While filming in Costa Rica  two years ago, TV producer and I were introduced to Ana Gabriela Alfaro, manager of the Hotel Parque del Lago  in San José , Costa Rica’s vibrant and bustling capital.
She led us into the delightful lobby-café, which has been turned into a small museum with a collection of dolls, figurines, and other exhibits that celebrate Costa Rica’s traditions, legends and cultures. Here, Ana introduced us to la nigüenta, a porcelain figure of a cherub-like naked girl, one foot raised onto the knee of her other leg, picking chiggers from between her chubby toes.
Click here  to see the segment Andres and I filmed, included at the 6:40 mark in a 22-minute show about Costa Rica.
Exclusive to Costa Rica, this endearing figure is a traditional good luck charm of the country dating back through the centuries.
Ana explained that this charming character is still a popular wedding gift among low-income families, who place them in the house for good luck. Instead of tickling a nigüenta’s feet, as I did, Costa Ricans might write a request on a piece of paper, or tape a lottery ticket to the agüizote (lucky charm) in hopes of hitting the jackpot or eliciting support for a favor. It helps to prime the porcelain girl’s powers by leaving a monetary token beside her. In the countryside years ago, impoverished families would even attach a tiny bag of rice or beans around a nigüenta’s neck to ensure enough food for the year to come.
The name derives from nigua, the local name for a tiny and bothersome tropical biting insect that commonly infected campesinos (peasant farmers) in days of old when they went around barefoot.
A generation ago, it was still common to find a nigüenta displayed in almost every Costa Rican home, typically beside a religious figurine or two, such as a representation of La Negrita (the ‘Black Virgin’ also known more formally as La Virgen de los Angeles).
The figurine is thought to be inspired, if not derived, from the much-copied Greco-Roman bronze statue ‘Boy with Thorn’ , in Rome’s Palazzo di Conservatori, depicting a naked Greek messenger boy so dedicated to his duty that he only stopped to pull a spine from his foot once he had accomplished his mission. However, Yensy Herrera, an archaeologist of Costa Rica’s National Museum , says the figure may derive from the image of indigenous female shamans.
As Jack Donnelly points out in a recent article in the Tico Times  newspaper, nigüentas make a potentially wonderful gift for superstitious travelers or those seeking something uniquely costarricense. Jack’s piece even shows a photo of a nigüenta that includes other international symbols of good luck, such as a horseshoe and shamrock, at its base.
Nigüenta’s can be purchased in San José ’s Mercado Central  (Central Market), where they cost between 2000 and 10,000 colones (US$4-20), depending on size. You can even find black nigüentas, for Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean community, such as depicted in the photo above.
The charm’s potency is considered greater if you receive one as a gift.
For complete information about culture and travel in Costa Rica, buy Moon Handbook Costa Rica 
If you're traveling only to San José and the Caribbean, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to the beaches of Nicoya, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to Arenal and/or Monteverde, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Arenal&Monteverde  pocket guide.
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Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker