Costa Rica is not known for being a place of significant history or culture. No one rushes here to visit the ruins of a great empire like they do in Guatemala and there’s few popular historical or cultural sites of interest. People come here for the flora and fauna, the beaches and volcanoes and national parks, for the adventure activities.
All of those things are amazing and wonderful – I’ve been here for eight months and am continually amazed by how absolutely BEAUTIFUL this country is and am always happy to spend a day relaxing on the beach.
However, there is more to Costa Rica than what tourists typically see and I am a big believer in really getting to know a country while traveling. Since Costa Rica is going to be my home for the foreseeable future, I’ve made it a point to dig a little deeper…and discovered that Costa Rica does, actually, have a pretty incredible indigenous culture.
Approximately just under 2% of the Costa Rican population is indigenous, with 8 recognized indigenous groups and 24 different territories. I have been lucky enough to experience, albeit briefly, two different indigenous cultures by visiting indigenous reserves in different parts of the country.
Learning About The Indigenous Culture Through Art
I first visited the Rojas Bros Borucan Indigenous Art Gallery in June 2016 on my first trip to Playas del Coco. It is now my favorite place and one of my top recommendations of things to do in Playas del Coco.
The gallery is Borucan-owned – the owner, Domingo, is one of the most distinguished artists from Boruca and he splits his time between Playas del Coco and Boruca while his wife Grace runs the gallery in Coco. Besides offering a collection of masks from the most talented Borucan artists, they offer free educational tours on Costa Rica’s indigenous culture and Borucan art.
Boruca is located in the south of Costa Rica and has one of the most preserved cultures in all of Costa Rica. They are most well-known for their annual re-enactment of the Spanish Conquest, “El Juego de los Diablitos”, which takes place every year from December 30th to January 3rd.
Many of the people living in Boruca make and sell art – primarily woven products and masks like those available in the Rojas Bros gallery. The masks themselves are rich in history and symbolism, including the traditional Diablo mask which is based on the masks the Borucan men wore as a method of intimidation while fighting their enemies (including the Spanish) or the jaguar spirit animal masks.
Last December, I went on Rojas Bros’s inaugural trip to Boruca for El Juego de los Diablitos and it was the most incredible trip I’ve been on in my entire life. In fact, it was so impactful that even though I’ve shared some photos on social media, I can’t bring myself to write about it. I may, someday, but for now let’s just say that when someone tells me to think of my happy place, I think of Boruca.
A Weekend Spent in Bribri
Visiting Boruca piqued my interest on Costa Rica’s indigenous culture. I needed to learn more. Just as one tribe does not reflect the entire US indigenous culture, Boruca is not the only group to represent Costa Rica.
For visitors to Costa Rica looking to experience Costa Rica’s indigenous culture, Bribri is usually the easiest and most popular option. Bribri is located in the Talamanca mountains near Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. While there are frequent buses that make it possible to visit independently, I recommend going with a tour to get the most authentic experience.
The caveat? There are a lot of tour companies, particularly in Puerto Viejo, exploiting the indigenous culture and sometimes even making up ceremonies that are not traditional in any way just to add to the “effect” of the tour. For that reason, I highly recommend doing research prior to signing up for a random tour. Some important questions to ask include – who runs this tour? How are they connected to the indigenous community? Who receives the profit from this tour? Is any of the money going back to the indigenous community? If any special cultural activities are included, make sure to inquire about who in the community will be hosting them.
I visited through Visit.org’s Talamanca Discovery Tour which is led by AGUISUR and they work directly with a few important figures in the Bribri community to provide an authentic experience.
My tour to Bribri left Puerto Viejo around 9am and I left Bribri around 9am the following day. The tour began with a visit to the home of one of the town’s elders, who shared stories of his culture with me, before heading further into the reserve to the town of Bambu. Our accommodation for the night was Ditsowo, run by one of the older community members working to bring tourism to Bribri.
From there, we took another 30 minute bus ride even further into the reserve. The road ends at a river, so we get off and crawl into a canoe. It only took 5 minutes to cross the river but in the moment I was so grateful that I do not live in an area where I need to travel via canoe each time I need to leave or come home.
When presented with the option of waiting for another bus on the other side of the river or hopping in the back of a pick-up, I just to jump in the back of the truck with about 15 locals and a washer.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at a local home where we were welcomed with a traditional Tico lunch of rice and beans with a potato and pork before we were led to a dark hut lit only with the light coming through the smile doorway and the hot coals burning.
Cacao has always been an important part of the Bribri culture, I learned, and a major part of the tour with Visitorg was learning about processing cacao. I wrote about that in-depth for Epicure & Culture here, if you’d like to read more about it!
After that, it was back to Ditsowo where I had the opportunity to chat with Don Danilo, the owner of the project, when he returned from work. He is an important figure in the community and working tirelessly to provide for the less fortunate in the community as well as preserving the culture. I was shocked to find out that there are still parts of the reserve that take days to access and only then by literally walking on the mountain’s edge. He estimates there are a few thousand Bribri living in the mountains that do not exist by official standards because they never make it down from the mountain to get proper ID or register birth.
The next morning, when I headed back to Puerto Viejo, I was already ready to return.
Future Exploration and Education
There is no doubt that I have only experienced the teeniest sliver of indigenous culture in Costa Rica. I’ve barely scratched the surface of Boruca and Bribri and those are only two of the many indigenous groups here. As someone who plans on living in Costa Rica for quite some time, I am pushing myself to learn and experience more.
I will be returning to Boruca very, very soon and I also hope to return to Bribri this year. I would love to take a medicinal plant tour in Bribri and spend more time chatting with the elders after my Spanish improves.
Do It Yourself
The Rojas Bros Borucan Art Gallery is located in Playas del Coco in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. They offer free educational tours to anyone who asks and work directly with the artists so any purchase from them is authentic and ethical.
Bribri can be visited through a variety of means. I recommend booking a tour through Visit.org
What’s your favorite part of Costa Rica culture?
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