These two words are probably the most important words to know when you go to Costa Rica. Though the phrase literally translates as, ‘pure life’, pura vida can mean multiple things: a good-morning greeting, a response to the question “How are you?”, or a “No worries,” if you’re running late for a friend. But it’s also more than that, encompassing the idea of living well; making the most of the joys of everyday life. Costa Rica’s carpe diem, if you will.
The happiest country in the world
Costa Rica has been rated one of the happiest countries in the world. With no army, nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity, and almost 800 miles of coastline, it’s not surprising that it’s home to one of the world’s Blue Zones: places in the world where people live the longest and are the healthiest. Ticos (Costa Ricans) from the Nicoya region often live well into their 90s, thought to be down to a combination of healthy diet, emphasis on family values and pura vida approach to life.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Costa Rica – perhaps to volunteer on a Wildlife Rescue Project – you’ll get to experience this pura vida lifestyle first-hand. But even if not, there’s a lot we can learn from tico culture.
Food culture in Costa Rica
Costa Rican food emphasises local produce, meaning that lots of dishes are based around good seafood, freshly-picked fruit and rice from nearby fields. Keeping the focus on simple, natural ingredients is a great way to make sure you’re getting lots of good nutrients. But it doesn’t have to be boring! Ceviche is an excellent example of how simple ingredients can be packed with flavour. This zesty salad is usually made with some form of white fish or seafood, marinated in citrus juice. The citric acid of the fruits (usually lemon or lime) ‘cooks’ the fish and tenderises it so that it’s ready to be eaten with punchy flavours like tomatoes, chilli pepper, coriander and avocado.
Pura vida culture is not just about what you eat, but rather, how you eat. Ticos are famously friendly, and very family-orientated. Long lunch breaks are somewhat of a tradition, allowing families to meet, eat and digest a nutritious meal of rice, beans and meat together. Even more famous than this lunchtime casado is the Costa Rican breakfast, known as gallo pinto. There’s some debate over its origins, and you’ll never quite find two recipes that are the same, since every family has their own way of making it. The basic ingredients stay the same: rice, beans, and sometimes eggs. Occasionally you’ll also find extra vegetables like tomatoes and onion mixed through the dish, and it will almost always be liberally splurted with Salsa Lizano, a tangy brown sauce. The health benefits of breakfast are well-known across the world, and a plate of gallo pinto will set you up well for whatever the day may throw at you – particularly if you’re spending the day outdoors at the wild beaches in the Osa Peninsula.
However, Costa Ricans know how to balance health with pleasure. After a long day, sometimes only something sweet will do. At various roadside stalls you’ll find freshly-squeezed fruit juices (passionfruit, papaya, and mango), and the sweet Central American tres leches cake is a staple of local sodas (restaurants). Or, if you head to the city of Puntarenas, you’ll find a dessert called a Churchill: a kind of ice-cream sundae, made up of sliced fruit served with condensed milk, cream and ice.
It’s this balance of the healthy and the indulgent that best epitomises pura vida culture. Pleasures are to be savoured; moments in families are to be treasured. Some of our Costa Rican volunteer projects offer the opportunity to experience this, in homestay families, or in Spanish lessons, where you can study alongside working in an animal rescue centre.
Written by WorkingAbroad blogger, Emma Rutter