The Boruca, Bribrí, Chorotega and Maleku are just four of nine indigenous ethnic groups represented through their arts and crafts in Ellen’s Gift Shop, on the main road in Nuevo Arenal. Situated halfway between Tilarán and La Fortuna, the town is one of the tourist magnets of north-central Costa Rica.
Adjacent to the famous German Bakery, the new shop and indigenous culture center is the latest attraction on the northeastern side of the country’s largest manmade lake, Arenal, in an area where archeologists have found the oldest traces of indigenous cultures in all of Tiquicia.
“With this center, I want to offer an alternative to common marketing concepts,” says German owner and creator Ellen Baron, 41. “Tourists have told me they sometimes feel deceived about the true origin of souvenirs, so I’m not selling mass-produced goods, neither from Asia nor Nicaragua. Instead, I’m offering clients looking for handmade and genuine items Costa Rican souvenirs with a real background in the culture of this country.”
Baron, a former florist, landscaper and passionate traveler, inaugurated the center in October, nine years after she and her partner Thomas Pferner arrived in Costa Rica.
Erected on the southern side of the bakery and deli/café, which is owned and operated by Pferner, Baron’s inviting store attracts clients with eye-catching replicas of pre- Columbian sculptures, colorful postcards, mobiles and murals painted by Baron. One mural is an informative map of Costa Rica, showing the locations of the indigenous reserves, while another depicts Paracas, the pre-Columbian god of development.
What is apparent throughout the place is Baron’s attention to detail. Handmade, colorful wooden signs inform customers about the numerous services offered at the center, and the customized restrooms are decorated with murals and photographs from Baron’s trips all over the world.
The building’s construction materials include stone, wood, bamboo and wild sugarcane. The shop offers a representative cross section of indigenous creativity and craftsmanship: Chorotega pottery, Boruca masks and woven textiles, Quitirrisí basketry, organically grown Bribrí chocolate, and Maleku carved and painted gourds, musical instruments and bows and arrows.
Unique are machetes constructed for the left-handed, organically grown coffee packed in calabashes, jewelry and hand-rolled cigars made in Costa Rica. Last, but not least, the shop features artwork by artists and painters from the lake area. Road maps, new and used books in English and German, The Tico Times and the Exploring Costa Rica guidebook are all for sale here. DHL and international mail services are also available.
Baron, a petite, energetic woman, is in personal contact with all her suppliers, and has visited indigenous communities around the country that produce souvenirs from natural materials. In a world defined by change and globalization, Costa Rica’s indigenous people have been forced to integrate into the national market. Crafts that revive traditional techniques have helped them define their identity in relation to other cultural groups and have allowed them to remain in some of their ancestral territories, says the multilingual Baron.
“There are about 67,000 indigenous Costa Ricans living in 22 reserves scattered across the country,” she says. “Due to the remoteness of many villages, inadequate education and health care are the biggest problems.
Some indigenous are so poor, they can make only two or three pieces at one time. A percentage of the profits achieved in my shop goes toward funding for public schools in the villages where the crafts are made.”
Elisabeth Castro, 39, member of the Maleku indigenous group, lives with her husband and five children in the Guatuso Indigenous Reserve. About an hour’s drive northeast of Nuevo Arenal, the reserve is divided into three communities with a total of 600 inhabitants.
“I’m proud to be an indigenous woman,” says Castro, who, in accordance with Maleku tradition, was born in the jungle under a tree. “The schooling of our five children is expensive, so we are very grateful that Ellen helps us to market our products.”
During the interview, Castro wears traditional Maleku garb made of mastate, a fiber extracted from the milk tree (Brosimum utile), sacred to the Maleku. Through a complicated, time-consuming process, they transform the tree’s thick bark into sand-colored, waterproof blankets. The gift shop stocks some of the rare mastate costumes, and Castro plans to produce and present Maleku crafts in the center next year.
“I want to show that beautiful gifts can be made of natural materials, and I tell my customers exactly what they are buying,” says Baron, whose souvenirs come with an identification of their origin.
“It’s not true that there is no grown culture here,” she adds. “It’s just a lack of recognition and support of the indigenous minority.”
Ellen’s Gift Shop is open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To get there, follow the bakery’s colorful, multilingual street signs at either entrance to Nuevo Arenal. For information or to make a reservation for a trip to the Maleku village, call Baron at 694-4582, or email email@example.com.