Indigenous culture in Costa Rica

Travelling through Costa Rica, it would be easy not to see a single truly indigenous person. Unlike other countries like Guatemala and Bolivia, where you can´t move without coming across indigenous influences, Costa Rica looks at itself as a ´white´ country.

The small population of indigenous people who still remain are hidden, living on reserves that do not belong to them, pushed back into the hills, and surviving in conditions that most Costa Ricans would be shocked to see existing within the boundaries of their own country.

Many don´t get a chance to experience this shock, because Ticos are woefully under-educated about the 1.6% native population that remains.

Indeed, in a recent United Nations survey, 77 percent of Costa Rica’s inhabitants admitted that they did not know that 22 indigenous territories exist within the borders of their country. 73 percent of the very few indigenous people left in Costa Rica live within or close to these territories, keeping the indigenous largely separated from the ´white´ Tico majority.

I made a trip to the Cabecar reserve near Turrialba, and described what I had seen to the tica girlfriend of my housemate. I told her about the fact that the families who live in the village I visited have to walk seven hours up a mountainside to reach the nearest village – which means seven hours to fetch rice to feed the family, seven hours to sell what little produce they can from their farms, seven hours to get to a doctor or a dentist. I described the houses they live in – huts made of cana brava (a thin long twig-like cane) with gaping holes between the cane, roofed with corrugated iron, open fires for cooking spreading smoke through the house. The house has three rooms for 25 people. There is no electricity. They bathe in the river. The toilet looks like a real toilet, but there is a pit instead of a flush, and it is open air, with only a strip of corrugated iron protecting the user´s dignity.

She was shocked. She said that she never knew that there were people living like that in her own country. She was particularly apalled that only 50% of them speak any Spanish. Many do not need it, because they never leave the reserve. The hike is just too far.

I have seen this kind of life before, but never in a country that believes itself to be so far along the road to development, and never with such a high level of ignorance about the conditions people live in on the citizens´ own doorstep.

Scroll down to read more about the trip to the indigenous reserve, and the difficulties their lives entail.

Indigenous people in Costa Rica have yet to develope a proper tourism industry, but there are a few places to go where they are starting their own ethnotourism projects. The community described in the article below is not touristed.

Yorkin reserve

Travel by boat to this remote community near the Panamanian border, where many of the indigenous have identity issues, not knowing whether to call themselves Costa Rican or Tico. BriBri indigenous people live here, and have their own craft tradition. Leaves from Puerto Viejo de Limon or Cahuita, details at

Kekoldi indigenous reserve

Tour includes explanations of how the villagers use local flora and fauna, and some BriBri mythological tales. Leaves from Puerto Viejo de Limon or Cahuita.

Boruca indigenous

The people of the southern Pacific side of Costa Rica have well preserved traditions, including mask-making and the annual Fiesta de los Diablitos, celebrated in the village of Boruca each December. Set up a cultural tour at

For further depth about the way of life of indigenous people in Costa Rica, read the articles below:

Hiking to the hidden Cabécar people


Pioneering dentists give free dental treatment in Talamanca


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