The simple bliss of ‘pura vida’

  • by crv.staff
  • 20.08.09
  • 6:39 PM UTC


Vacation among world’s happiest people teaches lessons

By Dr. Delise Dickard

Source: Fredericksburg

Date published: 8/9/2009

WHEN I LEFT for Costa Rica last month I had no idea that the people, called Ticos, were known to be the happiest people in the world. I didn’t know that one area of Costa Rica was at the top of the list of Blue Zones, places where people live the longest, and that Oprah’s Dr. Oz had been there just to determine what gave these people such long, happy lives.

In fact, on the contrary, I wondered how difficult life must be for the Costa Rican people, whose average purchasing power is about one-fifth of ours.

We would be in an area where mosquitoes carried dengue fever by day and malaria by night. Water should be boiled, I was cautioned, and just to be prudent, I would end up boiling everything down to a white chalky substance that I poured down the drain.

I also learned that the country is home to 17 species of venomous snakes, a wide variety of scorpions and even the poison dart frog. In fact, it would seem that Ticos share the earth with many of those gnarly-looking reptiles we only see at the zoo.

Nevertheless, as my plane lifted from the Baltimore runway, I made a promise to myself not only to relax and enjoy myself, but to figure out a way to bring a little more of that mind-set home with me.

As it turned out, I would learn something, but it wouldn’t be exactly what I expected.


As most of my fellow U.S. citizens took off for the posh all-inclusive resorts on the Pacific Coast, our family of five set off in a van headed for one of the most remote and poorest regions of the country. Ours would be an adventure vacation and the adventure started right away, with the rugged four-hour ride through the mountainous region.

The narrow two-lane roads snaking through the mountains were shared by diesel trucks, tiny cars, mopeds, bikes and some pedestrians. Everyone was moving along as rapidly as possible, dodging potholes, dogs and rodents, and hardly slowing even when the drenching rains began.

Costa Rica, I had learned, holds claim to one of the highest accident rates in the world. So I clung to my seat belt and tried to focus on the scenery.

In the towns, the homes appeared to be no bigger than a two-car garage, mostly made of concrete and often barricaded with a gate and fence topped with barbed wire. People walked or biked the dusty roads, sometimes with a child in a front basket and one on the back. What I saw didn’t exactly look like happiness, but then what does happiness look like anyway?


As we left the city, the beauty of the forest emerged. The flora was amazing. Here, every house plant I’ve every struggled to keep alive grew lavishly in the wild. When we finally joined our friends at our destination–the small beach-front town of Caquetá–it was apparent that the trees were dripping with ripe fruit. Bananas, mango, coconut, avocados and pineapples grew everywhere.

Our cabina was simple but had the luxury of electricity and hot running water. Even though I had a nice collection of mosquito repellents (all available in airline-approved 3.4-ounce bottles), we slept under mosquito nets. On occasion, we had to fight out the bats, spiders and scorpions.

On the happier side, our cabina was equipped with a friendly gecko who lived in the rafters and sounded like a cross between a bird and a cricket. And there were two pet dogs, a Dalmatian and a German shepherd mix. Amazingly, our dogs guarded us as if they had been lifelong family pets. They accompanied us everywhere–on hikes up the dirt road for dinner supplies, on long beach walks and even on our frequent late-afternoon swim in the nearby lagoon.

Without any connection to the outside world, it was easy to fall into the rhythm of a Costa Rican lifestyle. We’d curl up in a hammock during rainstorms and run out to the lagoon when the sun emerged. In the evenings, we’d join our friends and concoct some meal that usually involved beans and rice. Afterwards we would settle into a board game.

This simple life was amazingly relaxing. Still, I was surprised one day when I got a glimpse of The Tico Times and right on the front page was the headline “Pura Vida makes Ticos the World’s Happiest.”

Sure enough, despite all those dangerous bugs, reptiles and traffic accidents, a recent report titled the “Happy Planet Index” puts Costa Rica at No. 1. The United States drags in at 114 out of 143 countries examined.

So what is this pura vida, I was wondering as I drifted off to sleep that night. I wanted to bring some home with me.


The next morning, safely cocooned in my mosquito netting, I listened to my gecko chirp and still pondered the question: What exactly is pura vida?

Later, I would realize that even while contemplating it, I was living it. Pura vida–literally meaning “pure life”–is, in part, living a simple, uncluttered life with a deep appreciation for nature, family and friends.

But I also learned that the Blue Zone studies–which identify where people live the longest, and why–showed some Costa Rican drinking water is chock full of healthy minerals–probably that chalky substance I was boiling out and pouring down the drain. Later, I would wonder if this was a metaphor for what is so easy to do in “real” life.

Are we just racing around afraid of missing something or of making some big mistake, all the while letting the really good stuff of life go right down the drain?

In the end, my visit to Costa Rica had given me a taste of what pura vida feels like. And later, I found that Wikipedia offers a great definition. Pura vida “encapsulates the prevailing ideology of living in peace, in a calm, uncluttered manner appreciating a life surrounded by nature, family and friends. It is this mentality that makes Costa Rica so appealing.”

So along with a new hammock, this was the unexpected souvenir I would take home with me–the concept of pura vida. It isn’t so far away either, I’m thinking, as I look beyond my computer to the trees in my own front yard. Still, letting it flourish in my day-to-day life is something I imagine I’ll be working on for a long time.

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2 Responses to “The simple bliss of ‘pura vida’”

  1. -1 Vote -1 Vote +1Luis Delgado

    Besides being the “world’s happiest people”, we were also the fifth cleanest country in the world, and Costa Ricans have one of the highest life expectancy rates on Earth. We might not have the highest purchasing power or GDP per-capita, but maybe it’s time to understand that money does not mean so much as people believe. I’m glad if my country can serve as a place where people around the world can forget about their problems and where they can connect back to themselves.

  2. Vote -1 Vote +1Nuria

    Dear Dr. Dickard,
    I found your article while surfing the web, and I loved it! :) I’m Costa Rican and wrote an article about our common expression “pura vida”. I mentioned your article because I liked the way you, as a foreigner, understand it. If you wanna check it out, go to:

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