The town hall in Nicoya, western Costa Rica, is one of the few colonial buildings left in the country. Given that the town was about to host a “congress of international centenarians”, it seemed like a good place to start my investigations into longevity. Unfortunately, no-one in the building seemed to know anything about it. They did, however, give me a name.
“Go to San Juan de Nicoya,” they said, “And ask for Jose Bonifacio Villejas, better known as ‘Pachito’. He’s just had his one-hundredth birthday and he’ll be happy to help, especially if you go along with a pretty lady.”
Half an hour later, in the countryside outside Nicoya, I found myself in a village of neat, one-storey houses painted pink and yellow. A lady in a flowery dress walking down the road, carrying a bag of tools, stopped for a chat when we asked for directions. Maria had just come from weeding her maize field, and was off to her daughter’s house to sit on the porch and peel cobs in the sunshine. She pointed us in the direction of Pachito’s house with a smile and carried on down the road, looking nothing like the 83 years of age she claimed.
When we arrived at Pachito’s house, his daughter told us we would have to wait as he was out riding his horse. A few minutes later, the man himself appeared, reinforcing his reputation as a ladies’ man by giving my girlfriend a peck on the cheek. As he sat down in a wicker chair, he told me about his horse riding.
“I’m a sabanero,” he said, referring to the Costa Rican term for a cowboy. “I’ve been in the saddle since I was four years old. When I’m sitting here, everything hurts, but when I get on my horse, my pains go away. So every day I go for a ride and visit friends. Especially if people are sick, I visit them to encourage them, and cheer them up.” I asked him about how things have changed in recent years.
“This region was always behind the rest of Costa Rica. The trails were bad, and things were scarce, but the land was good. People ate what they grew, or sometimes meat from wild animals. The chickens would roam around looking for grubs and worms. We might not have had much choice, but food was food. We ate plenty, and it was pure and healthy. Now, people buy chicken from the supermarkets that lived in cages, or are injected with hormones.”
His instincts about modern food, farming and diet have some basis in fact: rates of serious bowel disease, such as colorectal cancer, are rising in young and middle-aged people; and a recent study in the British Medical Journal showed high levels of red meat consumption increasing the risk of death by nine different diseases.
But Pachito’s recipe for longevity involves more than just diet. “During my life,” he says, “I have not been a great, or wealthy person, but I’ve always been a good friend. You have to love yourself, and others, and you have to love God. Because if you have love, you cannot wish anything bad on other people, and it is other people that make life good.”
The term “Blue Zone” was popularised in a 2005 National Geographic magazine article by Dan Buettner. Buettner did some number crunching and found five regions on Earth where a statistically significant number of people reached the age of 100: Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Icaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.
At the time, Central America was still considered the “developing world,” and Nicoya was in Costa Rica’s poorest province. But if you make it to 60 years of age in Nicoya, you are more likely to reach 100 than anywhere else in the world, which appears to refute the widely held belief that you have to be rich to be healthy.
Over the next few years, research teams visited each location to learn more. They were motivated partly by curiosity, and partly by aspiration: if we learned why people in the Blue Zones lived longer, then perhaps the whole world could become a little bluer.
There were a number of factors that stood out in Nicoya: a strong sense of purpose, which made centenarians feel valued; living with their families, where children and grandchildren provide support and a sense of belonging; active social lives and frequent visits from neighbours; a tendency to engage in physical work throughout their lives; indigenous Chorotegan roots (the indigenous people of the area) and traditions that potentially reduce stress; the Chorotega diet of fortified maize and beans; and regular exposure to sunshine and high calcium content in the water.
The Nicoya Peninsula has always been different from the rest of Costa Rica. This finger of land, part of the state of Guanacaste, hooks into the Pacific Ocean and has a much drier climate than the rest of the country. The hills remain forested, but the flats have been cleared for cattle farms, and it’s here that the sabanero lifestyle took root. Following independence from Spain in 1821, Guanacaste took religious orders from Nicaragua and political orders from Guatemala, until a referendum in 1824 led to its peaceful annexation by Costa Rica.
Nicoyans speak a slightly faster, accented dialect of Spanish. They are known as “morenos” for their dark skin, which is partly down to the sun (Nicoya gets more days of sunlight than the rest of the country) and partly down to genetics: the Spanish began settling here in 1510, and intermarried more regularly with the Chorotega than with other indigenous groups.
The central uplands are mostly haciendas, where the sabaneros herd their cattle, but the western coastline has erupted with luxury hotels, yoga retreats and backpacker hostels. 100 miles south of Nicoya is Santa Teresa, on the peninsula’s south-western corner. It’s an idyllic surf beach, with notorious dirt roads that make quad-bikes or SUVs a necessity.
In this town, longevity seems to be the norm, rather than the exception: a barman tells me about his great granddad, who still climbed trees to fetch bananas at the age of 101; and Ricardo, a hotel manager, knew both great-grandmothers on his mother’s side.
“My grandma is in her 90s,” Ricardo says, “She still drives and does her own shopping, even though she lives with my aunt and her family. People of that generation started working much younger than my generation, and they’ve worked hard all their lives. It’s just what they do.”
