As a Tico I’ve always been a bit naggy on Costa Rica’s culture. I think Costa Rica has lost most of its culture to globalization, which has brought a balance of good and bad things. I’ve always complained about Costa Rica having lost a potentially decent gastronomical culture and having no social achievements in customs and traditions.
This Quest is not a personal rant about Costa Rica’s lack of its own cultural seizing. Through a lead I had on a dark and creepy venture, I ended up learning about Costa Rica’s hidden culture; and this begins up north in Guanacaste, right next to Nicaragua’s border, “La Cruz”.
Have you ever explored the dark side?
Guanacaste is still a place where you can roam about many incredible destinations, famous for its beaches and volcanoes, adventure tourism and cattle raising. La Cruz sounded like a very interesting destination, as it is almost the last frontier before reaching Nicaragua. I took the (very) long way, even though it’s already far from San José, but the scenery all the way there is as many other roads in Costa Rica, astounding. So it was, that once I arrived to La Cruz, I was feeling eager to keep driving up to Peñas Blancas where the border control Costa Rica–Nicaragua is, nothing much to see there, but kms of freight trucks parked, waiting to drive through the border. I turned around and stayed at some nice “cabinas” by the Sapoa river, right in the middle between Peñas Blancas and La Cruz.
La Cruz etymology has kind of an interesting but dark origin. Decades ago, this small town served as a livestock passageway to Nicaragua; and the story tells that one day a breeder lost control of his cattle while going through the rugged dirt paths, and while trying to control the herd he got stampede down to his death. When the body was found, the trail was left in worse conditions than it already was, so they figured they’ll mark this path with a big wooden cross to warn other ranchers. This warning point was later used as a rest stop to count the cattle and continue towards their final destination. Later on, this rest stop will become a small village with an incipient population who named it “La Cruz”.
La Cruz is now a gateway to a most impressive landscape of dreamy deserted beaches freshened by cold Pacific waters, friendly locals and high impact winds. I love it when I visit here; it’s not a very popular destination, but you can find many sagacious travelers looking to explore and relax at Salinas Bay, most famously known for wind surfing. It has a different feel to any other shore in Costa Rica, it’s actually a quiet place due to the winds; they not only clean the air, but takes every sound away from the bay, which you can appreciate uphill from La Cruz. Grassy dunes, cattle, abandoned bull-arenas and small improvised shops and sodas (small typical costarican restaurants), small houses transformed to cabinas and hostels are all within huge distances separated from each other, scattered around through the dirt roads that lead to different isolated beaches. Long white sand shores, blazing sun and warm waves of strong winds shape curious rocky formations surrounded by crystal clear cold waters that changes its blue color scheme with every wind blow. The silence of the wind breaking away sound makes every spot on this land look like a mystery, secrets are carried away in the air; you just want to devour every piece of this vast deserted planet.
But this wasn’t the place I was looking for at the moment; as windy as this place is, their friendly people are airtight and I was unable to crack open their hidden stories that make up this beautiful place, maybe it’s better that way, this windy setting quickly dragged me out south towards new summits; volcanic stratums, prairies and plains as I drove out from La Cruz.
Guanacaste has an impressive landscape and driving through valleys, faults and rivers, showed me very clear the land’s formation; capes and cliffs eroding into ancient beaches, rocky contours dusting into thin and thick sands, bays, islands and then deeper inland; dry forests that perfectly matched the Grimm Brothers “grim” forest stories. This biological magnificence has full scenic attractivenes and pre-Columbian societies new about the richness of this land. The “Corobicí” where an indigenous community living throughout this area; later, they will migrate to the mountains; giving origin to the Maleku tribe. Malekus, Chorotegas, Nahuas and Corobicís, all part of the cultural past of Costa Rica, which now are long gone forgotten, but still some of their influence might be seen in music, dances and crafts. Cattle techniques and corn gastronomy where acquired by the new wave of the “hacienda” and “el campesino”.
