Indigenous Chocolate – Part I

Tourists flock to Costa Rica to experience beautiful beaches, lush tropical jungles, and incredible biodiversity.  But most tourists aren’t aware that there’s more to Costa Rica than surfing and ziplines.

Costa Rica has 24 legally-recognized and titled indigenous territories wherein reside the majority of its 8 indigenous people.

Boruca.  Bribri.  Cabécar.  Guaymi.  Quitirrisi.  Maleku.  Matambu.   Térraba.

Even the names are powerful, exotic and mysterious.

Over the summer break (winter to all you Northerners)  we visited 2 of them – the Bribri of Southern Limon and the Boruca of  the Southern Pacific region of Puntarenes.

With tons of family coming to visit in December, I wanted something different for us all to do together.  All of them had been to Costa Rica many times and done the usual tourist things everyone does.

For years I’d heard about the mysterious Bribri tribe of Talamanca; they lived in harmony with the jungle, believed animals to be spirits of gods, possessed great knowledge of traditional medicine and wise shamans lived among them.

I’d read an intriguing article in the Tico Times.  The Bribri were opening their own tour business with Bribri guides sharing their traditions and culture.    It took some digging to find contact information.  I wanted to be sure that it was the Bribri who would be our guides and most importantly – the money we spent would go directly to them.

I ended up going with Actuar – a company specializing in Costa Rican rural tourism. It’s not possible to book directly with the Bribri – but they assured me that everything was legitimate and it would be all Briri – all the time.

A few days after several family members arrived in Atenas, we piled into the Land Cruiser and headed off for southern Limon.  I rented a large Airbnb house in Punta Uva.  It turned out to be an incredible spot – an ocean front working farm.

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Cattle, horses, chickens, kayaks and palm trees at the beach . . . these are a few of my favorite things!

We would have been perfectly happy to hang out for days at the beach with all the cows, horses, chickens, sloths and monkeys. . . but we had other plans.  The next morning we got up super early and headed out to the Bribri village of Yorkin.

Yorkin is only reachable by boat or a 3-hour long hike along the river.   The Bribri only allow a small number of outsiders per day to visit Yorkin – so we knew we weren’t going to be part of a herd of tourists.

We were told to drive to the town of Bribri, make a left at the school and keep on going for about another 8 k down a dirt road until we reached Bamboo.  Bamboo was not on the map – so we followed our directions carefully and asked several people along the way.   It turns out that Bamboo is not actually a town, but the name of the only store at this far flung outpost.

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Hanging around waiting for the Bribris.  The Bamboo store is the building on the right.

We were greeted there by an elderly Bribri man who led us down another dirt road, through a stream and down to the banks of the Rio Yorkin.  There we boarded a huge dugout canoe with a Bribri at the helm navigating rocks and one in the back manning the outboard motor.  They piled several bundles of stuff and a few cans of gas into the back of the canoe and under the seats.  We strapped on our life vests and away we went – canoeing through the tropical jungle of Talamanca, Limon.

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Our sweet ride.

Phineas huddled in close with his Aunt Kristina in the front of the canoe and I sat right behind them.  Our journey upriver made Phineas giddy with joy.   At one point he turned around and told me, “I wish this could go on forever!”

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“I wish this could go on forever!”
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My in-laws Gerardo and Karen in the canoe behind me.

For almost an hour we traveled upstream, passing from Costa Rica to Panama and back again – dodging rocks and submerged trees beneath the surface.  Both men were working hard together to get us safely to the reserve.  We were sitting low – with the sides of the canoe about 2 inches above the water.

When we arrived at Yorkin it felt a little like Charlie arriving at Willie Wonka’s Candy Factory in the Jungle.   What great wonders awaited us?  We knew it would involve fresh chocolate!

Our first delightful surprise was meeting Minor.   Not only was our young guide absolutely adorable and incredibly knowledgeable about the plants and animals of the jungle – but he speaks 6 languages. . English, French, Bribri, Spanish, German and Japanese!

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Minor. . . our amazing Bribri guide.

Minor led us up a riverbank trail and through the gates of the Yorkin School.  Here the youngest Bribri children are taught Bribri language and culture – along with the Costa Rican Ministry of Education curriculum.

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The school at Yorkin. (photo by Karen Sandi)

Minor told us that the Bribri’s language and traditions have been endangered for many years.  In fact, up until about 20 years ago, their language had all but disappeared.    Traditionally,  the Costa Rican government has focused on assimilation of indigenous students into mainstream culture.  They actually forbid indigenous people to teach their own languages.

However, over the last two decades, efforts in Yorkin to introduce rural tourism as a form of economic stability have bolstered the instruction of native culture and language.  But Minor explained to us that there have been two generations of Bribri to grow up without being expressly taught Bribri – only Spanish.

 “The younger generation is more interested in pop culture and the internet than traditional ways.  It’s a struggle.” said Minor

To be continued. . .

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