THE BLOG
09/13/2011 08:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Costa Rica And The Quest For 'Pura Vida'

"Pura Vida." It's a phrase I've heard ever since I first came to Costa Rica many years ago. At some point I realized I had heard it everywhere throughout the country, uttered by guides, park rangers, bus drivers and bureaucrats. But until recently, I never really considered what Pura Vida meant. I know literally it means "Pure Life," but is there something deeper?

Could this be a clue to the roots of Costa Rica's exceptionalism?

The country is a place of rivers wild to get to the sea, mountains that speak with fire and rainforests that obey no rules. It has more species of animals and plants than the US and Canada combined. An ethnically diverse democracy, Costa Rica has literacy rates and healthcare comparable to the most developed countries in the world. It has abolished its military and enjoys greater peace and political stability than all its neighbors. I've traveled through the country many times, but what brings me back over and over again is a sense of well-being I've felt in few places on earth.

A Bit Of Luck

What I find remarkable is the sensitivity the people have to their surroundings. Costa Ricans have set aside one quarter of their land as national parks and protected areas. How did they manage this when so many people in other countries stood by while their natural wonders were degraded or destroyed? How did Costa Ricans fend off the miners, loggers, farmers, burners, developers and others who have felled and flattened rainforests around the world? How did they trick time?
A piece of the puzzle is found on the Pacific side at the Osa Peninsula, the complex ecological mosaic that encircles Corcovado National Park.

costa ricaCorcovado is the ark of Latin America. It holds a mind-bending amount of ecological variety. National Geographic called it "the most biologically intense place on Earth." The park's profusion of wildlife thrives on an equally staggering range of vegetation, including at least four different kinds of forest, encompassing some 500 species of trees. It's like every color of the rainbow, with a few new ones thrown in for good measure. Wrapped in the boughs of the park is the largest old-growth forest on the American Pacific coastline.

It was geological serendipity that formed Costa Rica, ancient tectonics that created a narrow land bridge linking the continents of North and South America. For millennia it's served as a longitudinal corridor for animal and plant life, a breeding ground for a riot of adaptations, and a tropical hotbed that conservationists call "The Path of the Panther."

Because of the remoteness of the Osa peninsula, the logging that threatened much of Costa Rica didn't start here until the 1960s. By 1975 there were plans for a major international logging operation. At the same time, scientists and conservationists became alarmed about the effects of development on the area's biological richness and they strongly lobbied Costa Rica's president to protect the area. In spite of protests from locals and even some in his own cabinet, President Oduber recognized the value of protecting Corcovado and declared it a national park. While some illegal logging and mining continues today, the economics of the park have turned several former poachers into caretakers, now diligent about protecting their ecological prize.

The Green Blanket

When Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Costa Rica in the sixteenth century, they found a rugged and luxuriant land that had been occupied by pockets of indigenous peoples for millennia. Whether by design, accident or destiny, the Conquistadors conquered more than boundaries. Most of the original peoples perished from European diseases, such as smallpox, and savage treatment by the Spanish colonizers.

But, unlike other parts of Latin America, Costa Rica's difficult terrain didn't lend itself to easy colonization. The region was largely neglected by the Spanish Empire, which was much more interested in developing the silver and gold mines of Mexico and Peru.

boraboraEuropean settlers in Costa Rica were left largely to their own devices, and historians think this contributed to the country's evolution as a more egalitarian society than many of its neighbors. In 1821, Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in a joint declaration of independence from Spain, and today it is home to a distinctive mix of people, most of who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from countries and ethnic groups around the world.

In less time than it takes to read this story, enough trees worldwide will fall to the axe, machete, chain saw and bulldozer to reforest New York's Central Park. In the same span, several species of plants and animals may vanish from the earth forever. One of the planet's most significant arenas of creative evolution--the richest, most complex and oldest ecosystem we know--the rainforest, is toppling toward extinction.

Not in Monteverde, in Costa Rica's highland interior. Roiling in fountains of mist, the Monteverde Cloud Forest has a magical realism about it, a complex system of layering. It seems a place to grasp the mystery that breathes behind things. Even humidity here is at its purest: 100%. And it seems to disregard natural assumptions, hosting more than 3000 species of animals and plants.
At least four different kinds of forest thrive in Costa Rica, and Monteverde, literally "green mountain," is a house of spirits to the cloud variety. Warm, moist, air sweeps in off the ocean and is pushed upward by mountain slopes, where it seems to fill the infinite.

