Literally translated into English, pura vida means “pure life,” but after only a few days in Costa Rica, you’ll notice the meaning of pura vida is multifaceted. Ticos, as Costa Ricans refer to themselves, use pura vida in all sorts of situations. You might hear folks using it as a greeting, as a statement of how things are, as a sign of agreement, or even as an adjective or adverb (someone can look really pura vida).
Before coming to Costa Rica, I assumed pura vida to be a surfer phrase, something that emerged from tourist-culture that you might see printed on a t-shirt, but not said by the Costa Rican grandfather next door. I was wrong.
Our favorite local taxi driver, a very clean-cut gentleman who is also the mayor of our town, uses pura vida regularly.
Last week he dropped me and a whole load of groceries off at our house.
“Thanks for the ride, Javier,” I said.
“Pura vida,” he replied.
The next day he drove by our family as we were walking along the sidewalk trail to town.
Javier leaned out the window and waved. “Pura vida!”
I couldn’t help but respond in kind: “Pura vida.”
The phrase was introduced to Costa Rica in the 1950s through a Mexican movie with a tragi-comic, but eternally optimistic, character. Apparently this sense of optimism resonated with Costa Ricans, and by the 1970s the use of “pura vida” was widespread. These decades were, in fact, pura vida years for Costa Rica—its very short-lived civil war was over, and the nation’s democratic systems defined by strong social supports were well established. Costa Rica had even optimistically opted to abolish its military. Meanwhile refugees from the war-ravaged states of Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador were flowing across the border. It’s no wonder Ticos were struck by their good fortune.
A month ago, our friend Luis, a contractor, arrived at our house at 7am, ready to start a major demolition project (our car port roof had turned into a garden with cecropia trees ten feet tall growing off of its corrugated metal). An hour later, the two fellows Luis had hired to help him do the job still hadn’t shown up. Luis called them.
“We’re on our way,” one of the men told him, clearly groggy. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.” Luis was pretty sure he had woken the guy up.
An hour later, they still weren’t at our house, so Luis called again. “We’re just trying to find an extension cord and then we’ll head out.”
Luis laughed. “Okay, man, pura vida.”
Was I sensing sarcasm? I knew Luis had recently returned from the U.S.. He’d been infected by North America’s harried pace, and with these guys now three hours late, I knew he was frustrated.
“So what did you mean there when you said, pura vida?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s on Tico-time,” Luis laughed. “I could have meant pura vida in a sarcastic way meaning ‘You’re taken it pretty easy, aren’t you, Man?’ But I didn’t want to be mean—I still have to work with the guy—so I just said pura vida to mean something like, ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘It’s all good.’ I probably just should have known to sleep in myself.”
In all situations, pura vida seems to suggest gratitude, a connection or shared values, maybe even a bit of national pride, and an appreciation of the simple things in life, namely natural beauty and family. It’s not the sort of phrase someone would boastfully use when splurging on something expensive—Ticos are famously humble and not inclined to stand out from the pack. Instead, pura vida suggests, “Things aren’t perfect, but life is simple in a good way and we can’t complain.”
For our family, this has certainly been a pura vida year. The internet is slow and the municipal water sometimes gets shut off. The roads are made of dirt, and we don’t have a car to get around. But there’s so much we appreciate about life here: our pace has slowed down dramatically from what it was in the U.S., and recently we spotted a toucan on the banana tree in the backyard. We’re gratetful to be here. Pura vida.