The Culture-Keepers of Costa Rica’s Rainforest

Getting ready to cross the river by dugout canoe. (photo credit Carol Antman).
Getting ready to cross the river by dugout canoe. (photo credit Carol Antman).

LEAF’s goal is preserve and support indigenous cultures 

By Carol Antman

Making our way through the bamboo forest on the way to the village. Carol Antman photos
Making our way through the bamboo forest on the way to the village. Carol Antman photos

Sacred Chocolate

When a Bribri child is born it is anointed with chocolate.   Deceased are washed in it.   Legend has it that the Creator Sibú attracted his wife Tsiru as they swam in a chocolate waterfall, her hair adorned with cacao blossoms. Their descendants are the indigenous people we’ve come to visit in the Costa Rican rainforest. 

Our group has followed Luis Salazar Obando Cabecar, a 12 th generation shaman, to this Anubri village where cacao grows around every conical thatched-roof hut.   Following traditional recipes, its pods are picked, dried, ground and transformed into elixirs to use as sacraments and cures.


Off the Gringo Trail

Our group consisted of avid fans of the LEAF Festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Held twice a year, the festival attracts sold out crowds who revel in the atmosphere of positivity set to stellar world and regional music. 

In additional to the festivals,   LEAF International works in partnership with programs in Bequia, Guatemala, Panama, Rwanda, Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti and Tanzania to support indigenous culture keepers.  We nine adults and three children were traveling as ambassadors to see a program first hand.   I’d been to Costa Rica a few other times including some relatively remote locations but nothing like this.

The scale of the conical thatched huts is seen here.
The scale of the conical thatched huts is seen here.

From Puerto Viejo, we travelled by public bus, hired van and (when that broke down) pick up truck until we reached the Urén River where long dug-out canoes were being loaded with everything from furniture to bunches of bananas. 

We gingerly tossed in our backpacks and headed into the Talamanca.   Up the river, down a dirt road and through a grove of giant bamboo, we came to the Anubri village of Koswak and its startling huge conical huts. 

Made entirely from bamboo and palm, they are true marvels of engineering. Each one takes four months to build, with neighbors banding together to help.

There is a dining hut where our hosts cooked delicious meals on a wood fire, a two story sleeping hut with private, mosquito-netted beds, a gathering hut hung with hammocks that’s large enough for dancing and shower rooms with running water and toilets nearby.

Purely Pura Vida

Isaiah shares some music with the school children, part of our Intercambio.
Isaiah shares some music with the school children, part of our Intercambio.

The children in our group immediately attracted the local kids who bounded into our hut with friendly curiosity.   They giggled and   communicated despite language barriers.   Card games, temporary tattoos, songs and coloring books were soon spread across the floor.

We adults couldn’t help smiling. Our days were spent in “intercambio”:   musical exchanges between us and our hosts.   We serenaded classrooms of school children with rousing renditions of “Here Comes the Sun”. 

They sang enthusiastically to us in Spanish and Bribri.   Avila taught us a few words of their language. “I’s a’ shkena” is how are you?   “Buaë” means I’m good. We hiked to see Jiaro the drum maker who welcomed us to his huge gathering hut. 

He and his father played the sbok drums they make by painstakingly hollowing out logs and adding a drumhead made of boa constrictor skin. Until LEAF’s support, Jairo was making trinkets for tourists. 

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Accompanied by their pulsing rhythms, we all interlocked our arms and danced in a rotating circle symbolizing the shape of the universe.     Mildred, another culture keeper, and her daughter visited one night to sing salvaged songs that she’d rescued from oblivion.   There are songs for every life event they told us:   building huts, harvesting cacao, curing illnesses.  

The Bri Bri point of View

After expelling the missionaries that had prohibited teaching the ancestral knowledge and language, the village took control of their children’s education. Now 220 children attend the village school dressed in tidy pressed uniforms.

Sbok drums made from hollowed logs with boa constrictor skins.
Sbok drums made from hollowed logs with boa constrictor skins.

