Arenal Volcano

Archaeology in Costa Rica: Ruins & Museums

Arenal Volcano

While Costa Rica is beloved for its natural treasures, there’s another cache of riches lurking back in those lush jungles. The country’s archaeology may not be quite as well known as its ecology, but an exploration of Costa Rica’s ruins and museums ultimately proves equally fascinating as its famous rainforests.

For around 15,000 years the Central American isthmus has been a highway for human migrations between North and South America and a home for myriad indigenous civilizations. The result is a wealth of precious artworks, crumbling cities in the jungle, puzzling mysteries, and a timeline of archaeological treasures ranging from the depths of history, to the conquistadors, to recent days.

Costa Rica's Early History

Costa Rica's Early History

The year of human arrival in the Americas is hotly disputed, but archaeological evidence found thus far suggests people arrived in Central America around 12,000 years ago. Ancient hunting sites near Volcan Turrialba hint that the earliest arrivals in the area hunted sloths, mastodons and giant armadillos.

As the Ice Age ended and the climate shifted dramatically, humans organized themselves in small, highly mobile groups that could take advantage of the region’s varied ecosystems. The Turrialba and Guanacaste regions saw higher population densities than the rest of the country. By 5000 BC agriculture was well under way, with communities planting tubers such as yuccas and yams and cultivating fruit and palm trees. Later ,corn and ayotes became vital parts of their diets.

These agricultural communities built permanent settlements that would, over time, grow into impressive cities run as hierarchical chiefdoms. These societies built roads, irrigation systems and large structures. They were deeply into astronomical observations and the production of masterful works made with jade, opal and gold. By 500 AD they were wide-ranging and socially stratified, with designated political and religious leaders, specialized artisans, warriors and a farmer class.

Until the Spanish arrived in the 1520s, these cultures came and went, expanded and shrank, and warred against each other on and off. To understand these varying cultures and their accomplishments, there are a number of archaeological ruins and museums no Costa Rica visitor should miss.

The Best Costa Rica Ruins

The Best Costa Rican Ruins

East of San Jose you’ll find El Guayabo National Monument, the largest archaeological site in the country, whose ruins lie on a plateau on the southern flank of Volcan Turrialba. At one time upwards of 5,000 people may have lived in Guayabo, which had plumbing and an engineered municipal water supply, whose channels were lined with stones and sand to filter drinking water. The center of the town was a cluster of tapered wooden structures topping elevated rock platforms and capped with massive conical roofs towering tens of meters into the sky. Carbon dating suggests Guayabo was built 1200 years ago. From Guayabo, you can easily reach the stunning Orosi Valley and Las Ruinas de Ujarrás, a colonial church site built around and over an ancient village.

For sheer mystery, you simply must see the stone spheres of Costa Rica at Archaeological Zone Finca 6, an incredible site in Palmar Sur. The massive man-made stone balls found there are perfectly spherical and range in weight up to 16 tons! These mysterious balls have attracted a lot of attention from archaeologists, astrologists and mystics alike. No one is quite sure how old these spheres are (some estimates put them at about 2300 years), how they were made or what purpose they served. But studies suggest they were an important part of Costa Rica’s ancient culture for over 1000 years.

Out on the Caribbean slope east of Guayabo lies Las Mercedes, another architectural marvel boasting 15 massive platforms, numerous plazas, terraces, funeral sites, ramps and the famous Causeways. Archaeologists estimate this site was occupied from about 1500BC until the arrival of the Spanish, with the monumental architecture constructed around 1000 years ago.

Back in the center of the country you’ll find Rivas, a former residential complex comprised of round structures (which were made of large river cobbles) with rectangular patios outside. Notable finds at this site include ceramic musical instruments, ceramic beads and whistles, some of which were created in the shape of human heads.


Costa Rica's Archaeological Museums

Along your journey to these Costa Rican ruins, be sure to drop in to see San Jose’s impressive archaeological museums. The best of the bunch include the Gold Museum, the Jade Museum and the National Museum, which offers an exceptional overview of the nation’s history running from deep pre-historic times to La Entrada and on to present day.

The Gold Museum features more than 2,600 impressive artifacts, as well as a section on the history of Costa Rica’s currency. Precious green gems rule at the Jade Museum, where you’ll also find other artifacts ranging from ceramics to carved wooden pieces and much more.

Costa Rica’s past is richer than most people know. And while its ecological treasures may always be the primary draw for visitors, you can easily combine your Costa Rica ecotour with a journey into the depths of history.   

How To See Costa Rica's Archaeological Sites & Museums

International Expeditions' Custom Travel Planners can help arrange time before or after your Costa Rica tour to explore the cultural history and archaeology accompanied by expert local guides.

A former archaeologist, Jim O’Donnell has consulted on community natural resource planning issues, permaculture development projects and wilderness protection movements. In addition to his blog, Around the World in Eighty Years, his writing and photography have appeared in National Geographic Maps, New Mexico Magazine, Perceptive Travel and more.