On the map, Costa Rica is a petite country—even the small state of West Virginia is larger. At its most narrow point it is a meager 76 miles from coast to coast. But don’t be fooled; it’s huge in its own way.
When Columbus dubbed the country Costa Rica—the Rich Coast—he may have been thinking of gold, but there is no shortage of natural riches and Costa Rica is a world leader when it comes to banking them through environmental protection. The Costa Rican government uses taxes collected on the sale of fossil fuels to pay for the safekeeping of its esteemed forests. In fact, the nation has more than a quarter of its territory under guardianship, in the form of national parks and reserves. And believe me, there’s no lack of things to protect.
This living Eden has mangrove swamps, herbaceous estuaries, coral reefs, deciduous forests, cloud forests, and rainforests that are all safe-guarded by the government. There are zones of geophysical interest—active volcanoes, hot springs, spooky caves, and prehistoric mountains; sectors of historic and archaeological significance, such as battlegrounds and pre-Columbian settlements; and areas of conservational importance, like the beaches where huge sea turtles gather and then later hatchlings by the thousands make their first crawl to the sea.
Hand-in-hand with the desire to protect these creatures and their habitats comes Costa Rica’s intention to be one of the world’s leading destinations for eco-tourism. Government policy is written so as to increase its world leadership in this sphere. There are financial incentives for protecting existing forests and trees, and tax incentives for planting more. These measures have succeeded. Reforestation has more than doubled.
Then there is Costa Rica’s self-imposed goal of being the first country in the world to achieve carbon neutrality—99% of the country’s electricity comes from renewable resources. And offshore, extensive protected marine areas are being doubled. These achievements reveal the vision of the future—one where the health of the land and the sea is tied up with that of the people. And in the end, that’s where the real wealth of the Rich Coast is found—in its five million inhabitants.
Ticos (the moniker Costa Ricans give themselves) have established one of the world’s most stable democracies. This triumph is justly eclipsed by being the only democracy to have dissolved its standing army. Abolished in 1949, the reallocated army funds are spent on education, healthcare, and pensions. Costa Rica invests more in education and health as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product than the U.K. As a result, Costa Ricans enjoy a high life expectancy and a literacy rate approaching 98%. This peace-loving, non-confrontational modus operandi of the ticos is best seen in daily life through the window of their unofficial axiom: Pura Vida.
Literally translated as “pure life,” I think it is better to explain as “nothing but life.” As in: a sheer, utter, unmitigated, and uncontaminated life. Perhaps that’s why Costa Rica has also been repeatedly ranked first on the Happy Planet Index.
But what makes a happy life? Costa Ricans know the answer. It is a belief that the urgent things should not get in the way of the important things; universal healthcare via a public system, as well as a state-of-the-art private system; a Norman-Rockwellian family life; the low-stress pura vida mindset; living in and among la naturaleza (Mother Nature); and abundant fresh foods, clean air, and pure water.
Like any spot outside of the world of fairy tales, Costa Rica has its challenges, but it also offers premium rewards. The people who call this place home are privy to a kaleidoscope of life. They live joyfully and peacefully in simpler ways from simpler times, but with ever an eye toward the future.
Who knows? Maybe they also understand the enigma that eludes the rest of the world: how, without lots of money or leading-edge innovation, you can feel happier and live longer.