Since the early civilizations in the American continent, Costa Rica has facilitated a cultural bridge between north and south America; even inside its own country, different costarican indigenous communities hiked for days and even weeks looking to trade with other communities or just for ceremonial processions to holy grounds. This pilgrimage allowed for different cultures to meet and trade cultural values; this might explain the lack of appropriation of one particular strong culture, after all, it was always in constant change and movement.
Most of the indigenous cultural richness transmuted to the Hacienda, while at the Caribbean coast, enslavement from the Antilles and African countries filtered Costa Rica and though this population passed with intentional discreet, the black culture had a strong input not only in the Caribbean shores, but northern Guanacaste had its influence as well. There are many tico words that came from black slaves that today still stick in our daily vocabulary, same goes for many places in Costa Rica, named after words in the African dialects.
One of them places is Matambú, which I arrived after long driving hours south, towards the Península de Nicoya. I found myself up in these mountains where once the indigenous communities were forced to hide from slavery. Matambú is an ironic indigenous reserve, because there’s no sign of an indigenous community, although the roots planted here are now half-bloods, the majority are “white men and women”. This reserve was created to aid the indigenous community and help them regain back ownership from the lands that were taken from them, although as I said, there are no indigenous people around. Most Matambú “white” locals who I spoke to, call themselves proudly “indigenous”. It’s a weird small village filled with lots of indigenous influence carried out by “whites”; in agriculture is where you see the most impact of the ancient culture; the use of medicinal plants, seeds and the many uses they have for corn are signs of a once powerful cultural breed.
I found a tiny cabina near a river, very simple, with private bathroom and a bed, that’s all I needed. I was tired, but even though the village was small, there was a lot to get into and without knowing I started walking up hill, until I found a house where the dirt path ended. Doors open and a welcoming smell of something cooking on firewood was a great sign, as the time was way past lunch and I didn’t even had breakfast. The sky had grey heavily printed in the clouds and some lightning announced heavy rains. I knocked on the door and was quickly received by “Chimbolo” a typical guanacastecan, elderly man who was cooking “tamal asado” (roasted corn tamale) the smell got strongly desirable once he welcomed me inside his house and to his backyard, where he had a huge pot of this roasted tamale on the wooden fire, unfortunately for me, it will take 12 more hours until it will be ready, so I tried to keep my guts quiet.
Chimbolo is a quiet man, unless I asked him something he wouldn’t talk that much, plus, he was focused cooking the roasted tamale, something he is famous for, so he takes advantage of it and sells it all over the village. After a short introduction of myself, he gaind trust and started telling me that he acquired his name from an uncle; Chimbolo started drinking at age 7 and thus, he was always staggering; Chimbolo slightly refers to someone that is always stumbling. Now a widower, he’s been sober for over 35 years and still, he’s still getting used to loneliness:
“That’s life, no one knows anything, destiny, the future…nothing is certain, just death… I’ve been living here all my life and I plan to die here as well.”
The firewood interrupted his desolation, doing strong pop sounds as the wood started to split, releasing more steam into the fire, Chimbolo quickly attended to it and started telling me his recipe for the famous roasted tamale, but while he talked about how easy it was, he made a detour to the past and at points he roamed in childhood memories, triggered by his mother passing the recipe along to him. Now the easy recipe, opened a gateway to tales of mystical creatures that tormented both him and his brother’s youth. Large rain drops started to crash loudly over the zinc roof, thunders cracked the dark skies and everything just became a movie set for horror stories.
During Ash Wednesday, kids weren’t allowed to go out and play, but Chimbolo and his brother managed to go out and play soccer. On their way back, late in the afternoon, they were walking through a “tiquisque” crop field (a root-vegetable similar to cassava) when all of the sudden, they heard the screeching sounds of hell coming out from an old dirty burlap sack. Intrigued and scared, they both got close to the bag and it seemed that something alive was inside of it. They ripped open the bag and a piercing sound, shriek of terror gave way to a white hairy beast filled with slimy fangs that startled them, Chibolos brother’s reaction was a sudden shock continued by punching the banshee screaming creature and in seconds they ran faster than the light of thunders that flashed in the background while Chibolo excitingly told the story of what he called a “Dwarf”. Never before I’ve ever heard or read a story that describes a dwarf like this, but his excitement really got me into the story. They managed to get back home and immediately hide in bed, beneath the covers, Chibolo cried for days and couldn’t bare having the lights turned off, as he felt the savagely white creature will take revenge on them.
