Pura Vida: how a few syllables sum up an entire society


In Costa Rica, people don’t have much, not by American standards.

They don’t own elaborate estates or a chain of fast food restaurants. They have modest homes and portable tables to set up the day’s jewelry display. They don’t have much. But they don’t seem to need much more.

“Welcome to my office,” a local man said when we reached the base of the waterfall after a steep downhill hike followed by a trivial traverse of slippery rocks. He was selling intricately woven necklaces made with native gemstones like jade, turquoise, opals, pearls and more. Bare chest, barefeet, all smiles.

“Not a bad life,” I said.

“No,” he agreed.

We chatted back and forth in the broken kind of conversation that occurs when two people who can only minimally speak each other’s language try to chum it up. I asked him about the waterfall.

“Is it safe to jump?”

“Yes,” he said. “But only in parts.” He pointed out various areas where I could break a leg, an arm or my neck.

Naturally, I decided it was safe enough and plopped into the muddy water and swam to the rock ledge where the locals usually jump from. I’d witnessed them swinging from a rope and knowingly jumping where they had to in order to make it.

I looked to him, the roar of the falls all around me, slippery rock cliff beneath my feet. Without hearing me, he knew I was asking. Safe?

He placed his palms flat against one another in prayer and bowed his head to me the way we do at the end of a yoga practice. Namaste.

And with his blessing, I jumped.

Pura Vida isn’t just a two-word slogan used to entice tourists – it is a meaningful mantra that Costa Ricans practice everyday. It is their morning walk to work, a friendly wave to a passing neighbor, the strum of a ukulele chord, a “con gusto” in response to every expression of thanks.

They don’t have much. Over 20 percent of the country is in poverty. But what they do have, they cherish. They have family, community, the water.

“Happy hour every hour for chicas guapas,” the bartender said in Spanglish.

It was our last day in Costa Rica, and Cady and I were trying so hard to remain present as our imminent departure loomed. But the bartender managed to get a smile out of both of us.

We sipped on sangria and beer and watched waves crash against the rocks. Families lounged in chairs scattered about the sand. A group of kids played beach volleyball close by.

The game concluded and pint-sized people ran in disarray to find their parents. A little boy, maybe 3, made a beeline for the bar. He climbed a stool three times his height, perched atop it and leaned over the bar to toy with the faucet. It wasn’t long before the entire bar top was splattered with water.
Despite the bartender’s scolding, the boy continued to play with the water, making an even bigger mess, until his dad materialized and told him to cut it out.

Just as abruptly as he’d arrived, the boy stood up on the stool, dropped his pants to his ankles, swung them over his head and threw them on top of the soaked bar. He then used his pants as a mop, wiping up his mess, his tiny butt dangerously close to my face. When he completed the task, he jumped from his stool and ran bare-assed toward the ocean.

Everyone – the bartender, the boy’s father, the man drinking alone, the waitresses, Cady and me – broke out in uncontrolled laughter. A laugh shared by everyone.

It was in this moment that I felt most connected to the people of Costa Rica. The language of laughter holds no barrier.

And people in Costa Rica aren’t the only happy ones. Dogs seem to be living just as purely. While their owners are busy selling handcrafted jewelry, coconut-based beverages, souvenirs and “soda tipical,” dogs traipse around town free and leashless but fully aware of the rules man has put in place: stay out of the street, don’t enter shops uninvited, accept treats from any giving hand.

While walking along the beach, a spritely pup approached Cady and me. She sat on our feet, rolled over for a belly rub and would have played fetch until sundown if we’d kept going. Her owner was nowhere in sight, but we seemed to be the only ones who were worried. She followed us for a while, and we quickly learned she’s well-known and well-loved in the area.

In Costa Rica, dogs are trusted to set out on their own adventures, wander alone or with a newfound friend, and return later to their owners. The best part? Not one dog I encountered (and there were many) seemed malnourished or mistreated. They were all wags.

From man to canine and and every being in between, it shouldn’t be hard to believe this “pura vida” mentality captures the hearts of Costa Rica visitors just the same. In just eight days, I returned home feeling more relaxed, more patient and at peace. It only took eight days. I can only imagine what a lifetime would do.

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