One of the things I did to prepare for our trip to Costa Rica was to read about the history of this intriguing country. I have long had an interest in ancient peoples such as the Maya, Inca and Aztec and I thought that, being in Central America, Costa Rica may have been a part of one of those empires. It turns out not. Yes there were people here during those times but the they did not reach Costa Rica.
So I was keen to find out what life was like here before the Spanish 'discovered' the land in the 1500s. Unfortunately, a lot of the native peoples, their ways of living and landmarks have disappeared. The only thing that seems to be left of the pre-colonial period are a number of stone balls. Though very little is known about what they were for or the people who created them. You can find out a little more here if you're interested.
Funny story - we were at the Isle of Wight festival in June and met a Greenpeace chap who was very excited that we were heading to Costa Rica. He kept talking about the Stone 'bulls' and the mystery behind them. We thought this sounded great until some research threw up that he meant balls, not bulls. Presumably not bulls' balls either, though, to be fair, you can buy these in the local supermarket...
Anyway, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered a tour was available to visit the Maleku village, a place that shows you the traditions and ways of life of the Maleku people, one of only eight different indigenous tribes that still live in Costa Rica. Everyone else was pushing zip lining and canyoning and various different ways to basically jump off a tree. It was only a mile from where we were staying too so I thought, "hey we can just walk there" only to find that it doesn't exist on Google maps (clever people) so ended up paying to be taken round instead. That goes against my preference to 'self guide' (as I wrote here) but to be honest, it gave us a chance to practice our Spanish more plus we ended up with our own personal chat with two of the Maleku people.
So, first off, welcome to the Maleku village...
To get to the actual village is a 10 min trailer ride. To say the road was a touch bumpy is somewhat of an understatement...
Then, once you get here there's actually not a lot! It's more of a place where they talk to you about their traditions than an actual village (ie no one lives here). You also get the opportunity to buy some Maleku art for crazy dollars. All of which makes it sound like it's just a tourist trap. But there is more to it than that.
For one, the money people pay goes to the tribe. And they need it. Nearly half of the Maleku people live below the poverty line (this I found out after doing some further research, they don't push it on the tour). It seems that keeping the traditions of yesteryear going doesn't also pay the bills of today. With the dearth of visitors thanks to the pandemic they couldn't maintain this village as had to focus on surviving instead.
This hut for instance is one of many in disrepair. With no tourists to visit the village during Covid, buildings like this were left alone. Without the usual fires going, the leaves used to make the roof started to rot away. Only now are they able to start to rebuild.
What you have instead is the main hut and two people of the Maleku tribe. They have their own language, and of course also speak perfect Spanish. Our guide struggled at first as they did everything in the Maleku language and he had to wait for a translation to then give us a translation :-D
Here we are together. We had no idea how short they were (or tall we were) until this pic as we'd been sitting on the benches listening to everything before this point!
We got the general spiel and shown lots of traditional instruments, such as a drum covered in Iguana skin and maracas made out of a gourd. They also showed us some amazing masks, made of balsa wood that are created to reflect the personality of the owner.
We also got some more info on the tribe itself. Overall there are only about 650 people left who know and follow the Maleku traditions. You can visit the main town where they live (as opposed to the small village where they don't). Here they show people their way of life, such as how they cook, and you can join in.
I asked if people stay in the tribe and marry or whether they can integrate with the wider populations. Turns out they can but they have to continue to keep the Maleku traditions going. It made me think of the Gaelic language and traditions in Scotland a little.
In the middle of the room was a fire (with lovely wood smoke, I love wood smoke) and once
they'd finished telling us about themselves they did a ceremony involving this fire, and some rain sticks.
We also got the chance to join in. It's not every day you get a chance to dance around a fire brandishing a rain stick and singing unknown lyrics in an ancient language, so of course we joined in!
I would like the chance to find out more about this tribe, and the others that exist in Costa Rica, and to dig deeper than the view presented for tourists. They have a huge amount of knowledge about medicinal plants for instance, and they really understand and respect the forest and the animals that live in it. I feel they have a lot more they can share with us than painted masks and staged dances.
Pura vida everyone.