How To Visit An Indigenous Community In Costa Rica

How To Visit An Indigenous Community In Costa Rica
By Sky Fisher, Epicure & Culture Contributor

Bribri is huge.

This is my first thought as we drive — and then drive some more — through the indigenous reserve. I was unaware before arriving that what people refer to as Bribri is actually many different towns. Yes, there is the town of Bribri where the few shops and stores, along with the bus station, are located; but the actual Bribri reserve encompasses much more.

During my two-day trip with Visit.org, I’m able to visit two of these different communities. One to use as a home base, and another to learn about the traditional methods of processing cacao.

Bribri river crossing

One of the many river crossings in Bribri

Want to visit an #indigenous community in Costa Rica? Here's how you can do it! #costarica #visitorgs Click To Tweet

Bambu: The Perfect Base For Exploring Bribri

My tour begins in Bambu, about 20 minutes by car past Bribri. From what I can see, it primarily consists of an elderly care home and a corner store that sells not much more than alcohol. From here there’s also access to the Yorkin River, which leads to another indigenous community, accessible only by boat.

And then there’s the Ditsowo accommodation project. Ditsowo was started by Don Danilo, an important figure in the community who, I will soon find out, works tirelessly to help the Bribri people and encourage tourism by offering some of the only accommodation available.

His son Danny greets Susana, the tour leader, and I when we arrive in the late morning, showing us our accommodation for the night and filling us in on the plan. We are staying on the third level of this beautiful rancho. The accommodation is simple — a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net — but I feel immediately welcomed.

Adventure To Amubri

After dropping off our things, we head outside to wait for the local bus to take us to learn how cacao is processed.

There are over 10,000 Bribri descendants in Costa Rica, making them one of the largest remaining indigenous groups in Costa Rica. It’s fascinating to see how they’ve kept their culture while still meshing with the 21st century. I notice the deeper into the reserve we go, the more this culture is visible. The cement houses found throughout Costa Rica are replaced with multi-level open ranchos — like Ditsowo — and there’s less development all around.

Everyone in Bribri speaks Spanish, but many of them also speak their native language as well. A few signs in the town are written in both languages and I try to learn a few words but the guttural tones are impossible for me to mimic. I provide a good laugh for everyone, though.

The bus is packed — standing room only — though one local takes pity on the foreigner with no balance. Or maybe he was just embarrassed by my ability to stay upright as the bus twisted and turned up the mountains. Either way, I end up with a seat.

From Bambu to the end of the route takes another half an hour, with the bus crossing a small river. Several stops are at river access points, where families load their groceries, children and everything else into a packed canoe. Many parts of Bribri are accessible only by crossing the river — including the town we’re headed to — and while many make the trek to town daily, others in the more remote villages rarely leave and live off the land as much as they can. During a particularly wet rainy season, crossing the river can be dangerous, if not impossible.

Susana explains that the land on the other side of the river is actually Panama.

When we reach the final river where the bus can literally travel no further there is also a canoe waiting. It acts as a sort of river taxi, charging 500 colones (approximately $1 USD) per person for a short 5 minute ride across the river.

Across the river we have the option of waiting for another bus or jumping in the back of a pick-up truck. I, of course, choose the pick-up truck ride, squeezing in with 20 strangers and a washer, briefly wondering how, exactly, they got that washer across the river.

We ride another 30 minutes into the mountains, through the town of Amubri, before jumping off the truck when it turns in the opposite direction of where we need to be.

Yes, it’s a long journey; but when we arrive at Danny’s grandmother’s home we’re just in time for lunch.

Is there any journey not worth ending up with a grandma-made meal in front of you? I think not. 

We’re served a traditional helping of rice and beans with pork and a potato in a banana leaf. Despite living in Costa Rica for six months, I’m continually impressed by how delicious Costa Ricans can make something as simple as rice and beans taste. Before my thought is complete, the food is devoured.

The best part, however, is how quickly we are welcomed into her home. The tour stops feeling like a tour at this point, and more like visiting a friend. Danny’s aunts, uncles and cousins join us too. His little cousin even shows me the truck he’s making out of Legos!

Bribri hut

The hut where we processed cacao

Cacao – An Ancient Treat

Susana and I are led into a hut, where I’m told Danny’s uncle practices medicine. This is also where the chocolate magic happens.

Keep in mind, there is no fancy cacao-processing set up here. No machines or expensive gimmicks for tourists. This is something they do for themselves.

Danny’s aunt starts a small fire. She tosses cacao beans into a bowl placed in the fire, tossing them with her hands as they roast.

The next step is to remove the shell from the roasted bean, which Susana and I help with. Susana notes that, at this point, you can eat the cacao.

Sweet!

Or not. I quickly learn that pure cacao — strong and bitter — is something I have n0 desire to taste.

After all of the shells are taken off, it’s time to crush the beans into powder form, done by rocking a large stone back and forth over the beans. The scent given off by the fresh crushed cacao is intoxicating. I wish I was always wrapped in the aroma.

Cacao is frequently left in the pure powdered form to be added to hot water to drink, so this is the last part of the process that we see. That being said, there are several additional behind-the-scenes steps to turn the cacao into actual eating chocolate.

It’s important to support locals when I travel, so I inquire about purchasing cacao. In response, I’m brought to Danny’s aunt’s home down the road. Here she has a tub of cacao she’s molded into balls. I buy four at just under $1 USD each to make cookies when I return home.

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Bribri cacao presentation

The first step of processing cacao

Learning More About Bribri Culture

We arrive back at Ditsowo in time to relax before dinner. I take some time to journal and breathe in the fresh air.

Dinner, prepared by Danny’s family, is another traditional meal consisting of rice, beans, patacones (fried plantain), squash salsa, yucca, and the most delicious fish I’ve had in a very long time.

Don Danilo arrives after dinner and joins Susana and I for a cup of coffee. We chat about the history of Bribri and tourists visiting. He’s a big fan of visitors coming to Bribri, obvious due to him running Ditsowo Additionally, he advocates for the rights of the Bribri living even further in the mountains than we ventured today for the cacao.

I could sit and chat with him all night — now that I’ve been introduced to a new culture, I want to know everything; but all three of us are exhausted so we call it an early night.

As I leave on the bus in the morning, I know for sure that I will be returning to Bribri soon.

The #indigenous #culture of Costa Rica is so interesting! #localtravel Click To Tweet

How To Get Involved

I visited Bribri with Talamanca Discovery Tour through Visit.org. Visit.org works with organizations to ensure that proceeds are put back into the local communities to create a pattern of sustainable tourism. This tour is available to anyone and can be arranged with a week’s notice. Reserve your tour here.

I was a guest of Visit.org on this tour. All opinions, as always, are my own. Featured image of the cacao via Giulian Frisoni/flickr.

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Sky Fisher is a small-town country girl with a passion for travel. She has a love affair with Central America and currently calls Costa Rica home. Follow her adventures at Sky vs World.

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