IN SEARCH OF THE PURA VIDA Costa Rica's secret to a happy life.
What’s the secret to a happy life? It might just lie in lush Costa Rica, says Sian Lewis
he night sky above me is sprinkled with stars as I sit in the prow of a little shing boat. Rapidly disappearing on the horizon is the jungle-fringed coastline of Curu Wildlife Refuge (www.curuwildliferefuge.com). When we reach deep water, the boat’s captain kills the engine and reaches his hand into the inky black ocean. Sudden bright sparks ash like re at the tips of his ngers. It’s bioluminescence, brighter than I’ve ever seen it before. Without further ado I jump in, my body lighting up the ocean around me, my extremities radiating light underwater and mirroring the bright stars above me. The captain gives me a hand as I clamber back into the boat and grins at my happy, astonished face. “Pura vida,” he smiles back.
Pura vida – translatable as ‘the pure life’ or ‘the simple life’ – has become inextricably linked with Costa Rica, but the phrase is more than a tourist board gimmick. It’s a philosophy, a way of life, even a commonly used expression to mean “hello”, “goodbye” or “it’s all good”. In this small, lush Central American country, they take the simple things seriously.
It seems to work, too; Costa Rica is one of the safest, best educated and greenest countries in Latin America, and is home to some of the world’s longest living people, too – on the Nicoya Peninsula, locals frequently live well past 100. I’m on a mission to
nd out the secrets of the pura vida, and perhaps take a little of it home with me.
Costa Rica is a country of two halves, cleaved north to south by mountains, with the Pacific on one side and the tropical Caribbean ocean on the other. Eden-like, it’s home to fertile green valleys full of farms and fruit trees, high mountains anked with cool cloud forests, natural hot springs and miles and miles of beautiful beaches where world-class surfing waves roll endlessly into the shore. Even better, it’s compact enough that you can criss-cross most of it in a few weeks.
The savvy locals know that their bountiful country is special – perhaps that’s why there’s such a big focus on green, earth-friendly living. Places to stay often sport leaves instead of stars, showing o their eco-credentials so that travellers can pick ethically-sound hotels and hostels. Plastic is used as sparingly as possible, and there’s a big focus on using locally-sourced ingredients in food and even in skincare.
I meet Maria Laura Quesada, the founder of Biosfera (www.biosferaproducts.com), who makes organic creams and lotions from her rural workshop. Her brand is carbon neutral, and visitors to the workshop even get to plant a fruit tree before they leave. “We take looking after our environment seriously in Costa Rica and value sustainable innovation,” she says. “We live in an incredibly abundant country and I love being able
“It’s impossible to road trip around without being tempted to stop at each
roadside coffee plantation”
to use things we grow ourselves in my products, such as chamomile and cucumber.”
Maria Laura’s products smell good enough to eat, but my favourite local treat is Costa Rican co ee. It’s impossible to road trip around without being tempted to stop at each roadside co ee plantation to try their brews, and I fall in love with Café Tres Generaciones (www.dokaestate.com), just outside San José, where rows of bright coffee bushes are fringed by wildflowers that are a haven for butterflies.
In search of more good things to eat, I head to Finca Don Juan in Fortuna, an eco-farm sitting in the Toblerone-shaped shadow of Costa Rica’s iconic dormant volcano, Arenal. Here, farmers in sunhats show us how to harvest pineapples, point out the rainbow of tropical owers they grow and then help us to decide what to harvest for a farm-to-table lunch, choosing from rows of huge lettuces and vines drooping with ripe red tomatoes. “Try this!” says Juan, handing us a bright red berry and smiling mischievously. It’s
synsepalum dulci cum, the ‘miracle berry’ – we chew it and then try biting into a lemon, whose citrussy sourness miraculously tastes deliciously sweet, our tastebuds tricked by the berries.
Traditional methods of farming and production are being revived in Costa Rica, but there are some parts of the country where they never left. In the Matambu indigenous reserve on the
Nicoya Peninsula, a community of Chorotega people still follow the old ways. Ezekiel Aguirre Perez, a potter, storyteller and member of the indigenous council, takes us on a ramble along an ancient woodland trail and then sits down at his wheel to show us how his family have made clay pots for centuries. I ask him about pura vida and if he knows the secret to the Nicoyan’s long, happy lives. “We get a lot of sleep. We eat good fresh food. And we have strong family connections,” he says, his baby grandson toddling around the potter’s wheel as he effortlessly spins a beautiful, simple pot.
The traditional wooden huts and forest trails of the reserve may be in contrast to the modern, cosmopolitan vibe of Costa Rica’s coast, but life here is just as laid back. Miles of white sand tinged pink at sunset and big, punchy but deliciously warm waves make Costa Rica a mecca for surfers, and the Harmony Hotel (www.harmonynosara.com) on Guiones beach is the perfect base for some aqua therapy. After a yoga session to loosen my limbs, I borrow a hefty wooden longboard from Harmony’s quiver of surfboards and paddle out, watching local wave-chasers pop up against the golden setting sun and catching a wave of my own back towards the palm trees on the shore.
The next evening is my last, and as our little shing boat speeds back to shore, it sends those sparks of bioluminescence shooting away from it, like a magic spell. Night swimming beneath the stars is a simple, achievable and natural pleasure, like so much of the good stu in Costa Rica. Perhaps that will be my piece of the pura vida to take away – a new appreciation for slow, simple earth-loving living.
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