On the forest fringes, through tresses of mist, shimmers the village of Monteverde. In another twist of Costa Rica's history of diverse immigration, the village was founded by Quakers who moved here from the United States in 1951. They wanted to leave behind the constant threats of war, and the obligation to support the US military through taxation. In addition to its natural charms, Costa Rica was appealing because it had no standing army. In 1948, after a hotly contested election and spasms of political violence, President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the country's army, freeing up funds for improved social programs. There is a theory that without an army, which exists in a constant state of tension, ever prepared to employ its power, citizens naturally feels calmer, and purer.

boraboraAlthough Monteverde's Quaker settlers came to farm the land, they wisely recognized the merit in preserving the cloud forest rising above their fields. They decided to dedicate the largest nearby tract of forest as a biological reserve.

The reserve unwinds with a well-maintained network of trails, and exploring them is like hiking through a grand green cathedral, at once hallowed, sublime, and a bit eerie. Life is exuberant and pure here. I can almost inhale the incense of Pura Vida surrounded by massive ropes of vines, hanging moss, and fairy chains of orchids. It's like a hall of double helixes, creating life as the woodland umbilicals swing.

One of Costa Rica's icons, the little red-eyed tree frog, can be found in the hushed forest depths. With bulging eyes and orange feet, they almost look like cartoon characters. Researchers believe these tree frogs suffer environmental effects much earlier than other animals, and so are an indicator species, alerting humans to large-scale environmental changes. Declines in frog populations have been documented by scientists worldwide.

But the outlook for Costa Rica's forests feels optimistic as I climb on a mountain bike, the vehicles of poets, to go deeper into the heart of Monteverde. The bicycle's been called the most civilized conveyance known to humans. While other forms of transport sequester us from the natural world, the bicycle intersects. It allows the purity of childhood wonder, so very apropos for Costa Rica.

Flowing Rock

Costa Rica teeters on the Pacific Ring of Fire, casting skyward some 90 volcanoes. North of Monteverde, Arenal is the country's most active volcano and among the most energetic in the world, simultaneously lifting the horizon and pulling down the sun. After four centuries of calm, the slumbering peak surged to life in 1968 laying waste the surrounding four square miles and killing 78 people. Today, it sleeps...

At one time Costa Rica, like all of Central America, was part of the ocean floor and the earliest volcanoes swelled beneath the sea. As layer upon layer of cooled volcanic material piled up, peaks finally poked from the watery depths. This rapturously terrible geological activity is key to the country's lush landscape and astonishing biodiversity.

costa ricaThanks to many eruptions over thousands of years, Costa Rica's soil is mineral-rich and prodigiously fertile. The country's variety of microclimates results, in part, from the changes in temperature and rainfall as air travels up and over the hot-headed mountains.

Nearly two thirds of Costa Rica's border is defined by coastline. It was Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, who dubbed this land "Costa Rica," meaning "Rich Coast." And though he most likely had visions of gold and silver dancing in his head, the name certainly fit. Here are the riches of paradise. The Garden of Eden, an image so deeply implanted in Western lore, with roots in both classical and biblical soil, is the place to which we all long to return. And this garden of surf and sand and swaying palms has that same pull. Could the path to Pura Vida lie somewhere between the natural world and our interpretations of it?

On The Line Or Hoof

costa ricaIt's like flying without a plane. Being a bird on a wire. Arguing against the laws of gravity, it is a leap of faith. But after you've experienced it, zip-lining is the only real adventure. All others are just games.

Zip-lining is the sport of soaring above the ground while secured in a harness attached to an overhead cable. The rider whirls over dark trees, a feather swept before a storm. Leaves, fronds, flowers, birds shoot by, with a speed and noise like rushing waters let loose. All troubles are left on the ground. This is the frisson of fierce exhilaration. Is it possible that the purest life comes from the rush, the vitalization, when you can imagine your own demise?

costa ricaBeauty, spirit, freedom and grace are hallmarks of Costa Rica. And that could as well be said of its horses. The land here sings with hoof beats. In riding, we borrow wildness; we pirate wings.

Horses wrote history here. When the Spanish conquistadors introduced horses, it was the start of long and meaningful relationship.

Horses were instrumental in settling the land. Spanish settlers excelled in horsemanship and used their skills for cattle ranching, and eventually for cultivating coffee and banana plantations. Horse travel allowed greater mobility along narrow mountain paths and into dense jungles, and of course, they were a joy to ride, full of cadence, dance and song.

