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Tayrona and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Parks and their Archaeological Sites

Date of Submission: 27/09/2012
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)(viii)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Permanent Delagation of Colombia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Departments of Cesar, La Guajira and Magdalena
Ref.: 5765

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Tayrona National Park N11 16 0 W74 3 0

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park N10 52 0 W73 43 0

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park has an area of 383,000 hectares, ranging from 0 meters above sea level to perpetual snows as high as 5,770 meters above sea level. It is located in the jurisdiction of the departments of Magdalena, Guajira and Cesar. The Sierra has a triangular base and pyramidal volume with three faces looking north, west and southeast. On the other hand, the Tayrona National Park covers an area of 15,000 hectares (12,000 land and 3,000 marine), whose morphological and landscape traits are related to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, causing several bays with beaches and rocky headlands. Each of these parks contains several villages of archaeological interest, the main ones being the Teyuna Archaeological Park (in Indian language), or Buritaca 200, also known as Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), located in the northwest part of the Sierra and the ancient Tayrona city called "Chairama", or Little Village, located at the east end of Tayrona Park.

These sites were discovered through an anthropological and archaeological research developed in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta which began in the early decades of the twentieth century, leading to the location of many archaeological sites and performing various ethnological works on the current inhabitants. This leads to the discovery of Pueblito in 1954 and Buritaca 200 in 1976; at this point in time, recover and study – related activities start, and the process is carried out until 1982.

Natural Aspects

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a high performance geographic star, formed by 35 rivers with a flow rate which irrigates the lands of the coastal flood plains and valleys of Ariguaní river and Cesar river. It feeds a vast semi - arid area of Guajira, especially the valley of the Rancheria river, and supplies aqueducts of several cities and some settlements around the massif such as farms, livestock and mining.

There are Earth-like and marine and coastal ecosystems in the area of the Tayrona Park. The former include the thorn scrub and dry forests, as well as wet and cloudy forests. Marine and coastal ecosystems include corals, seagrass meadows, beaches, rocky shores, mangrove stands, congregations of algae, sediment bottom and lagoons and former riverbed.


Among the archaeological towns discovered, the most important ones are the afore – mentioned Pueblito and Buritaca. The former was developed on the coastline, and the latter was developed on the mountain. From the studies conducted, it has been determined that there populations belong to societies with different patterns of settlement, as they originated at different times.

The archaeological site of Buritaca is an urban area which is heavily densified in terms of its construction, exceeding a surface of 20 hectares, but with remains scattered over an area of 150 hectares. The building complex consists of numerous terraces, retaining walls, paths, stairs, canals and other works.

As for the archaeological site of Pueblito, archaeologists estimate that this town was developed in an area of ​​about four square kilometers “totaling over a thousand rings for construction”. The latter, just like Ciudad Perdida, has a network of roads, terraces, rings, squares and stairways. Among the sacred sites have cemeteries and worship houses. Engineering Pueblito finds its highlights in "the multitude of works related to the creeks and streams, retaining walls in sections, canalization in tunnels and bridges (which) are not monumental works in terms of size, but they are quite numerous.”

Another site, regarded as the most important site from an archaeological point of view between those situated at the Tayrona Park area, is Bahía de Cinto, because it has found traces of gold and pottery which are older than 2000 years before the Christian era.

Pottery findings in the area are also noteworthy: several classifications of types have been made depending on their composition. At some point, in one of the research projects on this subject it was proposed to do a segmentation of the ceramic, in accordance with the distribution of forms, decorations, colors, among other characteristics of different sites of Ciudad Perdida, in order to pinpoint sites for ceremonial, agricultural, of movement activities, inter alia.

On the other hand, the remnants of stone work, which are not only manifested in urban structures but also in plenty of stone – made artifacts, are also important part of archaeological studies in the area. These artifacts range from "the beads still emerging on the surface of almost all areas where there was any occupation, even the tough basalt stone tools which obviously had a utilitarian use." It has also been discovered that the stone – made tools had a ceremonial sense, as vestiges have been found of stone carved with petroglyphs or perforated stone, thus denoting a mystical meaning.

Within the context of the Sierra Nevada, the Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo inhabit the Sierra, as well as a town of countrymen located in the middle and low parts.

