This week, many countries of the world celebrate a holiday with many nuances. In the United States, it is Columbus Day, in some countries of Latin America it is called Race Day and in Costa Rica it has been celebrated for some years now as the Day of the Encounter of Cultures or Day of Cultures. That is why today we want to highlight the cultures that inhabited our territory when America was “discovered” by the Spaniards. Costa Rica culture recognizes the great legacy of the 8 indigenous populations that have lived in our beautiful country since more than 12 thousand years ago, and today we want you to get to know them.

When you think about other countries in Latin America is easy to remember the Aztecs from Mexico, the Incas from Perú or the Mayas from Guatemala.  But Costa Rica culture and its indigenous tribes are not widely known.  So, let´s start from the beginning, 12,000 of years ago.

Costa Rica culture, the beginning

Several archaeological studies say that the arrival of the first settlers of America came from Asia through the Bering Strait. The real discoverers of America were small nomadic groups that were dedicated to gathering wild fruits and hunting megafauna.

Archaeological evidence of these occupations dating from 12,000 to 7,000 years before Christ has been located, corresponding to stone instruments, in the Turrialba Valley and in Guanacaste.

There are data in the country of the presence of agriculture around 2,000 years before Christ. In Costa Rica, the appearance of agriculture was coupled with the development of ceramics, which would come to fill the need for new tools. The first indications of agriculture show the consumption of products that today are highly used in our traditional cuisine. Yucca, yams and other tubers, as well as the pejibaye tree and corn, are still an important part of recipes that form part of Costa Rica culture.

Image courtesy of Tecnológico de Costa Rica

The development of agriculture also completely changed societies. It went from being nomads to the establishment of villages, and over the years (hundreds) they grow in tribes and later chiefdoms appeared.

By the time the Spaniards arrived on our land to completely change what the Costa Rican culture was at that time, the villages were large and with established socio-political systems. The chiefdoms dominated extensive territories that competed among themselves. The main villages had massive infrastructure works such as mounds, aqueducts, plazas, roads and retaining walls. All this development that had taken thousands of years was folded back by the arrival of the Spaniards, who established a new way of life based on the exploitation of the indigenous labor force. Fact that although it is unfortunate created what we are today as a society and form our Costa Rica Culture.


Indigenous Costa Rica culture, the tribes today

In Costa Rica culture there are 8 ethnic groups that inhabit in 22 indigenous territories.  For the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the Caribbean Coast of our country, Costa Rica had an indigenous population of around 250 thousand people.

The Chorotegas, culture resident in the north of Costa Rica were influenced by both the Mayan and Aztec culture. Other ethnic groups such as the Borúcas, Bribrís, Cabécar, Guaymí and Guatuso spoke dialects that had great influence on the cultures of South America. And, unfortunately, there is no information about the indigenous culture located in the zone of the Central Valley and the central Pacific region, huetares.

At present we can find the following indigenous cultures, which although only have a very small number of inhabitants, of about 100 thousand people in total (2.4% of the total population) enrich our Costa Rica culture significantly.

  • Bribrís: They are the most numerous and live both in Talamanca on the Caribbean Coast and in Buenos Aires of Puntarenas, in the Central Pacific of the country. They have a rich culture that preserves their language, writing, lifestyle and religious beliefs. Its most important economic activity is agriculture. Its artisan expression is basketry and the manufacture of musical instruments, for which they use natural elements.
  • Cabécares: This interesting culture that inhabits the areas of: Chiripó, Nairí Awari, Tayni, Telire, Keköldi and Talamanca, is one of the indigenous groups that has mostly maintained its cultural identity. His religious belief is in the figure of a specialist in the knowledge of traditional medicine; The Jawa, as they call it, is the connection between the spiritual and the physical world. Socially Cabécares are organized into clans, these are made up of a considerable number of families where, according to their beliefs, they are all brothers.

Image courtesy of Earth

  • Guatusos or Malekus: They are located in the plains of the north of the country, in the province of Alajuela. They preserve their physical features and cultural expressions, and they are the smallest population with only 650 people. They speak the Maleku language and Spanish, and given the importance of conserving their language, bilingual schooling is given. For the Maleku culture, the forest is the most important, and consider animals as their brothers.

Maleku house. Image courtesy of

  • Boruca or Bruncas: Borucas live near the border of Panama among the mountains of Talamanca. A Tribe of about 2000 people characterize by their great pride of having survived the passage of time and its changes, especially of the conquest. They are widely known for their colorful and spectacular masks, which even find imitators throughout Central America. Although its main economic activity was agriculture, in the 70s there was a very important change as they found themselves immersed in poverty. With the help of several governmental institutions and a brave group of women, today ecotourism and ethnotourism maintain this proud community.
  • Térrabas: Also called Teribes, this indigenous population is reduced to about 600 natives, whose ancestors were the powerful Incas. Thanks to the collaboration with their peers in Panama, the Térraba are resuming their culture, since their language and traditions were almost extinct for a time. The community of the Teribes present a matriarchal structure. Women are highly valued in their society, being also the ones who know the most about agriculture, medicinal plants and how to provide food for their families. In addition, they are responsible for transmitting this information from generation to generation.
  • Huetares: Although its population is extremely limited at present, this indigenous culture was the most important community in central Costa Rica, being the main population when the arrival of the conquerors occurred. They preserve little of their culture and physical features, although they still maintain some traditions, such as the Fiesta del Maíz and the use of medicinal plants. It’s now extinct Huetar language was part of the Chibcha languages, spoken by the Muiscas in Colombia.
Huetares Costa Rica culture indigenous tribes

The sacred stones … a Huetar celestial representation, where each stone symbolizes lunar and solar movements. Image courtesy of Aesculab

  • Chorotegas: The Chorotegas were an important pre-Columbian community whose origin came from the south of Mexico and settled later in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In our country, this rich culture is reduced to a small community called Matambú in our province of Guanacaste. Its now extinct language was the Mangue, which was also spoken in Nicargua and Honduras. Its main cultural legacy can be found in the towns of Guaitil, San Vicente and Santa Bárbara in Santa Cruz de Guanacaste. Here you can experience the Guaitil Pottery which is produced in exactly the same way as your ancestors did thousands of years ago. This type of ceramic is so important for our Costa Rica culture that it even has a denomination of origin seal, certifying its authenticity.


Although it is very difficult to visit all these indigenous territories to better soak up the Costa Rica culture in a single trip, we invite you to join us on our Guanacaste Essence cultural tour that will take you to the beautiful town of Guaitil among other interesting places. Book your tour now and learn more about our Costa Rica culture!