Boruca Masks and the Little Devils Festival

A pair of colorful and intricately carved Boruca masks with large teeth and devilish features.
Boruca masks are carved out of balsa or cedar. Photo © Andrés Madrigal/Costa Rica Traveler.

Every year, the Boruca people in south-central Costa Rica enact a centuries-old ritual representing the clash between their indigenous ancestors and the invading Spaniards. During the Balle de los Diablitos, the diablitos (little devils) are dressed in elaborate hand-carved and painted balsa wood masks that often have extensions of jute and banana leaves that cover the reveler’s body. The devils do mock battle with the toro (bull), which represents the invading conquistadors.

The festival begins the night of December 30, with village church bells ringing out the old year. Drummers and flautists accompany the dancers, and the action heats up as participants and onlookers imbibe more and more chicha (fermented corn liquor). The days-long dance traces the evolving interaction between the bull and the diablitos. First the diablitos taunt the bull, but the bull gains ground and eventually “kills” the little devils. But the devils rise from the dead and throw the bull (represented by his costume) into a roaring fire. The fiesta culminates as the devils leap across the flames in celebration of their enemy’s demise.

Masked Dance of the Little Devils festival of the indgenous Boruca of Costa Rica.
The Dance of the Little Devils. Photo © Andrés Madrigal/Costa Rica Traveler.

This is one of the rare examples of living indigenous heritage in Costa Rica, though visitors to the festival give mixed reports: some say it was the highlight of their trip; others feel the community is not particularly welcoming. If you go, be respectful, and ask before you take photos.

The small town where this all happens is called Rey Curre, near a town called Boruca located within the Boruca Indegenous Reserve. It’s on the Inter-American Highway about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Buenos Aires and about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of San Isidro de El General. Visitors can purchase authentic Boruca masks from indigenous artists year-round within the Boruca Indigenous Reserve, or in art galleries around the country.

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