Central America and the Dominican Republic: ancestral roots, customs, living languages and folklore

The region of Central America and the Dominican Republic is home to more than 60 indigenous peoples, who represent nearly 20% of the total population. Their multiculturalism and ethnic diversity provide a unique richness, both in terms of their historical legacy and the preservation of their territories and cultural identity. Past and present coexist through ancestral customs and traditions, gastronomy and the living languages of the indigenous peoples.

The cultural and ethnic diversity of the indigenous peoples that inhabit Central America and the Dominican Republic give the region a unique and incomparable richness. The more than 60 indigenous peoples represent nearly 20% of the total of the Central American region. Most of them occupy land and marine areas of the Isthmus, where more than 60% of the region’s natural ecosystems and biodiversity are protected, contributing with their practices to keep true paradises intact.
Today, there are several examples where you can discover these peoples, their ancestral roots, customs, living languages, gastronomy and folklore throughout Central America and the Dominican Republic.

Guatemala: heart of the Mayan world

With more than half of its population indigenous, Guatemala is a multiethnic and multicultural society. In fact, it is the Central American country with the largest number of ethnic groups: 24 in total. In addition, its linguistic richness is reflected in the 22 Mayan languages spoken by more than four million indigenous Guatemalans, such as Achií, Akateco, Awakateco, Chalchiteco, Jacalteco, Kaqchikel, K’iche’, Sakapulteco or Uspanteko, among others.

The Mayan culture is latent throughout the country. For example, in the Altiplano area, visitors can discover the traditions, languages, the colorful clothing different in each ethnic group, the vibrant markets or its rich gastronomy, transmitted from generation to generation, and even delve into their deep-rooted beliefs, based on the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas.

In addition to this pre-Columbian ethnic group, the country is also home to the Xinka and Garifuna peoples, the latter located mainly in Livingston, in the Guatemalan Caribbean, who are descendants of the first Africans to arrive on its coast.

Belize: symbiosis of Mayan and Creole culture

The small Central American country surprises the visitor by the symbiosis of different cultures, thanks to its historical past and the various ethnic groups that arrived and were inhabiting their territories. Two of those that have clearly marked the identity of the country are the Mayans and the Creoles. Today, the three largest and most representative groups in Belize are the Creoles, the Maya-Kekchi, Maya-Mopan and Garifuna.

There are several places in the country where modern culture coexists perfectly with the traditions and rituals of the past. One of the examples is found in the Toledo district, where Mayan life pulsates today.

On the coast, the Garífunas show all the beauty of the mestizaje of the Africans with the American Indians. This curious fusion is manifested with all its strength through their dances, music and religious rituals and in the flavors of their gastronomy, with a marked Caribbean character with ingredients such as coconut, cassava or fish.

The richness of these peoples is also shown in the variety of their languages. In Belize, in addition to Belizean Creole and English, Mayan languages, Arawak, Garifuna and Plautdietsch, the language of the Mennonites who began to settle on the island in the 1950s, among other languages, are spoken.

Panama: perfect coexistence of past and present

Panama is a land full of contrasts, where the modernity of its capital coexists perfectly with the communities of the seven indigenous peoples that inhabit it: the Ngäbe, the Buglé, the Guna, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Bri bri, and the Naso Tjërdi.

Thus, for example, we can find the Gunas who reside mainly in the region of Guna Yala-formerly known as San Blas-and who maintain their traditions, language and cultural identity deeply rooted. In addition, they are faithful guardians and protectors of their territory, surrounded by countless virgin beaches, preserving them as authentic earthly paradises.

Another of Panama’s main indigenous ethnic groups are the Embera, originally from the Darien Region, in the far east of the country, and who in recent years have been moving their communities to the basins of the Chagres and Gatun rivers, open to visitors to show them their way of life and customs and learn how they keep their roots alive.

Dominican Republic: the kingdom of Taino culture

Although today, the Dominican Republic is a cradle of races and cultures, the Taino heritage is still very present throughout the country. The Taino-Arawak were the first inhabitants of the Dominican Republic who settled before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish. The Tainos had multiple kingdoms, each ruled by a chief or cacique, and coexisted peacefully.

Today, the spirit of the Tainos is still very much alive in the national idiosyncrasy. From the legacy of this pre-Columbian culture, which can be discovered in different museums of the country, such as the Museum of the Dominican Man in Santo Domingo or the Regional Archaeological Museum Altos de Chavón, to the gastronomy, such as the delicious cassava cassava, present in many typical Dominican dishes.

Nicaragua: living history through ethnic diversity

Spread throughout the country, a total of seven indigenous peoples inhabit the lands of Nicaragua: the Chortega, the Matagalpa, the Ocanxiu and the Nahuatl, who have historically been located between the Pacific coast and the central north, and the Sumu Mayangna, Rama and Mískitu peoples, who live on the Atlantic coast.

Precisely the latter, located in the transboundary territory between northern Nicaragua and southern Honduras, is the largest indigenous people of the Caribbean Coast.

On the other hand, there are the Creole and Garifuna peoples, referred to as “Ethnic Communities” and recognized with collective rights as descendants of the African slaves who arrived in Nicaragua and were received and integrated by some of the communities.

Costa Rica: active preservation of its territories

Costa Rica is working to preserve the indigenous territories and cultures of its peoples. There are currently 23 indigenous territories inhabited by eight different groups: the Maleku, the Bribri, the Cabécar, the Borucas, the Térraba, the Chorotega, the Huetár and the Ngäbe.

The Ngäbes are, in fact, the most numerous people of southern Central America, also present in Panama.

Honduras: multi-ethnic and pluricultural country

The indigenous ethnic groups make up a large part of the Honduran cultural heritage, still in force today and inhabiting different regions of the country with their own customs, languages and culture. Among them are the Lenca, Maya-Chorti, Tawahka, Pech, Mískitu and Nahuatl peoples, as well as Afro-descendant groups such as the Creoles and Garífunas.

Groups such as the Tawahka live from the practice of itinerant subsistence agriculture, while others are more settled, such as the Lenca, the most numerous people, located in La Paz, Comayagua, Intibucá, Lempira and Santa Bárbara.

El Salvador: Mayan heritage still present

Today, the original peoples still living in El Salvador are the Lenca, the Cacaopera and the Nahuapipil, all of them descendants of the Mayas. These peoples celebrate this indigenous peoples’ ephemeris with a ritual in which they thank the sacred fire for the crops of that year. Floral offerings, cocoa and corn are also made to the elders of each tribe.

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