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Friday, January 29th, 2016  |  USD: Buy 531.29 / Sell 543.92
20 years

Archaeological sites worth visiting in Costa Rica

(Jack Donnelly for Inside Costa Rica)

(Jack Donnelly for ICR News)

December 24th, 2015 (ICR News) //EG// Costa Rica is famous for many things as a tourist destination: beaches, national parks teeming with wildlife, zip lining, rafting, volcanoes, etc. Yet, so many of the country’s subdued treasures are often overlooked. Among these attractions are a few very nice archaeological sites.


There are no sites to rival Teotihuacán, Copán, or Machu Picchu. Still, there are at least two attractions worth seeing. Both of these sites are now readily accessible and have services that allow for comfortable visits by travelers.




Guayabo has long been recognized as a national monument by the Government of Costa Rica. It is located west of San José, north of the city of Turrialba. There are tours, some in the small buses called turismos. The last few miles are a little bumpy, but it is entirely accessible by an ordinary vehicle. It has been designated a World Heritage Civil Engineering site.


The park covers around 575 acres, although fewer than 100 make up the archaeological area. Much of the site remains unexcavated, although work continues in an intermittent fashion. Recently, there has been an extensive dig going on with the express purpose of learning about the pre-Columbian construction techniques. The goal is to allow for reconstruction and preservation in the most authentic manner possible. Recent dating with Carbon 14 indicates Guayabo was built between 900 and 1100 A.D.


An easy 1 mile trail, Sendero Los Montículos, takes you around through forest, past mounds, aqueducts, walkways, stone stairs, water storage tanks, and rectangular stone tombs. The engineering, especially around the management of water resources, is impressive. Don’t miss the excellent petroglyph (low relief carving in stone) in a small covered display area near the visitors’ center.


It’s also just a nice walk in a pretty peaceful place. There is a separate nature trail that starts close to the entrance.


It’s easy to combine a trip to Guayabo with a visit to other area attractions.  The scenic Orosi valley is nearby with its lovely old Church of San José Orosi. Irazú Volcano and the national park atop the summit are must sees. Turrialba volcano is very close, but has been very active lately and much of the park is closed for safety reasons. The Ruins of Ujarrás, a colonial church site, has a lovely adjoining park that is a great spot for a picnic lunch.


A variety of accommodations are available in Turrialba, Orosi, and on the road leading to the Irazú.


Please note nearby Turrialba Volcano began erupting on October 29, 2014. The surrounding area was covered in ash and many people were evacuated. Subsequent rains washed away much of the ash. Currently, Guayabo is open and eager for visitors.





Archaeological Zone Ranch 6 is an inelegant name for a lovely site in Palmar Sur, the far south of Costa Rica. It is also known sometimes as the Parque Arqueológico, Las Esferas de Diquís, etc. If you mention las esferas, the spheres, any local will understand what you are talking about.


The site is located just a few miles south of Palmar Norte on the Inter-American Highway. The road is level and paved, easily reached in any vehicle.  There is a newly opened visitors’ center and a small transportation area to facilitate parking, buses, etc.


The spheres are pre-Columbian man-made stone balls. They range in size from 4 to 60 inches in diameter and up to 16 tons in weight. They are remarkably round and uniform. For many years, this quality led many to question whether they were the result of some natural phenomenon. The four primary locations of the spheres were named by UNESCO as World Heritage sites in June of 2014.


The park has well marked trails with explanatory signs. The trails wind around past working plantain fields and through brush. There are a number of spheres and some mounds. The spheres and mounds are all in cleared grassy areas.


The spheres attract a great of attention for their mystery. One Spanish astrologist tried to organize an international rock concert at the site. There was a lot of publicity and some talk of New World mysticism, but they ended up wallowing in very earthy Costa Rican mud.


Dating the spheres is mostly a guessing game. I see starting dates as early as 300 B.C. and as late as 500 A.D. They were made for a long period of time, but were no longer being fabricated by 1500.


A trip to Finca 6 can easily be combined with travel to other interesting destinations. It is not far off the main road leading to Puerto Jiménez, the jumping off point for the wilder areas of the Osa Penninsula. Just a couple miles south of the park you will find the lovely, and little known, town of Sierpe. Sierpe is one of my favorite spots to spend a few days taking wildlife pontoon boat tours of the mangrove swamps. Larger vessels take visitors to Isla del Caño, Corcovado, etc. It is also the point of embarkation for boat shuttles to Drake Bay.


There are a number of hotels and restaurants in Palmar Norte and Sierpe.


(Jack Donnelly for Inside Costa Rica)

(Jack Donnelly for ICR News)


Jack Donnelly has been a life-long enthusiast of Latin American folk culture. As a young man, during the 1960s, he studied cultural anthropology at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. He went on to volunteer with the U. S. Peace Corps in Guatemala.

Now, Donnelly lives in Heredia, Costa Rica. He travels around the country investigating and documenting folkloric events.

Donnelly is the author of COSTA RICA: Folk Culture, Traditions, and Cuisine which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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  • Ken Morris

    Jack: Do you happen to know of a good book on the history of the indigenous peoples in Costa Rica (ideally in English but Spanish would be OK) especially as it pertains to their interaction with the Spanish?

    I got into a discussion the other day with a gringa who insisted that Costa Rica has whitewashed its history of repressing the indigenous only to romanticize their remnants today as tourist attractions, and I bristled a little at her harsh criticisms. Surely, I conjectured, the Ticos have not been that bad. I therefore decided to ask a UCR professor with some expertise in Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples and was surprised by how little he appeared to know. He couldn’t even offer me a persuasive explanation for why there was apparently less inter-breeding between the Spanish and the indigenous in Costa Rica than there was elsewhere in Central America.

    Maybe this is a history that has yet to be written, it being a small country and all, but if there is one, I’d like to read it. Thanks.

    • jahjan

      I’d like to read it too!

  • jack


    I would first urge you to see the first chapter of my book in which I talk about The White Legend. You may be able to find it under “Adiós White Legend” on the Tico Times website.

    I do not know of any concise accurate work on pre-Columbian Costa Rica. In part because there were many different groups here and the general dividing line between the influence of the northern Mesoamerican cultures (e.g. Maya) and the South American cultures was the Central Valley. Also, the Spanish quickly began moving people around the country and many were sold as slaves to Panama (sugar cane) and Perú-Bolivia (mining). There are some very academic and technical books on the archaeology–lots of potsherds.

    A recent UCR study of genetic markers identifies the modern Tico population as 34% indigenous, 46% European, 15% African, and 6% Chinese. This study is not well received by Ticos who insist on thinking of themselves as purely European–The White Legend.

    • Ken Morris

      Thanks, Jack. I just read your article on the white legend. It is part of what I’m looking for, but too short.

      I also quickly checked Wikipedia for the demographics of Nicaragua and read that 69% are mixed indigenous/European while 5% are indigenous. This isn’t the same measure as one of genetic markers, so it’s hard to compare, but my sense is that the indigenous genetic markers of Nicas are higher than they are for Ticos.

      If so, I’m not sure what explains the difference. The relative size of the two populations at contact could explain it, although it seems more likely that the Spanish in Nicaragua had their own mines where they worked the indigenous as slaves while Costa Rica didn’t and sold them off as slaves elsewhere. Of course, there are other possible explanations.

      Yeah, my sense of the pre-Columbian stuff is that Costa Rica is on the fringes of the great civilizations and the experts have focused on them, leaving the fringes as footnotes.

      It’s all fascinating . . .

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