutes from Guayabo, and visited there several times. I’d like to add two things. First, the birding is exceptional there. Every time we went, we saw species we had never seen before. I believe there is a list available at the “lemonade stand”. Secondly, just before you arrive at the park itself, you go through a series of small communities. There is a very good restaurant on your right as you go up the hill toward the park where we ate several times and were never disappointed. You can see some interesting birds there as well. Unless there have been some improvements, I certainly agree that the road isn’t the best. High clearance would be good, but regular cars can make it just fine (albeit slowly).

  10. Anonymous says:

    I learned alot for my school project about costa rica so thanks alot! by

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hoy 25 Enero me acabo de enterar que el Sr. Michael J. Snarskis apareció muerto en su casa de habitacón. Es una perdida para nuestro país al perder tan grande Arqueólogo y Amigo. Paz a sus restos.

  12. bobend says:

    “cobblestone road” you say? *Fights a strong urge to boot up Minecraft and recreate all the pictures*

Leave a Reply