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The Chorotega – one of the many indigenous tribes that once settled in and inhabited Costa Rica.

Long before Columbus arrived in 1502, they called the Costa Rican territory their home, where they lived in many small villages. Originally from Mexico, the Chorotega people settled in Southern Nicaragua and in Costa Rica, to escape warfare in their place of origin. Back then, they spoke Mangue, an Oto-Manguean Mexican language, and carried on warfare with neighbouring peoples, which they fought with bow and arrow, and wooden swords equipped with flint knives. Known as courageous warriors, they also defended themselves against the Spanish rulers invading their territory, ultimately falling victim to slave trade. During the colonial period, the Chorotega language and culture have almost vanished completely. For example, their semi-democratic social structure used to include the election of a chief. Corn played an important role within their culture, as it could be found in the common diet, customs and art. Nowadays, just some customs and traditions survived, one of those being the production of ceramic pottery and figurines, that Costa Rica is now famous for.

Today, the Chorotega communities are centred on Nicoya Peninsula in the province of Guanacaste, in Northwestern Costa Rica. The authentic, traditional ceramic pottery is still produced in the villages of Guitil (near Santa Cruz) and San Vicente. Here, it gained major importance for the communities as a source of income and providing a way of keeping old traditions and cultural heritage alive by producing the pottery in the same way as they did for several hundred years. The selling of the pieces and providing workshops to teach this special skill to visitors, are directly supporting the communities and it helps to enrich this indigenous legacy. The art of transforming clay into unique handmade artwork includes a very complex method that has been passed down from generation to generation. The pieces were originally used within daily life, like pots, mugs or bowls, but also music instruments and decorative figures were formed – some were also found to be used within religious rituals. It indicates how important this ancient art was, being present in every aspect of life! Therefore, they developed precise techniques and work of preparing and transforming the material into the desired, oven-baked end product, which was then painted with natural colours derived from earth. The pre-Colombian artistic style pottery includes distinctive elements and motifs, influenced by ancient civilizations of the Maya’s and Aztecs – all these influences make it such a rich and unique legacy that the tribal communities nowadays try to maintain. The government supports this by providing pictures and templates of original artefacts, so some of the pieces are recreations of the ancestor’s archaeological objects that were discovered. However, there are many imitations and copies produced and sold to tourists, outside Guitil and San Vicente. The production often consists of a way easier, less complex process and steps, and the colour range is more diverse – originally, the pieces were only painted with red, white and black, the so-called ‘original three’.

The touristic attention and frequent visitors are nowadays playing an important role for the tribal communities to preserve and enhance what is left of their cultural heritage. Selling their beautifully handmade pottery and providing workshops for tourists to learn all about the historical background and traditional art of ceramic, as well as working with the clay themselves, is empowering the Chorotega people and their cultural conservation in many ways! Hence, it is important as a visitor to pay attention to a sustainable, respectful way of approaching this tribe and their cultural heritage.

To learn more in detail about the complex process of creating the pottery artwork and the Chorotega’s history, please find more information via the following sources:

World Travel Guide: Should we visit indigenous communities?

Spanish schools in Costa Rica: Preserving the Chorotega pottery heritage

Costa Rica Monkey Tours: The Guatil pottery village of Guanacaste

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