The EcoAdventure Media group was invited to send several of our members to Costa Rica. There, EcoAdventure Media travel bloggers explored both the remarkable sustainable travel practices engaged in by most of the country, and the happy, welcoming culture of the country. Michael Turtle, i.e. Time Travel Turtle of the EcoAdventure Media group enjoyed Costa Rica cultural travel as much as he did the ecotourism element of his trip.
Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. In Costa Rica, this is often the case.
It’s very easy to look at the big picture of the country – the beaches, the national parks, and the wildlife. These are the things we hear about when the country is mentioned. It’s why it has become such a popular tourist destination and why it holds such a prestigious position in the ecotourism world.
Costa Rica, though, is much more than just the postcard photos and shiny brochures. It is a country defined as much by the proud and liberal people who live in it as the green blanket that covers it. There is a reason it has become a shining light of progress and stability in a region notorious for corruption and conflict.
The great thing for international visitors is that there are plenty of opportunities to scratch below the surface and meet the locals. Aside from the friendly nature of the Costa Ricans – who will quite happily chat or even invite you into their homes once they find out you are interested in getting to know their culture better – there are some great Costa Rica cultural travel activities to see a range of lifestyles across the country.
I thought it would be nice to share three different examples of how you, as a foreign visitor, can easily get an insight into the Costa Rican way of life. Each of these opportunities is easy to arrange, is in a different part of the country, and shows the diversity of the people. Costa Rica cultural travel is a valid and fun part of a vacation there.
Santa Juana rural heritage
The community of Santa Juana, less than an hour’s drive from the popular Manuel Antonio National Park, once hunted native animals for food and cut down natural jungle to make more farmland. It was not a sustainable way of life and, in fact, it wasn’t even enough to support everyone who lived there. Young men were forced to leave the village to find work in large cities. Husbands would travel long distances to get to their jobs. Families were being spread across the region and the community was falling apart.
So the people decided to join the ecotourism movement. They opened up their community to visitors and began to use their traditions as a promotional tool. Some of the women in the community became cooks, some of the men became tour guides. Now, in terms of Costa Rica cultural travel, they welcome in tourists every day and show them a slice of the rural life.
A typical excursion to Santa Juana includes a guided tour of the Costa Rica rainforest where you can see the animals of the region – including birds and snakes. There’s also a demonstration of the traditional procedure to make sugar cane juice with oxen and a mill. One of the local men will take you fishing in a pond just upstream from a waterfall and a river you can swim in. There’s also some horse riding and then the day finishes with a home-cooked meal.
The Costa Rica cultural travel aspects of local tourism brings in much-needed income to the community. It doesn’t completely support everyone in the village but it’s enough to cover the shortfall from the agriculture. It’s certainly enough, though, that there’s now no need to illegally log or hunt. And nobody has to leave the community to find work elsewhere.
You can find out more about the Santa Juana Rural Heritage Tour by clicking here.
Yorkin Bribri indigenous community
The indigenous people of Costa Rica, like most around the world, have faced cultural and systemic challenges since the arrival of European colonizers. Despite the struggles, though, many of them are intent on maintaining their heritage.
The Bribri tribe in the Yorkin Reserve near the border of Panama are among those who are trying to keep their traditions alive. Like the people of Santa Juana, young Bribri men were being forced to leave the community to find work in bigger cities. And so, again like Santa Juana, the tribe decided to allow limited tourism to their lands as a way of generating income.
It is a very different experience, though. To get to the Bribri community you need to take a small boat up a river for an hour. It’s a traditional boat – carved out of a single tree trunk – and the scenery along the way is stunning. You then arrive at the entrance to the tribe’s land right on the bank of the river. Although there is a collection of buildings here, the main part of the village is spread out in the jungle beyond. The Bribri don’t build their houses close to each other so it can take a long time to walk through it. The small wooden houses are dotted amongst the jungle.
This Costa Rica cultural travel excursion is less about demonstrations and more about experiencing life in the community. About 40 families take it in turns to host visitors for a day, cook them a meal and talk (through a translator) about their people. It’s a matriarchal society so the wife in the family normally takes charge – she’ll also show you the traditional chocolate making ritual which only women do — but, luckily, everyone gets to eat the result!
The main employment here is cacao and banana farming and that is still what most people in the Bribri tribe do. The money from tourism is mainly used to fund traditional Costa Rica cultural activities, including teaching children how to speak the indigenous language. The tourism here has been welcomed by everyone but it is limited to small numbers so it doesn’t disturb the day-to-day activities of the residents.
Bajos del Toro culture
The small town of Bajos del Toro in the centre of Costa Rica is certainly not on the tourist trail. There is nothing in particular to see here that’s of national significance – but that’s what makes it such a perfect place to stop. It is just like any other small Costa Rican town and that’s a fascinating thing to see in itself.
The reason that Bajos del Toro is recommended is because the nearby El Silencio ecolodge arranges simple tours of the town. You will see the local church, school and soccer field and meet a few of the local people. You’ll also see the garden of a local flower enthusiast who has turned his backyard into a personal botanic garden. He has collected more than 400 types of native orchid species and spent much of his life working on their display.
The highlight of the tour, though, is spending the afternoon with local woman Dona Olga. She runs the town’s convenience store but also makes a lot of products which she sells to locals and people driving through. Dona Olga loves cooking and she will show you how to make traditional tortillas – complete with some meats and cheeses to go with them. Sitting around the table, eating the tortillas over a cup of coffee, is Costa Rica cultural travel at its purest; you chat, hang out, and find out more about life in a small Costa Rican town.
After all of that, the local bars will welcome you in for a drink and a meal. This is where the people of the town gather to relax and share stories. After a few drinks it can get a bit raucous, though, and even the owners will join in with the karaoke.
The wonderful thing about visiting Bajos del Toro is that the local economy is not dependent on tourism (although a lot of people are employed by El Silencio). Their hospitality is simply from their heart.
Michael Turtle was in Costa Rica as a guest of Visit Costa Rica and as part of EcoAdventure Media‘s #EcoCostaRica campaign.