The world knows Costa Rica as a destination of breathtaking landscapes from the haunting cloud forests to the lush jungle rainforests, tropical beaches to the rich green mountains. But there is much more to this gorgeous country, the people and their culture are what makes it so special and unique.
Costa Rica is home to approximately eight main indigenous groups with the Bribri population being that of the largest indigenous group in the country in the province of Limon. Deep into the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica near the border of Panama the Bribri indigenous people reside scattered throughout the Talamanca Mountain range and southern islands isolated from others.
Off the beaten path, away from mainstream society and influences, secluded, they strive for their independence and self-sufficiency allowing them to preserve their indigenous culture. Some have journeyed out to live throughout Costa Rica, however, a large percentage continue to call this region home.
The Name Bribri
Translated into Spanish Bribri is valiente, meaning brave, courageous, and valiant in English. This is the essence of the Bribri indigenous people withstanding the test of time, maintaining their beliefs, traditions, and culture.
They speak primarily two languages, Spanish, and one that is of their own, the Bribri language which is a Chibchan language of Central America that they continue to preserve through generations. This is often spoken in their homes and amongst families, within their spiritual centers, and during their traditional ceremonies.
Their tribal name of Bribri descends from the word meaning mountainous and uneven terrain when translating it from their language, which is considered to be a tone language that uses an SOV word order, subject-object-word. There are three different dialects spoken which have been named after the groups that use them Salitre-Cabagra, (Pacific) Coroma (Eastern), and Katsi-Amubre (Western).
The villages are remote and isolated, at times some traveling by river to reach their destination. However, this is what allows them to survive in their way of life, away from the influence of the people retaining their societies. Running water is available most often in the villages, however, electricity is limited as they chose to live without technology and the influences of the modern world. The villages consist of schools, community buildings, gathering and meeting houses, and conical huts which are their spiritual practice centers.
The Bribri indigenous people live a sustainable life, are dependent on themselves, and have created a bartering system to use within and if need be, selling their unique art, crafts and chocolate culture to tourists. Many of the single-family homes are traditional and rustic in nature, wooden huts some raised on stilts with wooden or woven thatched roofs from palm leaves.
There is much space amongst one another maintaining their remoteness but enough proximity to be able to still walk to one another. They sustain their existence with the reliance on agriculture producing their own organic food in their fertile gardens, chickens on the property providing eggs, and other required animals. Meals consist of traditional foods such as chicken, rice, beans, yucca, and other fresh vegetables, and of course chocolate.
Their main source of income comes from growing and harvesting bananas, plantains, and cacao. However, they readily grow oranges, corn, coffee, beans, rice and native and root crops. Ecotourism has assisted as an income source educating people about their traditional way of life and providing a glimpse into their world. This sustainable tourism generates income to assist in building their villages and community centers as well as funds to purchase what they cannot grow themselves.
They welcome small groups into their village to experience the Bribri culture learning about their respect for nature walking through the forest, sharing their knowledge of all the plants and trees amongst them and the amazing medicinal properties they have. Visitors may have the opportunity to try an authentic snack they commonly eat, served right in a banana leaf.
They bring awareness about cacao and why it is so important and respected from the traditional and medicinal uses and sacred rituals to savoring and seeing the entire process of the production of chocolate. Watching how the cacao pod is cracked open, the beans are roasted and cooled before being crushed and ground into chocolate creates a whole new intimate experience before relishing in its pure flavor.
Cacao plays a significant cultural role in the history and life of the Bribri as it has helped sustain their livelihood and sacred belief system. It is their belief that the cacao tree is that of a female, previously being a woman but was turned into a cocoa plant as a gesture of appreciation by Sibu their main divinity and creator. Traditions have followed that the branches of the cacao tree are not to be used as firewood and that it is only the women that can prepare and serve their cacao drink in sacred rituals.
It is featured and at the forefront in special occasions, purification rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passages within the culture. Even within their natural medicine, the cacao has a role, whether for stretch marks or in a mixture for breaking a fever, it is their devout gift.
Within the Bribri society women have a pivotal role as the structured clan system is matrilineal therefore the mother’s family will determine the roles that one will have. As well this will mean that the clan to which one’s mother belongs determines the clan of the child. The women are the ones that inherit the land through the generations and will typically be responsible for overseeing the livestock.
The Bribri indigenous people strive to maintain their culture and ancient traditions upholding their heritage. Although they are independent and isolated from the population, they are united amongst one another to have a healthy, self-sufficient community. The preservation of their community thrives with their dedication to being one with nature, with high regard and protecting it in order to maintain a harmonious balance.
There is something to be admired by the Bribri’s independence and way of living as they responsibly make use of their natural resources, taking pride in the earth and respecting nature. It is something that the world strives for in these modern times and perhaps something we can all learn from.