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The Mighty & Mysterious Maleku: Ghosts of Costa Rica

Updated on December 30, 2014
Maleku jewellery on the mysterious monkey head stump.
Maleku jewellery on the mysterious monkey head stump. | Source

Most of the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica have either been lost to history or assimilated into the modern culture— they love deep-fried plantains as much as Westerners love deep-fried potatoes! There is one native tribe with a dwindling population of around 600 though, and the story of how they survived the centuries is as rich as the coast itself!


The strong and resilient Maleku were never conquered by the colonizing Spanish; instead they stuck to the shadows like ninjas of the rainforest and fought only when it was necessary to defend their territory. They evaded Spanish rule and preserved their proud culture well into the nineteenth century. Although, the fact that they weren’t originally colonized means that we had no chance to learn about them and study them before modernization of the region. This is what makes them so mysterious.

Unfortunately, in the late 1800’s, the Maleku fell prey to the rubber trade and they never really bounced back. Deforestation threatened their native homeland – the rubber tree was heavily relied upon by this tribe – and they even faced armed rubber tappers looking to invade and gather natural rubber for car tires and bouncy balls! Much of their history, as well as our chances of getting to properly know them, vanished without a trace for naught but the profit of some greedy and near-sighted men.

Modern Day Maleku Village
Modern Day Maleku Village | Source

In order to avoid being wiped out entirely, the Maleku formed a bond with Catholic missionaries who offered protection and guidance. While this may have saved the tribe from complete annihilation, it also lead to their deculturation and assimilation into the colonized economy. The Catholics helped the tribe with tools, resources and weapons, and protected them physically and politically; but they also encouraged the Maleku to grow and trade crops and enter the global economy, which was basically just a clever form of colonization. The Maleku changed their diet and started living as farmers.

Maleku indigenous reserve. "This used to be a jungle, now it's a farm." - Photographer
Maleku indigenous reserve. "This used to be a jungle, now it's a farm." - Photographer | Source

Also important to the Maleku is the Arenal Volcano National Park, which is home to the most active volcano in Costa Rica; the Maleku consider the Volcano to be sacred. You can visit the park and hike right up the side of the volcano, feasting your eyes upon the spectacular view of the landscape below as well as the beautiful scenery of hot lagoons and tropical everything!

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica. Oct 15, 2009.
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica. Oct 15, 2009. | Source

A lot of misinformation exists on the internet about the Maleku; I recommend a first-hand experience. So what are you waiting for? Get out there yourself if you want to unlock the secrets of this mighty and mysterious People!


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