¡Pura Vida!

I love the Ticos as much as I love the Mexicans. (Tico is the Central American name for Costa Ricans and Tica is the word for the cuter ones.) We have been welcomed a few times by different individuals on the street, a thing that only also happened to us in Belize.

Pura Vida Choloepus hoffmanni

¡Pura Vida! is the national slogan, which in theory means “Pure life” but is in effect completely untranslatable. Yukoners will recognize part of as what we call “on Yukon time” a relaxed attitude to life where being a little late is nothing to get excited about. They are also into what we call “Lifestyle” in the Yukon, which is our excuse for going hunting or fishing or berry picking instead of working and finishing something on time. Costa Ricans can entirely relate to that. Are Ticos lazy? Well, not really, no more than Yukoners anyway. But I do have to admit they are not quite as hard-working as Mexicans or Torontonians.

When a taxi driver saw an older couple necking in another car (we’re talking not that old, like in their late 50s early 60s), he said ¡Pura Vida! When someone asks how you are, the response is not “Bien, gracias.” but “¡Pura Vida!” Pura Vida is when anything typically Costa Rican happens.

Ticos can afford to indulge in Pura Vida. We did not see the grinding poverty evident in their northern neighbours. Costa Rica is actually a country where other Central Americans emigrate to have a better life. While there is some rural poverty, it is nowhere as extensive or obvious as what we saw in Nicaragua, Honduras, or Guatemala. Costa Ricans seem to live in trim nice little houses with TV dishes and electricity: hardly any wood and tin shacks are to be seen. The buses are newer and in better shape, very few old US school buses, and those tend to be used for student rather than public transportation.

They also got rid of their army in 1947, so did not have to suffer through the coups d’état and the human rights abuses that their neighbours had (or continue to have in the case of Honduras).

And Costa Rica has a decent social security system, including free medical care for everyone (although private care is available). Costa Rica, along with the other two countries with a socialized health care system – Canada and Cuba – is one of the three American countries with higher life expectancies and generally healthier populations than the much richer United States.

But Costa Rica is not a paradise. First, the roads are one place where Pura Vida does not apply; behind the wheel, Ticos are small-dicked arseholes no different than their other Central American neighbours. I am convinced that their life expectancy would rise above Canada’s if they started driving in a civilized fashion. And don’t tell me it’s a Latin thing: Mexican and Spaniards are decent drivers, and even the anarchic Italians have changed their habits when they were seriously faced with a fate worse than castration – the loss of their driver’s license.

The government is corrupt in Costs Rica in the same way the Canadian Government is corrupt. It is not the low level civil servants who take bribes (although the cops are not averse to a receiving gifts), but the higher level mainly (but not always) right-wing politicians.

We heard a great story about an American entrepreneur who bribed local politicians in Dominical so he could build new condos on the beach. He got the permits in violation of all the environmental laws and regulations and then spent a few millions. He did not count on the local administration changing – Costa Rica is after all democratic and has the longest tradition of democratic governments in Latin America (Chile had it until the 1970 murderous coup by Nixon, Kissinger & Pinochet). The next election, a new, more environmentally conscious municipal administration was elected and revoked the illegally-obtained permits. Yeah for the Ticos!

Nevertheless, despite its wealth relative to its neighbours, Costa Rica is still a poor country, certainly poorer than Mexico although much more egalitarian. What particularly bugs me however, is the high prices for many things, same as in Canada. I would not mind if Ticos earned the same as Canadians, but there is something wrong there. In particular, land and real estate prices are very close to Canadian prices (OK, maybe you can’t get tropical beachfront property in Canada, but still $250,000 for a 1,500 square foot house in the mountains is well within Canadian range.). This is because so many foreigners have bought properties. This is very good for those who sold the properties, but not so good for young Ticos who need housing or might want to buy a house. But now the government can’t do anything to prevent foreigners from buying land because of the CAFTA free trade agreement.

Ticos are also polite, and supposedly not inclined to stealing, cheating or lying. Crime in Costa Rica is obviously almost entirely the work of outsiders: Nicaraguans and Colombians for the regular street crime or Panamanians for the more sophisticated financial scams. We saw a wonderful satire published in Guanacaste where a restaurant was not making any money. First they blamed it on then Nicaraguan staff, then after they fired the Nicas and hired more Ticos, it was the monkeys who took the money before the waiters got a chance to get to it. But it could not have been the Ticos stealing.

If I would have to live anywhere other than Canada of all the countries I visited so far, it would be Costa Rica. You can drink the water and it has good pressure. The cops don’t always carry guns and, unlike the rest of Cental America, no sawed-off shotguns to be seen. As a matter of fact, the only armed security guards we noticed so far were in a gated community in Manuel Antonio, no doubt catering to the USian belief that, to paraphrase Mao Tse-tung, security grows out of the barrel of a gun.

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