While the beaches and volcanoes remain the most visited areas of Costa Rica. But some of the more interesting but less visited places to explore when traveling in Costa Rica are the archeological sites and ruins . From churches to prisons, these 5 ruins or archeological sites are the ones that you don’t want to miss!
- Guayabo National Monument
- Santiago Apostol Parish Ruins
- Ruins of Ujarras Church
- Duran Sanatorium Cartago
- San Lucas Prison
Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Costa Rica Archeological site and ruins, specifically the top 5 ones to see when in Costa Rica. We will look into their history, who built them, and what their ultimate purpose was.
The Best Ruins and Archeological Sites in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a treasure trove of ancient history. Many different cultures lived here throughout the ages, including pre-Columbian civilizations like the Aztecs and the Maya. As such, many of Costa Rica’s surviving ruins are from these ancient cultures, though they are not as well-preserved as the ones built by the Spanish, seeing as they tend to be much older. There are potentially even more ruins waiting to be discovered in Costa Rica’s dense rainforests. Here is a list of some of the more popular ones.
1. Guayabo National Monument
Found almost directly in Costa Rica’s center, the Guayabo National Monument is an archaeological site situated on the southern slope of Turrialba Volcano. The site itself is more than 2 square kilometers in size, though much of it is still uncovered.
The National Monument is surrounded by dense rainforest and it’s speculated that there are structures and complexes still hidden within the forests under the shadow of Turrialba Volcano. The Guayabo National Monument is currently Costa Rica’s largest, and most famous, archaeological site.
The site itself was thought to have been the remains of a great city populated by at least 10,000 people but was abandoned by its inhabitants centuries before the Spanish even arrived at Costa Rica.
Why the people abandoned this city is still up for debate, but the most widely accepted theories so far was that disease, famine, or war may have displaced the inhabitants.
It has been speculated that Guayabo, if not the capital of an ancient civilization, was a center of politics, religion and culture, based on the large number of artifacts uncovered here. It was first discovered in 1891, where more than 100 artifacts were dug up, most of which were later displayed at various expositions around the world, including in Madrid and in Chicago.
2. Santiago Apostol Parish Ruins
The Santiago Apostol Parish Ruins is the remains of a church dedicated to St. James the Apostle in the city of Cartago in Costa Rica. The current standing structure itself wasn’t the original church built on the site. There have been many churches built and rebuilt on this site since 1575.
The first building was severely damaged in 1630 by a major earthquake, but wasn’t demolished until 1656, in order for a new building to be erected. The new building wasn’t finished until 1662. Further earthquakes in the region in 1718 and 1756 damaged the new structure severely, and despite heavy repairs, the church collapses on 1841 due to the San Antolin earthquake.
It wasn’t until 1870 when a new construction effort was made but was halted soon after and wasn’t restarted until 1903. Construction was later canceled completely in 1910 after the Santa Monica earthquake and the building hasn’t changed since then.
Because it has been damaged continuously by earthquakes throughout its history, a popular legend has been associated with the ruins of the church. It involved two brothers, one of whom was a priest. Both brothers fell in love with the same woman, but the priest, jealous that the woman chose his brother over him, killed his brother.
Struck by guilt, the priest built a church as penance, but every time it was finished, an earthquake destroyed it. Legend has it that on foggy nights, it’s possible to see the ghost of the priest wandering the grounds of the ruins, still guilt-ridden.
Although the church ruins are technically unfinished, mass is still held here on very special occasions. The surrounding park has become a known tourist spot for the city.
3. Ruins of Ujarras Church
Found in the village of Ujarras in the Orosi Valley of Costa Rica is the ruins of the oldest church in Costa Rica. The church was built in the mid-1500’s, but the village itself was later abandoned due to a devastating flood in 1833.
The people who evacuated were made to establish a new town, which would later become Paraiso, close to the Llanos de Santa Lucia. Much like the church of Santiago Apostol, annual mass is held in the ruins every April, to celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Ujarras.
The origins of the church are a mystery, but legends say that a Huetar Indian found a painting of the Virgin Mary inside a box whilst fishing. He later took the painting to his village, and a church was built over the site to commemorate this. Later, in 1666, when an English pirate named Henry Morgan attacked the village, it was said that the Virgin Mary protected the villagers and helped repel the pirate attack.
4. Duran Sanatorium Cartago
This one is a more recent building and is famous for being the most haunted place in Costa Rica. The Duran Sanatorium is located deep in the mountains near the city of Cartago. It was constructed in 1915 by Dr. Carlos Duran and was intended to house people who suffered from consumption, which is what people called tuberculosis at the time. It also acted as an asylum for mentally ill patients.
By 1963, when tuberculosis treatment has advanced a lot, and better conditions for the mentally ill were constructed in other parts of Costa Rica, the Sanatorium ceased operations as a hospital. It was repurposed as an orphanage, and later a prison. It was abandoned in 1973 when the nearby Irazu Volcano erupted.
The ruins are currently rundown, and many people believe they see apparitions here whenever they visit, the most famous of whom is a little girl thought to be Dr. Duran’s daughter. His daughter was thought to have died at the hospital when she contracted tuberculosis there.
5. San Lucas Prison
Located about 8 km off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is San Lucas Island, which is home to the ruins of San Lucas Prison. The prison itself was built in 1873 and became home to Costa Rica’s worst criminals at the time.
The prison itself ceased operations in 1991, after 118 years of being operational. Nowadays, the entire island itself, including the prison, was converted into a wildlife conservation preserve in 2008. People can still freely visit the prison itself and catch a glimpse of the harsh life prisoners had to go through back in the day.