Costa Rica is well known for its lush tropical forests, emerald green rivers, stunning beaches and friendly people.  Much of the Central American isthmus shares these natural wonders, so what sets Costa Rica apart from its neighbors and the world at large? On a recent paddling trip, I tried to find out.

I’ve explored Central America top to bottom since 2003 with one glaring exception: Costa Rica. I had visited the tropical paradise only briefly on my various other journeys to nearby countries and was thrilled to be filling in the gap.  I had the privilege of travelling and working with a fresh-faced Tico company (Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos) called Amazing Vacations Costa Rica that had been operating for about a year. They provide virtually any type of adventure vacation one can imagine from canyoneering and ziplining to exploring archeological sites after tasting organic coffee. Their specialty, however, is whitewater rafting, kayaking and paddleboarding.  I was there with a small group of paddleboarders from the US who were in the country to create promotional media and assess local rivers for the new company. As our trip began, I was immediately struck by the friendliness and authenticity of the guides. We were travelling with a group of kayaking clients which gave us ample time to observe interactions and collect media.

The strong interpersonal connections that exist solely between family and close friends in many western societies appeared to have porous boundaries in Costa Rican culture, they bleed through into everyday life, strengthening the community as well as the individual.  This is evident in their use of the colloquial terms “pura vida” and “mae”. “Pura vida”, Spanish for “pure life” or “simple life”, is used to say hello, goodbye, everything is great, cheers, etc. But more than this, it’s a way of being in the world, simple, relaxed and compassionate. Ticos don’t sweat the small stuff and they are grateful for what they have. The pura vida is on ubiquitous display in Costa Rican life and ready to be sampled by travelers. “Mae”, Tico Spanish for “dude”, litters virtually every spoken sentence and is unique to the country. It often has an endearing, familial quality and is used in conversation universally from family members to strangers.  These terms are part of a larger cultural narrative that helps dissolve the illusory interpersonal boundaries and status hierarchies that are culturally venerated and promulgated in individualistic narratives like those found in the United States and other western cultures.

Our gracious guides helped us navigate four alluring Costa Rican rivers, all uniquely beautiful.  The most memorable were the Savegre and Pacuare rivers. The blue-green Savegre flows from its pristine origin in the mountains of Cerro de la Muerte to the Pacific Ocean.  It is the cleanest river in Costa Rica and all Central America. It is a popular rafting and kayaking destination for the tourist community of Manuel Antonio, a picturesque beach town located next to the biologically diverse national park of the same name.  The Pacuare River was otherworldly, imagine Jurassic Park on rafts. With thick jungle, beautiful canyon walls and cascading waterfalls any traveler would be remiss not to go. We paddled three sections of the river, totaling about 24 miles of emerald green water punctuated by pool-drop class III/IV rapids.  If there is a heaven, I want this to be it. The Pacuare is widely regarded as being in the top five whitewater rafting destinations in the world, put this one on your bucket list. 

After the client’s departure we had more one-on-one time with the guides.  They welcomed us into their homes like family, which is exactly what we became. We learned that their guiding business is a cooperative of sorts, sharing responsibilities, earnings and stoke.  By flattening the hierarchy of the standard western business model everyone was a valued contributor and everybody’s ideas were on the table. Cooperative initiatives are on the rise in Costa Rica, springing up in industries such as coffee farming and fishing, giving more power to the employees.  This made me reflect on previous jobs I’d undertaken in my life that left me feeling hollow and disenfranchised, wondering if cooperatives could be part of the solution to workplace dissatisfaction and depression. A Gallup poll from 2017[1] reported that 85% of people worldwide are dissatisfied with their jobs.  The data from the United States is slightly better at 70% dissatisfaction.  Costa Rica on the other hand, comes in third in global rankings of happiest employees behind Denmark and Norway according to polling conducted by Universum Global[2]

While in Costa Rica I learned that the country scored 1st place on the “Happy Planet Index” (HPI) earning it the distinction of being the “greenest and happiest place in the world”[3].  The HPI calculates its score using the following variables: life expectancy, wellbeing, inequality of outcomes and ecological footprint.  For comparison, the United States with its high level of wealth and low unemployment rate scored a paltry 108th on the HPI.  This probably comes as little surprise to many social scientists who have known for years about the correlations between lack of interpersonal connections, materialism, absence from nature and depression.  Evolution on the African savannah has left humans ill-equipped to work 40+ hours a week indoors and spend our remaining time alone, staring at screens.  

Costa Rica has a culture and an attitude that reflects its collectivist nature. There is a small town feeling of kindness and authenticity on a far less parochial scale. This, however, isn’t to say the country is without problems.  A fiscal tax-reform project was approved in late 2018[4] to stave off the ballooning fiscal deficit, homicide rates spiked to 12.1 murders per 100,000 people in 2017[5] and the unemployment rate is 8.7%[6].  

As politics, social media and tribalism create divisiveness and apathy in the U.S., while job satisfaction rates remain low and meaning becomes intangible for many in the west, I can’t help but think of tiny Costa Rica.  Ticos will be the first to tell you the country isn’t perfect, but they are on a path that creates more connection, more meaning and more intrinsic value all while ambitiously protecting the environment for future generations.  Perhaps this is what sets Costa Rica apart.

Post written by Alex Garhart.

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