Bribri, Térraba, Cabecar, Boruca and Ngöbe. Five of the eight indigenous groups of Costa Rica live in the country’s southern Pacific, giving this region particularly diverse and rich cultural experiences for travelers.
As we mentioned in our first installment on tourism in Costa Rica’s indigenous territories, experts point to this area of Buenos Aires, south of Puntarenas, as a spot that should be a cultural tourism destination, promoted by the government and private companies to national and foreign tourists. That still hasn’t happened. However, the organized groups of the indigenous territories in the region do offer services and activities that allow visitors to experience their culture and contribute to the well-being of their communities.
Today, we are going to introduce you to the tourism ventures that exist in the indigenous territories of Térraba and Salitre.
Brörán people and the Térraba indigenous territory
“We are descendants of the inhabitants of these lands more than 5,000 years ago: the Brörán, which means corn dough,” says Jeffrey Villanueva, one of the rural tourism entrepreneurs in this territory and a community leader.
The territory that the Bröran call home, Térraba, spans 9,357 hectares and is home to approximately 2,000 inhabitants. However, Jeffrey says the 2011 Census revealed that there are also Bröran people, also known as Térraba people, living in all seven provinces of Costa Rica as well as in theUnited States, Canada, and some European countries. The territory has six primary schools and two secondary schools.
“We are in the process of restoring forests that were destroyed by cattle ranching and the expansion of the agricultural frontier,” adds Jeffrey.
In this territory, visitors can choose from three tourist businesses offering intercultural experiences: El Descanso, Rincón Ecológico, and Centro Cultural Mano de Tigre. All three enterprises offer not only accommodation and food, but also natural and cultural attractions to make visitors’ stays memorable.
“Through domestic and foreign tourism, you can share an experience with our culture and with our people. Something very clear and authentic,” Jeffrey explains. “Through the tours and talks, our gastronomy, our stories, they can learn about that legacy of relationship with nature, a relationship and a spirituality with the entire environment that surrounds us, that we try to share with the visitor.”
The Brörán people and their territory are not exempt from the threats experienced by the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica. Jeffrey describes the possession of indigenous land by non-indigenous people, the lack of government policies to serve the territory, and a lack of projects for local economic growth.
“We characterize ourselves as a people descended from warriors. Our ancestors were a warrior people; that is why we currently defend our territory.” This is how Jeffrey characterizes the spirit that has led the Brörán to defend not only their territory but also the Río Grande de Térraba. The river was threatened for more than 15 years by public policies that sought to build a dam for the production of electricity, a step that would have caused the flooding of a large section of Térraba lands. Although that challenge no longer threatens the territory, Térraba is still under the threat of agricultural expansion by large pineapple producers in the canton of Buenos Aires.
“According to oral history, Sbo, who is a god, left us on the banks of the Río Grande de Térraba, which bears our name, to be the custodian and caretaker of the river,” says Jeffrey. “That is why we are on the banks of the Río Grande de Térraba, to defend our brother river, because Nature is our mother and we try to protect it—from threats, dams, material extraction, dikes—so that it flows the way Sbo left it, until it meets the Pacific Sea.”
Bribri people and the Salitre indigenous territory
“[The Bribris] are one of the largest ethnic groups in the country,” explains Guillermo Elizondo, a tourism entrepreneur and indigenous leader in the Salitre territory. “We are one of the groups that speak the most and maintain our language, customs and traditions.”
The Bribri indigenous group is distributed among four indigenous territories, all located in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range—both on the Pacific coast, where the Salitre territory is located, and on the Caribbean. In future installments of our Travel and Lifestyle section, we will share some of the activities that can be carried out in the Bribri territories of the Caribbean.
“There is close communication between the Bribri of the Caribbean and those of the Pacific, through the Talamanca Range,” says Guillermo. “We have a crossing that takes seven days of walking. [In Salitre, there is] a population of approximately 1,800 inhabitant on 11,700 hectares. There are 14 communities scattered throughout the territory, and the Bribripa Cultural Center is located in the very center.”
It is at this cultural center that visitors can experience, share and contribute to these communities.
“It is a place where we have lodging and food with capacity for 40 people. We have tours in the territory, and it is an ideal place to get to know the indigenous peoples, especially the peoples of Salitre,” Guillermo explains. “There are volunteer programs open throughout the year for all the people in the world who come to help the community—80% are foreigners. They have had a very significant impact.”
Guillermo adds that the activities carried out at the Bribripa are focused primarily on biodiversity and culture: “We have maintained and cultivated spiritual values, cultural values, and that is what we want to make known: relevant aspects of the Bribri worldview in terms of dance, ceremonial rites, songs and medicinal plants.”
Visiting Salitre is also an opportunity to learn about and support the challenges that this community faces. Guillermo spekas of a loss of cultural identity: as noted in our previous story in this series at El Colectivo 506, experts say that the presence of tourists helps these towns find renewed value in their culture, and work to recover and preserve it. Like Jeffrey, in Térraba, Guillermo mentions common problems of indigenous peoples including land in the hands of non-indigenous people and “the lack of real programs to improve economic reactivation and support for agricultural activity.”
Why choose a tourist destination in an indigenous community in Costa Rica?
Because visiting an indigenous community in Costa Rica will make your tourist dollar go further.
“We see tourism as a socioeconomic opportunity,” says Jeffrey. “But also, it’s about being able to share that knowledge and knowledge of how to live with Mother Earth, how to take care of her. That not everything happens to destroy nature or to make more money, but that there must be a balance with nature.
“We have tried to ensure that when visitors return to their countries, if they are foreigners, they are motivated to make some contribution from any place on Earth. That they become aware that they are in debt to Mother Earth, and that changes must be generated from their homes, the community, the canton, the country. I think we have also planted that seed in each visitor who’s come along.”