What Does Pura Vida Mean?

The phrase “Pura Vida” epitomizes Tico culture and lifestyle.  You will hear the term before you even leave the airport upon arriving to Costa Rica.  I knew about its use before I moved to Costa Rica because any book or website where you read about this country will include an explanation of what it means.

The literal translation

The phrase “Pura Vida” literally translates to “Pure Life” or “Simple Life”.  In Spanish, “Pura” also means “pure”, “simply”, “incorrupt”, “just or only”, and “clean”.

When to use the phrase

Much like “No Problem” in Jamaica, “Aloha” in Hawaii, or “Hakuna Matata” in Tanzania, the phrase can be used in multiple situations.  Ticos use it to say hello and good-bye.  They use it to toast or say thanks.  They also use it to express a general sentiment of positivity.  For example, if you ask someone how they are doing, they may respond with “Pura Vida!” to mean that they are having a great day.  Ticos will use the term to express a feeling of happiness and appreciation.

The phrase even appears in Creativa’s school song.  Here is one of the verses:

Me encanta jugar con computadoras

O irme buscando guayabas y moras

En la huerta encontramos mas comida

Frutas de mi labor son pura vida

This translates to:

I love to play with computers

Or go looking for guavas and berries

In the garden we will find more food

The fruits of my labor are pura vida

Kara at the Creativa garden, eating a guayava from one of the trees on campus

Kara at the Creativa garden, eating a guayava from one of the trees on campus

When I see my children come home from school with their happy mouths colored blue from eating “bocas negras” from the school orchard, I understand what this means.  They are living these words.  They are living la Pura Vida when they are able to climb a tree to pick berries and fruit to eat.

I have heard some folks use the term as a mantra to ward off negative feelings caused by life’s little mishaps.  For example, if you are telling someone that you got on the wrong bus from Puntarenas to Quepos (this actually did happen to me!), you can end the anecdote with a well placed, “Pura Vida!”  This is to convey that you will not let a simple thing like a flat tire, broken MacBook Air, or slow wi-fi connection bring you down.  It is a way of saying “Relax” or “Chill out”.  Whether your are on the beach, or in the cloud forest, or in a volcanic hot spring, living in Costa Rica makes it easy to set the mundane aside.

Its place in Tico culture

For Ticos, Pura Vida means so much more than a cool way to say hello or goodbye.  It is a way of life.  Costa Rica is one of the happiest countries on the planet.  Though it is a developing country that shares borders with its Latin American cousins that have seen strife, rampant poverty, violence, and civil war in the recent years, Costa Rica has been shielded from most of that.  Part of Costa Rica’s sheltering from all of that may be the mountain ranges that isolate it from bordering countries, but it also the Tico attitude.  After all, this is a country that many years ago decided to disband its military in order to fund health-care, education, and conservation efforts. There is a lot of negativity and suffering in the world.  Ticos have chosen to focus on the positive and the beauty around them.  They are grateful for being able to live on this planet.

I don’t mean to imply that life in Costa Rica is perfect or that Ticos turn a blind eye to the suffering that is happening in their neighboring Latin American countries or even within their own communities.  But the Pura Vida Tico motto is what motivates them to take the lemons life hands them and make agua fresca instead.  Since we have moved here, there have been multiple fundraisers to benefit families in crisis, such as a health calamity or housing problem.  Bad things happen in this country, but Ticos will roll up their sleeves and get to helping out their neighbor instead of whining about it.  That is Pura Vida!

This is the view I wake up to every morning. Pinch me to make sure I am not dreaming!

This is the view to which I wake up in the morning.  Pura Vida!

What it means to me

I used to live my life by my iPhone.  On a daily basis I crammed 36-hours worth of work into 24 hours.  I was always stressed, rushed, and frustrated.  That all changed when I moved to Costa Rica.  Once again, I don’t mean to imply that my life is perfect here and I have no problems.  That would be a lie.  But my attitude about life, time, and people has changed.  I have embraced Pura Vida like a glove for my heart.  It is much more important to me that I spend time with my children than I make money.  I find pleasure in having the opportunity to go out on a hike to one of the most biodiverse eco-systems in the world and then hang out at a coffee shop with wonderful friends, than receiving external validation for my work.  I am OK with being 15 minutes late somewhere because I stopped to talk to a friend in need on the street.  I do not fly into a rage if one of my children spills hot chocolate on the table, when I can use it as a teaching opportunity instead.  Pura Vida has taught me not to sweat the small stuff.  I have learned to live in the moment and appreciate everything I have.  I have access to clean water, healthy food, and a shelter that keeps the rain out.  Pura Vida allows me to forget about the ants in my kitchen, the mud on the soles of my shoes, and the absence of an Apple store in my small town.  Instead I focus on the wonderful friends I have made here, the healthier way of life that we have naturally stepped into, and the closer relationship I have forged with my kids.  The most wonderful part is knowing that even if I ever do leave Costa Rica, I will take Pura Vida with me no matter where I go.  And I want to share the Pura Vida lifestyle with the rest of the world!  

Photo Credit: Chris Gamel Photography

Embracing the Pura Vida culture means I smile a lot more often now.  Photo Credit: Chris Gamel Photography

What does Pura Vida mean to you?  Let me know in the comments below.

Pura Vida!

About Noemi Gamel

Noemi Gamel is a physician who prefers writing diverse children's fantasy stories instead of medical charts. She is a geeky nomad, too.
This entry was posted in A Question Worth Answering, Living in Costa Rica and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to What Does Pura Vida Mean?

  1. Pura Vida is an attitude, a response, and an incantation to protect against living life the wrong way.

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