Monday, January 10, 2011

Danza de los Diablitos

We needed a place to stay for a night on our way back to Nosara from Panama and so, before we left for the trip, we found ourselves searching our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook for something interesting. We came across a small section on the indigenous reserve of the Boruka (Boruca, Brunka) people. The one page on the reserve mentioned a yearly three-day festival, called the Fiesta (or Danza) de los Diablitos, symbolizing the struggle between the Spanish and the indigenous populations. As luck would have it, the festival was going on right during the time we were driving back. How could we miss that? As there are no hotels in the village, we arranged a homestay through a gallery in San Jose.

The Borukan reservation is a collection of several small villages rising into the mountains from the beautiful valley of the Rio Grande de Terraba. We drove up and up along small dirt roads until we came to the small village of Boruka, itself. As instructed, we asked for Doña Margarita at the local pulperia (corner store) and were directed to our homestay. Boruka looks pretty much like any rural Costa Rican town. Modest houses made of cinder block and tin (many with outdoor kitchens), a church, a school, a couple of little stores selling ice cream and beer. The Borukan residents wear the same type of clothing as Costa Ricans elsewhere (in fact, the guidebook's admonishment to "dress modestly" when visiting only serves to make you look like even more of a gringo - the dress code in Costa Rica is basically tight, low, short). Because of the festival, however, there were many tourists (mostly ticos) wandering around the dusty streets, going in and out of various homes to buy crafts.

View of the village from the porch of our homestay

We were given a small room off of the porch with a keyed lock, and shown the bathroom inside the house. Doña Margarita was holding court on the porch, explaining the festival to some students visiting from San Jose. As she explained it, the festival celebrates the fact that the Boruka fought hard against the Spanish conquistadors and, unlike many other native populations that were in the path of the Spanish, the Borukan were not entirely obliterated (only about 1% of Costa Rica's current population are indiginous). In addition, the Doña explained that the festival also celebrates the Boruka people's continued efforts to retain and promote their culture. She explained that during the rest of the year, outsiders are not particularly welcome in Boruka, but for three days they are welcomed, during which the Borukans share their culture as a "gift."

There are around 2000 Borukans in Costa Rica. In 2006, only 5 people were semi-fluent in the native language and the Borukans were suffering the common challenge of how to live in the modern world while encouraging their children to stay in the villages and retain their culture and traditional way of life. Once small-scale agriculturists, the Borukans have turned mainly to their art and handicrafts as a way to sustain themselves economically. Hand carved balsa masks and textiles (woven on pre-columbian looms using natural dyes) are sold to tourists all over Costa Rica. There is now a strong effort to teach the kids how to speak the language in the schools and the population is apparently expanding.

Examples of some of the beautiful hand-carved masks for sale

But back to the Festival. For three days, beginning each afternoon, the men of the village don costumes of burlap and banana leaves and wooden masks. One man wears a bull mask, symbolizing the Spanish conquistadors, and the others wear elaborately carved devil masks symbolizing the native people. There is a "battle" and the bull loses.

Sure enough, at about 3:00 pm, we began hearing lots of commotion. While men dressed as abuelas (grandmothers) played flutes and drums, the devils faced the bull linked together in pairs or trios. Much mayhem ensued and the bull eventually collapsed to the sound of a giant firecracker.

After each battle, the men gathered around the nearest house and asked for chicha, the local moonshine made from fermented corn. Once they had their fill, a new bull came forward, the masks were put back on, and they continued down the street for another battle. In fact, the whole town seemed to be drinking chicha, and our house was apparently ground zero for chicha production. There was a steady stream of folks coming through our porch into the kitchen to fill up mason jars and old Fanta bottles with chicha, as the group of increasingly drunk devils and bulls slowly progressed along the dusty streets of the town. (Upon hearing my explanation of the festival later, a friend astutely commented, "oh, I see. It was a pub crawl!")

Amidst the mayhem of chicha and fireworks and stumbling men, suddenly a large semi came plowing along the small road and pulled up to a tented area across from our house. We watched with growing unease as men began unloading piece after piece of what looked to be a gigantic sound system. Oh yes, says the Doña, there is a dance party tonight. Really? In the middle of this remote indigenous mountain town, there was going to be a party with enough sound equipment for a 30,000-seat stadium concert? A mere one hundred feet away from where we were supposed to be sleeping? This was going to be an interesting night.

The porch where we sat for hours and hours watching the village world go by

Two more trucks arrived. There will be two bands we hear. One all the way from Mexico. Sure enough the first band began playing at around 9:30 pm. Very loud. While Sadie slept in the room, Ian and I sat on the porch and listened and took turns going to peek at the tent. Very few people were dancing, most were standing around the edges of the tent or outside, apparently waiting for the party to really pick up. Eventually we got tired and decided to try to sleep.

We couldn't sleep of course. There was a band playing. And then another. It was loud. Very loud.

But we didn't know loud.

Somewhere around midnight, the last band stopped and the DJ took over.

Oh. My. God. Now I got what all that sound equipment was for. The tin roof on our house pounded and rattled to the beat while the DJ hollered into a microphone ("Let's hear it for the Indigenous Festival 2011!!") over the sounds of sirens and explosions. For hours. And hours.

Okay, okay, since you asked, here's a little sample of the some of the music (though you must imagine it with the bass turned waaaay up and some guy hollering every 40 seconds and lots of sound effects):

Of course we also had to hear the most popular song in Central America. Though there are many many remixes (and we were treated to a particularly loud and bass-heavy one that night), I like this one.

(Just for kicks, here is the original of that song from the 1950s for those of you who might be interested):

But back to the dance party. My skull was shaking, my heart was thumping, it was loud enough to break glass and I'm pretty sure it did, and it seemed it would never end. I kept thinking about how the United States invaded Panama and drove Noriega out of the house he was holed up in by blasting Metallica and Slayer. I thought my head might explode or that I really truly might go crazy.

At 3:30 am, it finally stopped, to be quickly replaced by the sound of every single rooster in all the neighboring villages who must have been really confused by the party and so, just to cover their bases, began crowing at 3:30 am and didn't let up until 6:00 am.

Sadie slept through the entire night and woke up the next morning refreshed and hungry (she had won over Doña Margarita the night before by asking for multiple servings of her beans). We stumbled into the kitchen, downed the delicious gallo pinto that Doña Margarita cooked up for us, packed the car, and headed back to the peace and quiet of Nosara. Phew.


  1. Que Experiencia!! Glad you survived it.

    I did love the costumes, especially the "abuela" men.

  2. i like the older versions. I think I would have died that night. I'm now so averse to noise pollution (and loud reggatone music drives me beserk) since moving here. My tolerance has gone way down since leaving "city" life.

    But what an experience to be able to be there during the festival- it was really fun to read and learn about. Thanks for the videos on the oldies!