Sunday, January 8, 2012

Our Costa Rica Gift Of Happiness: Day 4, Arenal Springs Resort And The Maleku Tribe

Barbara: Today we had a most extraordinary experience. We were picked up at our hotel by José, a charming and dignified member of the Maleku tribe. He promptly drove us an hour from our hotel to a small enclave populated by his indigenous people.

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:; 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.

Lunch. Mmmm.


Winky, the 6-month old pup (and Phil's new best friend).

Meilyn and Hanzel

With Biiftu and José (in red shirt).

In the end, we decided to gift our 6 soccer balls and school supplies to the Maleku tribe. We found ourselves with a chance to not only give them to a community that need them, but to one with whom we had an amazing personal connection. It's still Packing For a Purpose. And we still support and encourage their organization and affiliates!


  1. *stunned silence*

    Oh, wow.

    *rereads it again*


    *sits amazed*


    Yeah, this totally gets filed under "Major Life Moment" for y'all.

    *blinks* Wow.

    For a long time to come, I'm gonna occasionally smile over the thought of Meilyn and Hanzel kicking around soccer balls.

  2. Looking through the pics one more time before heading to bed with a foolish attempt at optimism that sleep will come more sooner than later.

    1. Phil! I am completely gobsmacked by that macro of the thorns. Nicely done, sir. Nicely done.

    2. Deb, are those Tom's you're wearing? teeheehee

    3. Ummmm, OK, maybe this is too rudely forward, and I apologize in advance if it is and will await my smiting, but BLOODY HELL! Please tell me that's dirt and not a bruise on Colin's leg in the last pic. *winces*

    4. So glad y'all got the Peace Corps woman in the pics. What an awesomely cool, difficult, amazing, challenging gig she has! Wow.

    5. It's nice that y'all had Winky the puppy to play with because I'm guessing y'all might be missing your own pups a bit.

    6. Deb, do I dare ask how "in transit" went today? Seeing your smile in the first pic makes me an eensy bit hopeful.

    7. Deb, sooooooo glad there's a pic of you with the special walking stick!

    8. Of all the things y'all've done on the trip so far, the herb garden learning is hands-down the thing I'm most jealous of. I wish I could spend months doing in depth what y'all did there today.

  3. Herbs vs. "modern" medicine.
    Various versions of Spanish vs. English
    Hot chocolate vs. soda
    Cups made from fruit husks vs. shipped by Wedgewood

    Ability to communicate through the interpreter. Concerns about environmental responsibility and its necessity.
    Soccer balls.

    The similarities outnumber the differences. Your experiences today proved that in spades.

    Phil, today's pictures are simply amazing. I agree with Rigel, that shot of the thorned planty-tree is KILLER. Good times and happy faces all around, too. (Food will do that to you, too. :) )

    I would enjoy strolling through the gardens and learning about all the herbs and such. I have great respect for those who first learned what plants and herbs were helpful, and what certainly did not. (It brings to mind a line: "One of the bravest men in the world was the one who learned (lobsters) were edible.")

    It was very peaceful reading this at close to 2 in the morning. A fitting setting, I believe, for a calm lesson in the life of all of us.

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  5. Wow....This was so great.....Its so amazing to see a completely different way of living...I mean Living close to nature is the best cure for any disease.....its so great to know that you drink aa strong tea for 7 days and asthma is gone !!! I just dont know what to say...
    You guys must have gotten more healthy just by walking in those herb gardens !
    And the pictures are great !!!!

    Phil you have done such a great is one of my weak points....I Love photography !!!!!!
    And I am jealous because you have a CANON DSLR !!!!!!!!! and for the fact the you are winky's best friend and not me :P that pup was just adorable....
    You clicked some really great pictures....specially the picture of thorns....amazing !!!Ive scrolled back to that picture atleast 10 times ....its just great !
    Awwhhhh Colin looks so happy whilst eating lunch...:P !!!!(I am waiting to see the etchasketch stuff :D)
    I love the doggy tattoo Phil !!!!
    And now that Rigel mentioned...please tell me its dirt and not a bruise on Colin's left leg !!!...And if its a bruise ask him to take care...
    Deb and gals look great in every pix youve uploaded...(including the pic of Deb's funny face :P)
    Love you all !!! Keep updating.....Can't wait to see whats coming next....

