Snake bites and chocolate: Costa Rican women teach tourists jungle secrets

by Sophie Hares | @SophieHares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 18 June 2018 15:00 GMT

Melissa Espinoza Paez talks about medicinal plants at the Siwakabata agro-ecology farm in Talamanca, Costa Rica, May 10, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sophie Hares

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"We're giving a tourism experience that is truly cultural... We are trying to live a more dignified life"

By Sophie Hares

BRIBRI, Costa Rica, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - To treat snake bites, bathe in a tea brewed from yellow button-shaped flowers, advises Melissa Espinoza Paez as she describes the medicinal properties of Costa Rica's jungle plants, pointing out towering vines used to combat kidney problems.

In the lush mountains close to the Panama border that make up the Bribri indigenous territory, Espinoza hopes the country's first certified indigenous tour agency can deliver a bigger slice of income from ecotourism directly to local women.

"When other agencies brought tourists to our territory, sometimes they'd give a small amount to the people here, but it wasn't really the value of their work," said Espinoza, 38, indicating a green dart frog trying to hide in the undergrowth.

"We're giving a tourism experience that is truly cultural... We are trying to live a more dignified life," she said at the Siwakabata farm near Bribri town, some 220 km (140 miles) southeast of the capital San Jose.

Based in Talamanca canton, one of the poorest in Costa Rica, the recently licensed Talamanca Indigenous Bribri Tour Guides Association (AGITUBRIT) wants to ensure the financial benefits start to trickle down to local families, said Espinoza.

Alongside medicinal plant and gastronomy tours, hiking, jungle and river trips are run through a network of indigenous guides who stamp their cultural identity on the expeditions.

Costa Rican tourists, who often have little knowledge of indigenous culture, as well as Europeans, have so far made up the visitors who come to find out more about the relatively isolated Bribri people.

Tourists often stay with local families in thatched wooden houses to absorb Bribri traditions and learn the language, while some make appointments with traditional doctors who prescribe plant-based medicines.

Home to dense jungles and cloud forests teeming with wildlife, Costa Rica has become one of the world's best-known ecotourism destinations. A quarter of its territory is now national parks or protected reserves.

But while ecotourism offers an incentive to protect the biodiversity that pulls in visitors, there has been less success in channelling benefits to those who provide services and protect the local environment, say some in the industry.

"The tourism sector in general is still learning how to deal with the social factors," said Saul Blanco Sosa, a sustainable tourism specialist with the Rainforest Alliance conservation group. "Dealing with people is more complicated than dealing with natural reserves."

Tour companies need to think about ways to become more socially responsible and inclusive, and avoid disrupting communities with their activities, he added.

Melissa Espinoza Paez, her mother Nora Paez Mayorga, Basilia Jackson Jackson and her daughter Flor Dias Jackson, prepare cacao at the Siwakabata agro-ecology farm in Talamanca, Costa Rica, May 10, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sophie Hares


Ecotourism ranks as one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global travel market, and is worth around $100 billion a year, according to a 2017 report by the U.N. World Tourism Organization and United Nations Development Programme.

The World Travel & Tourism Council says about 13 percent of Costa Rica's gross domestic product comes from tourism, which is expected to employ 265,000 people directly and indirectly in 2018 to deal with its 3 million annual visitors.

Tourists have long come inland from Costa Rica's Caribbean coast to explore the mountains, swim in waterfalls or float in long wooden canoes along the rivers lacing the Bribri territory.

But by the time middlemen have taken a hefty slice of their money, little is left for local people offering trips or cultural demonstrations, said Espinoza, who is learning English to help bring in more international tourists.

Guides from outside the area explaining the Bribri's spirituality and strong connection with nature usually just learn their spiel from a book or the internet, she added.

"We live it, we feel it - but for the others, it's just about money," said Nora Paez Mayorga, who helps runs the 15-hectare (37-acre) Siwakabata agro-ecology project with her daughter Melissa.

Basilia Jackson Jackson grinds cacao beans at the Siwakabata agro-ecology farm, Talamanca, Costa Rica, May 10, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sophie Hares


For many women living in Costa Rica's remote southeast corner with few formal qualifications, jobs other than raising chickens or growing crops such as plantain are hard to come by.

Younger people often have little choice but to head to San Jose to find work, said Paez, as she served up fried pastries and mugs of bitter chocolate drink.

Alongside its eight guides, the tour organisation works with about 40 women from local indigenous communities. Some are employed at Siwakabata to cook for visitors, while others come to sell handicrafts, clothes, fruit and chocolate.

Demonstrating how to remove cacao seeds from their padded pods, dry and toast them on an open stove before grinding them to a paste, Basilia Jackson Jackson said she was looking to attract tourists to her home village of Coruma two hours away.

Growing bananas and cacao, her family's fortunes depend on the prices set by buyers, she explained, turning the wheel of a metal grinder.

"We've never dealt with tourists, we're just getting involved with it... we could have a little bit more income - it wouldn't be much, but it would help the family," said Jackson, who travelled to Siwakabata with her daughter Flor.

"In this area, we don't have much work. Between women, we've got to get organised to see how we can help each other."

Espinoza, who left to work in a factory in San Jose before returning to study and finally helping set up AGITUBRIT, is optimistic the agency will prove invaluable in strengthening the position of local women while protecting their culture.

"As indigenous women from here, we know what we need. We can help each other to develop this project - valuing, maintaining and respecting our world view and our culture," said Espinoza.

(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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