No More Medicines Needed in the Land of Pura Vida
By Jason Holland
“Since moving here I haven’t had arthritis in years,” says Robbie Felix of her healthy new life in Manuel Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. “The clean air in the rain forest, the ocean…it’s like breathing medicine. I’m very healthy for someone with a chronic illness. I surf. I walk on the beach. I exercise.”
Robbie, in her early 60s, has the chronic illness Lupus. But she found relief from her symptoms (including arthritis and skin allergies) after arriving in Costa Rica. And she’s not alone. Robbie is just one of the many expats who no longer needs a raft of medications since moving down here.
“My high blood pressure has come down almost completely,” says Nel Cameron, 68, who lives in Escazú, a suburb of Costa Rica’s capital, San José.
So what is it about Costa Rica that causes your blood pressure to plummet and your dependence on meds to go fade away?
There’s a phrase in Costa Rica, sort of the unofficial national motto: Pura Vida. It literally translates to “Pure Life,” but it’s more accurate to say “Life Is Good.”
It’s an attitude shared by most Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves. They value time with family and friends. They work hard, but you won’t find them sacrificing playing soccer with their kids at the park by staying late at the office. They know that a well-balanced life, where you spend time in your community or doing things you enjoy, is key to good health and wellness.
It makes for a low-stress lifestyle. And most expats find that, soon after arriving in Costa Rica, they adopt the Pura Vida way of life, too. They slow down. They get out of the habits they had for years when they were part of the daily grind. They enjoy coffee on their back porch, enjoying the scenic vistas of the Central Valley or Lake Arenal. Or breakfast with their toes in the sand with friends, after a long walk on the beach.
Reducing stress and learning to enjoy life is only one way expats find themselves improving their mental and physical health. Just about every Costa Rican town of any size has a feria, or outdoor farmers’ market, at least once a week. Most expats adopt the local habit of doing the majority of their shopping there. The price is right. With pineapples for $1, heads of lettuce for 75 cents, tomatoes for 50 cents a pound, and other bargains, you can load up on a week’s fresh fruits and vegetables for about $35. You also have fresh fish like snapper, tuna, or dorado (mahi-mahi), straight off the boat, for $5 to $6 a pound.
With these prices—and the abundance of fresh, whole foods—you can’t help but have a healthier diet. It’s common for expats to eliminate the need for some prescriptions. And lose significant weight—20…30…40 pounds or more—in the process.
Harry and Barbara Jones, a 60-something couple, live in Grecia, in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. They’ve found that living like the locals—shopping at the local farmers’ market for fresh fruits and vegetables, for example—allows them to cut their monthly budget to well under $2,000. Another benefit of their newfound healthy eating habits: “I’ve lost 30 pounds since moving down,” says Harry.
Diet is just one part of the equation. You have no shortage of options for exercise in Costa Rica, thanks to the warm, tropical weather year-round. On land, you can take long walks on the beach, trek through jungle, or hike vigorous trails to mountaintops with panoramic vistas. Watersports like surfing, standup paddle boarding, and kayaking are hugely popular on the coasts, with plenty of schools and instructors to help beginners of any age.
“One of the things we like is that it is quiet and peaceful. Its country living at its finest,” says Ian Douglass, 46, from Manhattan Beach, California, of his life in Dominical on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. “Clean air, unprocessed food, good waves, natural beauty, and the beach. I think these are things we should be allowed to enjoy every day.”
In the beach areas, it can be hot and humid—too much for some, just right for others. But head to the Central Valley and you’ll enjoy cool mornings where you need a sweatshirt and afternoon highs in the mid-80s F, with little humidity.
Jeff and Allison Spencer, 60 and 58, respectively, were educators in Arizona before retiring early and moving to the Lake Arenal region, which features a consistent, spring-like climate.
“In general, I really enjoy the weather. The breeze keeps things cool and keeps the bugs away. Even on rainy days, it’s nice and cool. March to April it’s dry. But we do have a lot of rain during rainy season, usually a sunny morning and rainy afternoon—that’s typical. But I wouldn’t trade that for the heat and dust in Arizona,” says Jeff, who adds, “The great temperatures year-round allow us to enjoy kayaking, biking, and hiking whenever we want.”
Of course, just walking out your front door can provide a lot of exercise. Many communities in Costa Rica are also very walkable. If you live in a town in the Central Valley or in one of the many laid back beach towns, you can get around mainly on foot for trips to the grocery store, local restaurants, and the like. If you’re in more outlying areas, there is excellent bus service and cheap taxis, so there’s no need to depend on a car.
With all these factors, it’s no wonder that one of Costa Rica’s regions, the Nicoya Peninsula, was named one of the world’s Blue Zones by researchers. They discovered that locals live longer on average, thanks to a combination of diet, climate, and lifestyle. I can’t say you’ll live longer as an expat in Costa Rica. But you’ll certainly be healthier.