The origins of the phrase ‘Pura Vida’

The beginning isn’t as Costa Rican as you might expect.

“Pura Vida” is ubiquitous in Costa Rica.

Even if you don’t speak a lick of Spanish, learn that phrase when you visit. (It’s pronounced poo-rah vee-dah, give or take.) Literally translating to “Pure Life,” Ticos use it to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and to show admiration. 

How was your lunch? “Pura Vida.” Someone apologizes? “Pura Vida.” The cashier bags your groceries? “Pura Vida.” You get stuck in traffic because Costa Rica starts road construction at rush hour? “Pura Vida” (except sarcastically). 

Today, “Pura Vida” is unequivocally Costa Rican. But the idiom’s origins are decidedly more foreign. According to La Nación, the phrase can be traced to a 1956 Mexican movie with that same title.

The movie follows Melquiades Ledezma, who is outcast from his hometown after being labeled a source of bad luck. Despite the misfortune that follows him, he keeps a positive attitude. (Spoiler: His unlucky streak eventually ends when he finds a winning lottery ticket.) 

Ledezma says “Pura Vida” more than a dozen times throughout the film, which was broadcast in Costa Rica. The down-on-his-luck Ledezma and his catchphrase began to catch on in Costa Rica as the country prospered after abolishing its army

As La Nación explains, by the 1980s, “the environment that characterized Costa Rica in comparison with the wars and the pain that plagued the rest of Central America, were the reasons that promoted the popularization of ‘Pura Vida.’ ” 

More than 60 years after the movie debuted, you’d be hard-pressed to find a conversation between Costa Ricans that doesn’t begin or end with “Pura Vida.” 

While “Pura Vida” is now decidedly Tico, Costa Rica has Mexican screenwriters Juan García and Gilberto Martínez Solares to thank for the iconic expression.

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Here’s a short clip from “Pura Vida” the movie: 

Adapted from a 2020 story in The Costa Rica Daily.

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