The Dance of the Devils- The Boruca Tribe of Costa Rica

SAM_1212I am blessed to have had the opportunity to visit the beautiful country of Costa Rica this month. I arrived in San Jose on New Years Eve, and came back home to the U.S. on Jan 12th. I had neither the funds nor the desire to stay in Western style vacation accommodations- instead I stayed in simple Costa Rican hotels; and at the home of a friend who lives half the year in Sierpe De Osa, in the Southern part of the country.


On January 2nd I was scheduled to attend an annual Boruca tribal festival, Dance of the Devils (Baile de los Diablos), also called Game of the Little Devils (Juego de los Diablitos). I believed this was to be one of the highlights of my trip- and in unexpected ways it was. As a shamanic practitioner, I have a deep interest in and respect for the indigenous beliefs and ceremonies of all cultures…

The Boruca people are a tribe of indigenous Costa Ricans whose culture and traditions survived the Spanish conquistador invasion in the 1500s. Here is what the official Boruca website  ( says about this annual ceremony:

“This annual festival is important to the Boruca people in many ways. It celebrates the resistance to Spanish colonization and their ability to maintain an identity rich with their own traditions in the face of foreign influence. During the festival, which runs from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2, the village celebrates with a four-day depiction of Spaniards being chased off by the Boruca. The Spanish are represented by a bull costume and the Boruca wear their traditional devil masks.”

The website also explains some of the history, culture and traditions of the Boruca people, and encourages tourism by including driving directions and lodging options for the visit. The Borucas make exquisite masks and other crafts, which they sell to the public to help support their community of about 2000 members. The Borucas live on a reserve and have the right to self-governance.

The drive up the Pan-American Highway was rough and rugged. The dirt road was deeply rutted and I do not think one could make it without 4 wheel drive vehicle. The views at the top of the mountain were beyond spectacular. We stopped to admire the beauty.

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Boruca Art- Exquisite
Boruca Art- Exquisite

What follows from here is the unedited version of my experience with the Boruca people during my visit to watch the Dance of the Devils. We arrived at the village which was crowded with people and vehicles. The village was an interesting mix of residences and common area buildings, and many people were milling all around the area. We parked and walked up to a small building that held a short written & visual history of the Boruca people. I read the information, and took a few photos of the beautiful carvings, crafts and weavings in the building.  At the top of the hill above this building was a very large cross, with a stone stairway leading up to the top of the hill. I could hear the sounds of cheering, yelling and a horn blowing from the top of the hill- clearly the ceremony was in full swing. With great excitement, I climbed the stone stairway to the top…

When I arrived at the top of the hill, the “devils” (masked Borucas) were fighting the “bull” (symbol of the Spanish conquistadors). What a fabulous sight- men in fantastic colored hand carved masks dancing around and lunging at the bull. The bull is a costume made from burlap with a mask in the front and a tail in the back- with a person within.  There was serious pushing- men were being knocked down, and the bull was under attack from all sides. The spectators cheered and yelled. I pulled out my camera and held it up high to get over the heads of the crowd. I got one photo- and a handsome young man with a serious expression stepped in front of me and put up his hand. He spoke to me in a loud voice in rapid Spanish. I speak very basic Spanish, but clearly understood that he did not want me taking pictures. I apologized in Spanish, asking his pardon, and explaining that I simply didn’t know. I tried to put away the camera, but he repeatedly reached for it as if to stop me. In confusion, I pointed to several other observers who were busily taking photos with cell phones and cameras. He angrily waved at me and continued to speak in rapid fire Spanish, to which I responded, also in Spanish, “I am sorry, I speak very little Spanish. I am sorry, no more photos.” I tried to step around him. Once again he stopped me and waved over a woman who spoke a little English. I explained to her that I didn’t know, and promised not to take any more photos. She relayed this to the young man, who responded angrily to her and pointed at my camera. “He wants you to pay for all your photos” she said. “I only took one, which I will gladly delete in front of him” I replied. The two spoke for a few moments, and the young man grudgingly walked away. “It’s all right” said the woman, “he works for the tribe and gets a little intense.” I apologized again and assured her I meant no disrespect. Embarrassed by my illicit photo taking, and a bit cowed by what I thought was a bit of an over reaction, I moved on with the crowd- camera stowed away in my bag.