It was getting late, but the sunset somehow cleared the heavy rain and Chibolo told me he needed to leave, but that I could go and meet his brother “Julio” who lived 20 minutes from him by car, he also said, he had become somewhat of a sorcerer and he could tell me all about a group of estate owners that had a pact with the Devil, that didn’t claimed their souls, but instead they traded their worker’s souls for their own wealthiness. I wanted and felt ready to descend onto these depths, deep inside the minotaur’s cave.
“To understand how one becomes what one is, we must explore the depths of our fear beyond good and evil, travel [and explore] every road…”
On my way to Julio’s I met “Lucho” who used to be involved with voodoo and witchcraft, friend’s with Julio. Lucho made a whole disclaimer about Julio on our way to him, but from everything he said, all I remember was:
“…he eats bats you know…” Lucho smiles.
Before even thinking where we were driving, we already were deep in a small dirt road higher up in the Matambú mountain, a road with few houses, all lined up to a majestic landscape of a colorful Guanacaste sunset. This was a street where most of the village’s “witches and wizards” live; my theory is that these were probably the people who had the most strong roots to their indigenous origins, because as Lucho described; these people knew a lot about medicinal plants, oral traditions and handcrafts; but like Lucho, they also kept old books back from the arrival of the Europeans and then passed along by generations. Books that tell stories of black magic, evil pacts, human metamorphosis, spiritual beings and endless devilish narratives. I thought this as highly interesting, this might be a source of how lots of legends and mystical characters and beasts were introduced to the Costa Rican folklore.
Julio’s house was in the same street, but separated from the rest, it was an open small ranch on a large piece of land; when we arrived, we just made our way in to the center of the ranch where the silhouette of a large, robust man was sitting in a chair. Once closely, Julio’s face featured indigenous traits, not alike his brother Chimbolo. Julio was also very quiet, but mysterious; he didn’t let me photograph him, but the time we shared made a close enough image of how he should be remembered; a mystical creature himself. He offered us to sit, the sunset was way past behind the mountains, crickets, frogs and the clicking sound of geckos was intensified, adding much expectation to the magic and the stories we were soon to be told. But Julio didn’t want to talk and with a low-pitched laughter he said that “Lucho” knows the stories better. Lucho, though very theatrical, wasn’t a very good storyteller and he just went over many random stories of his own illusions of grandness when he used to practice voodoo. Though he is out of that game today, he still uses his underwear inside out, as protection against witches.
I was a bit disappointed, but soon I remembered I wasn’t there for the stories, I wanted to understand how the dark part of a culture can be integrated in a proper way on to the general culture of a country, become familiar with our beast within and if channeled properly there can be some substance in art and social achievements of particular lifestyles and traditions.
Chimbolo, Lucho and Julio, have been part of a long gone past and this should remind us that we are still arcane, primitive men. Talking to them left me with an emotional scar; past traditions and culture, should continue to live on with us.
“We lack historical sense because we have no conscience connection to the past.”
But there is a rich cultural value in this dark hidden culture and we need to be actively willing to explore its history to obtain a kind of well-being through these roots; just like the “Guanacaste tree” that has been growing and standing strong for more than decades.
"There was a time, a time when every moment showed a place where the symphonies shone, through branches and leaves; the symphonies of nature." - Oystein G. Brun
Driving down the cool air mountains that opens into a wild country of deep dry jungle was the first step into the "Brunka Region". The Brunka Region is home of the "Boruca" people, a Costarican indigenous tribe that lives in a reservation on the south pacific of Costa Rica.
