Exploring Costa Rica conjures up thoughts of sandy beaches, rainforests teeming with flora and fauna and adventure travel. Rural community tourism is also gaining ground as a way to combine the country’s rich natural environment with its equally rich cultural heritage.
Twelve women of the Boruca, one of Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups, are picking up on this trend. These women have formed an artisan’s group called Sô Cagrú, which in the Borucan language means “masked warrior.” Contributing to what could be coined a Borucan renaissance, they are leading tours of their community of Brujo, famous for its carved masks and textiles and providing accommodation to overnight visitors, in a mountain valley in southern Puntarenas.
The Borucan population of 2,100 is divided into two communities, Boruca and Curré, located in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone. Boruca spreads across mountainous terrain at 450 meters above sea level while Curré sits along the mid-course of the Grande de Térraba River. Like other indigenous groups, the Borucan people have inhabited the region ever since pre-Columbian times.
“We are visionary women who believe in what we’re doing,” says Lourdes Frasser Rojas, 40-year-old mother of four and Sô Cagrú founder. “We are the administrators of a dream.”
I take a rest at a long table. The fogón, a traditional firewood stove, glows beneath cast iron pots. An array of handicrafts such as woven purses, tube drums, bows and arrows and carved gourds hang along the wall. Just beyond the doorway in a naturally lit room is Rojas’ eldest son, William, painting a mask.
“This is sopa de frijoles,” says Rojas, placing an oblong wooden bowl on the table. Floating in a tasty broth of cilantro, or guagran in the Borucan language, are beans, a hard-boiled egg and a green banana.
Rojas admits that when she first thought of hosting foreign visitors, she asked the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) what she should serve. To her delight, the ICT replied that she should serve just what she and her family eat.
Giving tourists the chance to see Boruca by day and by night, Rojas is the first to build a traditional rancho, which is equipped to house overnight guests. Eight of the 12 women in Sô Cagrú will also construct their own rancho-style guesthouse.
I shoo away chickens roosting on the steps as I enter my room which occupies the entire top floor of the rancho.
There is a queen bed, two double beds and ample stretching room. The beams form a peak and are topped by royal palm fronds. Gazing out of the window at the treetops makes you feel like you are in your own private tree house.
Just outside of the room are a toilet and an open-air, bamboo-encased shower with cement floors. The more adventursome might see this as a perfect opportunity to gaze at the moon while standing beneath a cool stream of water.
Our first stop on the artisan route is Marciana Mora’s house. After Rojas was chosen to represent Sô Cagrú at an artisan fair in Playa Dominical, Mora, mother of six and fondly known as doña Chana, invited me over to her house to make rice tamales, or chari, and to learn about Borucan weaving traditions.
The tour is not well-defined and changes based on the availability of group members.
This lack of predictability makes the tour even more exciting.
We walk to Mora’s house turning off the dirt road and continuing up a narrow path through trees and farmland. We reach two houses, one with turquoise wood siding where the family is living, and one orangestucco house recently built by the Housing Ministry.
A frame to warp yarn sits on the porch. Inside, a turn-of-the century Singer sewing machine shares a room with the kids. “Once we move into the new house, I’ll be able to use this one as my studio,” says Mora.
We spend the morning wrapping rice and chicken in banana leaves and the afternoon talking about textiles. “One thing is to read about someone in a book – their traditions, what they eat – another thing is to come to where they live and see it,” says Mora.
Mora brings out a multi-colored bowl of thread and a bag of caramel-colored cotton balls. She rubs the cotton ball between her thumb and forefinger producing a dark-brown seed. She attaches the cotton to a spindle and demonstrates how the cotton fibers are spun to make thread.
Picking up the bowl of colorful thread, she hands me the purple ball. It smells like seaweed. Still a Borucan tradition, weavers travel to the Pacific coast beaches of Piñuela and Ventana to collect murex snails for extracting purple coloring. Blowing on the snail, a liquid is produced which drips onto the cotton skeins. After drying in the sun, the thread turns purple.
Most woven items are high-volume consumer products made with industrial cotton thread. Some of these threads are dyed naturally with plants only harvested during the waning moon, and others chemically.
Only a small handful of women in Boruca weave hand-spun and hand-dyed thread. This process is time-consuming and costly. The question is how to also market the finer pieces to keep their age-old textile traditions alive.
“To reach that point in which people will start to appreciate their objects more, there is much work to be done,” says Paulina Ortiz, Costa Rican textile artist and president of the Iberoamerican Textile Network.
“By rescuing textile traditions, they would discover there are exquisite ways of finishing objects and many different object designs that were done in pre-Columbian times that are rather different from what they are doing nowadays,” she says. “Some of those functional objects might have some use today, could feed new designs or they might just be interesting to have as a testimony of how things were. If as a national or international tourist you find that added value in fine crafts sold at stores, and a simple written explanation, you would start to encourage that by buying them.”
The road to revival is not smooth. “There are no simple answers; the issue is complex,” says Ortiz. “It is important to communicate properly with the public. Tell people what they are doing to rescue their own culture and preserve its traditional textiles by technique and design… how they do some processes only at a certain time of the year and how valuable it is for them, as well as for Costa Rican culture, to be able to rescue that (heritage), otherwise lost in time and space.”
Rojas’ younger son has put some serious thought into the Sô Cagrú tourism project. A second-year student at the University of Cartago studying business, tourism and English, Harol Rojas says that it is not just about the money. “We need to demonstrate what we do here,” he says. “It’s important not only what we can sell. We want them to learn.”
Borucan culture is also well-known for its carved balsa masks. In the past 20 years, mask-making has surpassed subsistence agriculture as an occupation. These masks are sold and donned for the Little Devils Festival, or cagrú_rojc in Borucan, celebrated from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2 every year.
The festival dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest and recreates the battles that took place between the Spaniards and the Borucas.
When tourists come to Boruca, Rojas wants people to walk away with the whole story and not just an outline. “The masks do not represent devils,” says Rojas. “They represent good spirits that frighten away evil. The correct word is not devil; it’s cagrú, which means warriors who defend what is theirs – their land, women, children, rivers, trees, small animals and big animals.”
The battle continues as the Boruca people struggle to build pride in their ancestry and to make ends meet.
As the community starts to encourage more tourism, there is a lot to talk about.
“We need to do it well,” says Rojas. “Boruca will change a lot.” Getting There, Rates, Info
Getting There, Rates, Info
Take theInter-American Highway south
past the town of Buenos Aires, in southern Puntarenas. Continuing south on the Inter-American, turn right 50 meters past El Brujo and the gas station. Continue for 8 kilometers along a fairly smooth, but steep road that begins paved. Turn right at the last road before entering the center of Boruca. Sô Cagrú is the first rancho on the right.
From Buenos Aires, buses depart for Boruca at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and take an hour and a half. Per-person rates are $50 a day including breakfast, lunch, dinner, accommodation in the rancho and guided tours, $30 a day for residents and students. Customized day tours of artist studios, the local area and waterfalls are available upon request.
For reservations and information, call 2286-5136 (San José), or 2730-2453 (Boruca). Response may not be immediate as these numbers relay messages to Sô Cagrú. For a quicker reply, e-mail artelocagru@yahoo.