Escazú: The Folklore Guardian

I know Halloween is over! But it's hard for me to accept how underestimated this celebration has become. I love monsters and everything related, so I did a quest to find where Ghouls, Ghosts and Witches hide after the trick or treating candy-hangover is over. The best place to start is Escazú; commonly known as the "City of Witches".

My first childhood memories come from a small neighbourhood in Escazú. My first friends, my first kiss, sleepovers, playing street baseball, hide and seek and what not. It was a time, a different time, where socializing was all about sharing with friends. All the neighbours used to organize street parties, BBQ's, fireworks and get-togethers in general; the streets came to life and we kids had an excuse to stay up later at night.

Back in the day, we didn't have any tall walls or razor-wire fencing. On the left my old house and down the street, the house with the parked car on the left used to live the girl I first kissed.

We always had these weird adventures; even with the smallest plan, something always came up. From riding our bikes to buy ice cream, find fruit trees, to looking for abandoned houses. I loved to go inside abandoned houses and find "treasures", worthless junk that previous owners had left behind; I saw those objects with great value, as they might have been useful to someone at some point, or cherished by someone until they got lost.

I was introduced to adrenaline when I was very young; that rush of entering a forbidden place or to not know what you might encounter when entering these crumbling places. I remember getting a good scare twice; the first one, we heard a telephone ringing somewhere in one of the abandoned houses we used to frequent...we couldn't find it! And exploring outside the house, we saw some of the tall weeds rustling and moving, like if someone was lurking on us, we obviously ran like crazy out of the place. The second one, we entered the same place with more courage and tried to find out what the sounds in between the tall weeds were. I lie to you not, I saw a human distorted figure moving super fast in between the weeds. That was the last time we entered that "haunted house".

The street that leads to the "Haunted House", which is now a closed small apartment. I also had my first bike accident riding down this small street.

 That haunted house became famous between us kids and one night, at one of our parents street-BBQ we were welcoming a new kid on the block, he was at least 3 or 4 years older than the rest of us in the neighbourhood, so we looked up to him. We gave him the tour around "our" street; and took him in front of the haunted house while telling him the scary moments we had witnessed. He replied:

"...Whom you saw, might've been "Zarate the Witch" (the most famous Witch in Escazú); shaped like a woman but with bird legs"

We stood stiff cold, it was our first time listening to stories about old Escazú and its Witches, he was older than us, so we had to believe everything.

Escazú or previously know as "Itzkatzu" was the original name given by its indigenous inhabitants. It was a famous resting stop for other pre-Columbian hikers that came from long distances throughout the tallest hills in Escazú. This mountain range was home for one of the oldest populations in Costa Rica, even before San José itself. Hills like "Cerro Pico Blanco", "Cerro San Miguel" and "Cerro Rabo de Mico" are the most famous to have held great mysteries, and they all gather meeting places for magical creatures who guarded medicinal plant crops.

Going up the Escazú mountain range. They still seem to have crops where once they used to grow medicinal herbs. This ancient soil kept its supernatural powers.

Just like my adrenaline-filled adventures hunting for haunted houses when I was a kid, I decided it was time for me to lurk around the hiding dwell of the "Zarate Witch" and maybe find the resting place for some of the banshees and other ghosts that used to (or still?) roam Escazú.

I was impressed by how quickly it took me to get from a busy city out to the mountains. There are incredible unimaginable views of infinite colour schemes just a few minutes from San José. The Escazú mountains still have the typical Costa Rican way of life, hard-working farmers and herdsmen, this is obvious when you see old men walking with rubber boots, machete and a large "yute" sack (natural fibre bag). The landscapes revealed where they worked the crops and this was the hint I needed to help me notice I was on the right track to find something.

Halloween was a Celtic celebration, known as Samhain, a very important event as it commemorated the end of summer and thus, the end of harvests, so it was associated with human death. To avoid any superstition that may harm the crops during this period, people will meet to make offers by burning crops and doing animal sacrifices to their deities and usually they will "hide" from evil spirits by dressing on animal skins and heads.

Just like the Druids, the first inhabitants in Escazú, took very seriously their crops and they had women in charge of protecting and elaborating medicinal recipes and until 1960 you could still visit one of these "Medicine ladies", at least 23 of them had inherited their ancient indigenous roots. Some of them were the original "witches", feared by some, as they lived under particular conditions, but many others appreciate them, even the "high class" knocked on their doors to look for potions and natural curative remedies.  

