The jungle crowds the river on both sides. The sun burns down on the back of my neck. Birds shriek and circle overhead. I swear I have seen this place before in the cinema.
Suddenly, the reassuring hum of the small outboard motor cuts out, replaced by the anxious splash of an improvised punting pole. The water rushes over the rocks, and the dugout canoe struggles to move up the rapids against the current. The young boy at the back drops the cut-off plastic bottle with which he has been bailing water and jumps overboard to push the boat upstream.
It is not enough.We are slowing to a stop.
Someone else needs to push. I put down my notebook, roll up my jeans and jump in.
Undoubtedly, wading upstream is not a mode of transport that will appeal to everyone. For that matter, the trip the wading formed part of will not appeal to everyone, either.
It is certainly a new experience, however, and new experiences are what traveling is all about.
Our destination is Yorkín, an indigenous Bribrí community on the Panamanian border, inland from the beaten-path beach town of Puerto Viejo on the southern Caribbean coast.
After about an hour and a half on the river, we pull into the bank and meet Guillermo Torres, 61, who leads us to our “albergue.” The thatched-roof, open-air wood construction has three bedrooms downstairs and a sleeping platform with mosquito-net tents and sleeping mats upstairs. Though each bedroom has its own bathroom, this is still very basic accommodation, with bare concrete floors and no connection to the solar panels that provide the primary source of electricity.
The center of the project is next door, where hearty and solidly típico meals are served up each day. In the evening it is a gathering point where people can talk and get to know each other, usually over a steaming mug of chocolate, and play the guitar as the darkness settles over the jungle.
However, this is not an idyllic rural paradise. Torres acknowledges that life here can be “very hard,” as the community receives almost no help from the government. Residents still grow traditional crops such as cocoa and bananas, but in 1996 they set up a tourism cooperative called Aventuras Naturales Yorkín, hoping that travelers looking for a truly authentic experience might offer a new source of income.
“We were looking for alternatives,” says Torres, who is the leader of the cooperative.
“The banana trade doesn’t bring in too much. “We don’t have enough visitors yet, but we hope that it will eventually benefit everyone in the community.”
Visitors to Yorkín are welcome to stay for any length of time, and there is a wide range of activities on offer. Those who like adventure can go hiking and horseback riding to see the forest and its wildlife firsthand.Guests can also learn and try out traditional hunting techniques, such as archery, and swim in the inviting waters of the YorkínRiver.
Alternatively, the more culturally minded can watch local artisans as they produce handmade jewelry, woven baskets and engraved gourds. You can learn about the community’s traditional agricultural industries, including the chance to see how chocolate is produced from the raw cacao pods that are grown locally, and then try the finished product.
All visitors, however, will be able to experience true cultural exchange. A stay at Yorkín will certainly help those trying to improve their Spanish, and those staying longer will be able to help local people to learn English. There is also the opportunity to learn some of the Bribrí language, which Torres acknowledges “has been lost a lot,” and even contribute to the culture’s longterm survival by documenting it.
The community genuinely seems to enjoy receiving visitors. The curiosity and friendliness of the local children is truly touching, and the adults are no less welcoming.
“I really like it,” says Elisa Vega, 25. “(Visitors) always like the place, the people and the culture, and they go away happy. It’s great.
“Also,we get volunteers who really get used to life here. They stay for a month or more, and you get to know them and they remember their time here. A lot call back regularly.”
This sort of rural tourism will not appeal to everyone. The community is very remote, accommodation is basic and communication is difficult for those who don’t speak Spanish.
However, the sense of doing something completely different is one of the main attractions. You simply cannot have this sort of cultural interaction at a traditional hotel.
If you are looking to get out of the comfort zone of the country’s traditional tourist destinations, Yorkín and rural tourism are definitely worth a look.
Getting There, Rates, Info
Tour operator Simbiosis Tours can organize transport to Bambú for groups. For those making their own way, Bambú is approximately half an hour from the town of Bribrí, inland from the beach town of Puerto Viejo. Bribrí is served by regular bus connections from San José, and a taxi or local bus can take you between Bribrí and Bambú.
A daytrip to Yorkín costs $60, including boat transport from Bambú, demonstrations of chocolate production and archery, a short hike and food. A two-day, one-night stay at Yorkín costs $70 per person, including boat transport from Bambú, a tour of the cacao and banana plantations, demonstrations of chocolate production and archery, a short hike and all food.
For information about longer stays and volunteer work, contact Aventuras Naturales Yorkín at 2200-5211, or Simbiosis Tours at 2290-8646, 2290-8651 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Simbiosis Tours also offers trips to many other rural destinations, including national parks, wildlife reserves and ecolodges throughout Costa Rica. For more information, visit www.turismoruralcr.com.