Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica

Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica

Total population
1.7% of Costa Rica's population[1])
Regions with significant populations
 Costa Rica
Indigenous languages, Spanish
Related ethnic groups
Other Indigenous peoples of the Americas

Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica, or Native Costa Ricans, are the peoples who lived in what is now Costa Rica prior to European and African contact and the descendents of those peoples. Approximately 63,976 indigenous people live in the country, comprising 1.7% of the total population.[1] Indigenous Costa Ricans strive to keep their cultural traditions and language alive.

In 1977, the government passed the Indigenous Law, which created reserves. There are a total of 24 indigenous territories located throughout Costa Rica. After only gaining the right to vote in 1994, they are still fighting for their rights, particularly regarding the government taking over their land and ignoring the articles which protect them. While indigenous people have struggle for legal recognition of their rights, Costa Rica did sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.[1]

Indigenous Costa Ricans belong to eight major ethnic groups.[1]


Pre-Columbian jade sculpture, collection of Poás Volcano National Park

Christopher Columbus arrived in Costa Rica in 1502 on his last trip to the Americas. Costa Rica received its name from Gil Gonzalez Davila when he arrived and thought he found the most gold he had ever seen; therefore naming it the "Rich Coast". To the Spanish, it was less organized from other indigenous groups they had discovered, mainly because they lived in separate groups rather than one large group. During the colonization, Costa Rica was very poor, mainly because it was isolated from the majority of the Spanish Empire. Natives had lived in Costa Rica for what stretches[2] back to 10,000 years before this, but the cultures were destroyed when the Spanish arrived. Colonies that were set up originally weren't successful, because of disease as well as the tropical rain forests. Costa Rica didn't become a province of Spain until the 1560s, when a community was created that used the volcanic soil for agricultural purposes. By the time that Columbus arrived, there were about 20,000 Costa Rican natives, but this number greatly declined. That was primarily due to disease, particularly smallpox as well as the fact that many indigenous were enslaved to work and oftentimes escaped from them.[3]


About 2,660 people are in the Boruca tribe. They live in the Puntarenas area of Costa Rica on one of the first reservations that was established for indigenous Costa Ricans. They are popular for their crafts, particularly masks made for the "Fiesta de los Diablos" which is a three-day festival that stages fights between the Boruca Indians (depicted as devils) and the Spanish conquistadors (portrayed as Bulls).

The Bribri are an indigenous tribe that lives in Salitre, Cabagra, Talamanca Bribri and Kekoldi; Cabécar in Alto Chirripó, Tayni, Talamanca Cabécar, Telire and China Kichá, Bajo Chirripó, Nairi Awari and Ujarrás.[1] They are a voting majority in the Puerto Viejo de Talamanca area. The range of the population stretches from 11,000 to 35,000. The Bribri have a specific social structure that is organized in clans. Each clan is composed of an extended family. Women have a higher status in this society, because their children's clans are determined by whichever clan they come from. Women in the Bribri society are the only ones that can inherit land and prepare the sacred cacao drink used during the rituals. Men's roles are defined by their clan, and often are exclusive for men. The spiritual leader, or "awa" is very important to the Bribis, which men may have the opportunity to become. Just as it is important to many other indigenous groups in Costa Rica, Cacao holds a particular significance for the Bribi. They believe that the cacao tree used to be a woman and God turned it into a tree. Only women may prepare the drink, there are many associations that produce hand made chocolate which help these women.[4]

The Cabécar Indians is the largest Indigenous group in Costa Rica and is considered to be the most isolated. They have been pushed up to the Chirripo Mountains, which requires a few hours long hike to reach. Therefore, the Cabécar Indians have not been exposed to many basic items, and few of them have been exposed to education. They are very traditional and have preserved their culture. They speak the most of their own language rather than Spanish.

The Guaymís, also known as the Ngabe are the group of the most people in Costa Rica. They emigrated from Panama to Costa Rica in the 1960s. Their main source of income is based on agriculture where they grow bananas, rice, corn, beans and more. The majority of them live in poverty because they live in secluded areas.

