Explore Indigenous Costa Rica

Dec 18th 2011
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Pre-Columbian ruins, museums, and a living culture

Costa Rica doesn’t have the majestic ruins of high-profile pre-Columbian empires like the Aztec, the Maya, or the Inca. But scratch the surface of this country, which has always been a cultural crossroads, and you’ll find remnants of a fascinating indigenous past.

Locals routinely stumble upon old stone roads and pre-Columbian artifacts half-buried in cattle pastures or strewn along centuries-old jungle paths.

The National Museum estimates that in Costa Rica today, there are at least 2,000 archaeological sites. Most are still buried in deep forest or under mounds of earth, but a few are excavated, and the intrepid can craft a trip itinerary that offers a window into Costa Rican culture before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.

The 2000 census counted 63,876 indigenous persons. Forty percent live on or near the Caribbean coast; the majority live on one of 22 reserves, which collectively make up about 6 percent of national territory. In Costa Rica today there are at least seven indigenous cultures (Bribrí, Cabécar, Guaymi, Térraba, Malecu, Huetar, and Chorotega) speaking six languages.

To begin your exploration, fly into Juan Santamaria Airport and stay for a couple of days in or near San Jos
é, long enough to visit three excellent museums that give a glimpse of this country’s rich past: the National Museum, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and the Jade Museum.

Budget lodging within walking distance of all three can be had a Hotel Aranjuez; a little more upscale and a longer walk to the museums is the Hotel Le Bergerac, with its own continental restaurant on the premises.

Head next to Guayabo National Monument, an easy drive, shuttle, or public bus ride from San Jose through the colonial city of Cartago to the smaller city of Turrialba.

Guayabo is the most accessible and fully excavated archeological site in Costa Rica; it's a haunting experience to
walk its ancient cobblestone streets and to dip your fingers into aqueducts more than 2,000 years old.

To experience alive-and-well indigenous cultures, head southeast to the Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo. ATEC (The Talamancan Association of EcoTourism and Conservation) arranges tours of the Cabécar and Bribrí lands near town. Native guides may lead you to a little-known waterfall, talk about tribal rituals, or show you plants and trees used for traditional medicine.

Across the country, on the Nicoya Peninsula, take time out from the central peninsula beaches (such as those in Samara or Nosara) and head inland to Guatíl, where descendants of Chorotega Indians are reviving pre-Colombian pottery traditions. If it’s Easter Week, don’t miss the nearby Crocodile Hunt.

Or head south to Palmar Sur to see the pre-Columbian stone spheres in and around Finca Seis Archeological Site, which is being excavated by the National Museum. Access to the site is supposedly open only by appointment; try contacting the Museum's archeology department (
506-2291-3468 or antropologia@museocostarica.go.cr) ahead of time, or contact Casa Roland Marina Resort in Golfito about their Palmar Sur Archeological Tours. There are also large and impressive stone spheres in Palmar Sur’s city park.

If you'll be in Costa Rica around New Years, make time to see the Boruca's Dance of the Little Devils.

CategoriesActivities, Culture & History, Kid-Friendly, Parks & Reserves, Trip Ideas