Manitou Cliff Dwellings — real deal or really fake?

Claudine Zap

They're the ancient ruins of an indigenous people. Or it's a tourist trap that's fake, fake, fake. The Manitou Cliff Dwellings have certainly stirred up debate on the Web. The truth lies somewhere in between, but we'll get to that in a moment.

The roadside attraction near Colorado Springs, Colorado, was built to resemble ancient ruins of the Anasazi people. Thousands visit the 100-year-old tourist destination each year.

The story of how the replica Indian village got there is a good one.

In the late 1880s, Virginia McClurg, founder of the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association, worried that some demolished cliff houses near Mesa Verde would be looted by vandals, since they the site was not designated as a historic preserve, notes Atlas Obscura. Before the 1906 Antiquities Act, the federal government did not get involved in protecting such sites.

In 1904, McClurg secured rights to some of the ruins and paid to move a million tons of rock that had made up the demolished dwellings from the southwest corner of Colorado to Manitou Springs, according to the Cliff Dwellings Museum website.

The rocks were then reassembled to look like the ruins at the nearby Mesa Verde National Park, a massive historic preserve of 5,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings.

The 40-room re-creation was placed under a red rock overhang in Manitou Springs. The Manitou Cliff Dwellings were born, and in 1907, they opened to the public.

"It's the 'real deal,' that is, an actual cave dwelling," Janice M. Gould, program coordinator for Native American studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, told Yahoo by email. But, she added, the removal from the original site and reconstruction make it "pretty problematic in today's world."

The upside of not being a true architectural preserve: Visitors are welcome to touch and walk through the dwellings, which are held up with the sturdy but inauthentic cement, not adobe or mud.

"The relocation/preservation is mentioned first thing on our smartphone tour for those who use it, as well as in our museum, as well as answered for anyone who asks while touring through the museum or gift shop," Manitou Cliff Dwellings Operations Manager Rob Hefner told Yahoo Travel in an email.

"Aside from having a large sign, we do openly talk about it for those who miss that section of our museum."

That doesn't stop people from being confused or feeling they’ve been had. On Trip Advisor, one commenter griped, "They're fake," adding, "Didn't find out until after we visited but the entire structure is a re-creation. Really disappointing!"

But another guest countered, "Even though they have been reassembled from authentic dwellings from other parts of the southwest ... [w]hat we liked is that one can walk through/on them as the cliff dwellers did."

If you think of it as a hands-on museum rather than a historical artifact, you could enjoy the cliff dwellings for what they are — a mash-up of history and hucksterism.