The Quest for Pura Vida in Costa Rica

By: Shelley Seale

Pura Vida means “Pure Life”. It’s an expression that Costa Ricans use to express the essence of their land and way of living.

When I visited Costa Rica in 2006, I heard the phrase within an hour of being in the small country, which is generally known as a very peaceful place: it abolished its military in the 1940s, and is one of the happiest places on the planet by many measures. I was in the cab on the way to the Julia and David White Artists’ Colony, where I had a several-week residency to work on a book. Chatting with the cab driver, he used the term “pura vida” and explained its meaning to me — and the way it was such an entrenched part of everyday thinking, pretty much informing everything the average Costa Rican does.

And if you want to really explore what pura vida really means — the very essence of the term and the lifestyle — then you need to meet Richard Bangs.

Richard is the acclaimed and popular host of PBS’s Emmy-Award winning Adventures with Purpose series. He has teamed up with his friend and co-founder of Costa Rica Expeditions, Michael Kaye, to create a year-long program of “Quest for Pura Vida” expeditions patterned on the path Richard filmed in his one-hour TV documentary. The nine-day tours follow roughly the same route he traveled as he navigated his own personal quest to unravel the knotty strands of pura vida.

“Until recently, I never really considered what Pura Vida meant,” Richard says. “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?”

“When first discovered or opened, I was overwhelmed with the integrity, the purity, the miracle of unspoiled wilderness,” he expanded, in an email to me. “But over time, as I returned to many of these places, I couldn’t help but be dismayed by the degradation, the deforestation, the damming, the desertification,  the sheer destruction of many of these pristine tracts. It turned my head around, and I began to design media that would visit these places, celebrate them, showcase their wonder, but also their issues and threats, and then find solutions (often mindful tourism). I have been carrying this flag ever since, and have happily and proudly seen some real progress.”

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? Richard tells the story of one man he met on a quest, who was a former animal poacher in Corcovado. “He developed extraordinary tracking skills, and when Michael met him, he immediately understood the talent. Michael paid for the poacher to go the U.S. to learn English and study, and when he returned, he became a wildlife guide for Costa Rica Expeditions, and now is one of the country’s best.”

Richard calls Corcovado the “ark of Latin America.” National Geographic called it “the most biologically intense place on Earth.” The story of the former poacher demonstrates how it’s not just ecological and environmental preservation that is key; it is also the mindset and education of the people. Over on the Caribbean side of the country, Michael realized that the greatest opportunity for the villagers there was in guiding tourists. They understood their region, and its wildlife and flora, impeccably; but there was one major obstacle — few of them spoke English, a necessary skill for a guide.

So at his Tortuga Lodge, Michael devised a program in which guests of the lodge can volunteer to teach English at a nearby school. The program has become hugely popular, and the most rewarding aspect of the stay for many visitors. The local children have benefited, too, and several are on a path to guidedom. The whole program is inspirational, and works on so many different levels.

“Costa Rica is like the monkey who locked up the zookeeper,” says Richard. “It’s put away the constrained thinking that keeps others stuck in unproductive routines, and allowed its wildness to escape the margins.”

The reason for the Quest for Pura Vida expeditions is to share not only these treasures of Costa Rica, but to continue their conservation and a mindful tourism model in the country; and to share an entirely different travel experience. “I think participants on this expedition will discover feelings and emotions not often accessible in the common cargo of our lives,” says Richard.

Michael Kaye (L) and Richard Bangs kayaking in Costa Rica

“This is not about transportation, but rather transformation. This is a place to delve and discover the joys and wholeness of the life lived pure. This trip allows us to reach back to a childlike sense of wonder and possibility, and to see the world in a fresh way.”

“It is too profound to keep to ourselves.”

More details about the Quest for Pura Vida Expeditions:

The nine-day expedition visits some of the same national parks, communities and top lodges Bangs explored on his quest including Tortuguero National Park and Tortuga Lodge, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Monteverde Lodge and the Nectandra Institute. The “Questers” will also visit Arenal Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, which to Bangs evokes Costa Rica’s uncanny quality of “transforming the resin drop of luck and revelation into amber.” The cost of the expedition is $2,700 per person.

“Monthly Edition” departures on the “Quest for Pura Vida” expeditions are scheduled Jan. 14, 2012 – Dec. 22, 2012, for a maximum of 14 fellow travelers per tour. Two “Limited Edition” expeditions – April 14-22, 2012, and April 6-14, 2013 – will be co-led by Richard Bangs and Michael Kaye themselves, with master guide Carlos Gomez, and reach remote Corcovado National Park explored by Bangs for PBS, where they are joined by expert tracker Felipe Arias. Award-winning Costa Rican videographer, Roberto Miranda will shoot the entire experience capturing the magic in high definition state of the art video. Miranda, who was one of the cameramen on the PBS special, will produce a 30-minute PBS-quality video featuring all of the participants.

For more information, visit Quest for Pura Vida, or watch the video clip below: