By Eric Robinson
For those seeking something really different, try this Costa Rica adventure. Experience the feel of deepest South America in the river-shed jungles of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains.
February, 2005, eight urban gringo expats, myself one of them, that frequented the afternoon bar scene at the hotels of central San Jose Costa Rica decided to take up Greg Warren, a cocobolo wood exporter from Australia on a trip to his company home ‘office’ perched on a hilltop in the mountains about 25 kilometers as the tucan flies southeast of Turrialba.
In two SUVs we headed along a very winding up and down jungle mountain road, ever conscious of the overhanging eroded dirt cliffs that could come crashing down at any moment and bury us, or wipe out the road ahead. Occasionally we stopped to check out the little villages usually near a swift river crossing, scrawny chickens and ratty-looking third-world dogs wandering along the sides of the road, sniffing whatever was available, shiny-brown youngsters splashing in the shallows, mama nearby beating her laundry on the river rocks. There was always a little open-air pulperia to refresh our cold beer supply, and pee-breaks every few minutes were a must. After a few hours we reached Greg’s hilltop retreat, with 360 degree panoramic views of distant Volcanoes Chirripo (Central America’s largest), Cuerici, Irazu and Turrialba.
Greg’s handyman, Alvaro is a Cabécar Indian and told us of his village that could only be reached after a few hours trekking, starting at the end of the dirt road at the village Finca Llanos de Quetzal. My Canadian friend Mark and I decided to check it out the next day when Alvaro was returning to his village with supplies and provisions he has acquired.
Fortunately it was the dry season, and we left just after sunrise because it was more like six hours of heavy walking along one of a series of paths in incredible natural splendor, first two hours descending through banana plantations into a valley on a path barely wide enough for a horse, then wading across several shallow boulder-covered stream beds for another three hours, until finally coming to a home-made zip-line to cross the ever dangerous Chirripo River. Not up to tourism standards, two grooved wheels balanced on a cable with a rope below where you seat your body, and hold on with white knuckles for dear life, fearing more for your own survival than if you drop something in the rapid current below, never to be seen again.
Along the trek we bumped into a few other Cabécar Indians leaving their village to sell beans or bananas, or looking for farm work, or making an emergency trip to the dentist to extract a few teeth. The trek ends another hour later at the chief’s house, the ‘finest in the village’ with no plumbing, no TV, no radio, no phone, no spoons and forks for eating, open cańa brava walls, and more cańa brava spread across a platform floor for some twenty five people to sleep on. The nearby toilet facility is a hole in the ground hidden by a leaning piece of corrugated roofing.
We used the chilly stream uphill for bathing, and the women cooked in their chimneyless kitchen, wood smoke circulating around the three huts slowly blackening everyones lungs, pointing at the unusually high incidence of asthma. If an asthma attack is very bad, or a child birth is extremely difficult, a villager needs to run an hour through the bush to get to the closest radio to request a government hospital helicopter.
Recent missionaries have arrived with donated tooth brushes and paste, and battery-operated hand-held video games, which are extremely coveted by young and old. Earth University researchers have been constructing a new house demonstrating the use of a chimney to exhaust the smoke while cooking. They are also helping and pointing the way for the Cabécar to grow a variety of new diversified nutritious crops on their surprisingly fertile volcanic soil.
Fifty percent of the 6,000 to 9,000 population in the spread out Cabécar villages throughout the Talamanca Mountains speak only Cabécar, while a third of the people are fully illiterate. The government of Costa Rica has legislated minimum education to reach these people, but the quality of teaching and materials always leaves something to be desired. Everything has to be carried in.
The most famous indigenous site found within the borders of Costa Rica today is the nearby Turrialba archaeological site was inhabited from 1000 BC to 1400 AD, indicating the Cabécar culture had a high degree of technological understanding. There is an aqueduct for bringing water to the people, a dyke used to form a lake, and vestiges of large structures like temples built from huge rocks. They even had an 80 kilomter long stone road. The place was abandoned for unknown reasons, perhaps a plague, or a conflict with neighboring tribes.
As the night grew in, we conversed in broken Spanish (theirs and ours) with the chief and his extended family by the glow of the fire and oil lamps, shadows bouncing on the stick walls. It became apparent the Cabécar are happy living a simplistic existence. Cabécar is a tonal language of the Chibchan now spoken by four thousand people.
After the long trek, and a mushy meal of rice, beans, and maize, and a steady consumption of bananas, and sugar cane juice, being the center of attention and a curiosity to everyone, Mark and I joined the group to hit the cańa brava early, and slept like babies for about six hours. I then awaited the sun to come up, never quite finding the ideal comfort position to be able to doze off again, leaving me feeling rubbery and weak for the long trek back to Quetzal. We left ten thousand colones each with the chief for their hospitality, and said our goodbyes.
After being used to an active urban lifestyle, hooked up to the international cable channels, and the internet, and taking everything for granted, from car and food, to entertainment and sports facilities I would grow both bored and frustrated quickly. However the Cabécar’s daily struggle to survive has religated them to a near stone age level of simplicity and happiness that only they really understand and quietly accept. As they slowly gain knowledge of and from the outside world to improve their health, education and general standard of living (and who can blame them?) I fear they will lose so much in the transition, that their stressless primative lifestyle will only be a pleasant but distant memory of their future elders.
If any of the Adventure Inn guests would like to experience something every bit as remote as the indigenous tribes in the central Brazil Amazon rain forests, this is your opportunity, like a reality survivor TV show!