The Devil vs. Bull fight had progressed down the road a bit, and I began to follow the crowd of observers. I felt badly about taking the photo, but also confused, as I saw many people snapping pics as we went along. The fight continued down the road, deeper into the community. I watched for a while and then walked back toward the stairway down to the main area, where I had left one of my companions. There were very few people here, as most were still watching the ceremony.  Two older men, holding gourd cups full of liquid, stepped in front of me. One of them stood chest to chest with me, and sneered something loudly & directly into my face. I did not understand his words, but his energy was clearly confrontational. Was this still about the photos, I wondered? But this fellow had been coming from a different direction! What had I done now? He leaned even further in toward my face and spoke again, loudly and with disdain. I smelled the alcohol on his breath. Again I said “I speak little Spanish, so sorry.” He turned to his companion, said something to him and they walked off, yelling over their shoulders as they went.

SAM_1480I was now feeling a bit shaken. What had I done? What energy was I projecting here? I came with great interest in this opportunity to get to know this culture better, but clearly I was falling short somehow. I walked back down the steps and joined my two travel companions. We wanted to visit the craft store, and purchase some of the exquisite art. I was hesitant now, walking on eggshells. I wanted to pick up some of the fantastic carved balsa wood masks, but was nervous to make a wrong move. My friends were not feeling as stressed, and with their help I chose two gorgeous masks.

SAM_1481There is a lovely waterfall on the reserve, and my two friends wanted to see it. I confess that at that point, part of me simply wished to leave. We started off down the dirt road that runs through the town, past houses and people in their yards. There were many people walking about, including 2 young men with their arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying and stumbling, clearly inebriated. One of the men sighted me and made a beeline in our direction. Once again, I was confronted. This time, Ed, one of my companions who was walking beside me, tried to pull me past the men. They turned to him and spoke loudly, pointing fingers at him. He responded with “No Espaniol”. They laughed and pushed toward him, clearly inviting him into some physical contest. “No”, he said, with palm upward in the universal symbol to stop. Again they challenged him. Finally, I walked around the group of them and said “Let’s just keep walking”. They allowed us to move on, with jeers and taunts.

SAM_1075We walked on quietly for a while, finding a lovely shaded spot on a river, away from the crowds. I admired the plant life and the natural beauty of the place, but inside I felt shaken and confused. We walked back to the truck without much incident, and began the long, winding, bumpy drive back down the mountain. Sitting in the back of the truck, I had time to think, to process. I am by nature someone who is easily hurt, and I often assume responsibility in any confrontation. What had happened here? The website seems to encourage tourists, I thought to myself. In fact, here is a direct quote from the website: “Any tourist that comes to Boruca is very welcome and well-received.”

Huh. Was I not welcome? Had I invaded a private event? Was the event truly intended for Latino tourists? I am clearly not Latino, with my dark blonde hair and blue eyes.  I wanted to be hurt, angry, indignant. I recognize that those feeling arise from fear and separateness, and began to look within myself. I have noticed that most of my discomforts in life come directly from my own expectations, so I started there. What had I expected?

Upon examination I realized that I had expected a well-organized cultural event- an event intended to educate the visitor (me) about Borucan history. I had expected that the event was, in part, a way to heal the wounds of the past. A way to overcome the natural human feelings of separateness- that “us vs. them” place that we have all come from at some time or another. I had, in short, expected that the event would be about… The Human Struggle.

And so it was. But it wasn’t about the Big Human Struggle. It was about the everyday human struggle. Taking a holiday from the daily stresses of feeding our families. Getting good and drunk and being shitty about it. Feeling badly and expressing it in bad ways. Blowing off steam.  Having strangers roaming all over your community, with cameras and expectations. Learning to deal with other cultures who speak other languages and wear other clothes and look other ways…

Prejudice. Paradigms. Preconceived notions. Wounds. Expectations- mine and theirs.

A fantastic cultural experience. Thank you, people of the Boruca tribe.

PS- Want to support this small, vital community? You can view and perhaps even purchase crafts online. The artist who made the masks pictured above is on facebook- Santos Lazaro. check him out, LIKE his page, and tell him Kristen says “Buenos”.

PPSS- Although I was asked not to take photos of the dancing/fighting, and therefore have none to post here, you can find a video of  “The Dance of the Devils” on the website.


2 thoughts on “The Dance of the Devils- The Boruca Tribe of Costa Rica”

  1. My students from Elon University iMedia made this website last year – glad it is being used!

    Just back from another trip to Costa Rica – this year to build, about a neighboring group whose culture is threatened by a major hydroelectric dam project. We have a little story about it here if you are interested.

    Exciting to see their work here – thank you!
    Amanda Sturgill, Elon University

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