Down the road from Santa Teresa is the fishing village of Mal Pais. Venus Moya, who is 20, grew up here and, like many of her generation, works in tourism rather than fishing. “I’ve never really thought about it,” she says, “But I guess people around here do live a long time. My great grandmother is 99, and she still walks to the shops. In Mal Pais, many of the fisherman still fish into their 90s.”
While longevity can be found throughout the Nicoya Peninsula, Buettner and his team found that the hotspot was further north, around the city of Nicoya, which suggests there is something beyond lifestyle, sunshine and fresh food contributing to long lives.
The village of Matambu is not easy to find. My GPS took us down two dead-ends and one road that was shut for repairs, before finding a steep, winding track, which the car struggled to climb. For the first time since arriving in Costa Rica, I found small maize fields and, as I came to the top of the hill, there was a large pile of yellow cobs drying in a front yard. I stopped to take some photographs and had just started talking to the farmer when it began to rain. We helped the family put the corn into sacks to avoid it getting wet and, once we had finished, they invited us into their home.
“We’ve just finished the harvest, and are drying out the maize,” said Olman Hernandez-Perez, who has the wide face and slightly Asiatic features that are typical of the Chorotega, “but we always have to watch for rain at this time of year.”
Maize is distinctive to this part of Costa Rica, as it can only grow in drier climates. The Chorotega had links to the Mayans of Mexico, and have an agricultural heritage with crops like maize. Indigenous groups in Costa Rica’s wetter south-east have more in common with the Amazonian jungle tribes, eating root-vegetables like cassava or potatoes. “We dry the maize in the sun,” says Olman, “Then soak the kernels in lime juice and ash. That way the husk softens. Then we roast it and grind it into a powder called pinol.”
This is the base for all sorts of food, including tortillas, soup and bread. They even use it to make an alcoholic drink called chicha. The lime and ash process doesn’t just make it easier to grind, it also helps in the uptake of calcium and niacin, which may be a reason for the low rates of osteoporosis and heart disease in Nicoya. Buettner thinks that the Chorotega diet of maize and beans may be the best nutritional combination for longevity the world has ever known.
Olman headed to the back room and brought out two cobs of corn that had a beautiful, claret colour. Another cob had a deep purple colour, and others were a kaleidoscope of pinks, purples, blues and reds.
“The purple corn is better,” he says, “We sell our maize as dry kernels in sacks, and we can sell the purple kernels for twice as much as the yellow ones. We have one crop in August, and another in January. During the dry season, we head to other parts of the country to work in construction. It means we find work, but it changes the community – my wife isn’t Chorotegan, as I met her whilst working. But I would encourage my children to leave Matambu if they wanted.”
Downtown Matambu consists of one street, two juice stores, a church, and a school that’s been here since 1886. A large, traditional assembly hall lies at the centre of the school grounds. A teacher tells us that Chorotegan society is matriarchal, and that local women use the hall to teach children about customs, language and food. I gave her a lift home, and she directed me towards a man who makes traditional Chorotegan pottery. Ezekiel Aguirre-Perez, a mere 65, welcomed me warmly, and took me to an open-sided building with a steep, thatched roof. Outside was a kiln, with plates and bowls drying beneath a plastic sheet. They’re painted with natural dyes of red or orange, and he’s particularly pleased with a bowl that has a snail carved onto it.
Chorotegan society is tranquil,” he says, “People share with their neighbours and relatives. For example, if someone kills a pig, they call everyone round to share it. The next week, another member of the community does the same, so everyone always has enough and social bonds are constantly being strengthened.
“But traditions will only remain if there is a reason for them,” he says, “We used to make our houses in the traditional way, in a concept called ‘mano vuelta’. Everyone from the community would come to help build one house, and it would be done quickly. Then, when someone else needed a house, the whole community would go there, too. Now the government gives us money to build brick houses, so not only is the skill of building a traditional house being lost, but the mano vuelta is being lost, too.”
Tourism is one way to keep those traditions alive, he says. “I can only keep making pottery if I can sell it,” he says, “And tourism keeps people here in Matambu, because it provides work. If I am showing a group of visitors how to make pottery, then someone else can show them how to make pinol or tortillas from maize, and someone else can show them how to farm organically. That way, the whole community is engaged in tourism, so it is mano vuelto. But it also gives our traditions value, so they are not lost.
“We are still at the early stages, and need to work out how to get it right. There are other towns, such as Guatil, where tourists go to buy pottery, but it is not authentic: the people who make the pottery don’t even live there, and most of them are not Chorotega. The key is to have only a little tourism, one or two visits a week, so that it remains authentic. Fortunately, it’s not easy to drive here, so hopefully it won’t become overcrowded.”
Ezekiel thinks that indigenous traditions have a measurable effect on the people of Matambu. “The blue zones are a real thing,” he says, “Two months ago, a woman of 113 years old passed away in the village. She didn’t even need glasses to read. People say it’s the diet, but I think the community helps people stay alive for longer.”