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Something in the Water and Air: Costa Rica’s Pura Vida

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 16 December 2013

In my mind’s eye, the lingering visions of Costa Rica are almost comically rosy, like a slideshow of carnival caricatures:

There’s Glenn Jampol, glowingly avuncular as he guides his visitors through fading light back to the roastery, where bags of organic, shade-grown coffee beans await, still warm to the touch and utterly intoxicating to the nose. (Read more about Glenn.)

Open cacao pod, CATIE, Costa Rica

At the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Turrialba, Costa Rica, an open cacao pod reveals its clump of seeds covered in a tasty goo. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

There’s Dr. Eliécer Vargas proudly whacking open a mottled cacao pod, exhorting us to pluck from the exposed clump of seeds and then suck off the sweet goo.

There’s Isahiah Lapanu, tall and self-possessed, speaking with convincing and hopeful confidence about “periurban farming” practices, “alternative substrates” and “biointensive gardening.”

And what about Rodolfo Gomez, the chubby-cheeked pineapple farmer, his expressive mustache pinned into a triumphant grin, arms cradling a quartet of plump pineapples hacked fresh from the spiky-leafed bushes at his feet?

And Leopoldo, the clean-shaven, exemplary resort-operations manager passionate about sustainable tourism?

And so many others.

Of course, what about the backdrop? It’s a setting just as harlequin: whiffled and fluttering stipples of saturated yellows, oranges and reds piercing through a waving, heaving and fleshy canvas of every possible gradation of green.

Fresh cut pineapple, Finca Sura, Costa Rica

Could this pineapple be more fresh, prepared for easy tasting in the field from which it has just been cut at Finca Sura, Costa Rica? Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Amazingly, the memories aren’t an enhanced corruption of the reality. This is the Costa Rica I got to know – unmuted colors, unblunted fragrances and flavors, unchecked natural abundance, and unrestrained and emotive faces.

And this is the Costa Rica I will share over the course of several weeks.

Pura Vida

People in Costa Rica, both native-born and expatriate, have an all-purpose expression for their unconcealed pride of purpose and place: pura vida.

According to local lore, the frequently uttered phrase took root in Costa Rica after a 1956 Mexican movie, called ¡Pura vida!, featured a man who spoke the words often. They’re now ubiquitous in Costa Rican conversation, their literal translation being “pure life,” but their application widely accepted as a salutation or farewell, a word of thanks, or even a verbal thumbs-up.

What’s the smiling reply to “Hola! Buenos dias”? It’s “Pura vida!” To “Muchas gracias”? “Pura vida!” To “Que tal?”? “Pura vida!”

When I first arrived in Costa Rica, this common utterance caught me by surprise. But it soon fell into place as just one quality of the Costa Rican forthrightness I found wherever I turned. Of course, every country has its honest and vocal advocates, but there seemed to be something more that permeated many Costa Ricans’ country-grounded self-esteem.

International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People, Peace, held in San José, Costa Rica

Opening words at the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People, Peace, held in San José, Costa Rica in November 2013. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

That could, naturally, have had something to do with the two reasons why I was there and the people whose paths I crossed.

Sustainability in Practice

My decision to visit Costa Rica was heavily influenced by two things.

First, I was on hand to attend the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism: Planet, People, Peace, held in San José from November 4 to 6, 2013. A gathering of some of the world’s most knowledgeable practitioners of and advocates for sustainable solutions in tourism, it was a perfect opportunity to gauge advancements in the field from around the world.

Both before and after the conference, I spent several days visiting places selected by the National Chamber of Ecotourism (CANAECO) and the Ministry of Tourism for their exemplary focus on sustainability. (CANAECO is the Costa Rican organization that drives sustainable practices in the tourism sector through the respect for and protection of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, and the promotion of its economic and social development. CANAECO was the host of the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism.)

Taking advantage of both opportunities was important to me, as Costa Rica is frequently cited as a world leader in sustainable tourism, founded in part on its conservation policies and aggressive efforts to maintain protected natural areas, both national and private, which currently encompass more than 25 percent of its total landmass, an amount said to be the highest in the world.

Tire planeter, EARTH University, Costa Rica

At EARTH University in Costa Rica, sustainable agriculture includes repurposing waste materials for beneficial use. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

Sharing What I Learned

Starting Wednesday, and over the course of several weeks, I will be sharing more information about what I learned, both at the conference and during my travels.

Although my trip was too swift and my encounters too fleeting for me to believe I really got to the heart of anything – least of all a real understanding of pura vida – a solid smattering of honest portraits will perhaps help illustrate some of what’s really in the stew of a country whose just-shelved tourism slogan boasted it was Sin Ingredientes Artificiales (Without Artificial Ingredients).

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Ethan Gelber was in Costa Rica as a guest of Visit Costa Rica and as part of EcoAdventure Media‘s #EcoCostaRica campaign, but we made absolutely sure that his opinions in this post are decidedly his own.

For more #EcoCostaRica reading from the EcoAdventure Media crew, try the following:
* A Taste of Costa Rican Wildlife
* The Journey To Corcovado National Park
* Who’s Protecting the Jungles of Costa Rica?
* Wildlife Safari Through Tortuguero National Park

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is a co-founder of OutBounding (a content curation tool), Destination Accelerator (education and networking for destination marketers) and EcoAdventure Media (support for eco-conscious brands), as well as a co-initiator of the Local Travel Movement (a platform for people passionate about local travel). For five years, Ethan has been Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world, for which he founded and edits The Travel Word (this very blog).
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Central America, Costa Rica, ecotours, forests & jungles, local knowledge, North America, opinion, outdoors, personal experience,

8 Responses to “Something in the Water and Air: Costa Rica’s Pura Vida”

  1. […] COSTA RICA: Something In The Water & Air […]

  2. [...] night, from the hilly headlands of Costa Rica‘s Central Valley — a mountain-flanked plateau home to nearly three quarters of the [...]

  3. [...] night, from the hilly headlands of Costa Rica‘s Central Valley — a mountain-flanked plateau home to nearly three quarters of the [...]

  4. [...] night, from the hilly headlands of Costa Rica‘s Central Valley — a mountain-flanked plateau home to nearly three quarters of the [...]

  5. [...] night, from the hilly headlands of Costa Rica‘s Central Valley — a mountain-flanked plateau home to nearly three quarters of the [...]

  6. Trip says:

    Great article Ethan. I never got the opportunity to indulge in a cacao pod, wonder what its like. But definitely can not go wrong with getting the chance to eat absolutely fresh fruits.

    • Ethan Gelber (Editor) says:

      Thanks for the comment, Trip.

      In an upcoming post, I’ll be sharing a bit more about some of the fruits I encountered (including cacao) while visiting CATIE (The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center), a 45-hectare farm near Turrialba, Costa Rica, that educates people about agribusiness and natural resources in an interactive manner that is suitable for all types of audiences.

      Stay tuned!

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