Looks like a giant Witch cauldron. But it's actually used to heat up sugar cane. 

I stopped on my way up to the mountain, as my attention was drawn towards a small garage place that had an old "trapiche" (press mill). This and other old-fashioned objects were there sitting on a dirt floor.

"Upeee"

I called to the closed gate when a small, very old lady came to attend my "Costa Rican call" I explained to her what I was doing and asked her permission to enter and take some pictures, maybe she might as well tell me some stories surrounding the myth and legend of the Witch and where she hides.

She welcomed me and opened the gate while standing on her bare feet on the dirt floor, dressed with an old-fashioned white dress and apron. She then proceeded to explain about the sugar cane process on the "trapiche", a very rudimentary, hard work process that requires the muscle of two oxen to grind the raw sugar cane and extract its juice.

This is the "trapiche", without the oxen.

 After sharing some stories about her late husband, who used to work with the "trapiche" she told me about a mysterious old man who used to roam near "Cerro San Miguel" (where I was with the old lady at that moment). He was seen every day walking around with a stick, a long grey beard, long hair, all dressed in black with ragged clothes. The neighbours were certain he was the last descendant of the Zarate Witch, but we will never know, as he just disappeared, never to be seen again. So I asked her if she knew a bit more about the Witch and without a clue, she took me outside and pointed a very close mountain range (the same I was driving to) and showed me where she used to be seen. "Cerro Pico Blanco" is supposed to be a hollow mountain, and there are three secret accesses through caves, or "windows" as she described; from there she will keep an eye of Escazú, Aserrí and San Ignacio de Acosta (both used to be part of Escazú). But on specific days she will come out with crows, bats and goblins to protect her enchanted lands, as she strongly believed the old Escazú was Her sacred territory, after all, she had supposedly traded her soul for those lands with The Devil itself. She was seen many times, walking barefoot and smoking. Her hair was very characteristic, two black hair braids and a black hat, dressed in black and a scarlet scarf that accentuated her indigenous ethnicity.

I thanked the nice lady and started going up towards the hazy hills, it wasn't that late, but clouds and thin layers of fog were trying to cover the mystery as if the Witch knew I was looking for her. The road ended and I put my car to the test, driving over boulders and stone paths through dry rivers until I got to a dead end. I got out of the car and noticed there were colourful trees with a sweet aroma; the air was filled with a fresh smell of cut wood and scents of wet dirt, a very soothing, almost sedative smell. I looked back to where I would have to go through again and noticed there were some abandoned structures hiding inside some scrub, so I walked down and saw a wall with symbols that reminded me again of the Druid deities, the Sun and the Moon. I thought I might be in the presence of otherworldly spirits, I could feel it through the seductive fragrance in the air, or maybe I was just hypnotized by the textures on the hills and tainted by the magical fresh breeze of Escazú. All I knew was that I felt reverential respect towards the silent place I had just found and somehow I discerned empathy for Zarate, I now understood why she wanted to protect these amazing natural surroundings.

The view up from the strange wall I saw. The dwelling place of Zarate (The Witch).

I started driving back down, but I think I took a wrong turn. The sky seemed to open up and some rays of light managed to break through the clouds at moments, when I encountered what I thought was one of the doors into the cave of the mountain, there was a shot to meet the Witch after all. I stopped the car to take a picture when all of the sudden a herder passed me by with two oxen. I couldn't resist and asked him about the Witch. He made a gesture and while smiling he gave me an address...I didn't think about it much and just went for it.

One of the three possible "windows" from Zarate's lookout to Escazú. Or just an entrance to her hiding place.

I was now driving down the hill, following the directions the herder gave me. The view was mesmerizing; down until I found the place I was looking for, it might not have been a cave or a secret entrance in the mountain, as they say, the best hideaway is always at plain sight and there it was in front of me; the resting place for all the creatures and monsters, where all ghouls and the Devil himself were kept away safe from the public and I had the chance to meet their caretaker.

The custodian seemed to be a farmer over his fifties (but looked younger); rubber boots, jeans, open neck shirt with his chest uncovered, chonete (typical Costa Rican hat) and a bold moustache. At the gate of his house I told him I was referred to come here and meet Zarate the Witch, he smiled and opened the gate. With enthusiastic energy, the man rushed me to a shed in his garage and opened a couple of metal doors that revealed all the classic creatures and legends from the Costa Rican folklore. There it was, the monster lair, the resting hideout, inanimate beasts waiting for Halloween eve to be awakened by the magic spells of the high grounds I previously visited. The small leak of light on the roof amplified the creepiness, I was delighted to have finally found them all.

