Costa RicaCosta Rica

       three shacks forming the cabecar village pacuare
  - Costa Rica

Indigenous Communities

Indigenous Communities

When the Europeans arrived in Costa Rica, they did not find large, native kingdoms like the Maya in Mexico or the Inca of Peru. Instead, they discovered pockets of small indigenous groups that were both ethnically and culturally diverse. In 1977, Costa Rica passed a law that legally established several indigenous reserves throughout the country. These reserves are now self-governed, and several groups have formed to help preserve indigenous culture.

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Today Costa Rica’s indigenous account for approximately 1% of the total population. Over the last 15 years, several of these reserves have opened their doors to the burgeoning rural tourism industry. Visitors can learn about ancient rites, medicinal herbs, and enjoy the beauty of the country’s indigenous cultures. Many of these tourism initiatives have infused native communities with the resources needed to maintain their traditional lifestyle.


The Boruca, alternatively known as the Brunca or Brunka, are one of Costa Rica’s most well known indigenous tribes, thanks to their remarkable craftsmanship. Most live on the Boruca Reservation, located in the south Pacific near Buenos Aires de Puntarenas. The Boruca are famous for their intricately carved masks, fine woven baskets, and other art, but many travelers visit the reserve so they may observe traditional ceremonies. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Danza de los Diablitos, a year-end dance that depicts the struggles between the Boruca and Spanish conquistadors.


Located in the Talamanca Mountains near Puerto Viejo, the Bribri have preserved their ancestors’ lifestyle. Bribri Reservation tours offer walks through medicinal plant gardens and their local homes. Cocoa tours are a favorite part of a visit to the Bribri and may be combined with a general reserve tour. The cocoa tour teaches visitors about the history and culture of chocolate, a sacred and valuable plant for the Bribri. Reservation tours also include a hike to Volio Waterfall, a 50-foot cascade accessed by a beginner-intermediate level hike.


The Cabecar are Costa Rica’s largest indigenous population, though they are more private and their homes less touristed than other similar communities. The largest remaining Cabecar populations are located in the Talamanca Mountains northwest of Cahuita. The Cabecar typically live apart in isolated family units, surviving off the land and traditions that have sustained them for centuries. Cabecar culture centers around the shaman, who functions as priest, healer, medicine man, and storyteller – today’s shamans are integral to keeping Cabecar history alive.


The Chorotega indigenous people were once a thriving tribe, but today almost all traces of the tribe have completely disappeared. However, in the small village of Guaitil, located 30 minutes inland from Tamarindo, a part of Chorotega culture flourishes. This indigenous group was best known for their exquisite pottery, and their descendents continue the tradition. Today, approximately 100 local families work in pottery cooperatives, utilizing traditional tools and techniques passed down from pre-Columbian times. Step into an open workshop and watch a masterpiece form as Guaitil sculptors use local clays and natural dyes. Many pieces are for sale, ranging in price from $15-$150.


The Guaymi are a large indigenous population that straddles the southeastern Costa Rica-Panama border. A small subsection lives in southern Costa Rican town of Conte, though many Panamanian Guaymi cross the border to work during coffee season. The Guaymi are best known as the scourge of the Spanish conquistadors: the tribe fought long and hard, often defeating the better armed and prepared Spaniards. The Guaymi have not opened their culture to tourism or significant government development, and survive mostly on subsistence farming. This group is well known for their brightly colored dresses, called nagua, as well as crafts such as plant fiber bags and handmade jewelry.


The Kekoldi were once part of the Bribri indigenous group, but separated into their own tribe years ago. The Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, located in the southern Caribbean between Cahuita and the Talamanca Mountains, welcomes visitors interested in local life, Kekoldi culture, and the area’s rich, natural resources. The most popular tours include visits to medicinal herb gardens, nature hikes, birdwatching, and a waterfall hike. Visitors curious about indigenous traditions will enjoy the cultural tour, which focuses on the tribe’s hand-built houses and artisanal, woven roofs. The reserve is also home to the Iguana Farm, a green iguana conservation project in place since 1990.


The Maleku tribe is unique in that all remaining members – numbering approximately 650 – retain the teachings and culture of their ancestors. The tribe proudly speaks Maleku and observes ancient traditions with grace and confidence. Visits to the reserve, located within the Guatuso Indigenous Reserve and located near Arenal, often include a medicinal plants tour, a visit to a Maleku burial ground, a stop by an art workshop, and a crash-course on Maleku culture. The Maleku maintain their ancestors’ traditions and teachings through tourism activities and sales of colorful masks and woven goods.

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