Inhaling deeply, I let the tropical air fill my lungs as I absorb the mountainous landscape. Lush green is highlighted by the white wisps of low-laying clouds and glimpses of a bright blue sky. It is easy to let the words pura vida slip from my lips as I exhale. After only a week and a half in the small Costa Rican city of Heredia, it is becoming increasingly clear to see how this phrase manifests itself in the day to day life of the average Tico.
1. Pace of Life
When I first arrived in Heredia, an unexpected amount of noise and activity greeted me on the streets. People walking every which way, others shouting to passersby the names of their wares, cars zipping by, honking and following a set of traffic rules in which most stop signs hold no more value than that of a lamppost. Heredia was supposedly a small town; wasn’t it supposed to be a little bit quieter and a little bit less crazy? With so many things going on around me, I felt like I was in the middle of a huge metropolis. After about five or six days, the shock began to wear off, and I began to see a little more clearly. Heredia is, in fact, small. Nearly everywhere you might need to go is within walking distance. The multitudes of people on the streets were doing just that — walking to wherever it was they needed or wanted to be. And they were walking at their own pace.
As I rushed around at my usual speed, I quickly realized that I was passing almost everyone. The Ticos were taking their time, strolling along with their shopping bags and chatting with friends. Here, people’s watches are set on tico time, which means things happen when they happen. The sidewalks are often noisy and are constantly moving, but they are free of rush and pressure. The cars, though, move fast, and crossing the street can seem like a game of Frogger. But remember, there’s no big rush to get to the other side. Pedestrians yield to the traffic and wait patiently to cross. When the traffic slows, Ticos pick up the pace and hustle to the other side, where they resume their leisurely stroll, enjoying the sun, tempting smells wafting out of restaurants, and occasionally stopping to sit a while on the bench of a colorful park. Which brings us to…
2. The Great Outdoors
Heredia is known as the ‘City of Flowers’, and green parks accented with bright blossoms can be found scattered about the city. At any given time, you can find Ticos enjoying these open spaces, having a coffee with friends or watching their kids run around in the grass. As I said before, nearly everything is easily within walking distance, and this also means more time enjoying the fresh air. I spend at least one hour each day walking, more if I have errands to run or classes that are spaced far apart. If you need to be somewhere in the main part of Heredia, it is easier and faster to walk than to join the traffic on the small, congested streets. That being said, the bus system in Costa Rica is well established, and the quieter countryside and abundant natural wonders are easily within reach. For instance, I caught a bus and spent a day at Volcán Poas with a group of friends last Saturday, only one of many options if you are looking for a day trip. Costa Ricans have every excuse to spend more time outside, and they do just that. Fresh air and a bit of exercise get those feel-good endorphins pumping. It’s no wonder why Costa Ricans have been identified as some of the happiest people in the world.
3. Good Eats
Costa Rica’s breathtaking landscapes also happen to foster a prime environment for fresh fruits and vegetables, main staples in a Tico’s diet. As a fruit and veggie lover, I have been in absolute heaven. I can walk to the nearby market and find every edible plant I could ever imagine, plus some I could never have dreamed up. Fruits and vegetables are cheap, fresh, and accessible, as are rice, beans, and corn tortillas, which add some substance and make for a well-rounded meal. With these foods within easy reach, Costa Ricans enjoy a generally healthy diet. Obesity is certainly far less prevalent here than in the United States. Fewer health problems mean fewer worries. And might I add, my taste buds have never been happier.
Less rush, more time outdoors, and plenty of vitamins add up to equal what Costa Ricans know as pura vida, a way of life that allows you to relish in each minute, taking things as they come. I am learning an immeasurable number of things each day, and I am learning to do it all with the mindset of pura vida. Leaning back in my chair on the balcony at my homestay, I take in the expansive mountain vistas that are the backdrop to life here. I can hear the chatter of neighbors in rapid Spanish and a dog barking in the distance. An occasional horn interrupts the twittering of birds. I smile, because I already know I will be taking a lot more home with me than just a suitcase full of souvenirs.