Nestled on a verdant mountainside outside the town of Turrialba, on the Caribbean slope, is the largest collection of archaeological ruins you’ll find in Costa Rica. But perhaps not for long.
Beneath the raised prayer mounds, inside rectangular tombs and around descending aqueducts, small creatures are scurrying around moving dirt and bits of rock.
Ants, armadillos and erosion are eating away at the monument, and archaeologists say that if these problems are not addressed soon, GuayaboNational Monument could collapse within the next few years.
A recent study by visiting Peruvian archaeologist Alfredo Narvaez confirmed what Costa Rican archeologists have suspected for years – much of the monument’s stone structures are slowly but surely crumbling away as a result of precipitation, erosion, burrowing animals, insects and microorganisms, according to Marlon Delgado, the monument’s administrator.
Some of the damage is caused by the four meters of rain that annually drench the site. Rain seeps into the grass-covered prayer mounds and is slowly wearing down the volcanic rock that the site’s early inhabitants used to create tombs to honor the dead, aqueducts to channel water and a roadway that led pre-Columbian visitors to the main mound.
Scientists say that between 1,000 B.C. and A.D. 1,400, when some 500-700 people are believed to have inhabited the site, roofs protected the structures from the elements. But these have since fallen, leaving the keys to the country’s history exposed.
And in addition to the inevitable whims of Mother Nature, the monument is suffering from a different, perhaps more manageable problem – a shortage of funds to preserve and maintain the monument.
“What we receive from the parks system is not sufficient. We need money to preserve what we already have, as well as to excavate the majority that is still hidden in the forest,” said Rosita Fernández, a park guide at Guayabo.
Conservationist Mario Boza, who’s been working with the national parks system since he became its first director in 1970, agrees the lack of funds is the biggest problem.
“The great majority of parks never have enough money for anything,” he said, explaining that by law, all monies from park entrance fees and other mandatory fees within the park’s grounds are sent to the central government, where they’re redistributed.
Boza said that sometimes more than half of the funds generated by the parks don’t actually return to them, but stay in the pockets of the central government to be used for non-park related programs.
Private nonprofit foundations, such as the nascent Pro-Parques Boza now represents, are one answer to the funding problems, he continued, because these organizations give in full what they raise for parks.
President Oscar Arias visited Guayabo for the first time April 21 to see its wonders and show support for what he deemed an “extremely important” site for Costa Rican history and tourism.
During the special tour, park guides shared the area’s stories and history with Arias and Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides, who toured the site with Frederico Ortuño, founder of the Tayutic Foundation, a private organization that hopes to help save the monument.
The daylong event officially inaugurated the Tayutic Foundation, managed by the Ortuño family, and its goal of preserving and recovering Guayabo through a fundraising and awareness campaign.
“We are looking to rescue Pre-Hispanic heritage that is in grave danger of loss, above all involving the community,” Ortuño said.
The foundation plans to partner with the University of Costa Rica (UCR) to make promotional brochures, DVDs and videos to spread knowledge of the site. It will also begin offering art classes by local artists with the proceeds to go toward preserving the monument. Ortuño said his goal is to attract people to the site for a “cultural tourism” experience.
Last year, 20,000 people – of whom 70% were locals – visited Guayabo, an amount park guide Fernández says is relatively low compared to other national parks and tourism attractions, and suggests a lack of knowledge about the site. She is hopeful the new foundation will create much-needed awareness about the importance of Guayabo.
Though officials didn’t say much about the government’s efforts to preserve Guayabo during the recent tour, they optimistically applauded the foundation’s efforts.
“I am grateful that the Tayutic Foundation has shown interest in rescuing this archaeological reserve. I believe it will allow us to offer the tourist something new,” President Arias said, adding that Guayabo is a potentially lucrative addition to the country’s already diverse plate of options for tourists.
Tayutic (an indigenous name for the “platanilla” plant common in the area) is also the name of a nearby hacienda owned by the Ortuño family. It’s a farm turned “agrotourism” site where visitors can observe the process of producing tapa dulce (brown-sugar loaves), coffee, sugarcane and macadamia.
Ortuño’s goals for the hacienda and Guayabo are the same – to fund and promote important pieces of Costa Rica’s cultural puzzle.
Tayutic is also focusing its cultural preservation efforts at Agua Caliente in Cartago, east of San José, known as the site of one of the country’s most complete Pre-Columbian settlements, as well as at the country’s highest peak, Chirripó, towering 3,820 meters above sea level in the heart of the Southern Zone.
While the Guayabo site is small compared to archaeological sites outside the
country, such as Copán in Honduras or Tikal in Guatemala, Fernández points out, “It’s an important cultural ideological bridge between North and South America.”
Another boon for the Caribbean-slope archaeological site is the recent paving of the 4.2-kilometer strip of road that connects the San José-Turrialba route to the national monument. Before the asphalt was laid this year, the rocky dusty road had deterred some from making the trip, according to Andrés Boza, Mario Boza’s son, who also visited the site for the first time April 21.
“I thought you had to go to Tikal, Guatemala or Honduras to find something like this,” he said.
Aside from the ruins’ aesthetic beauty, Fernández sees the site as a key element in Costa Rican identity.
“It’s an important site to tell us where we’ve come from, where we are now and where we’re going. These are our roots.”