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.