“They had forgotten their culture.   They only spoke Spanish,” Luis explained. “If you take a tree that only has roots from two years, it’s very easy to uproot the tree but if the tree has roots from 10 years, it’s very hard to uproot that tree.” 

Deeper roots teach the children that their culture didn’t start 200 years ago.   It’s ancient.   And they learn the community’s values.   Here money is largely replaced by barter: “mano vuelta”. 

Instead of private property, the population of about 9,000 owns the land jointly. Villagers help each other build, plant and harvest, compensating each other with crops. Fellow traveler, Rosa, age 12, said “I think it’s really beautiful the way they live.

They say if you can’t build a house, we’ll come help you.   They don’t say you have to earn money yourself.”   Bri Bris believe that everything in nature is alive and that it provides all that they need so it must be protected. 

Each clan has an ancestral responsibility that is passed down to each generation:   the traditional way to keep the fire, protect the yucca or plant the cacao.   Hiking with Luis was a revelation.   What we saw simply as endless hillsides of green are actually opportunities for provisioning:   here are some “corazon ráices”, roots to make a fortifying tea.   Over there are six kinds of wild bananas. 

Indigenous Eco Tourism

The local kids came out to play games with our kids and get tattoos.
The local kids came out to play games with our kids and get tattoos.

Far from the wild nights in Jaco, the crowds in Manuel Antonio and the gated communities sprouting up from Tamarindo to Monteverde, there is this Costa Rica.   It’s the one where traditions echo back through time and forward into contemporary culture.   Costa Rica is famous for its eco-friendly policies. But this attitude is not new to the country.   It is ancient. 

Indigenous communities have begun new initiatives to accommodate intrepid travelers whose lust for learning compels them to take a road less travelled.   Only a few have made the journey to Koswak so far but the village is primed to welcome more. One villager, Roger, has become trained in tourism.   They’ve built comfortable huts for visitors and created a website to create interest. 

Cooking on the wood fire at Koswak village.
Cooking on the wood fire at Koswak village.

I marveled that despite heavy rains one night, our thatched hut remained entirely dry, not a drop came through the leafy roof.   In fact the jungle sounds and raindrops were a sensual lullaby. The cooks charmed us as they created three delicious meals a day on a simple wood fire set on top of a concrete platform. 

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One rainy day they even showed us how to make patacones including their special way to shape them using an inverted teacup.   We put our combined language skills to the test to translate the Bri Bri names of unfamiliar dishes into English:

hearts of palm, choyote, yucca, and peach palm fruit. Surprisingly, Costa Rica’s impressive infrastructure supplied electricity even to this remote area 24 hours a day. My cell phone even worked. 

Into the Future

We were told that Bri Bris see the world as if they’re walking backwards.   They have a clear vision of their past and none of their future.   Maybe part of their future lies in sharing their past. 

The Bri Bri village of Koswak seems to think so and is investing in a plan to comfortably accommodate travelers and provide opportunities for them to learn more about the culture, music, traditions and beliefs.

Two years ago, Luis was invited to bring his students from the Costa Rican rainforest to the LEAF Festival to share their music and culture with the audiences and Asheville schools. He had never travelled by plane or so far.   So, he said, he went into the underworld to consult his ancestors. 

They reminded him that his life’s work is to continue to teach the ancient traditions and to not be afraid. “I was very nervous to go to Asheville…but I found it was part of my journey.   I’m happy to share with you because we’re only one family.” 

To visit the Bri Bri village:

LEAF International:

Carol AntmanCarol Antman 

Wander lust, intellectual curiosity and a passionate interest in cultures has led to my life’s biggest adventures.   I met my husband while living on a kibbutz in Israel.   We spent a year hitchhiking the Pan American highway and several months vagabonding in Europe.   We camped in every seaside and mountain state in the country to discover our home on the ocean in Charleston, South Carolina.   As a travel writer, I’ve published over sixty articles fueled by my passion for hiking, culture and the arts.   My artistic life also includes being a performing classical pianist and the founder an art center, Creative Spark. My articles are carried monthly in three local newspapers and published widely in magazines and websites and on my blog .

I am inspired by the idea that everyone has a story and by the many colorful ways that people live and express themselves.