“Pura Vida” is a way of life for the people of Costa Rica. This relatively small country in Central America, tucked between Nicaragua and Panama, may have developed a cultural ethos that the rest of the world should take note.
Costa Rica is a rugged, rain forested country with coastlines on the Caribbean and Pacific and a population of less than 5 million people. Its land mass is only 19,000 square miles. In contrast Canada has close to 40 million people and 3,855,000 square miles of land mass. Costa Rica is known for its beaches, volcanoes and immense biodiversity. It has bewilderingly diverse climate, flora, fauna, and landscape. A visitor can visit rain forests, dry tropical and temperate forests, volcanoes, Caribbean and Pacific beaches, high mountains, and marshy lowlands. Roughly a quarter of its area is made up of protected jungle, rich with wildlife.
Since the late 1980’s Costa Rica has become a popular travel destination for people seeking a more natural environment and laid-back culture. Its well-established system of national parks and protected areas cover around 23% of the country’s land area. This is the largest percentage of protected area in the world containing an estimated 5% of the world’s biodiversity with only 0.03% of the world’s land mass. By the early 1990s, Costa Rica was known as the poster child of ecotourism.
Costa Rica, historically as a nation, avoided the political turmoil and violence from which neighbouring nations still suffer. It is the only Latin American country included in the list of the world’s 22 oldest democracies to remain peaceful and politically stable. It is considered the Switzerland of Central America. Constitutionally abolishing its army in the 1940s, it seems they had no desire to pick fights with anyone. Costa Rica has also consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index, attaining a much higher level of human development than other countries at the same income levels with a 97% literacy rate. The world average is about 86%. Costa Rica is ranked third in the world and first among the Americas in terms of the 2010 Environmental Performance Index which is a yearly paper that lists each country’s resources used, goods produced, and pollutants emitted. Lastly, it was ranked as the happiest and greenest nation in the world, in 2009 and in 2012.
Is it the Costa Rican philosophy of life that has managed to allow this miniscule country to avoid the pitfalls besetting its neighbours and much of the rest of the world while excelling in so many areas? Their apparent life philosophy is encompassed in the phrase Pura Vida. The term Pura Vida has been present in the Costa Rican culture for some 50+ years. In simple English it translates to “Pure Life,” pronounced POO-rah VEE-dah. It, however, has a far more profound meaning to the people of Costa Rica and anyone spending any amount of time in the country. It is associated with many different English interpretations like “pure life”, “take it easy”, “enjoy life”, “all good”, “purity in life”, “this is life” and many more. This philosophy appears to be saying something like: no matter how little or how much you have in life, we are all here together. Life is short so make the best of it for everyone.
Where did Costa Ricans acquire this phrase? According to a study of the expression, a film called Pura Vida came to Costa Rica from Mexico in 1956. In the movie, “Pura Vida” was the expression of eternal optimism used by a comic character, who unfortunately couldn’t seem to do anything right. While a small population initially used it, the phrase “Pura Vida” was used nationwide by 1970. Today mock license plates and wooden carvings are sold to tourists displaying this phrase.
Costa Rica has actually been around as a country for a long time. Christopher Columbus landed on its shores in1502. The indigenous people were very quickly conquered and Costa Rica became a colony of Spain for the next 300 years. Consequently Costa Rica’s culture has been greatly influenced by the culture of Spain and is visible in much of its architecture, language, and their overall culture. Although tourism is a major economic factor in the country, the people have not given up their language. We found very few people spoke anything but Spanish in most areas, with some English spoken in the more touristy areas.
From the beginning Costa Rica has struggled with poverty and lack of development. Spain apparently didn’t see much value in the country therefore it remained sparsely developed and impoverished during their 300 year reign. After the Mexican War of Independence Costa Rica became a part of the Mexican Empire in 1821 and two years later the Federal Republic of Central America, eventually gaining its full independence in 1836. In 1869 it became a democracy which is only two years after Canada. In 1948, the government drafted a new constitution guaranteeing universal suffrage and the dismantling of the military. Today, Costa Rica relies on technology and eco-tourism for its economy. Although poverty has reduced over the last ten years, economic problems still exist. Costa Rica is facing problems of underemployment, foreign and internal debt, and a trade deficiency. The people of today, however, do not appear poor. They are generally well dressed and appear happy and healthy. Most people drive some sort of vehicle, and we never saw anyone begging or visibly homeless. There was no evidence of crime and we always felt safe where ever we went. I did note that businesses and privately owned homes had barred windows or 8 foot high fences but crime was certainly not visible.
