Only about 1.7% of Costa Rica's population are native inhabitants. At the last census, they counted around 64,000 of which 40% live in Limón. Some Indians are completely integrated to the extent that they are more or less indistinguishable from the rest of the population. The largest tribe are the Bri Bri's from Talamanca with a population of over 11,000. There are 22 Indigenous Reserves populated by Bri Bri, Cabécares, Borucas, Guayami, Huetares, Malekus, Chorotegas y Térrabas indians. For the most part, they are of little interest for the traveller who often may not even know that he is within a reserve. Today, I will present two small groups which we visited: The Borucas (4,000) and the Malekus (650).
The Borucas maintain a very high quality level of some of their crafts like Bow and Arrows, Masks and Weavings. In my office, there is a mask from a well known artist called Don Ismael Antonio González Lázaro, who's work is exhibited in National Museum of Arts. If you click here you can see him with that mask in his hands. He was teaching primary school for fourteen years in different Indian reserves. If you look at the pictures of the town and houses where the Boruca live, you'll still find some of the original buildings but most inhabitants live and dress just like everybody else. They want to be like everyone else and little by little their cultural heritage will get lost. Hopefully, they will not lose their high level of artistic creativity as can be appreciated by looking at their masks.
The Maleku Indians have a completely different story. All 650 Malekus still alive teach and speak their own language. They maintain a radio-station that transmits 12 hours a day of programs in this language. They maintain an information-base about medicinal plants passed on for generations and offer a mind-blowing two hour tour about it going through the woods. (Don't go in shorts like I did and bring lots of "OFF". I am still suffering from dozens of Mosquito bites.) When I was there, the indigenous guide would put the leaves of an anaesthetic plant on it and I would not feel itching.
The same guide took us to Indian burials and at the end of the day they presented a small ceremony, as they still perform it among them. They live in three small communities called Palenque el Sol, Margarita and Tonjibe. Since the natural resources to build their homes have been destroyed by farmers, they now live in normal houses except for a few ranchos built with the material of a palm tree called Suita. The whole community is engaged in the production and sale of souvenirs for tourists, the herbal tour and the presentation of ceremonies. They are aware of the dangers the extinction of their tribe and the health dangers in marrying into close families. For that reason, they allow mixed marriages if the new family-member is willing to adapt to the Maleku live-style.
As a result of their incredible effort to survive, they started to receive visits from different Government institutions like the OET (Organisation for Tropical Studies), the ICT and colleges. The income produced by these activities in part is used to reforest the reserve with the trees that once maintained this community.
The Maleku Indians are different in many ways from other tribes. They are larger and lighther-skinned. They are proud to be Malekus compared to most other indigenous that feel insulted if one calls them that. Unfortunately, it is also one of the smallest groups left because they lived in an area where rubber-tress grew and they opposed to them being cut down. So they almost got wiped out by a so-called rubber-tree war initiated by the tire industry of the US that engaged soldiers of Nicaragua to fight the Malekus and get a hold of these trees.
Pictures by Jörn Malek. The team of 1-CostaRicaLink and Costa-Rica-Information-Mobile wishes you the best of times in our little paradise called Costa Rica.
Text partly by Lonely Planet.
This Web-Site is managed by Angela Malek, Ciudad Colón, province of San José, CR-10701 Costa Rica, Central America.