The road serpentines the mighty "Térraba" river, locally know as the "Dí Crí" (Great River). It's meandering body allows some impressive views along it's way, where many huts and crops settle.
A wave of heat is your first welcoming when arriving to "Rey Curré", an Indian Territory inside Brunka. The heat of the weather is as the warmth of it's people. The whole village gathers together at this time of the year (the last week of January) to celebrate their "New Year".
The party's epicenter takes place at the community center, where everyone meets to await the "call" of the famous "Diablitos" (Little Devils).
We arrived late, so we had a quick bite to eat on an improvised public kitchen at the community center. Sitting there, a nice local family offered us cold "Chicha", a saliva-fermented drink made out of maize. Served on a bamboo cup or usually on a "jícara" (small bowl made from a type of pumpkin) the first sip of this representative drink, was like eating an overripe fruit, but the sourly-bitterness washes down as the high alcohol percentage kicks quickly into your blood stream.
Walking around the small community center we were wondering where the village was, as no houses were visible, but we did see where the "Diablitos" where and they were getting ready to start off the New Year's celebration - Actually it had already started the night before at midnight...
Soon after midnight you will hear shrieks and groans screeching down the hills of the village. But this is an announcement of joy, because The Little Devils have been born, this is how the Celebration begins. A commemoration of life and death is what the Borucas celebrate during 4 nights / 3 days. A new year is born and so are the souls of the warriors that defended the indigenous territories from the Spanish conquest.
"El Juego de los Diablitos" (The Little Devils Game) or in Brunka called "Cagrúv rójc" symbolizes the fight between the Boruca people and the Spanish Conquistadors. The Borucas are the Diablitos and The Conquistadors are represented by a Big Horned Bull.
Horns and shells are played by the Elderly (Diablos Mayores) to announce that the celebration has begun. Youngsters playing drums and flutes follow the elders and along follows the howling Little Devils, joining the procession with their demonic colorful masks.
The whole village and neighborhood areas follow the tribe along different houses where the fight against the Bull takes place.
The fight starts very gentle and consists of few Diablitos teasing and jesting the Bull around so that he makes a fool of him, it's almost like a dance between them. Meanwhile the rest of the Diablitos and the public surrounding the "arena" drinks "Chicha", served cold and free of charge by the owners of every house they visIt. You must have your own "jícara" or bamboo cup (or any drinking container).
Lots of more battles continue along the way through out the village on different houses, and their hosts; they all keep serving cold Chicha to their guests. As each battle progresses more people from the tribe join in and start accompanying the children's musical flutes and drums with accordion and antiphonal singing with their native language but mainly with non-lexical vocables . The party is just warming up and so is the heat of the day.
A loud rattling noise feels coming closer during one of the fights. The Bull is almost forced out of the "arena" into the gravel road in front of the house.
All of the sudden a big cloud of dust filled with screeching sounds terrorizes the event. After the dust has settled down one is able to see that its a second horde of Diablitos! They start pushing and beating the Bull with branches and leaves but the Bull is relentless and it keeps pushing, taking down some of his victims.
By this time each battle becomes tougher and vicious as we advance on different houses. More and more Diablitos join in, fighting for their culture and their right to live!
It's almost dawn and you can clearly see the "Chicha" has done it's inebriety effect on the Diablitos, whom have been drinking since earlier than 11am. The Diablos Mayores always vigilant, make sure that the rules are being followed as previously discussed and he who is seen loafing, resting or taking pictures with those around them is whipped and immediately pushed back into the fight. The celebration as fun as it may look it's taken very seriously, harsh enough that the Diablitos are not allowed to drink anything else but "Chicha". I heard one of the elders saying to a Diablito;
"This is our culture and you must not betray it, you can only drink "Chicha", be proud of your roots"
It seems that we shape culture as we engage in our social practices in our everyday life. What do we think we are? and what we're supposed to be? These are values that affect how we judge other people's values comparing them to ours, not by where others come from.
