The Meaning of Pura Vida in Simple English and Real Life

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Perhaps no other country has a motto so charming, so universally quoted and so life-affirming as pura vida. It’s Costa Rica’s unofficial national slogan, and you hear it everywhere. The meaning of pura vida, of course, is “pure life,” and it’s come to symbolize the simple, cheerful outlook and lifestyle of what is often called the happiest country in the world.

You can say pura vida to mean “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “that’s great” or “life is good.” The versatility of the phrase is part of its appeal, and it’s a 100% positive expression of pleasure in life lived to its fullest. 

In A lo tico, a book-length glossary of Costa Rican expressions by Alf A. Giebler Simonet, the phrase is described as Costa Rica’s “registered trademark.” The author points out some other uses: 

  • ¿Viste qué pura vida amaneció hoy? “Did you see how beautiful the day dawned?
  • Aquí te traigo el disco que me prestaste. Está pura vida. “I’m bringing back the record you loaned me. It’s totally awesome.”
  • ¿Te gustó la comida? ¡Pura vida! “Did you like the food?” “It was great!”

What does pura vida mean in English? 

Pura, obviously, means “pure,” from the Latin purus – which means clean or unmixed, or in other words, “pure.” Vida means “life,” from the Latin vita, hence the English words “vitality,” “vitamin” and “curriculum vitae.” 

Notice that both of these words have overwhelmingly positive connotations. Sure, you could give them a negative spin, as in “pure B.S.,” or “Life is hell,” but when you put them together – “Pure life” – it seems to put a new spring in your step, to paint a silver lining on every cloud.

Most English-speaking writers (including expert bloggers writing about this very phrase) misrepresent the term by capitalizing it: “Pura Vida.” There is no reason to capitalize it, as it’s not a proper noun. (Exceptions, of course, can be made for the millions of Costa Rican T-shirts, baseball caps, shot glasses, animal-inspired knickknacks and other souvenirs sold to tourists.)

How do you pronounce pura vida?  

Here again, all the pronunciation guides (like “POO-rah VEE-dah” or even “POO-dah VEE-dah”) are all wrong. The Spanish R sound has no equivalent in English. If you can say the Spanish words muro (“wall”) cara (“face”), mira (“look”) or hora (“hour”), you’ll recognize that the R is not even similar to the English equivalent, as in “railroad,” “moral” or “fire.” The R in pura is pronounced by flicking the tongue off the roof of the mouth, while in English the tongue never approaches the roof of the mouth to make an R. 

Nor does the D in “vida” really occur in English. It’s more similar to an English “th” than to a D, because the tongue actually touches the middle of the slightly parted teeth. If you pronounce the name “Gore Vidal” in English, notice that the top of the tongue touches the roof of the mouth behind the teeth to pronounce the D. But if you said “Gore Vidal” in Spanish (or pura vida), the tongue touches both the upper and lower teeth.

If you want to pronounce the word correctly, listen to the international sampling of pronunciations here:

What is the origin of the phrase pura vida?

Costa Ricans have a lot of theories about the origins of popular expressions like tuanis, mae, upe and gringo – many of them pura paja (“sheer nonsense”). But the reputed origin of the phrase pura vida seems to be pretty believable.

 In 1956, a Mexican movie was released called Pura Vida. Says Wikipedia:

“Despite his constant blunders, Melquiades Ledezma [the hero] keeps a positive attitude. As an adjective synonymous with “good” or “nice,” he uses pura vida (lit. pure life) a total of thirteen times to describe people (such as the town mayor), objects (food and earrings) and an action (being invited for a meal). This optimistic response began to be emulated by some Costa Ricans after the film’s release in that country.” 

The catchphrase quickly caught on, and was repeated so often that eventually it was on everyone’s lips. So Costa Rica’s most cherished phrase actually originated in Mexico. Órale, güey! 

The meaning of pura vida in real life

A couple of months after I arrived in Costa Rica in 2015, I got a chance to dog-sit in Tamarindo for an American gal who let me stay at her place and use her car for free during her one-month absence. (That’s the meaning of pura vida right there.) I befriended a couple of good-looking Brazilian women (that’s also pura vida). One day I invited them to drive with me up to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, and they said yes (which is pura vida too).

But when we got to Liberia, a traffic cop pulled me over and asked to see my driver’s license (from California) and my passport. Yet I had made the rookie mistake of forgetting my passport, as I explained to the officer with abject apologies. “So this isn’t your car?” “No, sir.” “And you don’t have your passport.” “No, sir.” “Do you have a copy of your passport?” “No, sir.” “And what about you ladies, do you have your passports?” They both said “No, sir” in Portuguese. The traffic cop made an exasperated face.

I realized I was looking at three options: The cop could remove the license plates from the car, which would require me to take a bus to Liberia another day and pay a big fine to get them back. He could tell me to turn around and return to Tamarindo for my passport, adding three hours to our drive time. Or I could offer him a bribe, which could theoretically get me thrown in jail.

The traffic cop turned away from the car for a moment, shaking his head at our ignorance. Then he came back and said, “I’m going to do you a favor. You can go. But don’t ever drive in this country again without your passport.” 

“Yes, sir!”

Now, THAT is the meaning of pura vida.

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