In the province of Manabi lies a lost city that spans several districts: Portoviejo, Jaramijó, Montecristi… It is the largest archaeological site in Ecuador, with an even greater dimension than the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru. Cerro-Jaboncillo offers a glimpse at a macro-settlement of an enormous city belonging to the Manteño culture; its total area embraces a polygon of seven-thousand hectares in size. Nobody knows this even exists! Well, almost nobody…
Cerro Hojas Jaboncillo’s history and recognition go back to 1906 when American archaeologist Marshall Saville traveled to Ecuador and Peru to excavate. In the early twentieth century, the only indigenous cultures known in the Americas were the Incas and Aztecs. Saville arrived in Ecuador hoping to find Inca ruins, but after his excavations on the Ecuadorian coast, he reported something extraordinary: a new civilization, one of which nothing was previously known (Villavicencio and Gonzalez Suarez had already identified Cerro as an important archaeological site).
The discovery made it to the New York Times and in September 1907, Saville published an article titled “An unknown race found in the Tropics”, where he announced to the world the ruins of a civilization that inhabited the area during Inca times, an “extensive territory”, with “high culture”.
The American archaeologist’s sheer astonishment is shared, to this day, by anyone who understands the complexity of the site. Cerro is a mountain world, not just a city: a system of terraces, water channels, and complex structures that climb up to the very top of the hill.
The Manteños and the vastness of the territory this civilization dominated are marked by several archaeological landmarks and important historical moments, but perhaps the two greatest discoveries have over one century between them: the first being Saville’s excavations, between 1906-1910, and the second, in 2019-2020, when archaeologists Jijón and surveyor Juan Garcia found that the “mountain city” was not just 3 500 hectares, as was previously thought after early excavations (an area currently protected), but that it actually extended to 7 000 hectares, with over 220 archaeological sites!
Who were the Manteño?
While Manteño culture spread from northern Manabi (known as the Manteño-Huancavilca) to southern Guayas (known as the Manteño-Puná), Cerro Hojas-Jaboncillo, an archaeological complex composed of several conjoining hills, became a symbolic and spiritual landmark for natives, divided into several defined trades: fishermen, engineers, farmers, artisans, and artists.
Perhaps the best-known artifact of the Manteño is the Manteño U-shaped stone seats with arms bearing an anthropomorphic figure at the base. This figure looks (wonderfully) bent over, as if holding the seat up, its arms and legs forming two symmetrical “U”s, the armrests and the seat’s legs. The purpose these seats had is not yet fully understood; there are different interpretations. Archaeologists believe the seats belong to local overlords; others don’t even agree that these seats were seats at all.
They are only one of several archaeological remains found in Cerro Hojas-Jaboncillo. At the top of the hill, stone steles have also been unearthed, large monolithic planks with jaguars or female figures carved within them, and black ceramic pieces denoting the native culture’s worldview. These artifacts are known as objects of power and reveal the fact that Cerro had a much broader significance for the Manteño culture, beyond its clear agricultural importance.
Agriculture was certainly crucial here. The Manteños harvested different types of corn, peanut, squash, tomatoes, peppers, cacao, cassava, yams, and various fruits. The archaeological site is dominated by a terrace system located high in the mountain, each terrace measuring different widths. Unlike Inca terraces, created in a specific, convenient point in the mountain, Manteños did the inverse. They adapted to the mountain and used every millimeter, either to plant or to inhabit.
Although the site lies within a deciduous (dry) forest, the mountains are natural water reservoirs. The tops of these hills produce a humid environment, home to a great variety of flora and fauna. Over 400 m in elevation, the fog condenses and captures mist naturally. In addition, Manteños conceived of an irrigation system to drive the water to their terrace terrace; they created water reserves during months… that worked through the summer.
Finally, Manteños were also great fishermen and even better divers. This is best showcased over 60 km west of Picoaza, in the parish of San Lorenzo, along the beach of Ligüiqui. The site, which currently remains a fishing village, is also an archaeological complex: 1,500 hectares with a 10-km-long coral reef. These reefs were basically stone walls located intermittently along the shoreline in a crescent shape. In high tide, octopus, fish, crustaceans, and mollusks were caught and the fishermen gathered.
These vestiges, which may even seem trivial at first glance, are a reflection of a culture of high technological advancement; a true glimpse of their “technology” and innovation of the use of the ground.
Cerro Hojas Jaboncillo’s interpretation center tells a wonderful story. It allows us to imagine a great civilization, one of the most advanced in America, heir to cultures such as that of Valdivia, which is considered the oldest in our continent. Discover this fabulous archeological site just outside of the city of Portoviejo, capital of the province of Manabí, in Ecuador.
8h30 – 17h
How to get there
Parque Arqueológico Cerro Hojas-Jaboncillo is located in Ciudadela Las Amazonas, in the town Picoazá, only 15 minutes (7.5 km) from downtown Portoviejo.
To get there with public transportation, hop on “Cooperativa Picoazá” bus (travels every day) from Portoviejo.
PH: Cortesía GAD Portoviejo