Thousands of yellow butterflies float through the sky as we wind down the dirt road heading away from Monteverde. I first notice them in the morning as I stand one last time on the back porch of the Star House, the house we had rented in Santa Elena. The little yellow butterflies flutter like flower petals tossed in the wind. I watch them dart over the field behind the house, across the road and up the far hill covered with coffee plants and banana trees. They stream by as if someone has turned on a butterfly faucet. Steadily, they pour across the horizon.
This is our last day in Monteverde, the cloud forest paradise reachable only by unpaved roads and four by fours. Now we unwind the road from the clouds by slowly circling downward towards the Costa Rican coast. The yellow butterflies fill the sky. They fly over the trees, the green hills, the grazing cows, the coffee plantations, the towns, the churches, the soccer fields, the fences, and the dirt road. Every direction I look the yellow butterflies fill the air like a yellow snow storm. As I look, I think to myself “pura vida.” This magical moment can only be described as “pura vida.”
What is “pura vida?” “Pura vida” means pure life in Spanish. It is the single most used expression in Costa Rica. It is a response to “Cómo estás?” It means, “life is great.” It is a greeting and a goodbye. As we leave the Tree House in Santa Elena, a restaurant perched in the branches of an ancient tree, a waiter waves goodbye calling “pura vida.” It is also a descriptive term as is the case of the yellow butterflies. That morning in Monteverde, that moment will forever be my “pura vida.”
According to an article written in the Tico Times in January of 2013, the origin of the phrase “pura vida” is said to have come from a 1956 Mexican film by the same name. The film starred the famous Mexican comedian, Antonio Espina “Clavillazo,” as a luckless man named Meliquiades Ledezma. Despite Ledezma’s misadventures in the film, he continues to have an optimistic view and says “pura vida” thirteen times in the film. This optimistic soul struck a cord with the Ticos, as the Costa Ricans affectionately call themselves. By the 1990’s, this phrase was so popular in Costa Rica, it was incorporated in dictionaries as a Tico idiom.
When I was a little girl I had a book of children’s poetry. My favorite poem was “I Wander Lonely as a Child” by William Woodsworth. In the poem, the poet describes seeing a field of daffodils. The last verse describes what the Ticos would call “pura vida:”
“Pura vida” is more than just an expression of the Ticos. “Pura Vida” is their vision. The vision of a people who have been military free since December 1, 1948. On that historic day President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the military after his victory in the civil war by ceremoniously breaking a wall with a mallet. Since that time, while the surrounding countries in Central America have suffered bloody conflict, “pura vida” describes Costa Rica’s choice to remain on a different, peaceful path.
The 2015 documentary, “A Bold Peace,” directed and produced by Matthew Eddy and Michael Dreiling, hopefully will soon be available for viewing in the United States. The trailer for the film describes the many benefits Ticos have reaped as a result of demilitarization. Ticos enjoy universal healthcare and live longer than United States citizens. They spend 30% of their national budget on primary and secondary education. As a result Costa Rica currently has a remarkable 95% literacy rate compared to its war torn neighbors. Nicaragua is the lowest at 67%. Guatemalan’s literacy rate is 69%. El Salvador’s is 81%. Honduras to the north is 80%. There are more teachers in Costa Rica than there are police officers. This commitment to peace and to the education of its people is “pura vida.”
“Pura Vida” is also the people’s commitment to preserving the beauty of their land. This small country has a lot to teach us about preserving our planet. Costa Rica is in a race with other nations to be the first country to be 100% carbon neutral. Costa Rica has committed to reach this goal by 2023. Of its competitors in this race, Costa Rica is the poorest, yet Costa Rica seems to be on track to win. Just this year, Costa Rica announced that in the first 75 days of 2015, Costa Rica was powered by 100% renewable energy. In the 1980s Costa Rica’s forest cover had dwindled to a mere 13%. Today the forest cover is 54% and growing. No wonder Costa Rica is currently ranked number one on the Happy Planet Index.
