Few places exist on earth where people live to such a grand old age as they do on the Nicoya Peninsula of northwestern Costa Rica. What’s their secret?
Hooves clip-clop on the dusty track, as José Bonifacio Villegas Fonseca rides his horse beside mine, loosely holding the reins and wearing a pale sombrero to protect him from the sun that at 8 a.m. is already blazing down on us. José Fonseca, or “Pachito” as everyone here calls him, rides out with his four sons. Suddenly he drives his horse forward into a trot and the duo prances away, man and animal a single entity; it looks proud and very laid back. Is this the same frail man who a short while ago needed the table’s support to get to his feet?
Pachito is an incredible 100 years old. When he first sat in the saddle at age four, Winston Churchill had just been appointed Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Kid was premiering in New York. As a sabanero, as cowboys are called in Costa Rica, Pachito spent his entire life driving cattle across the Nicoya Peninsula in the northwest of the country. Today, he still rides several kilometers a day to visit far-flung neighbors who live in the tiny village of Pochote. We halt briefly at a cheesemaker and chiropractitioner’s just as he emerges from his cowshed in rubber boots. Pachito, he assures me, is not one of his patients. “He’s like a teak tree, made of hard wood and straight as a die.”
I am here to discover Pachito’s secret. This peninsula on the Pacific coast is one of the world’s five so-called “Blue Zones,” that is, the regions where people live to be extremely old and at the same time in particularly good shape. The Japanese Prefecture of Okinawa is one such Blue Zone, as are the Italian island of Sardinia, the Greek island of Ikaria and the Californian city of Loma Linda. The inhabitants of the Blue Zones are a mystery to science. Or rather, they offer the hope of some day being able to solve a mystery that has puzzled the human race since it attained self-awareness: How can we live for ever? Or to take it down a notch: How can we live longer and stay healthy at the same time? “My hearing’s bad and when I sit still, my bones ache,” Pachito tells me, “but I feel fine in the saddle!” He gives me a mischievous, gappy grin. “Doing what you love and sufficient exercise,” I jot down on my mental list of ingredients for a long and healthy life.
The day before, I left San José behind, the noisy capital city with its congested streets and honking of horns. Flying over cattle country, a small propeller airplane carried me north to the city of Liberia. From there, I continued my journey by car to Santa Cruz on the Nicoya Peninsula, one of the oldest cities in Costa Rica, and the further I went, the greater grew the distance between the simple houses that announced their presence with hedges of brilliantly colored blossoms. In between them, nature asserted itself with vines, trees and meadows in countless shades of green.
Modern life is only slowly penetrating the Nicoyan jungle; the electrical grid only came to some villages 16 years ago
Modern life is only slowly penetrating this jungle. It’s just 16 years since a power supply line was laid to Pachito’s lot. He has meanwhile acquired a television set and also a cell phone that was a gift from his sons; he only uses it to take calls.
The man who brought me to Pachito is Jorge Vindas. He knows all of the roughly 50 people in the region who are currently 100 years old or more. Vindas himself is 55, a slight man with a mustache who used to be a research associate at the university in San José and today jokingly describes himself as a “centenarian researcher.” He founded the Asociación Península de Nicoya Zona Azul, a society dedicated to investigating and preserving from gradual oblivion the life stories and habits of the extremely aged but nevertheless hale and hearty.
We drive along tarmac roads that give onto muddy tracks outside the villages. Vindas talks about a 90-year-old man who’s still riding a motorcycle and a 95-year-old woman who still loves performing with her folk-dance group. At an intersection, he points out a box of a building: a fast-food restaurant. “That was just new when I traveled here with Dan Buettner in 2006.” Back then, the U.S. journalist was the first to describe the Blue Zone phenomenon for National Geographic. Outraged, Buettner exclaimed: “This will be the end of the centenarians!” It’s a well-known fact, after all, that what we eat determines whether we lead a long or a short life, whether we are often sick or stay healthy. On Nicoya, fast food is still the exception, while homegrown vegetables are served up far more often.