  6. PS Deb i read your comment "Colin refers you to every single season of Who's line to see that people making fun of him has built his career!"
    I think its his ability to take it sportingly is what built his career !!!!
    When the whose line bunch made fun of him....i would always "AWWWWWWWHHHHHHHH"...(also because he would immediately make the "cute puppy dog face")

  7. What a wonderful wonder filled day you guys had.
    Deb, was your car sickness any better today? You looked as if you felt better.
    Love the extreme close-up of Colin stuffing his face :)
    I hope that was mud on Phil's shirt. I agree about the thorn photo. Nice one.
    Did you take notes about the food and get recipes? The yucca pancakes/fritters look pretty yummy. I had been under the impression that they put a pinch of chili powder in their cocoa drinks but I may be confused. Did they happen to mention anything about the cocoa plants having a blight and dying off? I had read recently that we should expect a chocolate shortage in the next 5-10 yrs. horrors!
    Do they eat any kind of meat? I'm always interested in the native cuisine... Great banana leaf plates :D
    Jose has email. The world just got even smaller. One would not expect internet in the jungle..or I wouldn't anyway. I wouldn't expect electricity in the jungle either. That part of the world isn't nearly as rural as I had thought.
    Can't wait to see what's in store for you guys next. Wasn't there some sort of daredevil activity that was mentioned previously? Something about traveling down a ... zip wire? I vote for that one, as long as it wouldn't make Deb sick.
    Hugs & Huts,
    P.S. You guys don't seem to be eaten up by bugs. Yay. :)

  8. Karen, the email address threw me off for a moment, too. I should have added that to my earlier post, but you just summed it up nicely.
    I agree, too, that those banana leaf plates are really cool. It does seem like a whole other world, and then you add the email in, and we're not entirely separated ("different" sounds cliche').

  9. Rigel, I agree: Meilyn and Hanzel and other children who didn't make it into the pics but who ran in giggling at the end of our day! Biiftu's story was really interesting actually, most notably that she had started in Africa and was evacuated. Her stay in Costa Rica is especially interesting in that she's only learned Spanish in the 7 months since she's been here, and she was a really excellent interpreter already (although she kept denying that!)

    Dawn, you summed it up beautifully! Poetry.As both you, Karen, and Rigel mention, the herb garden and learning about its treasures is truly a life highlight. I wish it for both of you one day. Also, yes, CR is very keyed in.

    PS no bruise on Colin's leg.

    And Shalaka! Thanks as always for your enthusiasm. The pics are great, aren't they? We will have so many great keepsakes when we get home.(the Deb one is still making us bend over with unadulterated laughter!)

    Oh, and Karen, looks like the ziplining might have to wait for another trip (unless we can do it in our next destination). There just weren't enough hours in our day. It's too bad, sure, but we wouldn't have changed a thing so far!!

    We've got a LONG drive today, so won't post for a while. And not to worry, dear friends, Deb is doing fine without the Gravol. Yay!!!

  10. As I read this I was waiting for the appeal for money or something from you to them. It seems that it was not the case and that makes the experience more special. I have been to places like this and at the end there is a selling of wares or an appeal for money. SO glad this was a different experience and not commercialized. I knew that Costa Rica was advanced ecologically but not number three in the world. Kudos to the tourist bureau for showing you a wonderful, interesting and fascinating day. The real thing.

  11. Oh my goodness I miss Nicaragua sooooooo much after seeing this!! We went for a mission trip with a group from my home church and really got to know some of the locals!

    In my opinion, everyone should see a third-world country. It will change your life. You all will never forget these experiences!!!

  12. the diary of you trip thus far has been cool . i laughed when i saw the picture of deb walking into the pool by mistake when heading for the sushi bar . it is so like something i would do !
    i love the story you told above about your experiences with The Maleku Tribe . it is very interesting to me to read about another culture. winky the pup is only sweet too by the way.
    the hot chocolate sounds lovely . i might be wrong but i remember reading somewhere that chocolate was first made by the Aztecs in Mexico .
    no wonder you are taking such good pictures you have a really good camera . i am a keen urban photographer and i am jealous :-)
    enjoy the rest of your trip .

  13. What wonderful people! The U.S. could definitely learn a thing or two! :)

    P.S. Deb, LOVE your Toms! My next pair I want are the black glitters and they will serve as my May-day graduation stroll shoes!!!! :D

  14. Kelly,

    I like the word "developing" instead, and I don't believe it's just a matter of semantics. It sure sounds like CR is developing very well. From what Barb and Deb are describing and experiencing, Costa Rica is moving steadily past its "third world" status. To be #3 in the world in terms of environmental responsibility puts them ahead of us in terms of priorities, as well.
    "Third in the world" is a much better description.

