It’s not easy to believe that a third world country the size of West Virginia is home to more centenarians than anywhere on earth. But that’s what Dan Buettner discovered nearly seven years ago while on assignment for National Geographic. Based on additional research, Buettner took a pen and a map and circled the five areas in the world where people live the longest. Because of the color of the pen he used, they are known as the “blue zones.” Regions of California, Greece, Italy, and Japan made the list, but none of these areas can compete with the biggest blue zone of all—Nicoya, Costa Rica.
Rosary beads in hand, Doña Mara walks four miles every morning in the Costa Rican countryside. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of joining Doña Mara and her lady friends for their morning exercise. While I struggled to keep up with these older women, I did manage to be within hearing distance when they said good morning to the farmer who sells them corn. An ancient grain, corn is a primary source of energy for Ticos—the term that Costa Ricans use to refer to themselves—and Doña Mara serves corn tortillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She even opens her home and modest outdoor kitchen to travelers from all over the world. Doña Mara’s daughter Irene is co-owner of GreenSpot Travel and says that the activity of visiting her mother’s home to learn how to make a local staple is one of the most memorable experiences for her clients. At 56 years old, Doña Mara is certainly not a centenarian and where she lives is 100 miles east of the Nicoya region, but after just one encounter with her, it’s obvious she belongs in a blue zone.
Doña Mara’s secrets for longevity: Faith, four-miles every morning (rain or shine), and of course, corn tortillas.
Over twice the age of Doña Mara, José “Chepito” is still alive and giving the nuns at his retirement home in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, a run for their money. The 113-year-old is the world’s oldest living man (although the folks at Guinness World Records need more documentation to prove it), but he’s also known for being the first one on the dance floor. Despite his loss of sight and the doctor’s orders to take it easy, he insists on taking his daily walks, even if it means scaling gates. In two years, if and when Chepito turns 115, he will break the record for the oldest man in recorded history. That’s a record previously held by a man from Japan, also on the list of blue zones.
Chepito’s secrets for longevity: You’ll have to ask him yourself. According to the Costa Rica Star, he’s a friendly guy and can be bribed with fresh fruit.
Rafael Angel Brenes will turn 100 years old this February. His neighbor, Evelyn Gallardo, the author of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica Travel Guides, says that Rafael has never suffered from memory loss or broken a bone. He’s never had cancer, diabetes, or even high blood pressure. He loves gardening, and his diet consists of fresh vegetables, fish, and chicken. He eats very little added salt and sugar and he always gets at least ten hours of sleep a night. Time is something that Gallardo, originally from the U.S., has noticed Ticos don’t lose sleep over. “Ticos live in the now. If it didn’t get done today, there’s always tomorrow. Living in Costa Rica is never having to say you're sorry for being late,” says Gallardo.
Rafael’s secrets to longevity: A healthy diet and a habit of making sure that the TV is always turned off by 6 p.m.
Lucas Mongrillo is 54 years old. He cooked me breakfast when I was staying at Chalet Nicholas, my favorite bed and breakfast in Costa Rica. The reason for my inaugural trip to Costa Rica was to help deliver 550 bicycles to poor communities where transportation is lacking. Lucas and I immediately bonded over bikes. A mountain biking champion, Lucas has made many cross-country trips, which is hard to believe given Costa Rica’s terrain and infamous roads. Even with his collection of trophies, Lucas lives very simply. Where he comes from, extended families live in the same modest structures and they don’t have much in terms of material things. Shared bathrooms, dirt floors, and limited appliances are the norm. Coffee makers are unnecessary; coffee is made by pouring hot water through a sock filled with coffee grounds. Cathy, the owner of Chalet Nicholas, moved to Costa Rica from the U.S. and noticed long ago that Ticos take great pride in their families and in helping their neighbors. When he’s not making breakfast for guests at Chalet Nicholas, Lucas serves on the town council and is very involved in the local community. Although Lucas has many years to go until he reaches 100, I won’t be surprised if he cycles his way straight to centenarianship.
Lucas’ secrets to longevity: My guess is leading a simple, yet active life that involves giving back to the community I planned to chat with Lucas and learn more about his secrets via Skype, but he doesn’t own a computer—which is telling and could very well be a secret in itself.
Jose Araya was born in Costa Rica, attended high school in Alaska, and played soccer for Montana State University in Billings, which is where I first met him. At 27 years old, Jose has a long way to go before he qualifies for a senior discount, much less a membership in the centenarian club, but his experience living in both Costa Rica and the U.S. is why I decided to reach out to him. It was Jose who first took me to Nicoya, and he told me that he isn’t surprised that Ticos live noticeably longer lives. The first thing he credits is the country’s status as a developing nation. Cars are luxuries, not necessities. “In rural areas, people walk or bike. Period,” says Araya. He also credits a diet heavy in fresh fruits and vegetables. Franchises have a hard time entering the country, and as a result, fast food is not nearly as cheap as it is in the U.S. It’s far more affordable for families to buy food from the local feria del agricultor or in Enlgish, a farmer’s market. Araya also notes that healthcare is free, and because Costa Rica has no army, the government is able to invest more money in health and education.
Jose has no secrets to longevity, yet. But he will be the first to tell you that his people don’t sweat the small stuff. Instead, they sweat by taking advantage of the tropical climate and being active outside year-round.
Much can be learned by traveling to a blue zone, and because Ticos are so warm and welcoming, Costa Rica is a great place to start. If it’s a healthier lifestyle that you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong in a country where pura vida—meaning pure or plenty of life—is the official greeting. No “hellos”, no “byes,” and certainly no not saying anything. Ticos believe that everyone deserves pura vida, and if you travel to Costa Rica, that’s probably what you’ll find and remember most.