The Quitirrisi are located in Ciudad Colon and Puriscal in the Central Valley. They are known for handwoven baskets and straw hats.

The Maleku are an indigenous group of about 600 people located in the San Rafael de Guatuso Indigenous Reserve. Before the Spanish colonization, their territory extended as far west as Rincon de la Vieja, and included the volcano Arenal to the south and Rio Celeste as sacred sites. Today their reserve is located about an hour north of La Fortuna. Although their land was much larger prior to colonization, they are now working on buying their own land back from the government. Their economy is based on indigenous art and many tourists are welcome to watch them perform musical pieces in nearby La Fortuna. This reservation is in great danger and the Maleku no longer live in their traditional houses as the trees are also endangered. They are working hard to protect their language, as there are only about 300 speakers of it.[5]

The Matambú, also known as the Chorotega are located in Guanacaste. The Chorotegas translating to "The Fleeing People" fled to Costa Rica in AD 500 to escape slavery from Southern Mexico, particularly being related to Maya people. Parts of their Mexican culture is evident in regards to their language and rituals, including human sacrifices. They are known as being the most powerful group of peoples during the conquest of the Spanish, as they were an organized military group and fought against the Spanish. There is evidence that they were a democracy and elected Caciques, or priests to be the leaders, and also that they were a hierarchical group. They are known for their agriculture, producing primarily corn and their ceramics/pottery today.[6]

There are about 750 Térraba Indians. As of 2007, the regional poverty rate was 19.3% while for the whole country it was about 3.3%. It is so high, because their forest land has been cleared over the years, which was used for their agriculture and predominant economy. They have not preserved their language as much, as mainly only the elders speak it.

Current issues


There is a conflict that is over indigenous teachers and students are not receiving the same opportunities as the non indigenous peoples. There were two cases in Boruca and Teribe in which qualified indigenous teachers were not given jobs in the local schools. There is also the fact that the schools which the indigenous attend are not funded properly, and the students aren't given the same resources to learn. As for the universities, the indigenous are fighting to gain qualifications so that they can earn higher paying jobs.[7]

Land issues

Of Costa Rica's 50,900 km2 area of land, 3,344 or 5.9% of the land is labeled as indigenous territories.[1] The major issues facing the indigenous groups of Costa Rica today mainly relate to land. The farmers and ranchers are not in charge of their own land that they work because they are considered to be on a reserve, or their land is in danger due to mining and oil work being done.

Indigenous peoples oppose the current El Diquís Hydroelectric Project that will flood some of the lands and affect many of the other groups. It will affect seven of the indigenous territories, including Bribi, Cabecar, Teribe and Brunka). This will be the largest hydro-electric dam in Central America and will cut through nearly 200 historical sites and sacred grounds. [8]


They often do not receive health care because they are located in secluded areas, particularly in the mountains. They also do not have much access to clean water. Only about 26% of the indigenous have access to clean water. Therefore, the natives tend to rely on traditional ways of healing rather than modern medicine. Groups like CONAI (National Commission for Indigenous Affairs) which works to improve cultural and economic situations of the indigenous peoples, tried to integrate the two, which resulted in competition and little acknowledgment of the Indigenous traditional ways. Some areas have built clinics, but the doctors only work about two days of the week.[9]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Indigenous peoples in Costa Rica." International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Retrieved 2 Dec 2013.
  2. Baker, Christopher. "History Pre-Columbian Era". Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  3. Daling, Tjabel. ""The Rich Coast" : A Look at Costa Rica's Native Inhabitants". Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  4. "Bribri Language". Retrieved 14 May 2012.
  5. Vaas, Emily. ""The Rich Coast" : A Look at Costa Rica's Native Inhabitants". Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  6. "Chorotega - Native American Language Net". Retrieved 14 May 2012.
  7. "Update 2011-Costa Rica". Retrieved 14 May 2012.
  8. Herforth, Anna. "Food Security, Nutrition, and Health in Costa Rica's Indigenous Populations". Retrieved 19 April 2012.
  9. Tsochok, Iriria. "Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica: On the Road to Extinction?".
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