Visiting La Casona: An Indigenous Reserve

In less than one week, one of my closest PCV friends Evan will complete his service and leave Costa Rica.

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It’s a bittersweet thing. On one hand, I’m happy and excited for him to start the next chapter of his life and on the other, I’m selfishly sad to be losing a nearby neighbor and friend.

But as we say goodbye to Tico 29, the group of volunteers that will COS (close of service) in May, we welcome in a new group of Community Economic Development Volunteers, Tico 33, that will graduate from PST (pre-service training) and head to their respective sites in mid-May.

They have some big shoes to fill.

Shoes like Evan’s, a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) volunteer who spent the last two years working and living in the indigenous reserve La Casona.

La Casona is an indigenous community located in southern Costa Rica that was established just 2 generations ago by the father of the current cacique (chief).

The community is home to the Ngäbe people who are indigenous, or native, to Panama and Costa Rica and while the majority of them live in the Western Panamanian provinces there are also five indigenous territories in southwestern Costa Rica. One of them being La Casona.

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La Casona is about 2.5 hours from my site, Fila Naranjo

Indigenous communities in Costa Rica follow rules and laws unique to their territory and a number of them face challenges related to food, work, and clean water security, including:

  • Limited employment opportunities
  • Poverty and dependenence on government funding
  • Isolation from other areas and cities
  • Dependence on agriculture and seasonal crops for income
  • Low education levels
  • Limited access to clean water

While these issues are widespread throughout rural Costa Rica, they are frequently found in many indigenous territories.

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So what does this mean for PCVs that serve in indigenous communities?

All PCVs face their own challenges during their 2-year service, but some of those that serve in indigenous sites can oftentimes have challenges that are, I guess a little more intensified.

While each Peace Corps experience is unique, issues with gender roles, isolation, and lack of resources are fairly common in indigenous sites.

In a country like Costa Rica, where every region and every site is completely different, I knew I wanted to visit La Casona. So off I went to see Evan’s world.

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Bienvenidos = Welcome

When I arrived in La Casona, one of the first things I noticed was the dresses that the women wore. Since the 1960s, the Ngäbe women have worn these short-sleeved full-length dresses called naguas. Every dress was made from the same fabric with the same geometric design and only differed by color.

The zigzag pattern called “dientes” (teeth) is worn on every dress and is said to serve as a symbol for an old Ngäbe tale. The tale tells a story of a woman, an ama de casa (housewife), that one day decided to leave her kitchen and after she left her house, a giant serpent came and ate her.

The zigzag pattern worn on the women’s dresses represents the teeth of the serpent.

I know…

Many Ngäbe women are timid and very reserved. They walk with their heads down, rarely smile or show affection (in public at least), and oftentimes do not return a greeting or goodbye.

But I don’t want to generalize because that’s not all Ngäbe women. Some indigenous women and men who have had more exposure to outside communities and different cultures are more open and welcoming to outsiders.

I was lucky enough to be invited to lunch by Evan’s neighbors, a very friendly family who greeted us with open arms and lively conversation. Here, for the first time, I experienced drinking cacao, a traditional beverage made from cacao fruit.

Making this cacao drink is a process. After the fruit is ripe and picked from the tree, the sweet white coating that covers the seeds is sucked off and eaten and then the seeds are dried in the sun. After they are dried, the seeds are toasted and then ground into a paste. The paste is mixed and boiled with water and once the fatty oil from the seeds rises to the top, the cacao is ready to drink.

Cacao fruit (left) #babyhands and seeds with the sweet white coating (right)

Pure cacao drink made from toasted cacao. It was oily, earthy, and delicious! Cacao!

After a typical lunch of cooked meat and rice, Evan and I headed off to walk around La Casona.

One of the amazing things about indigenous territories is the fairly untouched and protected terrain. We walked around for hours exploring the beautiful mountains and rivers.

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And bridges…

La Comunidad / The Community

The community of La Casona is sort of set up like a campground. Families and their extended family live together in barrios (neighborhoods) or clusters of houses in small circular lots that are off the main road. Some of the lots can be seen but many of them require walking through the woods on a trail to get there.

A “barrio” of 4 houses

Like Evan’s house. To get to his house we had to walk through the woods on a small path and then came out on the other end of what felt like a secret community tucked away behind a forest.

It made me realize how isolated it could feel living in a place like La Casona, where people and houses aren’t easily accessible. And when everyone else is living with their family, you can’t help but to feel like an outsider.

Luckily, Evan has had Tom by his side for this crazy ride.

Tom, Evan’s cat, after he got back from the vet with a sore toe. He’s not happy about the cone.

La Escuela / The School

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The library and a classroom

There are around 200 students that attend the colegio (high school) and 150 students that attend la escuela (the elementary school). During Evan’s service, he taught English at both the elementary and high school. While the majority of students in both schools are from the indigenous reserve, there are some surrounding communities that send children to the schools that are not part of the reserve.

El Colegio / The High School

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One of Evan’s biggest projects in his site was painting a world map on the wall of the local high school. PCVs from nearby sites traveled and stayed in La Casona to help with the mural and community members also helped. A local woman painted the traditional naguas dress on the left and on the right is a traditional bag that many Ngäbe men use.

After the mural was painted, a community member asked what the “shapes” where on the wall. In rural areas like La Casona where there isn’t much exposure or discussion involving international issues, a mural painting can be a great opportunity  for both children and adults to learn more about the world. My brother Jake also did one when he served in the Peace Corps.

Acting like I had something to do with this project.


After visiting La Casona, I realized how different and unique each Peace Corps Volunteer’s service is. Just 2.5 hours away, in the same country and region, Evan is living in a completely different world than I am.

I know that the past two years have been difficult (and that’s putting it lightly) for Evan in La Casona.  Feelings of isolation, working with a different culture, and having a purpose in his community were a common, if not daily, struggle.

But the ability to persevere through these challenges has provided Evan, and every PCV, with the gift of resiliency and an immeasurable amount of personal growth.

With just a short week away from successfully completing his Peace Corps service, Evan will say goodbye to La Casona and start the next chapter of his life. And he will be ready to face whatever the world throws at him and whatever comes his way.

Cause Evan, you’re a badass. You made it. The dirty south of Costa Rica will miss you.

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Ole Sandbags is gunna miss ya.

3 thoughts on “Visiting La Casona: An Indigenous Reserve

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