These indigenous cultures have managed to retain much of the culture inherited from their ancestors. The most traditional culture is that of the Kogui, which in turn is the population that has had the least contact with the national society. They inhabit the northern slopes of the Sierra, in the valleys of the rivers Diego, Palomino and Ancho. The Ika, or Arhuacos, live on the southern slope in the high valleys of the rivers Guatapurí, Ariguaní, San Sebastian, Piedras and Caracol.

Technological Aspects

As mentioned above, the villages of the pre-Hispanic cultures of the Sierra developed varied types of structures which perfectly allowed its successful implementation as adjusted to the conditions of the terrain. Among these structures are:

- Terraces: Terraces are found both in Pueblito and Ciudad Perdida. Foundations or stone rings were built on these bases, upon which the houses were located. In the case of Ciudad Perdida, their surfaces could vary between 20 and 1.600m.

- Retaining walls: They allowed to form and strengthen the terraces, supporting roads and also regulating the course of rainwater. Retaining walls are formed by rocks of uniform size, stamped with smaller ones, using no mortar or cohesive material in their tamping technique. The height of the Lost City walls varies between 0.60 cm and 30 m.

- Rings: rings are foundations built with stone units forming a ring on which houses or huts are erected. They are found on terraces and have different sizes, which seem to follow a social hierarchy. The surface of the terrace which was formed with these bases was covered with stone slabs as adobe covers.

- Roads: Roads were also made of stone; there were roads of several features which depended on their degree of importance. For example, some roads were so wide that they could reach 4 m. Other roads were narrower and turned into stairs to communicate the different terraces. Other simpler roads were made of a single course of stones. In general, the urban intercommunication system followed the contour in order to form soft slopes.

- Canals and drainage: This is a carefully designed system for channeling water. It appeared on the outside of the rings where the houses were built, on one side of the slope. A canal would lead the waters along the terrace, then down the stairs, onto by the closest road, and it would finally channel water down the slope so that it would cause no damage or erosion.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Tayrona and Sierra Nevada Parks constitute an exceptional set of characteristics, because of its unique ecosystem in the world and the cultural content that these spaces contain. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, a condition that can concentrate all climatic zones; it also contains samples of all existing biomes in Colombia, which makes it an excellent representative of fauna and flora. Because of this, UNESCO declared it Biosphere Reserve of Man and Humanity in 1979. Moreover, the area bounded by these two parks, i. e. both the coastline and the Sierra Nevada, were inhabited by numerous indigenous groups which, according to research conducted so far, date from as far back as the V and IX centuries A. D., the earliest human occupation of the coastal area and the Sierra, respectively. This development brought a series of infrastructures that can be witnessed today through at least 300 recorded archaeological settlements of various sizes and complexity in the littoral and in the highlands. The villages built were abandoned after a century of Spanish rule (s. XVII) and these were gradually absorbed by the jungle. However, many cultures remain today which are direct descendants of the ancient Tayrona culture, as is the case of the Kogui, Arhuacos, Kankuamo and Malayo, who have managed to preserve their traditions and their original languages, despite the different types of pressures of the contemporary world.

Criterion (iii): The large group of archaeological sites, led by Ciudad Perdida and Pueblito, constitutes an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition of several centuries that is still alive and retains much of its legacy in the area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. These sites show a unique cultural and technological development in which structures were developed to adapt almost perfectly to the physical conditions of the site, and fully responding to the needs of functionality required for their permanence in time.

Criterion (iv): The construction system used by the ancient Tayrona culture took the resources available in their environment to build their villages so they could respond to environmental needs while allowing the development of the activities of their tradition. In this regard, several common formal aspects were found in their sites, which show important features of their culture at various times in their history (corresponding to pre-Hispanic times).

Criterion (v):There are more than 200 towns in the Sierra Nevada area, amongst which the following stand out: Alto de Mira, Antigua, Frontera, Pirámide, Tankua, Tigres, Pueblito and Buritaca 200. The two last towns are the most representative ones, from the archaeological point of view, of the ancient Tayrona civilization, and still persist thanks to their conservation by the cultural descendants who now inhabit the Sierra.

