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Nicoya peninsula: Costa Rica’s Blue Zone where centenarians are the norm
With more than 40 people over the age of 100, the Nicoya peninsula holds many of the secrets to living a long life.
A new year always brings new resolutions, and many of them traditionally focus on seeking prosperity, better health, and longevity.
But there are some places around the world whose inhabitants naturally have superior health and live well beyond the global average.
Known as "Blue Zones", these hotspots of longevity are characterized by the age of their residents: they have an unusually high concentration of centenarians (people who live to 100 years or older).
This is typically thanks to a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, although the precise reasons for such a long average life expectancy is still not completely understood.
There are five recognized Blue Zones around the world: Sardinia in Italy, the island of Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the island of Icaria in Greece, and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
Living in a Blue Zone often means having access to a supportive community, a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, and, importantly, a strong sense of purpose.
This is strengthened by close relationships with family members, and participation in regular social activities with friends and neighbors. This social support can help individuals to cope with stress and improve overall well-being.
Life in Nicoya
Don Dámaso Mendoza is from the Nicoya peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica. At 102, he doesn’t stand out – more than 40 centenarians live in the area and in 2020 it was home to the most number of centenarians in the world.
While most people at that age would expect to put their feet up, Don Dámaso still enjoys riding his horse and spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In fact, he says he continues to live his life largely as he always has.
“To be completely honest, not much has changed in my routine. It is true that I can't dance as much as before, but I am still able to walk and feed myself; I remember the names of all my children, and I can still saddle Candelita, my mare. I feel very grateful for that.”
This is a common attitude among people in Nicoya. Many of the longest-living residents don’t believe they’re doing anything different or special than anyone else – they just take each day as it comes.
“It's a lifestyle,” Don Dámaso says. “Here, life goes by slowly, we are not in a hurry. The field is our best friend, we learn to read the signs of nature.
“We trust the sun to take care of our animals and we know how to interpret when the rain will come to feed our crops. We raise our children patiently, teaching them things that they will only learn at home. We cook and prepare what we ourselves harvest. And we laugh a lot!”
Throughout the conversation with Don Dámaso, I notice that what he says is true. His wrinkled hands hold a white trilby hat, and his toothless grin hasn't faded for a moment as we speak.
Experts believe that, along with a healthy diet (Nicoyans practice a diet of rice, beans, corn, greens and a small amount of meat in their daily meals), this is a crucial undercurrent in Blue Zones. In Costa Rica, it is called “plan de vida” – a reason to live which fosters a positive outlook and keeps people active.
How to live a long life
Despite his age, Don Dámaso still has a remarkable memory. Although he doesn’t remember the exact day on which he was born, he can recall vivid memories of his childhood growing up on the Nicoya peninsula in the 1920s and 30s.
“I still remember some things,” he says. “The world has changed a lot. When I was young the rivers had more water and the sun was not so hot. We could swim in confidence, accompanied by fish that abounded in the rivers.
“People were good, we could trust each other. I really liked to dance, and at that time we used to meet in the plazas to dance and make friends.”
It’s natural that a century later, the world has changed. The Nicoya peninsula itself has become an increasingly popular tourist destination thanks to its nature reserves, quaint beach towns, and stellar surf breaks, not to mention the fact it’s one of the world’s few known Blue Zones.
Having seen young visitors to the peninsula and watched his own grandchildren grow up, Don Dámaso has also seen the way in which people and technology have changed too, such as the rise of social media and smartphones. So does he have any advice for younger generations?
“They have to learn to take life slower,” he says. “They are running all the time, with their internet, their cell phones, and their modern gadgets. They no longer stop to breathe consciously, they no longer see the landscape, they don't just hang out with their friends, and they don't know where the food they eat comes from.
“Their life is gone and they don't realize it! They have to learn to be more patient.”
Before I leave his house, I listen carefully to this advice and keep it in my heart. Outside, in his neighborhood, I see how the wooden houses still house wood and clay ovens, and women make corn tortillas at their own pace, smiling without haste – just like Don Dámaso told me.
Don Dámaso has sadly passed away since the writing of this article. He was 103.