What does the simple life mean to you? Visions of sustainable living, immersing yourself in nature or merely living outside of deadlines and commitments?
As with many Spanish phrases, Costa Rica’s ‘La Pura Vida’ can’t be taken literally. Directly translated, it means ‘the pure life’, however the sentiment for native Costa Ricans (or Ticos) is more about ‘just living’. A very different concept.
The widest theory is that the phrase stemmed from a 1956 Mexican film of the same name. In the following decades, as most Central American countries suffered war and political unrest, Costa Rica established a democracy and began to prosper. Pura Vida therefore, became a motto for Costa Rica alone.
By the 90s it had made it into dictionaries and has since become even more synonymous with the laidback lifestyle here. Linguistically, I’ve learnt that it can cover many bases; from ‘hello’ to ‘thanks’ and even as Juan, a guide outside Cahuita’s national park explained, replaces the Spanish word for ‘OK’. What still remains abstract for me though, is the interpretation of this lifestyle.
I’ve embraced Pura Vida by being hedonistic and focusing on the simple things. I eat when I want to, I sleep when I want to and I party when I want to. I purposely spend time listening to the birds, watching the sun come up and go down and enjoying the sudden downpours of a tropical storm. For the first time in over five years I’ve even done early morning yoga!
So far, aside from a terrible bout of traveller’s tummy, the lifestyle seems to be suiting me and I’m feeling healthier for it. However I’ve realised that there’s a darker side of this country’s world famous attitude. I have a sneaking suspicion that what perhaps started for some as the hedonism I’m enjoying, seems to have morphed into something slightly more sinister.
In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve had several bizarre encounters outside of the usual weed touting that I expected of these towns that hark from a rich Caribbean, often Rastafarian heritage. I’ve witnessed retired expats falling into gutters before lunchtime, coke being snorted openly on a park bench as I ate my lunch and open sales of Class As at the tourist dinner table. Passersby seem to turn a blind eye, despite prison sentences for selling, taking and possession being considerably longer than other countries.
So, what perhaps started as a retirement dream of early morning runs along white sands, sustainable living in the lush soils and a Cuba Libre at sunset, has clearly become distorted for some. It strikes me that we foreigners (known as Gringos) are the driving force behind this phenomenon that adds an extra dimension to the concept of Pura Vida: Some Ticos becoming dependent on the booze and drugs trade as their primary source of income.
Although Costa Rica has by all accounts evolved as a natural eden, with a tropical climate and a diversity of animal species that would rival most countries ten times its size, it also has the 4th highest alcoholism rate of Latin America. In a land where outdoor activities, rich culture and mother nature abound, it looks like many people simply choose to live la Vida Loca.
All that said, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s that this mantra is open to personal perspective. By becoming curious about everyone else’s lifestyle I may be missing the point entirely. Could Pura Vida simply be not concerning ourselves with others’ reality and only living ours?
As I leave the country for a few months tomorrow morning, I’ll just consider myself lucky to have experienced my own, very personal slice of La Pura Vida.