Nearly 120km north of Jesús María, at the far northern end of the Camino de la Historia, is the Reserva Cultural Natural Cerro Colorado, home to some fascinating vestiges of pre-Columbian culture. It’s located next to Cerro Colorado village, 10km down a meandering dirt track off the RN-9 to the west of Santa Elena. Drivers beware: there’s a deep ford lurking round a bend, 1km before you enter the village, followed by another in the village itself.
CERRO COLORADO village, no more than a few houses dotted along a riverbank, nestles in a deep, picturesque valley, surrounded by three looming peaks, the Cerro Colorado (830m), Cerro Veladero (810m) and Cerro Inti Huasi (772m), all of which are easily explored on foot and afford fine views of the countryside. The main attraction, though, is one of the country’s finest collections of petroglyphs, several thousand drawings that were scraped and painted by the indigenous inhabitants onto the pink rock face at the base of the mountains and in caves higher up between 1000 and 1600 AD; compulsory guided tours leave four to five times daily from the guardería at the entrance to the village. Nearby is the diminutive Museo Arqueológico, with some photographs of the petroglyphs and native flora, though it is made slightly redundant by the guide who takes you round the petroglyphs, pointing out the many plant varieties along the way. Some of the glyphs depict horses, cattle and European figures as well as native llamas, guanacos, condors, pumas and snakes, but few of the abstract figures have been satisfactorily or conclusively interpreted – though your guide will offer convincing theories. The deep depressions, or morteros, in the horizontal rock nearby were caused over the centuries by the grinding and mixing of paints. Of the different pigments used – chalk, ochre, charcoal, oils and vegetable extracts – the white and black stand out more than the rest, but climatic changes, especially increased humidity, are taking their toll, and many of the rock paintings are badly faded. The petroglyphs are best viewed very early in the morning or before dusk, when the rock takes on blazing red hues and the pigments’ contrasts are at their strongest.