As tourists being hosted by the Costa Rica Tourism Board, you can imagine that we expected a possibly slanted, “tourist-friendly” (by that I mean possibly cheesy or pandering to tourists) experience, but this was as authentic an experience as we have ever had in our extensive traveling lives. We actually now bow even deeper to our gracious hosts, the Costa Rica Tourism Board, who had the great ideal of sharing with us not just a “fun” adventure, but something truly spiritual and meaningful. Something—there’s no better word for it, even though I said it already—authentic.
This Maleku tribe, 400-strong in this region, but populating Costa Rica in several areas and among 7 other indigenous tribes, lives in a small, re-naturalized area in Central Costa Rica. We were honoured to be welcomed by one of their chiefs, Rigoberto Lacayolipy, by our driver and host, José Moralos Martinez, and by his wife, Jenny Lacayo Elrzondo, and their young son and niece, Hanzel and Meilyn consecutively. Jose offered us Maleku-style hot chocolate—which is cocoa steeped in hot water, no sweeteners. It is completely different from anything we’re used to, and yet utterly delicious. Bitter and deep like coffee, but not as bitter and more complex. José told us that the young tribal members have rejected this ancestral beverage in favour of the over-sweetened and artificial drinks we find in every supermarket around the world. But they are trying to bring this traditional drink back. And I’m telling you, it deserves its hallowed place.
José’s wife, Jenny, then brought us yucca pancakes fried in salt and oil and drizzled with homemade honey, presented on handmade plates lined with banana leaves. Soooo delicious! José explained that the Maleku like their hot chocolate unsweetened while they eat a sweet treat with it. I will not soon forget this culinary delight!
While we enjoyed this treat, we were joined by a young Peace Corps volunteer, Biiftu Aba-Jebel (native to New York and one of the most beautiful, radiant young women we’ve ever met), who acted as our translator. José sat with us and we engaged in a lengthy, in-depth discussion of the Maleku and indigenous experience in Costa Rica, and how the tribes and the local governments are now trying to work together to increase the environmental responsibility that is so cherished by the Costa Ricans, balanced by the cultural retribution necessary to the native people. This was an intelligent, thoughtful and low-key sharing of a personal experience. We were awed and humbled by these amazing people. And by the courtesy of the Costa Rican people for sharing it with us.
Deb: This conversation was very much a give-and-take of the environmental responsibilities that our own North American countries lack (and/or take for granted). Environmental issues are so at the forefront of the Costa Rican thinking—and we were pretty embarrassed that our own country only scratches the surface in this regard, never mind taking a serious stance. At this point, we should remind you that Costa Rica is third in the WORLD for environmental responsibility.
After the snacks and discussion, Rigoberto, the tribal chief and José’s father-in-law, took us on a tour of the extensive gardens. He asked us as a group to decide who would take the ceremonial walking stick through the gardens. We all looked at each other, not wanting to jump at it because, after all, we’re all polite Canadians. Colin suggested that it might mean the most to me. Everyone agreed. I picked it up, thrilled to have the honour, daunted for a second by the weight of it, and then, humbled, I carried on. Proudly.
The garden is intermingled with the local rainforest, replete with every kind of healing herb and plant indigenous to this region: lemon verbena, ginger, oregano, anise, an anesthetic herb we don’t know the English name of, stevia, lemon grass, a bark that helps diabetes, cat’s claw, etc. He gave us a sample of each plant, encouraging us to taste it, smell it, feel it.
Near the end of our walk, he showed us a vine that cured his asthma. After years of suffering and trying every medicine available to no avail, he was told by doctors that he would have to live with asthma for the rest of his life. Then his son brought him this vine after finding it on a mountaintop. Rigoberto steeped the leaves to make a strong tea and drank the tea 3 times a day for 8 days. His asthma was cured. And this was 11 years ago. He offered this herbal remedy to fellow villagers who were also suffering from asthma. They asked him what payment was required. He said all he wanted was to know if the remedy worked for them. To date, 7 asthma sufferers have been cured.
During this walk, we were told there was a sloth in the vicinity, but sadly it was an elusive sloth. However, we did see the tracks of a small wild cat—and its abandoned kill of a wild bird right in the middle of our path. So our pursuit of the sloth falls under the category of Where’s Waldo, and we remain undaunted in our pursuit.
Barbara: After this amazing walk, we returned to the main hut and were offered a truly delicious meal of fresh-water fish steamed in banana (and other) leaves and several different root vegetables. Wow, just soooo delicious and satisfying. To quench our thirst, they gave us a sweet local iced lemonade that was to-die.
Colin: This day was lovely in its simplicity—the entire day. It was one culture learning about another culture. And being incredibly jealous that they’re better than us.
Phil: I had no real expectations of what the day was going to be like, and perhaps went in with my mind completely open as a result, and despite the tremendous language barrier throughout the one-hour plus drive, and the initial hour prior to Biiftu arriving, (and while I can decipher some basic Spanish, you have to know that the Maleku tribal dialect is completely different than Costa Rican Spanish) we were all able to communicate with each other as equals and as friends. Perhaps our leaders can learn something from this.
Deb and Barbara: For anyone interested in visiting the Maleku tribe, we encourage this experience for several reasons: it is an authentic experience, it’s fascinating, and it opens our eyes to other people’s way of living. If you want to study and investigate the area and local medicinal plants, the tribe will help you do this. As well, José tells us there are several other indigenous tribes who will welcome and inform you—you can contact the Costa Rica Tourism Board or local travel agencies. Or we suggest you cut out the middleman by contacting José’s community directly: José Morales Martinez email: firstname.lastname@example.org; or phone: 8731-4997.
Kisses and hugs to the children, Meilyn and Hanzel and Winky the dog, our sweet puppy companion.
As a farewell to us, Rigoberto said that they loved having us and were sad to see us go. We responded by saying that it was not only one of the great days of our trip, but one of the great days of our lives.
|Driving to the Maleku reserve|
|The meeting hut|
|A young pup took a shine to Phil--left his doggy tattoo on Phil's shirt!|
|Beverage cups made from fruit husks.|
|Yucca pancakes! Mmmmm.|
|Sipping hot chocolate. Mmmm.|
|The venerable walking stick.|
|Rigoberto, tribal chief and "medicine man".|
|Tasting and smelling the beneficial herbs.|
|The cocoa pod.|
|Winky, the 6-month old pup (and Phil's new best friend).|
|Meilyn and Hanzel|
|With Biiftu and José (in red shirt).|