Bus2Antarctica: Pura Vida

Andrew Evans has been traveling on board the National Geographic Sea Lion, from Costa Rica to Panama, on his journey to Antarctica. Today he discusses the many definitions of Pura Vida.

puravida.jpgCruise ships are often the worst places to experience local culture. They’re often impersonal and far removed from the destination they are supposedly “visiting.”

On the contrary, my expedition on Lindblad’s Costa Rica & Panama Canal cruise has been a rich cultural experience that focuses on everything local. For starters, nearly all the guides and naturalists on board are Tico (Costa Rican) and know each destination like their own backyard (which it is). I’ve also noticed a real effort to connect with the local people and institutions that we pass along the way and encourage guests to “be” in Costa Rica, from setting up picnics next to Costa Rican families on the beach to having language lists on board for obscure-yet-local geographical terms. It also helps that we can have never had to use an actual cruise ship dock but can rely on quick and easy access on Lindblad’s Zodiacs.

And while foreigners often deride Costa Rican cuisine, the Lindblad ship featured an evening of all-Costa Rican cooking (which I loved): black beans and rice, roasted chicken doused in Linzano salsa, carne mechada, tortillas, queso fresco, fried plantains, and rice pudding. The staff and crew all wore hats with Costa Rican flags and a few kept blurting out, “¡Pura Vida!”

Ticafamily.jpgPura vida means “pure life” in Spanish, but in Costa Rica it means so much more. It’s kind of like a cheer that celebrates life, defines something as “cool” or merely exclaims, “isn’t that great?”  The popular term has emerged as a major marketing campaign for Costa Rican tourism, so that now you can buy Pura Vida T-shirts, mugs, keychains and bumper stickers. Yet despite its commercialization, Pura Vida is still authentically Costa Rican.

The history of the phrase traces back to 1956, when Mexican television and cinema was a dominant force in Costa Rican pop culture. A well-known Mexican comedian–Clavillazo–frequently dropped the catch phrase in his act, a trademark that led to a hugely popular movie by the same name, Pura Vida! The comedy-of-errors was filled with back-to-back mishaps that were regular shrugged off by Clavillazo with a hearty, “¡Pura Vida!”  The movie was an instant classic in Costa Rica and pretty soon, young people began using the term in lots of different ways. Only much later did Pura Vida become the emblazoned slogan of the country, aided by the growth of eco-tourism and clever branding.

In order to gain a more accurate understanding of the term, I conducted a random poll among the Costa Ricans on board the National Geographic Sea Lion. These were their explanations as to what Pura Vida actually means:

•    A greeting followed by the same response. Just like the French will inquire, “Ça va?” (with the expected reply of “Ça va?”), Costa Ricans frequently ask, “¿Pura Vida?” and expect the same response to show that all is well.

•    Goodbye–a casual way of saying, “See you later.”

•    An expression of carefree disregard, similar to the Jamaican, “No Problem!”

•    “Whatever,” and used just as frequently as the English, “Whatever.”

•    “That’s cool” or “groovy”

•    “OK” meaning, “Yeah, I like that.”

•    A rousing cheer to show optimism in the face of difficulty.

The openness of interpretation is a kind of definition in and of itself. Whatever it means, Pura Vida represents a positive approach to life and living–something important to remember as I continue my journey south and face the ups and downs that travel inevitably brings with it.

Follow Andrew’s Twitter feed here @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. All photos by Andrew Evans.


  1. Chris
    January 16, 2010, 10:04 pm

    The photographer who took that picture captured the essence of visit. Stay safe

  2. Lynn
    January 16, 2010, 10:50 pm

    Thanks for this. You opened my ears to a turn of phrase and my mind to a mode of travel — cruises — against which I’ve always held the prejudices you describe. But I’ve been reconsidering their advantages, so the tip about Linblad was really helpful. – Lynn Fantom http://www.ouracadia.com

  3. Travel Blogs
    January 17, 2010, 6:08 am

    Nice pictures and great read. Love the part with all the local expressionsQ

  4. arlene
    January 17, 2010, 2:58 pm

    What a fun picture. The food soinds yummy. I think that the cuisine of a place is an important part of the experience.

  5. Moe
    January 17, 2010, 3:50 pm

    Reminds me – in part – on the Italian use of the word “prego.” From “thank you” to “sorry” to “everything is ok,” etc.
    Great post. Very, very interesting!

  6. TripIndia
    January 30, 2010, 1:49 am

    Cruising the way to Costa Rica…wow! I must say u have experienced adventure and cultural tour at one go.
    Think about North India Golden Triangle Tour. For sure, you will enjoy a life-time experience.

  7. Mario Flores
    February 5, 2010, 3:41 pm

    Costa Rica it´s a veru beautiful place!!! and if you travel there you will have a great experience. I have been there and I really like to go again. I am from Mexico and here we also have excellent places for visiting like Cancun, Veracruz, Playa del Carmen, etc. But I want to recommend a new mexican low cost airline named VivaAerobus http://www.vivaaerobus.com you can visit the site and find a lot of promotions and cheap flights

  8. Coconut palm
    July 18, 2010, 6:49 pm

    What a great Costa Rica adventure and experience! Love you photos.

  9. steve
    September 19, 2014, 12:33 pm

    Love reading articles like this! Its mind blowing that people all over the world have a completely different living experience than I do. Lots of beautiful places to visit in my area http://www.AcadiaNationalparks.com but I would love to see some tropical locations too!