  15. I first read this post at like 3AM before bed and it was a wonderful end to my day yesterday! First, if I had enough time and money I would get up and go to Costa Rica right now just for that Asthma helping plant!! I can't stand having asthma and would love to see it cured.
    Then I came to the once again amazing pictures. Just like the others, Phil I love that pic of the thorny bark/vine! I just recently got a DSLR camera and Macro lense for christmas and can't wait for something around hrere to bloom!
    A big thanks to you all for continuing to think of us on your vacation with these wonderful updates and pictures. <3

  16. That is just wonderful and lovely!

    It's really amazing how friendly and wise such tribes are.

    I love the mugs and the plates. They look so beautiful!

    I guess I have tried "true" hot chocolate...I can imagine the bitter and strong taste.

    What an honour to carry the stick! I think you deserved it, Deb!

    The food looks yummy.

    And it's fascinating how much people know about herbs and natural medicine. Maybe sometimes the simpler things are better than some synthetic pills.

    Oh...and such a nice and kind gesture to give them the soccer equipment to them.

    This sounds like an amazing experience.

    Do many tourists come there?

  17. I love the pics. cant wait for more. Glad u all are having a great time.

  18. Oh...forgot to add:

    Thanks for brightening up my day...It's constantly raining here, and I'm meteorosensitive. The rain and the darkness make me feel depressed. I'm tired and have headaches, too.

    Besides, I have to finish my computer science homework, and I just can't do it.

  19. Lovely pics yet again! Phil, I know it has been said a million times already, but the shot with the thorns is beautiful. Well done!
    Glad you all are having a good time!

  20. I haven't commented since you began your trip, but I read it every day and have been enjoying it. I love that this trip is being taken by two writers. You know how to word everything so well and paint beautiful pictures with your words. However, the actual pictures you add are amazing and my compliments to your photographer. Your doing a great job. Thanks to all of you for taking the time each day to share your adventure with us.

  21. Madge, I didn't even think of that. And NO, there was nooooo asking for money and only a small assortment of handmade crafts we perused of our own volition (no pressure). And we did indeed buy a few treasures.

    Kelly and Holly, Lyndsie, I agree!! And Linda, thank you, it truly is eye-popping beauty.

    Kelly from NJ, wouldn't that be great -- if you could try it one day??? Becki, they say they get about one group a week, but it's not been very busy these last few months. And just to add -- these people also very much respect modern medicine, it's just that they have found herbal cures sometimes work faster and/or better. (and I hear you re the mood depressing side of rain all the time)

    Steph, no worries, Phil is very much appreciating the positive feedback!

    Molly, glad to know you're there!! And we are really enjoying pairing up a traditional holiday with the new-fangled twist of blogging about it!

  22. My hope is that onward in time y'all will look back at these blog entries written as a real time travelogue and find that they are actually a really great souvenir for y'all. They'll help you remember those special, fleeting details of each day that sometimes get hazy or lost in memory.

  23. Anonymous, that is impossible because the dogs were having a party the same night!Plus you gave yourself away as one of MY friends you rascal! No one else calls him Lucas but MY friends.On the contrary Karen we are having plantians beans and rice with every single meal pretty much including breakfast and lunch. You must have caught the one exception. The weather is stunning. Hot but sultry and soothing. Rigel you are right! I never thought of the fact that it is a travel log suvvie! Thanks Molly, Becki and Lyndsie. Yes our photographer is certainly working it for us!

  24. Kelly you are so right. Everyone should experience a third world country. One of the biggest lessons for me is that is does not take owning a lot of "stuff" to be truly happy. Simple but true. Oh and yes Rigel-Toms! Lovely silver sparkly Toms, that now have some mud on them...still. Shalaka I agree about photography. I am determined to get a good camera and really learn how to use it because I LOVE taking pictures.

  25. Linda I loved that sentence. "I am a keen urban photographer" I would love to see some pix. Madge it's funny you know because from the second we met them we knew there would be no money asked for. They did not even direct us to the crafts. We went we saw, we bought. Lovely items. Sooooooooo cheap. In fact I don't know if we have mentioned this to you guys, but Costa Rica is so so reasonable. We are thrilled and shocked when we get our bills!

  26. Deb:
    Oh, I love taking pics, too! Capturing special moments, or tiny details (as Phil does). Love that! Especially the nature has so much to offer!

    I have a Panasonic DMC FZ18 (it's not new), and I love my cam. :D

    I don't know anything about herbs and plants and stuff (only a little bit about spices)...but I think it can be helpful sometimes.


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