San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Little Devils’ Game’ honors Boruca past

See more photos from the Little Devils’ Game


BORUCA, Puntarenas – Paint splotches Julio César Maroto’s bare chest. His long black hair has been straightened and drops down to his waist. Maroto remarks on the giant tree that his people hid in when the Spaniards overran Costa Rica 500 years ago. He fits on a mask and poses with old friends.  

He feels rejuvenated, the relief of returning to a land that’s familiar.

For the last seven years, Maroto has worked in landscaping in the northeast United States. Before New Year’s Eve, he always makes a pilgrimage home to the indigenous village of Boruca, in the mountains of the Southern Zone, to join in his community’s most important tradition, the “Juego de los Diablitos” (Little Devils’ Game).

“The most important thing for us is the defense of our culture. Our fight to conserve what they wanted to take away from us,” said Maroto, 34, referring to both Christopher Columbus and present-day encroachments.

Village members say the tradition began soon after Spanish conquistadors massacred the region. The game serves as an alternative history, where Latin America’s Spanish conquerors, represented by a bull, combat Boruca tribe members dressed as devils in intricate wooden masks and outfits made of burlap and banana leaves. The bull consists of a hefty square burlap costume, with a head and dangling tail.

In this telling – which draws the entire 2,500-member village and a few hundred tourists in a three-day performance that includes dancing, the drinking of alcoholic chicha (corn beer), little sleep and a fight to the death – the Boruca defeat the invading Europeans. Nicanor Lázaro, a village elder, begins the festival Dec. 30 at midnight by blowing into a conch shell. The performance ends on Jan. 2 with the burning of the bull. 

“It inspires me,” said Ana María Sánchez, 45. “The ceremony is an important source for all of Boruca.”

Anyone can watch videos online of the “battles” occurring around the village. Aggressive horseplay, motivated by ladles of chicha and thick stews cooked by Boruca women, has the bull sending diablitos tumbling into ditches and leaving participants with gashes. Tribe members post photos of their masks of boar heads or devilish beings on Facebook.

Technology has brought more attention to this small terrain up in the hills and its unique New Year’s tradition. Improvements in the country’s infrastructure have given the Boruca better access to medical care, a tourism-based economy instead of agriculture, and faster routes to San José. Almost nobody knows the native language anymore, preferring Spanish.

But many Borucas do not venture too far from their roots. They, like Maroto, express gratification in the festival. The experience has undergone its own progression.

Artists create more detailed headwear including feathers and carvings of jungle animals, mixing them with more traditional, and less marketable, masks that often are colorless and display visages of impish creatures with gnarly fangs. The last two festivals included ancestral spirit costumes. The spirits exist in the old narrative, but only recently have the Boruca made these elaborate characters active participants in the game. 

The organization itself has improved. Pica Lockwoood, a U.S. citizen who lives in California, did Peace Corps work in Boruca from 1991 to 1997 and eventually married one of the tribe members. Lockwood, 44, has not missed a Juego de los Diablitos in 21 years. She came even during the years her husband couldn’t visit. 

Lockwood and her husband, Aníbal Maroto, lamented certain changes away from tradition that “are not easy to accept,” but considered it for the best, since the roots of the festival remain.

“In one way it’s better now, the costumes are more interesting,” said Lockwood, who was accompanied by their infant child. “They used to be very simple. There seems to be more indigenous pride than when I first saw it in 1991.” 

In the mid-1990s, Lockwood started the festival committee that helps ensure money from tourists goes to the community. The committee sells “rights” ($10) to take photos at the event, and hosts a dance party. 

Harold Rojas, 23, who spends the year studying for a degree in sustainable tourism in San José, assisted the committee. When he was 12, Rojas told his mother he wanted to learn English, and he’s one of the few that speak it in Boruca. He hopes to bring more regulation to the growing tourism industry in the village. 

Rojas labors until 6 a.m., cleaning up trash around the village before the festival’s final battle. In the evening, he dawns his diablito mask. Curly tresses hang from the front of the mask, cut from Rojas’ head after he let his hair grow for two years. 

In the middle of town, he meets other Borucas, who are sufficiently drunk to overcome their exhaustion. They stagger toward the bull. Those waiting their turn to put on the bull costume stand to the side, inhaling cigarettes in black tank tops. With the diablitos facing near defeat, the ancestral spirits help kill the bull. 

A celebration begins. Diablitos leap through the bonfire, yanking the bull’s smoldering remains through the crowd. Some try to sell their masks. In Spanish and English, the players thank the tourists for coming. 

The festival’s energy stirs Borucas, who see the ritual as more than just a remembrance of the past. As their world expands, the diablitos emphasize a rich culture that has persevered through thousands of years.

 “It’s my support,” Maroto said. “It keeps me going every year.”

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