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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.

Cruise 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!”

Pura 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.

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