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Valley of Mystery: Exploring the Abandoned City at Guayabo National Monument

by Daniela Cusack

A singular pocket of premontane rain forest will greet you if you travel 19 km. (11.8 miles) north of Turrialba, winding along a mostly unpaved road through coffee and sugar cane plantations. The misty forest rises unexpectedly from the fields, exhibiting a rare sample of the natural ecosystem that once covered much of the Cartago province.

What makes this pocket of forest even more rare is that it conceals and protects the excavated center of Costa Rica's most important pre-Columbian city. The ruins at Guayabo National Monument hold an air of mystery, and if you arrive early enough in the morning, you are likely to have this forgotten city all to yourself to explore.

The sound of water running through aqueducts that are at least 2,500 years old and the calls of the yellow-tailed Oropendola birds (Montezuma oropendola) will greet you as you descend along a trail into the valley that was inhabited for about 2,000 years by an unidentified people.

Archaeologists believe that the city's inhabitants, a population somewhere around 30,000 people, abandoned the city in the 1400's, shortly before the arrival of Spaniards to the area. No written records exist of any explorers ever finding the city, and it was not rediscovered until the 1800's when explorer Anastasio Alfaro happened upon it.

The mass departure from the city seems to have been abrupt.

"These people left without packing," explained archaeologist Eduardo Castillo, who helped excavate the site and was the director of the Monument in 1985. "Things of great value and of great utility - things that were difficult to make - were left behind. It's as if you got up and ran off without your purse."

Standing amidst the large stone mounds that once supported their ranchos (traditional bungalows), one can imagine the thousands fleeing from the city. Stone roads, large portions of which have been restored, radiate out from the city center and melt into the forest. In spot excavations, these roads have been found to extend between four and 12 km. (between 2.5 and 7.5 miles) from the city center.

Archaeologists have several theories regarding why these indigenous people fled the city. One theory is that they were forewarned the Conquistadors were coming. Because the city was so large, it was probably well known among other tribes and visited by traders who could have brought word of the Spaniards. Archaeologists have found shards of polychrome ceramic at the sight, a painting technique unique in Costa Rica to the Chorotegas of the north. These ceramics indicate there was contact between tribes in the area, making this theory a likely possibility, Castillo said.

Another theory is that one of the other tribes in the area attacked the city and either absorbed the inhabitants or chased them away. Or, perhaps, the mythology of these people, similar to that of the Aztecs, warned that sometime around the date of the city's abandonment, an enemy would arrive from across the ocean. Such a belief could have prompted the exodus.

Manuel Solano, park ranger at the Monument for 22 years, believes that volcanic activity may have created an environmental collapse. The city was built at the base of Turrialba Volcano. A large explosion just 18 km. (11 miles) away would have disrupted the agricultural production necessary for the city's inhabitants to survive.

Although it is not clear why they left, there is a general consensus that the inhabitants fled south to the Talamanca mountains. These mountains, sheltering most of Costa Rica's remaining indigenous people (the Bribrí), are higher and more protected than the valley where the Monument now stands. There is even a pre-Columbian city in Talamanca that has yet to be excavated: the Ta'lari area at the origin of the Pacuare River. Perhaps an excavation of Ta'lari would offer some clues about what happened to the people from Guayabo.

Other explanations for the abandonment may lie undeciphered in the many petroglyphs and statues at Guayabo. As you explore the Monument, you will only see a few of the petroglyphs protected under tin roofs. Artifacts not on display are either at the National Museum in San José, in storage or still underground.

"We don't have enough funding for maintenance or proper display of the artifacts we have," explained park ranger Solano. "The pieces are safer left underground until we have money to reinforce the structures and protect the pieces."

To date, only one fifth of the city has been uncovered since Costa Rican archaeologist Carlos Aguilar began the excavation in 1968.

Under one roof at the monument, a large rock pokes through the earth, displaying detailed petroglyphs of a jaguar and a crocodile. The petroglyphs stand at the corner of the underground "Room of the Sculptures" where many statues were found, but which has been covered up again. In the room, statues of shamans, apprentices and monkey-men were discovered, all facing the largest stone mound standing below the center of the Monument.

"The figures in this room were probably the gods of the people who lived here. They faced the central mound, where the chief or shaman lived, to protect it," Castillo said.

Near the central mound you will see clusters of small tombs, where people were commonly buried in a fetal position with gold or jade objects. Family members often were buried in tombs inside or next to the family's rancho. Death is believed to have been valued as a purification ritual, and vultures were the protectors of the dead.

Most of the tombs are still closed, and the protection of their contents is of special concern to the park ranger, since grave robbing has been a problem in the past. "Local people have come in to see what they can take," said Solano, who is in charge of protecting the remaining artifacts at the site.

The monument has also had trouble with poachers cutting down trees and trapping birds. About 20 percent of the 218-hectare (539-acre) reserve is primary forest, but still, park rangers say the forest does not have as much wildlife as it should. The forest around the ruins is mostly secondary forest that has grown back since the site was made a National Monument in 1973. The secondary forest is quite dense, and demonstrates how quickly this premontane rain forest (130 inches of rain per year) can regenerate when given the chance.

The misty forest will be an important part of your experience as you wander through the forgotten city ($6/person) or sleep at the campground above it ($2/person). Without the forest surrounding the city, it would be impossible to experience the seclusion in which these people lived and the closeness to nature that they must have felt.

"The forest is as important as the structures," Castillo commented. "The people who lived here chose the spot for environmental as well as cultural reasons."

Castillo has petitioned the National Geographic fund for a ten-year project to continue protecting the structures and the forest. He plans to restore the central mound, which is sinking, and requires an estimated $25,000 to repair. He said he also hopes to continue excavations, and redirect the trails so visitors can walk on the ancient roads.

"These roads used to support 30,000 people each day;" he said. "There is no reason that, if maintained, they could not support the site's visitors today."

Although you cannot walk on the roads yet, you will certainly get close enough to understand something of what the city was like a millennium ago. And as you leave the quiet city, you may even feel you have visited a sacred place.

"It is anti-archaeologist of me to say this, but if restored and excavated further, this spot could also attract visitors interested in mysticism and the magical," Castillo said.

Indeed, upon leaving the sight, some visitors have said they could feel the presence of the ancients who once lived in this lush hidden valley.

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