Much of this information I learn from our first tour guide in Monteverde. Our first day in Monteverde, we woke to a steady downpour of rain. July is, after all, the rainy season in Costa Rica. Our first night in the Star House, a storm shook the windows and the rain fell in sheets. Now, the next morning, the dirt road is filled with mud puddles.
When we arrive at 100% Aventura Tours, we see a line of tourists wearing helmets and harnesses waiting to heave themselves onto a zip line strung high over the cloud forest floor. My daughter Claudia, a day away from twenty, and Max, my eight year old son, start to bicker about whether we should zip line today or wait until tomorrow. As we walk towards the coffee shop, I catch a glimpse of the zip line. My heart sinks when I saw how high the zip line is from the forest floor. In my mind’s eye I see Max hurdling to his death. Remaining as calm as possible, I decide to punt. “Why don’t we start with the canopy tours of the hanging bridges first,” I casually suggest. Besides, it is pouring rain. I imagine zip lining in the rain would be like riding a motorcylce, blinding and uncomfortable. Claudia smiles. She really wants to save the zip line excursion for her twentieth birthday celebration.
We arrange for a guided tour. When we arrive at the entrance of the canopy tours, our tour guide waits for us, a somewhat condescending smirk on his face. He is tall. He looks like Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, under his green poncho. We all don giant tan rain ponchos and head out. It is just us, our guide and the big beautiful cloud forest of Monteverde.
As we make our way through a network of suspended bridges, we learn about the difference between primary growth and secondary growth forests. Our guide points out bugs and plants. He gives us a class in ecology and conservation. He tells us that the ranchers on the milk farms are encouraged to plant trees by being provided grass seeds that grow in the shade. The government provides the ranchers with containers for the cow poop which the government collects free of charge to harness the power of the methane gas. He tells us that if a tree falls on your property, by law, you are not allowed to move it. The gleam in our guide’s eyes as he describes his beautiful cloud forest is “pura vida.”
We arrive at an ancient tree that looks like a giant has braided it with slender ficus plants. This tree has fallen victim to the famed strangler ficus. The strangler ficus wraps around the host tree, slowly smothering it until the tree inside dies, creating a hollow interior. This tree had been fitted with footholds and a rope creating a natural ladder to the canopy bridge above. We all climb the tree ladder one at a time to emerge above the forest. The view from the top is “pura vida.”
The next morning, I watch the swirling ballet of clouds dance in the wind from the bay window of the Star House. The rain drops make staccato rhythms on the windows and the roof. Roaring gusts of wind throw out handfuls of leaves like rice at a wedding. In the distance, a pulsating wind sounds like the surf of the ocean. Each crescendo moves the waves of clouds forward to collide into the clouds surging in the opposite direction. The winds from the Carribean and the Pacific recreate their tossing waves in the clouds. It is still, but only for a moment. The cloud forest symphony pulsates again. Suddenly, it is over. The clouds and the rain disappear. The sun shines. The birds rejoice. Time for me to face my fear.
We catch the bus from Santa Elena to Selvatura Park. Now, I am wearing a helmet and a harness. Max, Claudia, my husband Frank, and I are all crowded on a narrow green metal platform. There are no railings to protect us from falling. Our only protection is a metal clip that connects our harnesses to a thick metal line. We have just climbed up a narrow green metal ladder. We are now one thousand five hundred feet above the forest floor. The zip line extends eight hundred feet to the next platform. My skin prickles with fear. I can hear my heart pounding in my ears.
The guides spring from the platform onto the zip lines like monkeys, spinning playfully as their glide to the next platform. Max is the first to go. I feel my heart sqeeze with fear as I see him jump off the platform, clingling to the back of his guide like a baby monkey. He looks so small as he dissapears into the mist. I am next. Fear. Panic! Jump. Glide. Breath. Beauty. Elation! Clunk. I hit the metal stopper and the ride is over. I am still alive. Max is still alive, grinning, his face covered in black spots. Next comes Claudia. Then Frank comes hurtling towards the platform, the high pitch of the cable indicating the high velocity of his ride. The pounding of my heart in my chest, the adrenaline fueled pleasure, the view of the forest from 1,500 feet is pura vida.