My quest had ended; I had not only found the Witches accomplices but I unveiled the cloak and dagger; the importance to explore where we come from, the roots of our culture and find pride on those who still fight to maintain its essence and spirit alive. Nature holds many secrets, and it bears ancient knowledge. If you know where to look with respect, you will find the alchemy that transforms the legends of the past into the livelihood the people of a city needs to build a strong, solid community, something Escazú found centuries ago by keeping its rich folklore intact, sheltered by Zarate the Witch.

Bruja Zarate on the left and her descendant (El Brujo) on the right.

Story & Photos by: Juancho Otalvaro

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  • MICHAEL WITTE

    • Guten Tag, wir waren ab dem 27.11. auf einer Rundreise in Costa Rica, welche über BigXtra gebucht und von ihnen organisiert wurde. Wir möchten uns auf diesem Wege sehr herzlich bedanken. Die Rundfahrt war einfach der Hammer !! Die Betreuung durch Carlos war eifach nur Spitze. Wir haben schon viele Reisen gemacht, aber diese ist Dank Carlos zu einem unvergesslichen Erlebnis geworden. Carlos spicht sehr gut deutsch und konnte und sehr einfühlsam Costa Rica, die unvergleichliche Natur und die tollen, freundlichen Einwohner nahe bringen. Pura Vida wurde für uns ein Begriff für das Lebensgefühl in Costa Rica. Bitte grüßen sie Carlos von uns und nochmals eine riesiges Dankeschön an ihn im Namen der ganzen 8-köpfigen Gruppe. Wir wünschen ihm nur das Beste für seine Zukunft.
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    • Hola, estuvimos desde el 27.11. en un viaje de ida y vuelta en Costa Rica, que fue reservado a través de BigXtra y organizado por ellos. Nos gustaría darles las gracias. ¡El viaje de ida y vuelta fue simplemente impresionante! El apoyo de Carlos fue simplemente genial. Ya hemos hecho muchos viajes, pero este se ha convertido en una experiencia inolvidable gracias a Carlos. Carlos habla muy bien alemán y fue capaz de introducirnos con sensibilidad en Costa Rica, la incomparable naturaleza y los grandes y amables habitantes. Pura Vida se convirtió para nosotros en un término para la actitud hacia la vida en Costa Rica. Por favor, saluda a Carlos de nuestra parte y una vez más un enorme agradecimiento a él en nombre de todo el grupo de los 8. Le deseamos lo mejor para su futuro.
  • EVELYNE THOMMEN

    • Wir haben gerade eine 4-wöchige Reise in Costa Rica gemacht, die von ARA Tours organisiert wurde und es hat uns sehr gut gefallen - gut gemacht Ara Tours! Wir hatten auch einen Reiseleiter - sein Name ist Enrique. Sein Deutsch ist wirklich gut und er weiß viel über Costa Rica und er hat uns viele Tiere gezeigt. Wir hatten eine wunderbare Zeit mit ihm - vielen Dank Enrique!
    • Wie just did a 4 week trip in Costa Rica which was organised from ARA tours and we really liked it - well done Ara Tours! We also had a guide - his name is Enrique. His German is really good and he knows a lot about Costa Rica and he showed us a lot of animals. We had a wonderful time with hime - thank you so much Enrique!
    • Acabamos de hacer un viaje de 4 semanas en Costa Rica organizado por ARA Tours y nos ha gustado mucho. También tuvimos un guía - su nombre es Enrique. Su alemán es muy bueno y sabe mucho sobre Costa Rica y nos mostró muchos animales. Lo pasamos muy bien con él - ¡muchas gracias Enrique!
  • TANJA WEBER

    • perfekte tour perfekter reiseleiter pablo, alles sehr gut organisiert 👍👍👍👍🇨🇷🇨🇷🇨🇷 waren begeistert
    • perfect tour perfect tour guide pablo, everything very well organised 👍👍👍👍🇨🇷🇨🇨🇷 were thrilled
    • tour perfecto, perfecto guía turístico pablo, todo muy bien organizado 👍👍👍👍🇨🇷🇨🇨🇷 quedaron encantados
  • INES LECHNER