"If we can understand the values behind culture, we can understand people better for whom they are and what they stand for." - Fernando Lanzer
The perseverance of the Bull constantly reminds the tribe that the Conquistadors will not give up fighting against what they proclaim as their own. Tired and literally drunk with power the Diablitos linger and fight during two more days.
The fatigue is clear, specially on the Elder and young ones, sweat drenches the outfits and more and more Diablitos fall to the ground and against trees as the Bull rams them down.
The third and last day they recover strength and struggle to survive one more day. Until all of the sudden, they start dropping dead to the floor and the Bull manages to escape. This is called "La tumbazón" the fall of The Diablitos marks the victory of the Conquistadors.
With the last rays of light on the last fighting day, magic fills the village with mystical powers and the Diablitos resurrect one by one for one more last shot to hunt down the Bull. The Bull once long gone, hides over the hills. Some of the Diablitos transmutes into "dogs" and lead the way to find the Bull.
Finally the Bull hunt is over. And the Bull (outfit) is burnt by the purifying flames of death, allowing the survival of the Boruka people.
The death of the Bull brings the village to a huge celebration on the last day. But the intense battles all the "actors" go through are not to take in vane, as this is a lesson that the indigenous people are in constant strive to keep their land, but more important to maintain their long gone roots that have been ran over by progress, taking more and more of their people to forget where they come from, which is a valuable lesson to us all.
"El Juego de los Diablitos" fights for an extinct cultural identity in Costa Rica but hoping to reach out, Los Daiblitos are part of the costarican culture and they not only involve sacrifice, they proclaim our own cultural roots, our own way of life and our own believes, which in my opinion Costa Rica already has forgotten.
"...We always celebrate something; we celebrate hoping that Monday is over, Tuesday because Monday is over, Wednesday because it's already halfway the week, Thursday 'cause it's almost Friday and the rest of the days are pretty obvious why we celebrate..."
One of my best friends was living in Dominican Republic and during his 5 year stay I promised him I'll go visit him. Years passed and 2 weeks before he went back to Costa Rica, he invited me to his wedding. Finally I decided to ﬂy to this strange but wonderful island. I was welcomed by my friend with the coldest beer ever- 'Vestida de novia'- white frosty bottle, the only way to drink beer here.
After a few of those we picked up his ﬁancé and headed to a house birthday party where I met a warming Dominican family. We closed the night at a rock bar, famous for tributing the rock folk legend "Luis el Terror Dias’.
This place was almost as if you entered the ﬁrst circle of hell! I walked a few steps down (covered in sweat) and saw a massive cavern which is located almost under the city, pretty crazy! As you go deeper you are pulled by a small "rope boat' into this wonderful green "crater/cavern" where I took these black and white pictures.
Next off, I wanted to try 'Sancocho soup' so I walked along the “Malecon' (pier) but it started raining, so I had to stop like every 20 minutes or so, sheltering inside bars from the quick rains. I met a guy in the street who insisted in taking me to get the best 'mamajuana' -a rum and wine beverage with honey, herbs and tree bark. I let him tourist me around the old city and actually learned some Dominican history. This is where I started to think the whole island was a tourist trap.
People on the streets (on my way to Boca Chica) getting ready for a parade.
I was told they had the best fried ﬁsh outside the city, So I traveled to "Boca Chica“, famous for it!
I took a ride with "Galvin' a very friendly and happy guy. He stopped on our way to buy me some road beers and explained a bit of the Dominican lifestyle, while listening to extremely loud 'Dominican Hip-Hop?‘.
"We Dominicans are simple people 'echaos ‘pa'tras (laid back) but when we dance we are energetic and create a happy environment...that makes our <simple> life bearable..."
"We always celebrate something; we celebrate hoping that Monday is over, Tuesday because Monday is over, Wednesday because it's already halfway the week, Thursday ‘cause it's almost Friday and the rest of the days are pretty obvious why we celebrate..."
"We like our beers cold and our women hot..."
After seeing where and how most of the population lives and 'struggles' in, soon I realized the importance of their music and dancing (something I was never fond of).
