Pura Vida! It's Not Just Greeting; It's a Way of Life

This peaceful philosophy is everywhere in Costa Rica. (Photo: Marcus Grip/Shutterstock).

Costa Rica is often named one of the world's happiest countries. Credit the beauty and the climate or the laid-back nature of the people who call the tropical nation home. Visit Costa Rica and you'll be greeted over and over with "pura vida!" It's a phrase that literally means "pure life," but has become the country's national motto and way of living.

"I think the phrase is best translated loosely as 'always look on the upside.' It's used in such contexts as 'Everything’s cool' in reply to 'How are you?' but its usage can vary widely and have loose application," says award-winning travel writer and photographer Christopher P. Baker, who specializes in Costa Rica, Cuba and Colombia. Baker's books include the "Moon Costa Rica" and "National Geographic Traveler Costa Rica" guidebooks.

"It is an attitude that life is cool, that things are or will turn out rosy, or at least a pretense that everything is positive," says Baker. "It could be said to translate to a live-and-let-live approach, perhaps even a laissez-faire that contributes to a state in which contentious issues remain unresolved."

The expression likely originated in the 1950s, according to José Melendez, a Costa Rican journalist who has done extensive research about the history of the phrase. In 1956, a Mexican film called "¡Pura vida!" came to Costa Rica. The eternally optimistic comic main character often said "pura vida" throughout the movie, even when he couldn't do anything right. Costa Ricans adopted the colloquialism and started using it in the same way.

"The optimism expressed by the phrase seemed to be emblematic of (Costa Rica), and had caught on widely as a popular expression by the 1970’s," writes New York University's Anna Marie Trester in a journal article studying the phrase. "It was first used by "pachucos" (a rebellious adolescent group — something akin to what in American English we would term "juvenile delinquents" — whose speech is perceived as "improper" and very informal)."

little girl in costa rica holding a flower and smiling
Everyone, from natives to tourists, has adopted Costa Rica's most famous phrase. Allison Hays - Allicat Photography/Shutterstock

“In Costa Rica, ‘Pura Vida’ is a philosophical way of living and signifies how Costa Ricans live their life," says Ireth Rodriguez Villalobos, chief of promotion for Costa Rica Tourism Board. "It is a concept that Ticos live by daily and bears a very profound meaning to them. It’s living life peacefully."

Villalobos says Costa Ricans credit their good health and long lives with that feeling of living happily and peacefully.

"Costa Rica’s level of joy, health and longevity can be linked to wellness, highlighting its role in a person’s determination of happiness. Those motivated by the pursuit of wellness will rejoice in the variety of activities available upon arrival to Central America’s 'rich coast.' "

Businesses throughout the country — including travel agencies, real estate companies and language schools — have named themselves for this upbeat phrase. It's plastered on souvenirs and is even found in Costa Rican Spanish dictionaries.

"If someone asked me to describe my country in one or two words, I wouldn’t think twice about it. 'Pura vida' would be the answer. It symbolizes the idea of simply enjoying life and being happy," writes Costa Rican Nuria Villalobos, a professor of English as a foreign language at Universidad Nacional, Costa Rica.

"Happiness, well-being, conformity and satisfaction is what 'Pura vida' reflects; it identifies a Costa Rican wherever he or she may be. When you say, hear or see 'Pura vida', the facial expression of the person changes and a smile is drawn on his face. It is a very meaningful word for us “ticos” (Costa Ricans) because it reminds us of home and its beauty."

After losing her job and breaking up with her boyfriend, Camille Willemain (right) sold everything she owned and booked a one-way trip to Costa Rica in 2012.

Camille Willemain on a bike in Costa Rica

"In Costa Rica a person discovers quickly just how little he or she needs to be happy," she says. "With such abundant nature and the warm climate, things like walls and clothing no longer seem necessary. People embrace simplicity, which I’ve observed leads to greater happiness."

Willemain, who now blogs about her adventures and has written "The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica," has embraced the concept of pura vida.

"Pura vida means forgetting your time clock and surrendering to the pace of nature; turning off your alarm clock, stepping away from technology, and being completely present in your surroundings. Pura vida means letting go of an expectation to always have what you want, when you want it," she says.

"Pura vida means choosing the path of happiness regardless of your circumstances. You can say 'pura vida' on a sunny day as appropriately as you can in a storm. You can say 'pura vida' when you’re falling in love and when you’re heartbroken. You can choose to see the pura vida in every single situation that life delivers you. I can’t imagine anything more beautiful or worthwhile than that."