The Nicoya Peninsula: Living Well in the Blue Zone

When my mother was a young girl in Mexico, she had problems with her digestive system. Around the age of 12, she was hospitalized multiple times because of sharp pains in her abdominal area. As a result, she stopped eating, and her sickness increased. The doctors never found the origin of her pain, and she fought the discomfort for many years.

After marrying my dad and having three children, the pain slowly started coming back, but this time stronger. I remember my mom screaming in the middle of the night as if she was getting murdered, and we had to rush her to the hospital at various times. After conducting many different tests, doctors figured out that her gallbladder was causing problems. She got it removed in 2007, hoping that her health was going to improve. Then in 2014, the pain returned, and she was back in the hospital getting tested again. Some days she wouldn’t even talk, the pain was so draining.

Tired of all this suffering, my mother decided to change her lifestyle. She started doing research on healthy foods that helped the digestive system. At first, she cut red meat, then she eased her way into not eating poultry. Now, she is a happy vegetarian who has no stomach issues or pain. Just the change in her diet and exercise transformed her forever. In the process of eating healthier, she also added yoga practice to her life, and that improved her overall health. Since yoga helps the mind, body, and soul, it’s a major stress reliever.

Wayne Dyer once said, “You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.” I witnessed all the changes in my mom, and that got me thinking about my own health. A poor diet in my youth could impact me in later years, and I want to be a strong 100-year-old grandma doing exotic activities. I started looking into anything to help me in the long run, such as stress relief aromatherapy, yoga, and nutritional plans to adjust the way I eat.

That’s when I came across the Blue Zones, which are places where people tend to live long, healthy lives because of their lifestyle. There are five located around the world: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece. Given my Latina heritage, I researched the Nicoya Peninsula lifestyle. The traditions these people have proved that they are doing something right. The Blue Zone in Costa Rica is a fascinating case study because Americans can learn much about living longer through some simple changes in food and exercise. Living longer doesn’t happen out of the blue. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic researcher and writer, joined other agencies to inform people about the diets and habits that the Blue Zone communities have. Needless to say, he points out that eating habits can impact a person’s life expectancy, and if more people would eat better, there wouldn’t be so many health problems.

It’s worth noting that Costa Rica spends just around one tenth of what the United States spends on medical services, yet more than twice the same number of men there can hope to achieve a solid age of 90. Buettner led the group that initially found the Blue Zones over ten years ago. Alongside Nicoya, he discovered other places as well, each of them chosen because they have traditions and ways of life that establish a domain where individuals can live more advantageous lives. As Buettner noticed while studying the Nicoya Peninsula lifestyle, residents don’t smoke. Most eat a plant-based diet, stay active physically and in their communities, and value family life. Plant-based eating there is straight from homegrown food or local farmers. The Nicoyans’ produce comes from their own particular greenhouses, with little measures of animal protein. The Nicoyan community also include fruits, quality fats, herbs, high-quality dairy products, and whole grains in their diet. Most people in Blue Zones eat high antioxidant foods. They contribute infection-battling supplements to each meal and actually controls the body’s craving signals people know they’re full.

Consequently, Nicoyans don’t have as many strokes and heart attacks. However, they aren’t vegetarians. They’ll eat meat a few times a month while other animals like sheep and fish are eaten more often. Eating animal-based meals on occasions has much to do with the fact that they don’t have constant access to those food sources. When the people in the community want to let their hair down, they drink home-made local wine. The lesson from the Nicoyans is that a good healthy diet starts with four to six vegetable servings daily, plus one to three organic products like fruit. Add in an assortment of whole foods that supply solid fats and proteins, including nuts, and you have a recipe for a long, healthy, happier life.

Exercise also plays a big part in a healthy lifestyle. Sometimes, getting out of bed and going to the gym can be dreadful, but most Nicoyans don’t go to the gym. Instead, a good amount of exercise is in their daily routine. Nicoyans wake up every morning because they have a saying: “plan de vida,” meaning reason to live. They walk between four to six miles every day, mostly because they walk everywhere. Nicoyans also enjoy activities like yoga, Tai Chi, and playing in the park with friends. Another important key is that a significant amount of jobs in the Costa Rican Blue Zone are physical, e.g., farming. According to Dr. Axe, “Staying active consistently in a healthy way adds to longevity by reducing inflammation, improving heart health, improving resilience to stress, and maintaining bone and muscular health.” Exercising helps relieve stress. Yoga and gardening are fun stress-relieving habits. Having a positive mindset about things like exercise can change the way you think about things so that life isn’t so dreadfully burdensome. Most importantly, the elderly Nicoyans do not live in retirement homes since they tend to be active and medication free. The reason why they’re still living in good health is because of their daily exercise, which isn’t woeful–they enjoy it.  

The story about my mom’s journey from illness to learning a better way of living made me think a lot about my future. Seeing my mom in pain for most of my childhood scared me and made me realized that we have the power to change. In Blue Zone communities, people maintain plant-base diets and exercise daily. As a result, they get to live happy lives of over 100 years old. A lot of diseases in the world  could be prevented if only people would make sensible decisions about how they live. As for me, the Blue Zone was not just a brief curiosity to me. It became a deep personal reflection. I am a meat eater who probably eats meat about six out of seven days a week. Although I enjoy the juicy red blood guzzling out of my steak, if I want to live a healthier life, I must reduce my meat intake. I’m also eating more vegetables and seafood, as well as trying new things and exercising more. I have to say that with the changes I’ve been making, I actually enjoy my life quite a bit more.


Ambar Medellin is a Colorado native who plans on getting a Bachelors in Computer Science through The University of Texas in San Antonio. She enjoys working out, watching football, and spending time with family.


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