I traveled to a ‘Blue Zone’: Here’s how it changed my daily routines

As a mom in my 40s, I love to travel for work and family vacations. The best of those trips involve warm weather, ocean water and great food. This year, the family trip involved all of those things—but was very unique—as it marked my first visit to a Blue Zone.

I had seen “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones” on Netflix, and wondered what these people know about living life the longest—in the happiest and most healthful ways. Booking a trip to Guanacaste, Costa Rica was easy (thanks to a direct flight from most large US cities!). And opening my heart and mind to learn what they’ve known for centuries was a beautiful journey.

Starting at Liberia airport, we had a 2+ hour bumpy car ride to our first destination, Punta Islita, in the Nicoya Peninsula. As the experience manager of the hotel said, “bad roads bring good people”, which is so true. You always have to go farther to find the most beautiful places (off the beaten path). We were tired, hot and very hungry on the ride (especially our tween daughter, who was officially over all the traveling by hour eight). When we asked the driver to make a stop en route, we were blown away by the gem we uncovered. It was a side-of-the-road fruit stand—no different than many others in Central and South America—but wonderful. As I watched my daughter thrill over the machete-trimmed coconut and the ready-to-eat slices of pineapple, mango and papaya, I knew we had been transported to a new kind of place. One where $5 for fresh fruit delivered happiness unlike any American grocery store ever would. As she sipped fresh OJ (seriously, from-the-tree fresh) from the corner of a baggie, I watched her enjoy juice as she never had before. It was so nice to see that, within a day, small transformations were already beginning. 

I had seen pictures of Punta Islita, a secluded jungle hideaway, but I was overtaken at our arrival. The lush greenery and stunning views opened wide after driving through canopies of trees with fresh mangoes and white-faced monkeys. We were met with cold hibiscus tea (something integral to the region) and the standard ‘rican’ greeting of “pura vida”; something we heard a lot while visiting. I will keep that with me—the saying and the sincerity that goes along with it—pure life. Pure life. Pure life. It truly embodies the simple, happy, humble culture and lifestyle that Costa Rica offers.

We experienced many special, unique moments at Punta Islita and their sister property, El Mangroove, but what was most special was watching the elements of the Blue Zone unfold around us and seeing my daughter naturally mold into each of the experiences. She snorkeled in open waters surrounded by octopus and dolphins, rode horseback on the beach, read in a hammock (screen-free!), tried so many fruits she had never tasted before, and spoke in Spanish with love to every person we encountered. That is the true lesson of the Blue Zone. Eat fresh food, stay active, live as close to your family as possible (many families live multi-generationally) and understand that it’s not money that makes you happier or helps you live longer, but rather appreciating all that nature offers us.

10 health-focused habits that stayed with me from the Blue Zone in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

1. Eat fresh, whole food

I once asked our server “is it organic?” and the response was a laugh. You don’t need to ask if it’s organic in Costa Rica: it just is. The rich, colorful, plant-based food was so REAL. Buying tropical fruits like mango and papaya is pricey at home, but the taste and health benefits are worth it, in my opinion. At Punta Islita, they proudly created a Permaculture Project, which follows traditional indigenous farming practices. The food from the Permaculture farm showed up as incredible fresh juices each morning at breakfast (combos like pineapple/mango/cucumber and pineapple/basil/tamarind) and in meals like breakfast ice cream (a very cold spirulina with granola, coconut and almond butter). Back at home, we’ve already pulled the juicer out from the garage and are putting it to use in a much more imaginative way than before.

A seafood meal at Punta Islita, Autograph Collection
Punta Islita, Autograph Collection

2. Savor your coffee

The darker the roast, the less caffeine—that was a lesson I learned from coffee growers in Costa Rica. They use a traditional method called the “Grandma method” which is basically a pour-over coffee using a wooden chorreador and a fabric filter/sock. If you want to make authentic Costa Rican coffee once you’re home, this is the typical method. It’s a slow, simple process that reminds us to take our time enjoying our coffee. For me, it’s a reminder that we only need one delicious cup (not a whole pot!) focusing on the ritual rather than the rush.

