In Costa Rica you hear the words "pura vida" spoken everyday. Literally it translates to "pure life" but in Costa Rica it means so much more. It's an expression that can have many meanings, from greetings and salutations to "thank you", "your welcome", "no worries", "cool", or "life is good". And life IS good as I sit back in my reclined chair looking out at Papagayo Bay this morning. The warm air and light breeze feels nice on my skin. My senses feel alive after a barefoot run in the sand and a dip in the cool, salty water.
The sun rises at 6am here, and at that time of day the beach is empty except for a few egrets, herons and vultures in search of their morning grub. The water is calm in the bay with little ripples of waves rolling in and out over the black volcanic sand. As the sun rises higher it paints ever-changing colors of pale and dark blues down on the water, with shimmery golden-yellow reflections on the surface near the shore. Just beyond the sand is a mangrove of tall, majestic Guanacaste trees, where monkeys and large iguanas make their homes. Early in the morning you can hear the howler monkeys bellowing their deep, resonant calls that sound more like they should come from big gorillas rather than the small, 20 pound leaf-eating creatures that they are. The mangrove forest filled with sounds of its creatures gives an exotic feel to the black sandy beach in front of me.
I've just spent the past week with a group of people who were all strangers to me seven days ago. This situation is pretty common for me, as an active travel guide. My Italian co-leader and I led our group of excited Americans through all the eco-systems in Costa Rica on the Backroads multi-sport trip. We started near San Jose with a tour of an organic coffee farm where we witnessed the entire process from harvesting, drying and roasting the beans and then tasted the velvety-smooth Arabica coffee. From there we headed up into the cloud forest, hiking past leaf-cutter ants to magnificent waterfalls and sleeping in a beautiful eco-lodge tucked away among the tall trees.
Throughout the week our group of thirteen shared one adventure after another: we paddled down the Sarapiqui river spotting iguanas, toucans and monkeys; hiked to the tallest waterfall in Costa Rica that plunges down into a volcanic crater; took part in grinding cocoa beans into pure decadent chocolate; biked down bumpy roads in the warm rain below the Arenal volcano; sipped on coconut water straight from the shell; walked across long hanging bridges through primary rainforest; flew across the country in a 15 passenger propeller plane; kayaked in the calm Papagayo Bay; flew like superman down a mile-long zip line; and finished the week with Guaro Sours and a beach barbecue. After 6 full days of adventures and togetherness, we have become good friends, and last night's celebration of a guest's 50th birthday and sending her through the "spanking machine" was a testament to this!
Throughout the week we were immersed in the "Pura Vida" mentality of the friendly and eternally optimistic Costa Ricans (referred to as "Ticos" here). We were warmly welcomed by Ticos who have a passion for living the good life, and they do it very well. Our kayak guide who lives just down the beach explained how much he loves his laid-back beach lifestyle, kayaking, catching fish and meeting travelers from around the world. "Pura Vida!" Our zip line crew joked around with us and moved from one platform to the next by zip-lining upside down and howling like monkeys. "Pura Vida!" Our raft guides have mastered the art of splashing unsuspecting guests with copious amounts of water and then winning our hearts by spotting iguanas and monkeys up in the trees. "Pura Vida!" After making us a delicious lunch in her home, Olga patiently taught us how to make corn tortillas and showed us how she lights her wood-fired stove every morning because "a warm kitchen is a happy kitchen". "Pura Vida!" We met countless Ticos who are genuinely joyful and happy with life here.
How do they do this so effortlessly? Perhaps because Costa Rica hasn't had a military for the past 70 years and instead has put its money into education and infrastructure. It's a country with free and mandatory education and a 96% literacy rate. There is high environmental awareness and ambition to protect the land, with over 25 percent of the country protected by national parks and reserves. Hydroelectric and geothermal energy abound and this year the entire country was run on renewable energy for over 100 days. Beaches are free and open to everyone and the eco-tourism industry is booming. "Pura vida" is not only everyone's go-to expression (whether old or young) but it is also a way of life here. Carefree and happy Ticos have a love of the simple things, which seems to be the essence of 'pura vida'.
I take a deep breath and look out at the water from my lounge chair. A couple of fishermen in a small boat head out of the bay, and I can hear one of them singing. Costa Rica is the kind of place that beckons its visitors to take in the natural surroundings and appreciate every moment. It inspires a love for adventure and not taking life too seriously. It is 'pura vida'.