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.

Continue reading