One of my highlights in Costa Rica was a trip deep into the jungle. I was there to meet the indigenous people from the Bribri community Yorkin. This gave me an opportunity to get a glimpse of their culture, and a better understanding of how community projects can contribute to conserving local cultures.
We were in the heart of the Talamanca Mountains, on the edge of Costa Rica. Here you find the largest of Costa Rica´s Indigenous reserves.
Our adventurous jungle trip started from Bambu, from here you can only move on to the community by boat or by a 3-hour walk through the jungle. As we were waiting by the riverside, two smiling men in a traditional dugout canoe approached, ready to take us for a memorable trip.
Father and son, Julio (58) and Caesar (30), knew the river well; it was obvious that this was like a daily routine to them. They manoeuvred the boat between large rocks against the current of the fast flowing Yorkin River, which makes the natural border between Panama and Costa Rica. Some parts were so shallow that they had to use a long wooden stick to push the boat forward, as the boat motor would touch the ground. Other parts were so wild that getting through required an experienced boater.
The scenery was stunning! We were surrounded by intense green and dense jungle.
After about one hour, we arrived in the Yorkin community. As we walked up the hill from the riverbank, we heard lively music and children laughing. When we reached the top, we saw colourful and playful children dancing in a ring, practising one of their local dances.
Smiling I spent some minutes watching how they joyful danced in front of the visitors – some shy, some happy to show off their new moves.
We continued for a short hike through the jungle, following a muddy path to the community house run by the Stibrawpa women association. This association has been running a community project since 1996, focusing on traditional organic agriculture and tourism. They are a great example of how a driven, united group of people can do something great for themselves and their community, starting from scratch.
Their main activities are cocoa farming and eco-tourism. They invite travellers and tourists from all over the world to visit their community, to learn about the cocoa farming and to learn more about their local culture and food.
When we arrived, we met Bernarda, Julio´s wife. She and her female friends came up with the idea of creating a sustainable business in the community. Before the initiative, people in the village were frustrated because there were no jobs, and people were moving away to stay and work in the cities or on the large banana plants in the area. Over time, they started noticing that the health of the workers at the banana plants worsened, and they believed it was connected to the exposure of the chemicals they used in the banana plants. Many of the women also tried to contribute to the economy by making handicrafts. To sell it they had to travel to the Caribbean coastal cities popular for tourists.
Bernarda told us that this situation forced them to think new. First, they wanted to preserve their culture and protect their indigenous traditions. Second, it was important for them to protect the nature and the natural resources. The environment has always been a fundamental part of the local indigenous cultures. Third, they wanted to create development and make their community self-sufficient. They wanted to create a better and brighter future for themselves and for their children.
They saw that rural tourism was something they could do in addition to what they already did, and they also realised that it would be a gift to tourists to be able to experience their traditions and lifestyle.
Agriculture has traditionally been very important to the indigenous people, and the area is green and fertile. They mainly grow bananas and cocoa, and they have started processing the cocoa to sell it to visitors and to restaurants in the cities. The pay for the agricultural products is not much to live from, though, and the income from tourism is highly needed to develop the community.
– At first, I was the only woman who received training [from an NGO]. It was difficult for some of the women to get support from their husbands to work for the project and travel to receive training. I was lucky, I had support from my husband Julio, Bernarda told us.
As the project developed and the community started seeing the benefits from the women initiative, more and more men started accepting that their wives worked for the association, and several of them received business training.
The women, also with help from some of the men in the village, have developed an economy based on eco-tourism by bringing visitors to the village, where they provide an authentic Costa Rica experience. They have around 1000 visitors per year now; one of the challenges is to make tourists travel all the way to their remote community.
Most tours are one-day events, starting with the hour-long canoe ride up the Yorkin River. It is also possible to book trips including accommodation, and you will be well covered for with local traditional food and sleeping in one of their thatched-roof buildings for visitors.
As a slow traveller, who loves to stay for long in one place and get to know the culture, I asked them if it was possible to come to stay for longer. I don’t think they quite got my point, but I am sure that if you arrive and ask to stay for a while, they will make it happen!
If you do not speak Spanish, be aware that I only met one person in the community who spoke English. Caesar speaks basic English, and you will be able to get most of the information through him. However, an English-speaking guide would be a great benefit!
They offer several tours. The most popular is making chocolate from the raw cocoa beans. You can also get lessons in how to use the local bow and arrow and attend workshops to learn how to build their local houses.
The food in the village was fantastic! Throughout Costa Rica, I was happy with the food, there was always a vegetarian dish with fresh vegetables and most often beans. The best meal I had, though, was in Yorkin. We had a combination of boiled black beans, freshly boiled palmito ( the heart of the palm tree) and patties made from eggs and “monkey tail” (a type of fern), and local chicken for the meat eaters. It tasted so fresh and came with rice prepared on the open fire, which gave it a delicious smoky touch.
In the kitchen, next to where we had a chat with Bernarda and Julio, several local women were busy roasting the cocoa beans to show us the process of making pure, natural chocolate. According to Bribri tradition, only women can take part in making the chocolate.
After harvesting, the process starts by fermenting the cocoa beans in a closed bag to remove the cocoa pulp (the white layer). This is an essential step to eliminate some of the natural bitter and sour flavour elements in the beans. During fermentation, the pulp will turn into liquid, which drains away, and the true chocolate flavour starts to develop. The beans are then dried for storage or further processing.
The next step is roasting. In Yorkin, they roasted the cocoa beans on the open fire. The roasting makes the beans shrink slightly, and it is easier to rid them of their hull. We crushed the beans in a wooden tray with a large and heavy stone. Then there is a process where the hull and the nibs (the gold itself) are separated from each other.
The nibs were ground in a manual mill, and the result was pure, thick, organic and bitter chocolate! The pure chocolate was mixed with a can of sweet condensed milk. Served with local, organic bananas, this chocolate tasted amazing!
The profit they have made from the project so far has been invested in a local health clinic, a children school and a high school.
Their goal for the future is to keep offering quality tours for tourists, and they hope to extend their facilities to host more tourists. They want young people to stay, to work within the community and have the possibility to stay there with their families.
Their Bribri traditions are important to them, and they have found a sustainable way to preserve their precious lifestyle.
Disclaimer: I visited the Yorkin Indigenous Reserve in collaboration with Futuropa. As usual, Taste of Slow maintains the full editorial control of the content published on this site, and all opinions are my own.
I´m an Oslo based web publisher with passion for communication, travel and a green lifestyle. When I travel, I prefer to go slow, sustainable, and “live like a local”. Why slow? It is about challenging the cult of speed, and to enjoy the small things in life and to live in the present.