So what is Costa Rica really like? Our recent two week visit certainly does not qualify us as experts but we did come away with a few observations and experiences. Escaping the winter cold in Canada we descended upon this tiny nation. Our first stop was Liberia, the fourth largest city in Costa Rica. As cities go Liberia is fairly small, about the size of Penticton at 45,000 people. In general the cities in Costa Rica’s are small. The capital, and largest city, is San Jose with 335,000 people. This makes it pretty easy for tourists like us who know little of the area and have no personal transportation or friends to guide us. One can actually walk, or run, to most areas of such a small city and we did so.
Having arrived in the middle of the night, we spent one night in a quaint little hotel on the edge of Liberia that provided a bounteous and delicious breakfast. Being the free spirit I am, although some might call it disorganization, I had not made arrangements for our transportation to our next accommodation that was about 150 kilometers away on the Pacific coast. Embarking on this task shortly upon our awakening, I enquired of a nice lady at the front desk in our hotel where I might seek transportation to the distant coast. Making my query in English, the proprietor looked at me like I was from another planet. She spoke Spanish and none other. (I really need to learn to speak Spanish!!) After a similar experience with a bus driver, I decided a little internet investigation was in order.
As a sidebar, Costa Rica is very connected technologically. I could talk to family in Kelowna by Skype while sipping cervesas on the beach, download streaming video in my room while watching the latest movies, or surf the web from any restaurant or public place. I actually saw more of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Costa Rica than I would have at home. There were no passwords on wifi and the signal was excellent. Canada should take note!!
Surfing the web, I soon learned that there are shuttle services that take touristy people like us across the country for a fee with a listed price of $60.00 US. There were also local buses that charged much less but took about 8 hours to travel the 150 kilometers. I, however, had been handed a card at the airport by a cab driver who, although only knowing about 6 words in English, gave us the impression he would drive us anywhere in Costa Rica for a reasonable charge. I, therefore, thought I would see if his fee was any better or worse than the shuttle service rather than trying to wade my way through an unknown agency at some undetermined location.
Attempting to phone Mr. Hector Lopez Ortega I found that my phone was inoperable in Central America. Trying to make a call through Skype, I learned how to make a call but could only manage to connect with some sort of imperceptible message in Spanish. Attempting a call sometime later, I actually connected with a person who mumbled a few words in Spanish and appeared to have no idea what I was trying to say. After some mutually undiscernible ravings, there was a rustling of phone noises and I was suddenly communicating with a woman who could articulate the Queen’s English. Hallelujah!!! I blurted out my intentions, asked the cost, and was given a positive “Si Senore.” From the conversation I determined that someone would be attending our hotel at 2:00 PM and the price would be $80.00 US. I thought the $20 more than the shuttle was worth it for a known commodity, ie. Mr. Hector Lopez Ortega, and personalized service. I was a bit nervous that our messages had not been conversed successfully but, enjoying my first local cervesa, decided not to worry about it. Their local beer, called Imperial, has a way of doing that.
With a few hours to burn we set out to enjoy the hotel pools and wonderful warm weather. After all we had just left sub 0C temperatures and 3 feet of snow just 12 short hours earlier. Another sidebar: the weather in Costa Rica is wonderful. During our two weeks it never rained, there were sunny blue skies daily, the temperature averaged about 33C every day, and the nights were tolerable, especially with our trusty air conditioning. There were a few windy days but they only served to cool us down. In Costa Rica the average annual temperature is around 25 degrees Celsius and the coolest months of the year are November, December and January. The months March through May are the hottest and they have no real summer or winter. The rainy season lasts from May to November with the average rainfall at about 100 inches but some mountainous areas get as much as 25 feet of rainfall every year. Even during the rainy season, we learned, that the weather is not too bad. Apparently it rains every morning for a couple hours, while maintaining the same tropical temperature, then is sunny all afternoon. I think I would find this delightful as a nice rain would spruce everything up. So it seems we had picked the best area and best time of the year for visiting…..and off we were to discover it. More next week in Pura Vida2.