Learning Pura Vida in Costa Rica

la fortuna waterfall in costa ricaThe most distinct part of living or traveling through Costa Rica is what I call the “calming down effect.” Life is so simple there; the most stressful decision to make all day is often where to watch the sunset. Physical changes arrive thanks to the opportunity of living in a world surrounded by untouched nature. Monkeys play in the trees, and roosters roam the streets. But not everything is perfect. I lived a year in the land of “pura vida,” and was I’m surprised by the many misconceptions people have about the country.

The most obvious mistake that any expat notices is how many people think it’s synonymous with Mexico or mix it up with Puerto Rico. Many travelers are surprised that margaritas and tortilla chips are scarce. Ticos (the word for native Costa Ricans) actually eat a very simple diet of mostly rice and beans. My local friends often make a huge, family-sized pan of it in the morning. At breakfast, it’s served with an egg; beef, chicken or fish is added later in the day, with a fresh cabbage salad at dinner. Also, it’s very expensive to import just about anything to this small Central American country. Wine is triple the price that it is in the US, among many other things. (So when you order it at a bar, expect it to come from a box.) I have a friend who plans weddings, and she constantly hears, “But in Mexico, they offered us this… But in Mexico, we got a deal on that.” Her answer is always: “Then go get married in Mexico.”

Costa Rica’s famous nature (jungles, rain forests, beaches) do not disappoint. They are pristine and beautiful. But sometimes the seemingly few beach bars there do. In its effort to preserve said nature, there are strict laws about how close to the beach you can build a bar, house, or hotel. As one would expect in such a laidback Central American country, the municipality ignored this for many years. But the country has stepped up enforcement and all over Costa Rica, beloved ceviche shacks and watering holes were torn down so that beaches could return to their natural prettiness.
a monkey in costa rica
Some things you will never get used to (a man holding a baby with one arm as he speeds down the main road on his bike still turns my stomach). But trust that there’s a solution to every problem. A pipe is leaking in your front yard, and you can’t get through to AYA? Don’t go ballistic. Flag down a truck and ask them yourself. Sometimes the garbage men don’t come for a week. Honestly, they probably have a beef with someone in your neighborhood, and it’s being done on purpose. The trash heap will eventually be taken away. In the meantime, consider it part of the charm.

I recently arrived at the Liberia airport to a mass of people in the immigration line. It was chaos. Americans were seething at the mess, men yelling and pushing. I was just as angry – at them for being so rude. You just landed in an open-air airport in Costa Rica. Did you really think someone was going to come out and start directing traffic? Smile, and wait an extra ten minutes. This isn’t the United States. The slow-paced lifestyle will manifest itself in many different ways, not all of them to everyone’s liking.
a costa rica sunset
On the flip side, often, a “problem” will just sort of fix itself. Once, I needed a new wallet and couldn’t find a single one for sale. (There are about three stores in my pueblo, most of them hawking only souvenirs.) But people in my town had wallets so I knew eventually I’d figure it out how to get it. One day, the answer literally came knocking. One day a woman knocked on my door with a catalog packed with French beauty products and colorful clothes. I flipped through it and sure enough, I found a wallet! A few weeks later, she returned from San Jose with it. This is how you shop when the closest big city is four hours away by car – and few people have enough money for a car to begin with. I replaced my torn-up Gucci with a simple brown cloth wallet covered in colored flowers. It was $10 – and perfect.

Abby Tegnelia is a writer who lived in Costa Rica. You can follow her at Day Dream Away. She recently moved back from Costa Rica to explore the concrete jungles of Las Vegas and New York City.

  1. I love the Pura Vida style Costa Ricans have. I had a great time over there and I was marveled at the stress free lifestyle they have. Hey, with that natural scenery, who isn’t?!

    It’s funny how Central America countries are still fuzzy to many people around the world. And yes, Costa Rica is nothing similar to Puerto Rico or Mexico. I dare say Costa Ricans know how to appreciate life as it is better (this is coming from a Puerto Rican… lol).

  2. Skott and Shawna

    Hey Matt – first off thanks for the two ebooks we have purchased from you so far….How to Travel the World, and How to Develop A Travel Blog. We are just in the midst of starting our travel blog for our RTW, hopefully commencing next May-June. I am a technological idiot, so here is hoping it will help me through the steps, so I can develop something credible.

    On note of Costa Rica, I was there only for a week a few years, back, and yes it is true the nature is outstanding…this is currently my #1 destination as far as places I would love to live on a semi-permanent basis that are not in North America.

    Thanks for the great travel tales…


  3. Louis Skip Gonzalez

    I completely agree with Norbert. I am Puerto Rican as well and live in NYC. When I returned from a 2 week trip to Costa Rica, I finally realized that I had no understanding whatsoever about appreciating life as it is. It really is amazing what a trip to Costa Rica can do for one’s mind, body, and soul. Pura Vida!!!!

    • NomadicMatt

      My Costa Rica trip changed my life! I love that country! It’s amazing. I can’t wait to go back next year. They know how to live!

  4. Great piece, Abby! Can’t wait to visit Costa Rica.

    Matt, have you considered acknowledging your guest posters at the beginning of their posts? You could keep the full bio at the end — just a line at the top would work. It’s a bit misleading to read a piece and then discover that it’s someone else who had these experiences. Thanks!

  5. You are so right about everything. I lived there for a couple of years and got the change to travel thought it exploring every corner and it turned into my favorite place on earth. It’s absolutely amazing!

  6. I’m so glad you guys liked it! I miss Costa Rica so much — it sort of wears on you over time. If it can make a (former) workaholic like me truly calm down, it can work its magic on anyone. I hope to never sweat the small stuff again!

  7. Great post! I’m living in Costa Rica right now myself. I LOVE how laid back everyone is. Living here is really teaching me how to be positive all the time…I hope you can maintain your pura vida in Vegas and NYC!

  8. Great story Abby, I´m a Tico and the article is well balanced, Costa Rica ain´t perfect (just like any other country in the world) but it never ceases to amaze me. I get to travel this beautiful country of mine at least once a month. Will never get tired of it! Pura Vida!

  9. “The trash heap will eventually be taken away. In the meantime, consider it part of the charm.”

    Sounds like life slows down and relaxes a lot here… Actually sounds quite nice 😉

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