Crowdsourced Conservation

This type of biologically diverse eco-system once covered most of Central America's Pacific side, but was systematically destroyed by humans over the past centuries. Sometimes the destruction was caused by small farmers clearing land for crops and livestock; often it was from huge logging, plantation, and cattle companies, or shortsighted governments with designs on quick profit.
Decades ago, before "saving the planet" became the clarion call it is today, Costa Ricans recognized that rampant, uncontrolled development and extractive industries could trample their national garden. To save their patch of Mesoamerica from being wrecked, people began marking boundaries around areas they felt should be preserved. Tortuguero National Park is one of those stories.

Etched between volcanic hills to the west and briny tides to the east, the park is a pastiche of fertile river deltas. The area was once an archipelago until alluvial sediments from interior mountains filled in the gaps, forming a network of marshlands. With 11 different ecological habitats, accessible only by boat or light aircraft, Tortuguero marches not just to a different drummer, but to a whole different band.

costa ricaWherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for a kayak. There is no rushing. Waters here are so still they mirror the clouds. When you paddle, you go at the pace of the clouds, a cadence that reaches back to the first blush of life on the planet; purer than the rhythms of childhood.
As the first tinges of daylight mark the sky, I creep quietly along the beach for a glimpse into one of nature's marvels: turtle hatching. Tortuguero is best-known as a breeding ground for endangered turtles--the largest population in the world--and no place is more critical to the survival of the Caribbean's green sea turtle. The height of the nesting season comes in May and June, but at any given time there are usually a few stragglers between their plated decks.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, these turtles were hunted to near extinction. Working closely with the Costa Rican government, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation helped establish Tortuguero National Park in 1970, a move that offered protection to the turtles and strictly controlled access to remaining populations.

For some of us, life is the interlude between paddling. For the grand pyrotechnics of my journey, my old friend Michael Kaye arranged a rafting trip on the Pacuare, a run he pioneered and waters we have shared over the years.

Michael was first to mine many of Costa Rica's white-water riches, and for him rafting epitomizes Pura Vida. As we pass through the fantastical forests and leaping gorges I consider how a river trip like this is a naturally unfolding story and how the power of narrative, with its romance, mystery and the danger of wild places, argues, often subliminally, sometimes loudly, for preservation, visitation, and the pursuit of purity.

Costa Rica is like the monkey who locked up the zookeeper. It's put away the constrained thinking that keeps others stuck in unproductive routines, and allowed its wildness to escape the margins. Because it's faithful to our childlike imaginations of wilderness, our youthful notions of life authentic and unadulterated, Costa Rica remains a true, original adventure. Far from the strictures of gentlemanly routines, here we can remember what makes life rip-roaring and breathtaking. We can test our mettle, hear our hearts race, and even encounter a bit of danger. This is a world painted in bold, unrepentant strokes: where monkeys howl, parrots and macaws swoop over waterfalls, and the white water of Pure Life can splash a visitor in the face.

Serendipity

Yet it isn't Pura Vida alone that drove Costa Rica's enlightened environmental policies. It seems to have been some sort of magical convergence -- a coming together of geographic providence, truly farsighted people and perfect timing.

Pura Vida was in cahoots with other things: Land too rugged to allow easy exploitation, a juncture in modern history when a global appreciation of the environment was beginning to ignite, and leaders and visionaries who unroofed the odds and set about establishing a national park system and ecotourism infrastructures that delighted all who came to see.

boraboraBut perhaps what makes Costa Rican culture so evolved is that many different people from very diverse backgrounds have created something greater than the sum of their individual efforts: They've found a unified voice that makes conservation a national moral value. Biologists have a concept called "hybrid vigor." By that they mean that cross-breeding different strains of animals or plants results in something stronger than the individual strains. The same holds true for societies, and Costa Rica is a poster child. Pure Vida is not the cause of Costa Rica's uniqueness; it is the expression of it.

Conservation is never a done deal. Even here in Costa Rica, it's a constant, uphill struggle. Yet no place on earth glows warmer with the spirit of joy, hope, and inexhaustible promise, and the attendant feelings of a bright, unspotted life. Not only does Costa Rica have its home-grown heroes, it has become a hero for the rest of the world: a model and magnet for researchers, ecologists, adventurers, and all who want to experience the magic of Pura Vida and be part of this luminous stitch in time.

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Richard Bangs is an author and world traveler. Watch his new PBS special, "Richard Bangs' Adventures with Purpose, Costa Rica: Quest for Pura Vida," airing nationally now. Check your local listings for air times. www.adventureswithpurpose.tv