TUCURRIQUE – The church’s clock tower bell tolls 24 times at midnight in Tucurrique. Twelve long, slow chimes at midnight reverberate throughout the quiet mountain town in Cartago province, followed by 12 more a couple minutes later.
No one really has an explanation for the peculiar behavior of the bell, which tolls every half hour, but like many other idiosyncratic aspects of this town east of San José, the clock is a charming element of a historical village that is contentedly transfixed in time.
“The spirit of the countryside still exists here,” Tucurrique Mayor Wilber Quirós told The Tico Times this week. “We are a small town that has a strong respect for traditions and neighbors. We all know each other and work together, and most of the families here have been here for generations.”
For two weekends during the year, Tucurrique shares its culture and traditions with the country during the annual Pejibaye Festival, which kicked off Oct. 21 and runs through Sunday. The pejibaye, a small, fibrous fruit that grows on hundreds of palm trees lining the nearby mountains, is Tucurrique’s trademark. Residents have cultivated dozens of uses for the fruit, which is a relative of the coconut, and unflinchingly state that the best-tasting pejibaye in Costa Rica is raised here.
“We have grown pejibayes here for hundreds of years,” said farmer René Arévalo, who has lived in Tucurrique for over 30 years. “They are the heart of the community. We live off of them for food and for sources of income. The pejibaye is good to us, so we’re good to it.”
Arévalo, a ruddy, white-haired man originally from El Salvador, has a stand on the far end of the festival that displays many of the various creations derived from pejibayes. His wife, Lucía María, sells an assortment of products – bread, pastries, flour, jelly, pudding, brownies, cookies and ceviche – all made from pejibayes.
Though all renditions of the fruit are well received, the most popular concoction is chicha, a sweet, cider-like alcohol made from fermented pejibayes. Several residents have their own mixes for the libation, though the kick comes from allowing the fruit to ferment in water 12-14 days in a large bottle.
“Careful with the chicha,” Arévalo said. “It is smooth and sweet. But it will hit you when you don’t expect it. We like to say it baptizes you in Tucurrique.”
The Ancient Pueblo
Boulders lined with ancient indigenous carvings are scattered throughout the village and in surrounding hills. The symbols and sculptures that pock the town are remnants of the Huétar indigenous group that populated the region hundreds of years ago.
The town’s population, about 5,000, is said to have spiked in the 16th century. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the old colonial capital of Cartago in the late 1500s, a mass exodus of Huétares followed. The refugees settled in Tucurrique, which sits in a valley beneath Cerro Campano (Bell Peak) and the Reventazón River.
“Tucurrique was considered a good location because it was obscured by the mountains and difficult to access,” said local guide Ricardo Martínez, who grew up with his eight siblings in town. “It was known as the indigenous capital of the region for many years.”
Huétares are also thought to have brought pejibayes to the hills surrounding the valley. Though the fruit originated in the Amazon Basin in South America, its seeds spread north through trading and sharing by indigenous groups.
“The palm trees continue to grow them. There is no limit on how many harvests a tree can produce,” Martínez said. “Pejibayes are eternal.”
Each Saturday night and Sunday afternoon during the festival, a Costa Rican version of a bullfight is held at a small circular arena in town. With cumbia and ranchera music blaring from giant speakers, local cowboys gather in the arena for the show.
A far cry from the poetic brutality of Spanish bullfights, the improvised disorganization of a Costa Rican bullfight has its own charm. Muddled and at times dull due to an uncooperative bull, the Costa Rican corrida de toros takes pride in exhausting the beast, not slaying it in the name of sport.
“In Costa Rica, killing the bull is prohibited. There is no reason to kill the animal. It is sport, not hunting,” said Douglas Solís, who scampered around the Tucurrique arena for hours trying to exhaust the bulls last Saturday night. “We are a country that protects our animals. Killing them is not part of the tradition.”
The Pejibaye Festival, in its 18th year, is growing annually. For the second time, the event now spans two weekends instead of one.
“The festival is growing little by little every year,” said festival organizer Nuria Rodríguez. “It seems like the word is getting publicized more, which we are happy about. It gives us the opportunity to promote tourism here a little more and improve sales.”
When the festival ends Sunday night, the stands will slowly be disassembled, visitors will return home, and Tucurrique will become a quiet village again, save for the incessant ringing of the clock tower bell.
“It is the clock that never sleeps,” Quirós said. “It rings at every half hour during the night, so at 3 in the morning, you are hearing the bell ringing all across town.”
The church bell was donated to Tucurrique from Italy about six years ago. White-faced and sleek, the modern clock that overlooks the central soccer field has never quite fit the old town.
“People complained at first, but they’ve grown accustomed to it,” said Quirós. “I think most of the people would be happy to get rid of it to have quiet nights of sleep again.”