3. Sip hibiscus tea

Served cold, and at most meals, the hibiscus tea was sweet, cinnamony and refreshing. But more than that, it’s a native drink with healing powers. The hibiscus plant is rich in antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C and anthocyanin. It’s known to support everything from fighting inflammation to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s refreshing and light (and my daughter loved it!). We’re already preparing it at home with a cinnamon stick (another plant used as an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties)—both hot and cold.

Hibiscus tea at Punta Islita, Autograph CollectionHibiscus tea at Punta Islita, Autograph Collection
Punta Islita, Autograph Collection

4. Carve out time for self-care

At the Nanku Wellbeing Spa, I was able to experience century-old healing traditions, using the Nicoyan people’s secrets of holistic healing. Shirodhara is their most meditative and relaxing treatment, part of ancient Ayurvedic medicine. They poured a steady flow of coconut oil and hot honey over my forehead and the sixth chakra (the third eye and the intuition energy center). During this healing experience, I had a whole-body massage with passion fruit oil. The smell was so sweet and delicious and lingered on my skin for a good 2 to 3 days. I will forever associate that scent with this trip. The massage was followed up with a soak in the tub (also infused with passion fruit oil). I forgot how nice it was to take an uninterrupted soak. It’s high on my list of things I need to continue to do back at home—carving out the time for the quiet and relaxation of a hot bath.

5. Learn from the macaws

These endangered animals mate for life. They also split the family duties! At sanctuaries throughout Costa Rica, ongoing efforts are working to replenish the species almost completely lost to deforestation for pineapple and other farms. Through their revival we can watch and learn from these prehistoric birds. Stay close to family. Pick a solid partner. Work together. Mating for life works when we split the family work and raise children together. Why should humans do it differently?

Macaws at Punta Islita, Autograph CollectionMacaws at Punta Islita, Autograph Collection
Punta Islita, Autograph Collection

6. Surround yourself with greenery

The variety of plants in the Nicoya region is astounding, especially considering that dry season is DRY. Yet somehow you’re surrounded by lush, tropical, large-leafed plants everywhere you turn. The native trees and fruit in Costa Rica have been used in local healing for generations. While you may not be able to find fresh lemongrass and guanabana back at home, any type of plant can have a positive impact. Plants are actually known to improve air quality in enclosed spaces— and let’s face it, plants make us all happier.

Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Punta Islita, Autograph CollectionGuanacaste, Costa Rica: Punta Islita, Autograph Collection
Punta Islita, Autograph Collection

7. Honor “Earth Hour”

At Punta Islita, and many resorts in Costa Rica, they’ve adopted Earth Hour. Each month, for one hour after dinner, they turn off all of the lights in the public spaces. It’s Earth Hour. A time for us all to be with each other, device-free, to acknowledge and give thanks for our time here. I have a memory of local students coming to dance by candlelight. It’s a good reminder to take time to unplug in the evening hours, and a way to teach kids how to enjoy down-time—a huge lesson itself.

8. Enjoy the soothing sounds of nature

Sadly, I can’t bring back the natural jungle sounds, where the cacophony of macaws is loud and vibrant, but I can ask Google to play soothing music when I need a moment to de-stress. I will remember the sounds of the birds in the morning which turned to howler monkeys in the afternoon—loud, yet so peaceful. It’s a reminder that work is not more important, and sometimes taking it all in gives you the clarity to see things differently, from a bigger perspective.

9. Move slowly in the mornings

The heat can be brutal in Costa Rica (95-100 most days in early spring) with the blazing sun, but the mornings are pure pleasure. Even if you’re not a meditation person—sit, enjoy, relax. Take in the views and the sounds. Savor the beauty of nature. The crash of the waves, the pair of bright green squawking parakeets passing by. The lush greenery. The black sand. Breathe it in. At home, this has turned into taking a few minutes each morning to myself before or after the morning rush. It’s a new day. Every day.

10. Embrace pura vida

Ricans end every conversation with it—and they mean it. It’s not just for surfers and travelers. It’s a recommendation for life. Do your best. Love the moments. Appreciate your health. Relish your children. Pura vida.

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