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Costa Rica's Bribri Indigenous Reserve

Destination: Puerto Viejo, Cahuita

The Bribri are Costa Rica's largest indigenous group, though census studies estimate that only 10,000-35,000 Bribri remain. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in their wealth of culture: they live mostly without Western influences and have therefore retained many of their ancient traditions.

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My background is in cultural anthropology, so I was eager to begin the day's tour to the Bribri Indigenous Reserve. The Bribri are Costa Rica's largest indigenous group, though census studies estimate that only 10,000-35,000 Bribri remain. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in their wealth of culture: the Bribri are a close-knit people, mostly living without Western influences including electricity, running water and other basic technologies, and have therefore retained many of their ancient traditions.

The word "Bribri" has six distinct meanings: the tribe, the culture, the region, the language, the municipality and the reserve. Today, we were set to see all six -- traveling first to a local Bribri artisan family, then to the Bribri Reserve, followed by a medicinal plants tour, lunch and a stop at the Chocolate House, which, if rumor had it, was home to some of the best chocolate in Costa Rica.

Piling into the tour van, we headed out to the Family Art gallery, owned by a Bribri woman, her Costa Rican husband and their young daughter. The couple make their living by using forest waste -- nuts, discarded seeds and fallen trees -- to create necklaces, earrings, paintings and traditional masks. After a brief visit, we were off to visit the Bribri Indigenous Reserve.

Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Costa Rica, the Bribri, as well as several other indigenous groups, lived off of the cocoa plant. It was considered a spiritual fruit and was used in many of the tribe's most sacred rituals. In the 1800's, the United Fruit Company arrived and began to take the Bribri's land. A brave cacique, or tribal leader, fought them off, stopping them at what is now the entrance to the reserve. For more than 100 years, the reserve, which is autonomous of the Costa Rican government, remained closed to outsiders. In the 1970's, interest in rural and ecotourism coaxed the reserve into opening its gates.

As we drove through the green metal gates, it was instantly clear that we had passed from Costa Rica into Bribri -- wooden homes with woven roofs lined the roadside, and women, the traditional workers in Bribri culture, carried loads up and down the paths. As we rode by, some offered a smile and others simply nodded in acknowledgment; everyone seemed quite accustomed to outsiders in their village.

We drove deeper into the reserve, finally stopping along the roadside. It was raining, so we donned our ponchos and ducked out. Walking over a true suspension bridge -- you have to walk with bent knees in order to keep your balance -- we crossed a river into a cocoa plantation. A Bribri man, who spoke only his native language, offered us a cracked-open cocoa fruit, and we happy sucked on the sweet seeds before walking deeper into the property.

Emerging into a clearing, we were greeted by a dichotomous image: two houses stood side-by-side, one built in the traditional style and the other, a pre-fab home painted bright salmon. Jorge, our tour guide, explained that the World Bank had recently donated money to modernize and build houses in the region. This help has been greeted with mixed sentiments since, while the housing is needed, the pre-fab construction is changing the visual landscape of Bribri architecture.

Our visit today centered on a traditional home, built by the home's owner, Don Silverio. At 108 years old, Don Silverio is believed to be the oldest person in Costa Rica. He built his wood home over 80 years ago, and the only thing that needs regular changing is the thatched roof, a skill at which the Bribri women excel. We greeted Don Silverio and his family, which currently encompass six generations and, in a few months, will increase to seven.

Don Silverio, lying in a hammock, was much more alert and chipper than his age would suggest. He attributed his longevity to good physical condition and a healthy diet, which consists mostly of bananas, sweet potatoes, peach palm and meat raised on site by his family. His wife, he added, died a few years ago at the enviable age of 112.

After a visit to the family's traditional kitchen, our tour group returned to the van and drove to the medicinal plants tour. At this point, the gentle rains had turned into a full-blown downpour, so we rushed through the tour, sampling and smelling several trees and roots along the way. Our Bribri guide explained that their traditional medicine is preventative, meaning that it aims to prevent disease rather than treat it. Because of this, many of their medicinal remedies are meant to boost the immune system, clean the blood and improve organ health.

Our stomachs grumbling, we stopped for lunch just outside the reserve, in the town of Bribri. Our casado, or traditional meal, was made from all-organic, local ingredients, including chicken, rice, beans, potatoes and salad. Afterwards, satiated and energized, we headed to the Chocolate House for a bit of dessert.

We met Dona Petronela, owner of the Chocolate House, which was her actual home. Built in the traditional style, the large, open structure had high roofs and plenty of small fireplaces to allow for cocoa bean roasting. She began by offering us fresh chestnuts -- far more delicious than anything I'd had during winter in the U.S. -- and dried cocoa beans. Surprisingly, the cocoa bean was not bitter, unlike the commercial powder I buy for cooking.

Dona Petronela began by explaining several of the traditional uses for cocoa: cocoa and cinnamon (no sugar) to break a fever, cocoa butter for lip gloss or to prevent stretch marks and hot cocoa for sacred rituals. Included in these rituals is the Bribri birth ceremony, which begins when a woman goes into labor and must trek into the woods to deliver her baby by herself. After she has given birth, she is believed to be dirty and parasite-ridden, and no one may touch her. A shaman is called, and he prays for two days for the new mother's purification. On the third day, he washes the baby and mother in a solution made with water and cocoa seed. The shaman drinks the dirty water and spits it onto the ground, symbolically ridding the mother of her uncleanliness. Dona Petronela points out, however, than many Bribri women no longer believe in this tradition, and many now have their babies in hospitals or clinics.

After several additional stories, we are invited to taste the Chocolate House's many offerings, which include cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, vanilla, mint, coffee and other delectable flavors. I quickly stuffed a small bag full of samples, paying just $2 for these little chunks of paradise, and hopped back into the van for the ride home.

Costa Rica's Bribri Indigenous Reserve in Pictures

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