El Juego de Los Diablitos
The Game of the Little Devils
If you follow me on Instagram, then you probably saw that I did something a little different to celebrate the new year this year.
To bring in 2017, I went to El Juego de los Diablitos festival in Boruca.
Boruca is an indigenous reservation located 4-5 hours south of San Jose, about an hour and a half outside of the city of Buenos Aires. The Boruca tribe is one of the 8 indigenous groups that remain in Costa Rica, and was one of the first indigenous groups established in the country. Today, the group has about 3,000 members, most of whom live on the reservation. The Boruca group traditionally spoke their own indigenous language but now, according to the host family that I stayed with, there is only one living person on the reservation who can speak their native tongue fluently. Kinda sad right? Although the Boruca people are known for many of their crafts, they are specifically famous for their masks that are made for El Juego de los Diablitos.
So, these Diablitos…
For over 500 years the Boruca people have held the annual Juego de Los Diablitos festival which represents the attempted (and failed) conquest of the Boruca tribe by the Spanish in the 1500s. I know right? The Spanish are still getting heat for that loss. Never forget.
The 3-day festival starts on December 31 and finishes, with it’s biggest day, on January 2.
During the festival, hombres (men only) from the community dress up as warriors (representing Boruca) and travel from house to house in the community fighting the oddly-shaped bull (representing the Spanish). On January 1 the battles begin at 9am and end at 6pm. The second day, the battles begin around 10am and finish, with the final battle in the center of the town and the burning of the bull, at 8pm.
Spectators and local community members travel along with the group, observing the battles, and enjoying chicha which is served at every house.
Chicha is a fermented, alcoholic drink made from ground corn, water, and sugar cane. YUM. As someone so bluntly and accurately described it, this prison wine is tart, dry, slightly carbonated, and a little grainy. If you take a pair of sweaty, damp socks and shove them into a jar of kombucha overnight, then wring them out in the morning, you might end up with something that tastes like chicha.
Ok ok ok I wasn’t a fan of the chicha but it’s a symbolic part of the tradition. The men, spectators, women…ok everyone drinks chicha throughout the day, as it resembles the energy and fuerza (strength) of the warriors and the celebratory aspect of triumphing over the bull (the Spanish conquistadors).
So chicha definitely wasn’t my thing but the masks were on point.
Traditionally, the Boruca men make masks to celebrate and participate in the festival each year. Over the past few years, the artists have tried to grow the production of their masks in hopes of 1) generating more income for the community 2) creating jobs for younger men and encouraging them to stay in the community instead of moving to the city. So far, their efforts have been successful and these masks have become a signature piece of Costa Rica and can be found throughout the entire country.
The artists that create the masks have preserved the traditional method, using local wood and limited tools. I’m no carpenter so I don’t know anything about tool names but, these guys were only using a piece of wood for a hammer and a chizzle thing. A mask like the ones below, usually take over 30 hours to create!
So, what was my overall take on Boruca and El Juego de Los Diablos?
While like anything really there are ups (the masks) and downs (the chicha), but I very much enjoyed my experience and highly recommend attending El Juego de Los Diablitos, especially on January 2 when the final battle takes place…
El Juego de Los Diablitos was by far one one of the most fascinating experiences I have encountered yet here in Costa Rica. The vibrant colors, rooted culture and historical significance of this event make it one of a kind, especially in a country where indigenous influence is limited and confined.
To me, Boruca represented a pure, untouched form of Costa Rica, where people embody trust, friendship, dedication, pride, and happiness — the true pura vida lifestyle.
Just watch out for that chicha…