The forgotten Ticos – Indigenous people 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


Hiking out to the hidden Cabécar people

Standing next to her family’s water pipe, 4-year-old Sandra winces at her first encounter with the fresh, strong taste of toothpaste.

Living in her remote home in the jungle-covered Chirripó Indgenous reserve, she is a seven-hour hike away from the nearest shop that sells such things as a toothbrush and a tube of Colgate.

Her unevenly spaced and slightly browned teeth are experiencing this today thanks to a Christmas donation of toothbrushes and small toothpaste tubes from a Western well-wisher.

The art of toothbrushing has just been demonstrated to her and 15 other squatting children by Daniel Montoya, who puts as much energy into the lesson as if it were a revolutionary new invention.

“Brush forward, back, forward, back. How do you say teeth in Cabécar?” Montoya asks through a mouth of foam.

Montoya and his colleague Hector Soto started coming to the reserve after they received an unexpected knock on the door of their Christian mission, Voz Que Clama in Tuis, Turrialba. A Cabécar chief was standing outside, asking them to help his community.

There are few people who will spend the energy to visit the remote community, and the villagers often feel forgotten by the rest of the country.

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 them largely separated from the Tico majority.

For Soto, Monotya and their 12 volunteers, the journey here started the day before with a three-hour drive in the back of a truck, up a dirt road to the village of Quetzal.

From there it is a two-hour downhill hike to the valley bottom on trails just wide enough for a horse to pass between the banana palms. Continue reading

“There are only two dentists for 30,000 people”

For years, Peter Aborn has been traveling from his practice in San Pedro to Shiroles in the Reserva Indigena de Talamanca as often as his budget will allow, spending several days doing operations and procedures without charge. His commitment and generosity have already been recognized by CNN, that put him on the top 100 list of ‘CNN heroes’ — a program that searches out unsung heroes around the world who give an exceptional service to others.

Toothbrushes and toothpaste are unheard of in some of the reserve’s communities, meaning that rampant decay and gum disease are common. Lack of accessible dental services makes it near impossible for teeth to be straightened, filled or replaced.

“I have seen periodontal disease (gum disease) in 8-year-olds and malocclusions (crowded teeth) in 12-year-olds,” said Aborn. “I saw a 3-month old child with active leishmania tropica, an insect-born disease that causes scarring sores, on her face.

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Wildlife-spotting in San José – no, really!

Sloths - an unlikely city resident

I went to Corcovado. Oh yes. I spent those three days traipsing through the jungle, carrying everything I needed to live, unable to tell the difference between sweat, humidity and rain, and desperately keeping my eyes peeled for tapirs, sloths, even those little squirrel monkeys would have done. I got bitten to shit by the very many, very ravenous mosquitoes, and discovered no less than 11 ticks in various unmentionable places on my body.

I saw a small, golden-furred anteater. And that was on the truck on the way in before I’d even started walking. I am not a very successful wildlife hunter, it has to be said.

At least, that is what I though until one day as I was strolling through the Universidad de Costa Rica campus in San Pedro.

San Pedro is called a separate town from San José, but you’d be hard pushed to draw the line between them. There is no let-up in the urban landscape. The only vague difference is that there are more young people roaming around San Pedro as it is the student district of the city.

But it was there, as I headed towards the gates near the law building, that I detained myself on the edge of a large crowd that had gathered underneath a tree. They were all gawping at something in the branches, so I dutifully craned my neck in a similar fashion. And there it was. A sloth. Hanging out in the least nature-friendly part of Costa Rica you can imagine. He may as well have been having a snooze hanging from a window ledge in the towering Instituto Nacional de Seguros sky scraper.

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Hiking into the secluded peninsula – Corcovado national park

Check out maps and reservation details at the bottom of the post


It has long been said that you have to suffer for beauty. While counting mosquito bites and pulling ticks out of their toes, hikers who have just walked 50 kilometers (31 miles) in tropical heat through the Osa Peninsula might be inclined to agree.

From volcanoes with drive-up access to luxury beach resorts, Costa Rica makes beauty readily available for the tourist. Parque Nacional Corcovado is, on the contrary, a small pocket of undisturbed wilderness that hides its deserted, undeveloped beaches and rare wildlife away from human eyes.

Corcovado lies on the outside edge of the Osa Peninsula, and protects the only old growth wet forest that still remains on the Pacific coast of Central America. The forest is easily comparable to an Amazon rain forest, the tall trees with their impressive buttress roots outstripping the height of those in the Bolivian Amazon. The lush vegetation and the yearly 6 meters (about 20 feet) of rainfall provide the perfect habitat for some of the continent’s rarest creatures.

Puerto Jiménez, the small town that is the gateway to the national park, lies a 10-hour bus journey away from San José. From here hikers take a dawn pick-up truck ride for the two-hour drive around the bottom of the peninsula to Carate.

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Absence and apple strudel make the heart grow fonder

As I sit here in Vienna, eating strudel, listening to the rain and generally being European, it seems to me the perfect time to start a blog about Costa Rica.

Every time I return to Europe after a significant time away, I find that it has become more beautiful. Architecture in Costa Rica can be called functional at the very best, so strolling around the latticed towers of Stephansdom, and past the fine carvings of Museumsquartier reminds me that cities in this corner of the world can be as inspiring and beautiful as any white-sand beach. And you can give me that strudel and a healthy slice of Pont l’Évêque over a gallo pinto any day.

But then, as the rainwater reaches its sloppy fingers up my jeans until it’s nearly touching my knees, and the icy wind whistles past my foolishly un-beanied ears, forcing me to step into a café and pay a staggering 3 euros for a coffee, I come to realise that perhaps I am not yet quite bored of sun, sand and simple food.

I first reached Costa Rican soil after spending three hours in Nicaraguan customs, waiting for my boyfriend’s “irregular” visa stamp to be approved, and getting general insults about being a loose western woman chucked at me by the lolling, bored officials.

As soon as we finally hauled our packs across the border, there was a difference. The passport control hall was air conditioned. A man with a stamp-happy demeanor was ushering people through in a process that took no more than two minutes. And when the bus started its 4 hour journey towards the capital, the countryside was well-ordered. Outside the windows, I saw prosperous looking fincas, pre-fab barns, and not a shack in sight. Was this Central America still, or had I been bundled off in the other direction, unwittingly crossing the Mexican border into the United States?

Well, no I hadn’t, and over the next five months I got to know a lot about the difficulties that run counter to the smooth front that the Costa Rican amantes de la Paz put on for every visitor.

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