Criterion (viii): The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a unique natural ecosystem in the world that emerges abruptly and isolated in the north of the country, where all thermal levels coexist in a tropical mountain range and with their own diversity of fauna and flora. It is also the highest mountain in the world located on a coastline, rising 5770 meters above sea level.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Both the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Tayrona National Park make part of the Administrative Unit of National Natural Parks of Colombia. As such, these parks are protected by national legislation. The declaration of the Sierra Nevada as Biosphere Reserve of the Humanity by UNESCO favors the orientation of national and international policies towards its protection and study. Environmentally, the biggest threat to these ecosystems has been the emergence of illicit crops in some areas in recent years, which results in deforestation in the habitat of the species living therein.

The stone-built infrastructure (roads, terraces, rings, retaining walls) is in good condition despite being almost completely covered by vegetation, thanks to the excellent design of the network of storm drains by the Tayrona people, which has prevented the emergence of erosion on the ground. The presence of indigenous communities has helped its preservation over time; however they are threatened by disease, poverty or armed conflict.

There is immense research potential in this region, both at the natural and at the cultural level.

Comparison with other similar properties

Tikal National Park (Guatemala)

Included in the World Heritage List under criteria number i, iii, iv, ix and x. Tikal is one of the major sites of Mayan civilization; it is at the heart of the jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation. It was inhabited from the VI to the X century A. D. Its ceremonial center includes superb temples and palaces and public squares, as well as public squares which were accessed by ramps. There are scattered remnants of houses in its surroundings. The ruined city reflects the cultural evolution of Mayan society from hunter-gathering to agriculture, with an elaborate religious, artistic, and scientific culture which finally collapsed by the ninth century.

Along with the Sierra de las Minas, Maya Biosphere Reserve, it is the most important reserve of the country because of its archaeological, biological and ecological interest. A large area of ​​the reserve still comprises dense lush forests, with more than 300 species of commercially useful trees such as cedar and mahogany. This is also one of the largest wetland systems in Central America.

Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu (Peru)

Included in the World Heritage List under criteria number i, iii, vii and ix. Located 2430 meters high in a beautiful spot in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, the sanctuary of Machu Picchu was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its peak. Its walls, terraces and huge ramps give the impression of having been carved into the cliffs of the rock, as if they were part of it. Machu Picchu is an outstanding example of man's interaction with its natural surroundings. The use of local stone remains one of the great examples in the world of the use of natural raw materials to provide an outstanding architecture which is totally appropriate to the environment. People living near Machu Picchu lead a lifestyle which resembles that of their Inca ancestors, based on potatoes, corn and llamas. Machu Picchu also provides a safe habitat for several endangered species, including the spectacled bear, one of the most interesting species in the area. Other animals are: the dwarf deer, otter, long - tailed weasel, wild cat, boa, cock – of - the – rock, and the Andean condor.

Abiseo River National Park (Peru)

Included in the World Heritage List under criteria number iii, vii, ix and x. This park was created in 1983 to protect the highly endemic fauna and flora of the typical rainforests of this region of the Andes. The yellow-tailed woolly monkey, which was thought to be extinct, is found only in this area. Research conducted since 1985 has uncovered 36 archaeological sites so far, located between 2,500 and 4,000 meters, which provide a fairly complete idea of ​​what the pre - Inca society was like. The pre-Hispanic monuments in the valley of Monte Cristo in Rio Abiseo National Park are an outstanding example of pre-Columbian human occupation at high altitude in the Andean region as early as the fourth century B. C. Evidence from cave Manachaqui suggests that the area was settled by men from a more remote period, 6000 B. C. The La Playa site is among the most important pre-Columbian ruins, where about 25 structures and stone circles have been recorded in an area that consists of a raised terrace above the river.

Mount Huangshan (China)

Included in the World Heritage List under criteria number ii, vii and x. Huangshan, the most beautiful mountain in China, has been celebrated by artists and writers during a great part of the history of the country (for example, in the "mountain and water" style of Sanshui, by the mid - sixteenth century). Its lavish landscape of rocks and granite peaks emerging from a sea of clouds continues to exercise today the same power of fascination on the many travelers, poets, painters and photographers who come on pilgrimage to visit. The site has high diversity of plant and animal species, some in danger of extinction. The high esteem credited in Huangshan during much of the history of China has led to the Huangshan culture. Generation after generation, people have come to praise the mountain because of its numerous forests of stone pillars, waterfalls, lakes and hot springs.