San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Maleku Restaurant Crafts Cultural Tourism

A burgeoning new cultural center near Arenal Volcano is providing an incentive for cultural preservation for an indigenous group facing high unemployment and the rapid decline of its ancestral language and culture.

About a kilometer south of La Fortuna in north-central Costa Rica, the Maleku restaurant and cultural center is a multifaceted project organized by the Maleku indigenous group and cultural organization Kaoranh Ú Tocuf, which means “our big house” in the Maleku language.

Founded in January, the center features Maleku dance, drum and cultural presentations and a restaurant serving traditional indigenous, Costa Rican and international fare. Visitors can tour the butterfly garden, frog exhibit, tombs, botanical garden of medicinal plants and an organic vegetable garden.

The restaurant’s interior and exterior teem with colorful painted traditional art, including masks, drums, rain sticks, bow and arrow sets and woven bags. Painted rain sticks depict tropical fauna with their names in Maleku.

According to Maleku artisan Kanherreu, each of the carved masks has a meaning: The jaguar represents “the man who loves nature”; the blue morpho butterfly represents love; and the toucan represents woman’s inner and outer beauty.

Sales of these pieces, hand-carved from bamboo, balsa and jícara (the hardened shell of the fruit of the same name), provide the main source of income for several families on the Maleku reservation.

“We survive on our artisanal production,” says performer and artisan Turriminh.

The restaurant offers a wide-ranging menu, including Pollo Maleku (¢2,500/$4.50) and Mafuriceka (¢3,000/$5.50), whole fried fish seasoned with an herb known as kuinonh.

Also available are the traditional alcoholic drinks (¢800/$1.50) of machaka, made from fermented ripe plantain, corn, peach palm or manioc, and chicha, made from fermented pineapple, ginger and tapa dulce, or brown sugar. The light, sparkly drink is served in a pupa, a small, carved wooden cup. A delicious casado with grilled chicken, fresh vegetables from the on-site organic garden and a fabulous papaya picadillo with ground beef and pork costs ¢2,500 ($4.50).

After dinner, drumbeats from outside turn visitors’ attention to the doorway, through which the performers enter and begin to circle the room. The songs, interpretation and performance are in Maleku, translated to English or Spanish by Koren Vela-Vela, manager of the restaurant and cultural center. The performance has a strong environmental message: to protect the Earth and its creatures from destruction at the hands of humans and to be grateful for the gifts of nature.

“The performance is from times past, passed from generation to generation, that we always maintain. It is something real,” says performer Tonji.

The center also offers tours from La Fortuna to Palenque Margarita on the Maleku reservation, about 40 kilometers north of La Fortuna. Visitors can spend two to four days at a ranch and lodge called Kaoranh Upala, which means “big house.” The group also organizes a four-day guided Maleku Survival Tour, a canoe tour on the nearby Río Frío that incorporates physical and spiritual challenges in the wild. Participants sleep on the riverbank, watch for birds, crocodiles and lizards, and catch their own food, “Survivor” style.

The cultural show is presented every two hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., for a minimum of five people. The price is $20 per person for the show only, $30 including lunch or dinner and $40 including a tour of the archaeological site, frog garden, butterfly garden and botanical garden. A visit to the Maleku village in the reservation costs $65 per person.

The four-day Maleku Survival Tour is $500. For information, call 2479-9786, 2479-7675 or 8361-8242, or e-mail


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