Chirije on CNN / Reuters
By Robert Evans
BAHIA DE CARAQUEZ, Ecuador, (Reuters) - Pre-Colombian figurines lying on the beach and a drug baron's secret airstrip on a cliff above may sound like the stuff of adventure stories.
But just a few miles (kms) along the Pacific coast south of this Ecuadorean resort town, they are only two of the surprises that add spice to a visit to the site of Chirije, an ancient port for early traders between North and South America.
"The evidence shows that merchants were travelling from here on balsa rafts up as far as modern Mexico and down to what is now Chile over 2,000 years ago," says Jacobo Santos, director of the spanking new Archeological Museum in Bahia.
"These people were the Phoenicians of the Americas. They were everywhere," adds local historian Geraldo Castro. "But we still have so much to learn about them."
Today, there is little sign at Chirije of what must have been a bustling harbour with wharves and storehouses for up to a millenium between 500 BCE and 500 CE -- long before the rise of the Incas in Peru to the south.
But at sites in Mexico, Peru and Chile dating back hundreds of years before the Spaniards settled in the 16th century, pieces of the stunningly pink spondula conch shell found off Ecuador's coast have turned up.
The spondula was prized almost as highly as precious metals in indigenous cultures the length of the American Pacific seaboard, providing adornment for chiefs and high priests. It also served as a currency as well as a lucrative item of trade.
But Chirije was not just a maritime trading post.
Archeologists say it was also a ceremonial centre where people from all along the coast of what is now Ecuador's Manabi province and further inland for centuries gathered for religious and cultural celebrations.
Excavations by a team from the United States in the early 1990s uncovered huge stone ovens that Santos says were clearly capable of cooking for hundreds of people at the same time.
The remains of a massive water reservoir were also found with the help of photography from space by U.S. satellites. "Its technology was amazingly modern," says historian Castro.
Over the centuries since Chirije was abandoned, probably around 700 CE and almost certainly because of volcanic eruption and ash-falls, two rivers flowing down to the sea to form a sheltered estuary have all but dried up.
Wooden buildings have rotted and the shoreline has been flattened and reshaped by rising seal levels, pounding Pacific waves -- and more recently by the El Nino storms of 1997-98 and an earthquake that followed.
Those destructive natural forces also tore up parts of the hillsides where relics had lain buried for centuries, turning the water's edge today into a treasure-trove for beachcombers.
Now, Chirije is gaining new life with the creation of an ecological tourist centre -- wood and wattle lodges in the indigenous style and a museum to display some of the artifacts, and skulls from burial grounds, that have been found.
Stretching inland and uphill behind the centre is one of the continent's last remaining dry tropical forests, much of it covering the remains left by the early cultures that lived here -- Caras, Jamas and Coaque, according to the archeologists.
"I think we've been able to investigate little more than one percent of it," says Patricio Tamariz, tourist director for the region whose family put its own money into creating the new Chirije centre.
"We're finding things all the time, and if we had the financing this could become one of South America's major archeological sites."
His pride is "The Lord of Chirije," a six-inch-high but perfectly preserved statuette of a stern and aristocratic figure with head-dress believed to be some 2,500 years old that he had to pass on to the Bahia museum.
Down on the vast, empty beach stretching for miles in either direction with only an occasional fisherman's hut tucked up against the cliff showing that some people still live here, easy discoveries are made without any digging.
In a 15-minute stroll, one visitor picked up from the sand a finely-carved redstone human figurine and an animal figure, possibly a jaguar, that were still in good condition although worn by the ebb and flow of the tide.
Santos, declaring the figurine to be at least 1,500 years old, was delighted. "That one is for my museum in Bahia," he said. Tamariz, whose baby the small Chirije museum is, took the jaguar, in a state not quite so perfect.
High above the cliffs a line of pelicans -- just one of dozens of bird species that inhabit the area -- flaps past on a fishing expedition, and eyes following them suddenly spot a cave and a long, clearly artificially-flattened area in front.
"One of our more modern tourist attractions," says Tamariz with a grin.
In the 1980s, he recounts, one of Ecuador's most notorious criminals realised the isolated Chirije area would be ideal for a refuelling stop for small planes plying the drugs trade up the South American coast towards the United States.
In came a clandestine work crew and carved out a landing strip in the side of the cliff, digging out the cave to hide the small craft on the run from view from above.
"They probably destroyed hundreds of artifacts in doing that," says Tamariz in disgust. "And then when they were discovered the Ecuadorean Air Force came along and bombed the runway which certainly destroyed even more."
Although only some 20 miles (28 kms) from Bahia along the coast, Chirije can only be reached by land across rugged hills on dirt roads -- often impassable since El Nino -- and then three miles (5 km) along the beach, only when the tide is low.
The 40-year-old Tamariz says he thought he had discovered Chirije for the world when on a skin-diving expedition from Bahia with some friends almost two decades ago.
"We picked up some of these artifacts, and got very excited. But then I found that it had all been mapped by American archeologists back in the mid-1950s, and we forgot about it for another 15 years," he says.
Then he and his mother, owner of a shrimp farm near Bahia, decided to set up the lodge and bring experts in pre-Columbian cultures to explore. But digs in the mid-1990s were halted, and partly destroyed when El Nino and the earthquake struck.
Tamariz, a bubbling enthusiast for the history of the area, is convinced that remains of the old Chirije also lie out under the sea.
"I've dived out there," he says, pointing west over the water where migrating whales put on a magnificent diving and spouting display as they pass by in September.
"There are clearly shaped stone formations, squared -- they must be what is left of buildings," he says. "But it would cost a fortune to investigate properly."
Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited.
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