Costa Rica: Pura Vida!

by John Stringos

by John Stringos

From my column at Communities @ Washington Times

WASHINGTON DC, January 24, 2013- Growing up in a Latin culture, I associate Costa Ricans, “ticos,” with their ubiquitous saying: pura vida, a phrase that they seem to insert into every conversation.  For years I thought it was something in the water that made these people so singularly kind and laid-back; after a week in their beautiful country, however, I realize that pura vida is not just an expression, but a way of looking at life, a people, and a country.

What is pura vida?

The origins of the phrase are apparently not that Costa Rican.  The phrase was first used as the title of a 1955 Mexican movie about a down-on-his-luck young man who was expelled from his village.  Literally “pure life,” the phrase slowly caught on in Costa Rica as a reflection of the peaceful, life-loving attitude of its people.  By 1990, pura vida began to appear in Spanish dictionaries as a Costa Rican idiom used “to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and to qualify or show admiration towards a situation, object or person.”

Even though I was there for only seven days, as a tourist, and as part of a pretty rowdy wedding party, this is what pura vida meant to me: unbelievable nature, amazing food, and the nicest people on earth.

Nature in 3D

caiman by Courtney McCubbin

caiman by Courtney McCubbin

This focus, by both government and citizens, on ecotourism and conservation makes nature the standout feature of anybody’s trip.  As I mentioned before, being part of a pretty large and raucous wedding party, we were not in Costa Rica primarily to nature-watch.  However, nature is kind of hard to miss in Costa Rica.

We saw three different species of monkey from our hotel room, prompting our friends to start greeting each other by yelling “so many monkeys!”  Troops of spider monkeys would appear every morning, and capuchins and howlers would pop up on the trees once or twice every day.  We also saw several sloths, iguanas, caiman, and all kinds of birds- and we weren’t even trying.  In Costa Rica nature comes looking for you, whether you want it or not!

The beaches deserve a whole article to describe their beauty and variety.  Scores of hermit crabs scuttle the dark sand, and the waters are teeming with all kinds of marine life.

The food

I couldn’t write about a place without talking about the food.  Costa Rican food is fantastic, if not too urbane or varied.  Gallo pinto for breakfast, Casado for lunch, and fresh ceviche and fried whole fish for dinner: heaven!  Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and red beans, usually served with eggs and sour cream.  Casado is a platter of rice, beans, plantain, salad and either grilled fish, beef or chicken.  Mahi-mahi ceviche is on almost every menu and red snapper is usually served filleted or fried whole, sometimes with a garlic butter sauce.  What Costa Rican food lacked in sophistication, it made up for in freshness and taste.

El Tipico lunch by Courtney McCubbin

El Tipico lunch by Courtney McCubbin

Here I must pause to make a mention of “salsa Lizano.”  It seems like the ticos try to keep this delicious secret sauce from the tourists; we discovered it by accident on a boat trip.  In the restaurants that cater to tourists Lizano is not usually set on the table.  However, no matter where you eat, there is Lizano sauce in every Costa Rican kitchen-you just have to ask for it.  It’s a kind of A-1 sauce with lots of cumin and goes amazing with fish and chicken and rice and eggs and beef…  I brought home two bottles- and I’m not sharing.

The people

By far, my favorite thing about Costa Rica and what will probably be the reason that I return was its people.  From the staff at our hotel (Shana in Manuel Antonio), to the taxi drivers, wait staff, restaurant owners, store clerks, food vendors, tour guides, and even police officers, Costa Ricans are welcoming and incredibly nice.  They are a happy people, proud of their country, and happy to share it with tourists.

Fruit Stand by Courtney McCubbin

Fruit Stand by Courtney McCubbin

The large expat community (the staff at our hotel consisted of several Costa Ricans, one can-do Colombian, a quiet Frenchman, and even a fantastic young man from India) shows Costa Ricans’ open-mindedness and inclusive character.  It also shows that people from all walks of life and corners of the world call this little slice of heaven home.  Of course not all Costa Ricans are nice; there was one crazy beach shop owner and a grumpy taxi driver, but in general, Costa Ricans are polite, helpful and extremely friendly.

So, would I go back?  In a minute.  It was a little more expensive than I expected and the nice spots seem to all be a long car-ride away from an airport, but all in all, I loved Costa Rica and would recommend it to anybody who loves nature, great food, and wonderful people.

Read more:

Upcoming: Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica: where to stay, what to eat, what to do