    • Herzlichen Dank und großes Lob an unseren Reiseleiter Mauricio und unseren Busfahrer Adrian! Wir haben uns in den 2 Wochen Costa Rica sehr wohl gefühlt. Sehr bewundernswert waren vor allem das breitgefächerte Wissen von Mauricio und die super Fahrkünste von Adrian. Dank der Adleraugen der Beiden, hatten wir die Möglichkeit eine Vielzahl der Tiere in Costa Rica zu beobachten. Danke für Alles!
    • Many thanks and great praise to our tour guide Mauricio and our bus driver Adrian! We felt very comfortable during the 2 weeks in Costa Rica. The wide-ranging knowledge of Mauricio and the super driving skills of Adrian were particularly admirable. Thanks to the eagle eyes of both of them, we had the opportunity to observe a variety of animals in Costa Rica. Thank you for everything!
    • ¡Muchas gracias y grandes elogios a nuestro guía turístico Mauricio y a nuestro conductor de autobús Adrián! Nos sentimos muy cómodos durante las 2 semanas en Costa Rica. Fueron muy admirables sobre todo los amplios conocimientos de Mauricio y las súper habilidades de conducción de Adrián. Gracias a los ojos de águila de ambos, tuvimos la oportunidad de observar una gran variedad de animales en Costa Rica. Gracias por todo.
  • SABINE SCHUMACHER

    • ARA Tours kann ich nur weiterempfehlen. Danke nochmal an Nicole für die tolle Ausarbeitung der Tour und die Betreuung. Auch unser Tourguide Peter Käser war einfach unglaublich (wandelndes Lexikon) auf alle Fragen rund um Flora und Fauna sowie über die Geschichte von CR hatte er immer eine Antwort. Unser Fahrer Julio hat meinen Vater auf Händen getragen wofür ich ihm sehr dankbar bin Auch für Rollifahrer ist CR jederzeit eine Reise wert ( natürlich mit ARA Tours ) Tausend Dank an das ganze Team
    • I can only recommend ARA Tours. Thanks again to Nicole for the great planning of the tour and the support. Our tour guide Peter Käser was simply incredible (a walking encyclopaedia) and always had an answer to all my questions about the flora and fauna and the history of CR. Our driver Julio carried my father on his hands, for which I am very grateful. CR is also worth a trip for wheelchair users at any time (with ARA Tours, of course).
    • Sólo puedo recomendar ARA Tours. Gracias de nuevo a Nicole por la gran preparación de la gira y el apoyo. También nuestro guía turístico Peter Käser era simplemente increíble (enciclopedia andante) en todas las preguntas sobre la flora y la fauna, así como sobre la historia de CR siempre tenía una respuesta. Nuestro conductor Julio ha llevado a mi padre de la mano por lo que le estoy muy agradecido También para los usuarios de sillas de ruedas CR siempre vale la pena un viaje (por supuesto con ARA Tours) Mil gracias a todo el equipo
  • FAMILIE THIEME

    • ,,Wir bedanken uns hiermit noch einmal für die Organisation der Reise [...] durch das wunderschöne Land Costa Rica. Unser besonderer Dank gilt unserem Reiseleiter Enrique, der uns mit seiner umfassenden Kenntnis von Flora und Fauna über sein Land dieses sehr nahe gebracht hat und den Wunsch geweckt hat, sogar ein zweites Mal zu kommen. Wir waren sehr froh und glücklich, mit ihm zu reisen, da er sich auch neben seiner kompetenten Funktion als Reiseleiter sehr für unsere Probleme vor Ort eingesetzt hat."
    • We would like to thank you once again for organizing our trip [...] through the beautiful country of Costa Rica. Our special thanks go to our tour guide Enrique, who with his extensive knowledge of flora and fauna about his country brought it very close to us and made us want to come even a second time. We were very glad and happy to travel with him, as he was also very committed to our problems on site, in addition to his competent function as a tour guide."
    • Nos gustaría agradecerles una vez más la organización de nuestro viaje [...] por el hermoso país de Costa Rica. Nuestro especial agradecimiento a nuestro guía turístico Enrique, que con sus amplios conocimientos de la flora y la fauna de su país nos acercó mucho a él y nos hizo querer venir incluso una segunda vez. Estuvimos muy contentos y felices de viajar con él, ya que también se implicó mucho en nuestros problemas locales, además de su competente función de guía turístico."
  • FAMILIE STALDER