Galvin joined me for fried ﬁsh, which was great by the way! He then left and I walked around the streets and the beach. Found a german bar, so I had a couple more beers there and then rushed back to the city, had a wedding to attend!
Galvin picked me back up with some more beers he bought for me. We stopped on our way to pickup "one of his girlfriends" and dropped me at the hostel to take a shower and put my penguin suit on, wedding night was ahead!...
Just before taking the night plane back to Costa Rica, 1 did some bar hopping around the old town. Walked in the rain and got shelter inside a 'Colmado" (pictured on the right) I met an old guy - dressed fully in white with a magenta tie, hat and a cane. He told me he was a doctor who've studied in Spain, very eloquent and proper we started talking politics and history. While sharing a couple of beers he told me how he wanted to change the system;
'...democracy didn't had enough time to fully develop before it was <forced> in almost every country... ‘
He explained to me how Dominican Republic was slaughtered by Spanish pirates when it was discovered - He said that in those days, Spain wasn't doing so well, so the people sent to 'find new trading routes” were the worst of their people; pirates, thieves, rapists and what so...unfortunately these where the people who arrived ﬁrst to Dominican Republic.
After a great talk, I continued to some other bars;
I met a few people in this bar (above). This Dominican couple and some germans who asked the bartender to play some Rammstein, the song lasted like 7 seconds then he switched back again to Dominican Folk music, hehe.
Later in the night, I was talking to a ﬁlmmaker I met at a metal bar (he worked there) it was almost 2am and I realized my plane was almost leaving. I ran back to the hostel, picked up my stuff and got an uber to the airport, but ﬁrst, I told the driver to stop somewhere to get me the best 'puerco en puya' (pork on a stick?-pulled pork) so we did, we stop on a street (above) where local people were having a small gathering around an improvised food kiosk.
I almost didn't make it to my ﬂight, but it was the best 'pulled pork" I've ever had! .
"Mountains higher than man can ﬂy..." — Oystein G. Brun
I try to escape the insatiable corporate machine one month a year (or more if I can). With hope of clearing the mind and soul, I seek for different horizons and mysterious realms that satisfy the sense of meaning and belonging.
In this quest I endeavor to explain the "black forever', the drive of motivation.
"...a distance of furious dreams... " — Oystein G. Brun
I met in Switzerland with a high density soul, Ari. We stayed with some friends for a couple of days and left off to the majestic wilderness of the Bavarian Alps. Through 900km we stayed with local farmers and small scenic towns.
Kehlstein (Hoher Göll), Berchtesgaden, Germany
Hell brings forth hell...
Some time before the trip I‘ve been experiencing “Sunday Neurosis“, the discern of how empty and meaningless my life has become. I blame it on the endless loop of; work, eat, sleep.
Every goal seems out of reach, blinding any future possibility for anything, but somehow the overwhelming surroundings seized me to a state of deep euphoria, as if I felt authentically experiencing reality for the ﬁrst time in a very long time.
View from Kehlstein, Berchtesgaden, Germany
Kehlstein, Berchtesgaden, Germany
"I have come as far as the end now, to an existence where my soul belongs" - Oystein G. Brun
View from Herzogstand, Pre-Alps, Germany
View from Herzogstand, Pre-Alps, Germany
View from Herzogstand, Pre-Alps, towards Walchensee, Germany
“If you live life draped in sorrow, you will destroy the path <you> follow” - Warrel Dane
View from Jenner Berg to Königsee, Berchtesgaden, Germany
I read that the experience of depression serves us to be aware of our mortality and freedom, so that we can recognize our true self and consequently, give meaning to our life.
Kehlstein, Berchtesgaden, Germany
After a long trip like this it's hard to get back to a daily monotony and it's even harder to 'spice up" your routine.
But for one small moment in life you can feel free, feeling small around the imposing nature surrounding you. It puts you on a spot where even though you are insigniﬁcant in the universe, you're still a tiny part of it and that, it's just great!
Mannlgrat Klettersteig, Berchtesgaden, Germany
"I'll always be a Hobo in my heart" - OKM