Though Costa Rica is very well-trodden as a tourist destination, the country’s indigenous population is often overlooked as it’s relatively unknown. Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups – the Boruca, Bribrí, Cabecar, Guaymí, Huetar, Maleku, Matambú and Térraba – number just over 100,000 and are spread over 22 reserves, the largest ones located in the southeastern part of the country, near the Caribbean coast. The Bribrí account for roughly a third of this population, and all communities face serious challenges – in spite of getting the right to vote in 1994 – such as stopping the government from encroaching on their land and preserving traditional culture and languages.
We’re met by Bernarda, a robust woman in her late thirties, with a ready smile and braided hair. She leads us to a large elevated communal space topped by a conical roof made of woven palm fronds. I ask her about the sign above the door that reads “Stibrawpa”, which apparently means “women who make handicrafts”.
“This is the meeting place of the women’s collective that I started twenty years ago. I was only nineteen years old; it was very hard work at the beginning. When I was fourteen, I had my first baby. I wanted a better life for him than what we had, so when I was eighteen, I went to university in Alajuela for a year to study tourism and equal rights. My idea was to find ways to preserve Bribrí culture and to educate outsiders about it. Sustainable tourism, in other words.”
The collective now has its own school, with 53 students attending from four different Bribrí communities (including two from across the border in Panama), who learn the indigenous language; only half the Bribrí population used to speak it.
“This is the only community in Costa Rica where machismo [the belief of supremacy of men over women] has been eradicated; men and women work together as equals”, explains Bernarda. This is particularly unique as usually the Bribrí are a matrilineal society, so only women can inherit and when a man marries, he has to move in with his in-laws.
Last year, 4000 people visited this community, some to help rebuild houses after the floods of 2008, and others to learn more about the Bribrí way of life, staying overnight in “Stibrawpa 2” – another thatched-roof building.
We stroll along a dirt path that runs past the houses and Bernarda shows me their crops of cocoa and bananas, which are exported to Italy and the USA. For their own food, the Bribrí fish using sharp arrows and hunt, once a week, for agouti (a rodent like animal common in South and Central America).
In the clearing by the cooking hut, a small mound of cocoa beans is scattered along a stone tray. We all take turns crushing the beans using the grinding stone provided, then the mixture is put through the metal grinder, leaving us with a wonderfully aromatic brown paste. One of the women mixes some of the paste with boiling water and sugar, presenting me with the best hot cocoa I’ve ever had. Bribrí mythology says that God once turned a woman into a cocoa tree and as a result, only women are now allowed to make this delicious drink.
We try our hand at archery and then sit down to a simple lunch of chicken with rice, beans and cassava as a downpour finally lets loose, prompting the men – who’ve been weaving a roof for a new house nearby – to run for cover. Bernarda tells us that such a roof, woven from tightly knotted palm fronds, can last up to eight years.
As dusk falls and we prepare to listen to the elders tell Bribrí stories of creation around the communal fire, I reflect on how content the villagers seem in spite (or perhaps because of) their relative isolation, and the simplicity of everyday life. Given the tenacious efforts of individuals such as Bernarda, it seems that this way of life may survive a while longer.
To explore more of this beautiful country, buy the Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.