Next we pay a visit to Doña Chila. A sprightly 91-year-old – full name Cecilia Gutiérrez Pizarro – she rises with the sun and goes to her bed at six p.m. when night falls. A regular daily rhythm and plenty of sleep are also factors in ensuring a long life, says Vindas. Doña Chila has spent most of hers with her now 63-year-old son in a lonely house on a remote wooded hill. A small woman with large spectacles, she’s stirring the contents of an iron pan over an open fire. It’s gallo pinto for lunch today, an omnipresent dish here in Costa Rica consisting of black beans and rice. With practiced hands, Doña Chila shapes cornmeal into small tortillas. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she says, “except that this finger is a bit stiff.” As a girl, she dreamed of becoming a teacher, but her mother needed her help in the home. So self-realization is apparently not crucial to health and longevity.
“Telomeres are the key,” explains Vindas, once we are back in the car. We drive along past expanses of pastureland stretching away to the dark-green hills beyond. My companion embarks on a scientific excursus. Telomeres, I learn, are tiny stretches of DNA inside the cells of the human body. They are found at the ends of chromosome strands, and their job is to protect the chromosomes from all manner of damage. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres become shorter until one day they disappear altogether. Then the genes can no longer be copied and we age.
Scientists from San José repeatedly made the trip to Nicoya to conduct a specially commissioned survey, took blood samples from the spry seniors and examined them in their labs. They discovered that the telomeres of their test subjects were significantly longer than those of old people in other parts of the country. “The way we live really does affect the length of our telomeres,” Vindas continues. Omega 3 fatty acids, which are also present in black beans, are good for their growth. A particularly harmful factor is what the World Health Organization defined as the “Health epidemic of the 21st century”: stress. A green iguana flits across the street, reminding me of my ride with Pachito. “Stress,” he told me, “I’ve never experienced that.”
What we experience as stress, or not, is of course a question of culture, open to definition. A life model no longer familiar to many Germans today helps to strengthen the life-preserving telomeres in Costa Ricans: the large family. In Nicoya, many adults still live with their parents or regularly spend the night with them. A survey revealed that just one visit a week results in telomere growth – at least in the person receiving the visit. Community, then – my list is getting longer and longer. Pachito lives with his daughter; without her, he would no longer be able to stay in his old house. And Alexis, his son, drops by almost every day.
Dominga Alvarez Rosales, 103 years old, also lives with her family. Her great-great-grandson has just learned to walk. Seated in a wrought-iron rocking chair outside her house, the lady with the dainty earrings has a very friendly smile but doesn’t say much. Her grandson, Albin Cerdas Barrantes, a lean, curly-haired man in his mid-fifties who looks at least 15 years younger, does the talking. He lived in San José for a long time, he tells us, where he worked very hard and ended up with a chronic stomach complaint. Then a couple of years ago he asked himself why his abuelita, his grandmother, was so much healthier than he was. Now he’s back on Nicoya, growing organic vegetables and supplying hotels on the coast where western tourists spend their vacation in search of a healthy life, relaxation and deceleration on Costa Rica’s gorgeous beaches and eating good wholesome Costa Rican fare.
What you cannot buy, cannot even stock up on during a visit of just two or three weeks is satisfaction and the confidence that everything will turn out fine – somehow. Many of Costa Rica’s senior citizens owe that confidence to their faith, to their belief in God.
This is also true of José de la Cruz Espinoza Quintanilla, who is the last person we meet on our trip. He lives in a small, brightly painted red-and-yellow house beside a river. Up in the treetops, black bonobo apes are making a din, and the air is fragrant with wild coriander. The man who opens the door to us is 102 years old and has a face as mottled as old leather, but his handshake is energetic. “I’ still have plenty of strength!” he says, beaming and punching the air with his fists like a boxer. He takes us inside his sparsely furnished home. There’s a bed in the only room, and the closet next to the kitchen holds a broom, cleaning things … and a casket. I gape at Don José in surprise. “I want to be prepared,” he says, laughing, adding that he’s already chosen and paid for his space in the cemetery, “from my own money!”
“How many years would you like to live?” I ask. “As many as He gives me,” he replies, raising his eyes heavenward, “but I’d like to make it to 125.” Perhaps people live to a very old age when they love life but are also prepared to let go, sometime, later on.
These five regions are home to a particularly large number of people who live 100 years and beyond