    • Danke Euch von Herzen für Euren sensationellen Einsatz! Ich kenne keine so kompetente Reiseleitung wie bei Euch echt von nirgendwo sonst... und wir sind schon viel gereist... 🙏🏻🍀
    • Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your sensational effort! I do not know such a competent tour guide as with you really from nowhere else... and we have already traveled a lot... 🙏🏻🍀
    • Gracias de todo corazón por su sensacional esfuerzo. No conozco un guía turístico tan competente como con usted realmente de ningún otro lugar... y ya hemos viajado mucho.... 🙏🏻🍀
  • Katja Stadelmann

    • ich wollte mich bei euch nochmals für die tolle Costa Rica Reise bedanken. Wir sind ganz glücklich und mit vielen tollen Eindrücken nach Hause zurückgeflogen. Ein Kompliment für die super Organisation. Es hat alles perfekt geklappt (bis auf die Übergabe des Mietwagens, was aber höhere Gewalt war...). Euch also nochmals vielen Dank und ich habe euch auch schon an Freunde weiterempfohlen:-)!
    • I wanted to thank you again for the great Costa Rica trip. We flew back home very happy and with many great impressions. A compliment for the super organisation. Everything worked out perfectly (except for the handover of the rental car, which was force majeure...). So thank you again and I have already recommended you to friends:-)!
    • Quería daros las gracias de nuevo por el estupendo viaje a Costa Rica. Estamos muy contentos y volvimos a casa con muy buenas impresiones. Un elogio para la súper organización. Todo funcionó a la perfección (excepto la entrega del coche de alquiler, que fue de fuerza mayor...). ¡Así que gracias de nuevo y ya os he recomendado a mis amigos:-)!
  • Conny Koch

    • Du und dein Team habt den Gästen eine tolle Reise und traumhafte Tage in eurem schönen Land organisiert und dafür danke ich dir/euch ganz herzlich!
    • You and your team have organized a great trip and wonderful days for the guests in your beautiful country and I thank you very much for that!
    • Usted y su equipo han organizado un gran viaje y unos días maravillosos en su hermoso país, ¡y se lo agradezco mucho!
  • Dénise Steiger

    • Vielen Dank für Ihre E-Mail und die Tickets. Wir wissen es wirklich sehr zu schätzen, wie schnell und effizient Sie sich um unsere Anfragen jeweils kümmern!
    • Thank you very much for your email and the tickets. We really appreciate how quickly and efficiently you deal with our requests each time!
    • Muchas gracias por su correo electrónico y sus entradas. Apreciamos mucho la rapidez y eficacia con la que atendieron nuestras peticiones cada vez.
  • Philippe

    • Hallo Christine Besten Dank für diese Infos. Der Support ist super👍 vielen dank Gruss
    • Hello Christine Thank you very much for this information. The support is super👍 many thanks Gruss
    • Hola Christine Muchas gracias por esta información. El apoyo es super👍 muchas gracias Gruss
  • Marianne & Stefan Gräub

    • Ansonsten war die geplante Reise ein voller Erfolg. Alles hat bestens geklappt und die von euch organisierten. Besuche waren alle sehr interessant und gaben uns einen tollen Einblick in die jeweiligen Themen. Dass die Ticos sehr freundlich und jederzeit hilfsbereit sind, hat sich voll bestätigt.
    • Otherwise, the planned trip was a complete success. Everything went well and the visits you organised were all very interesting. The visits you organised were all very interesting and gave us a great insight into the respective topics. The fact that the Ticos are very friendly and always ready to help was fully confirmed.
    • Por lo demás, el viaje previsto fue todo un éxito. Todo funcionó muy bien y las visitas organizadas por ustedes. Las visitas fueron todas muy interesantes y nos dieron una gran visión de los respectivos temas. El hecho de que los ticos son muy amables y serviciales en todo momento se confirmó plenamente.

Contact Information

WhatsApp: +506-8893-3863
Phone: +506-2232-0400
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Address

Apdo 799 – 1007
San José, Costa Rica

Licenced by the Costa Rican Tourist Board: Lic ICT OT 294

Liability insurance: Instituto Costarricense de Seguros (INS) Coverage: Territory of the Republic of Costa Rica

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