The Nicoya Peninsula was once home to many healthy and happy centenarians. Demographers have identified the area, located on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, as a Blue Zone or “longevity hot spot,” typified by a higher-than-normal number of people living past the age of one hundred.
Nicoyan centenarians have been the focus of many articles. The authors of these articles, usually nonresident foreigners, describe the Nicoyans’ diet as predominantly plant-based and typically state that beans, corn and exotic fruits are the reason for their longevity. I have resided in Costa Rica for twenty years, and through my interviews and investigations in the region, I have come to a very different conclusion.
To gain insight into the Nicoyan centenarians, it is important to study the dietary and agricultural history of the region and the country. According to early reports by sixteenth-century Spanish settlers, the Amerindians of Costa Rica consumed significant amounts of poultry, fish, eggs, turtles and many types of forest game. The book, Historia de la Agricultura en Costa Rica, published in 1950 by the University of Costa Rica, suggests that around the 1570s the Spaniards introduced cattle to the Nicoya Peninsula. Cattle-raising has remained an important practice ever since, and Costa Rica today is completely self-sufficient in its production of meat and dairy products.
The Spaniards also introduced pig farming to ensure a source of ham and lard, although when they arrived they found that the natives already were raising a local pig breed that they called chuche. The book on Costa Rica’s agricultural history mentions that in 1665, through gifts of meat and lard, the indigenous residents were fooled into moving to the Central Valley, where the Spanish were in desperate need of labor for their farms. Spaniards to this day are big meat eaters, and Costa Ricans can thank them for the very popular Spanish chorizo and dry-cured ham—jamón serrano—that many Costa Ricans enjoy.
Historically therefore it is clear that Costa Ricans and Nicoyans have never been vegetarians. Culturally it is also worth mentioning that there has never been any religious or cultural restriction whatsoever concerning the consumption of meat, whether bovine or porcine (or any other type of animal food for that matter) among Costa Rica’s indigenous residents or the descendants of Spaniards or Africans brought by the Spaniards.
FOODS OF SUBSTANCE
Five years ago I interviewed several centenarians in the Nicoya Peninsula about their diet. In August 2016, I returned to obtain more details, especially hoping to learn more about the traditional diet recommended for pregnant and nursing women.
On my way to visit a one-hundred-and-nine-year-old woman in the village of Mansión, I stopped at a house to ask for directions. The lady of the house, upon learning about my research, enthusiastically described a common local dish aptly named sustancia (the Spanish word for “substance”) consisting of pork shanks cooked with liver, kidney, ears, cheek, brain and heart, spiced with cilantro, garlic, onions and bell pepper. She also described a soup eaten daily by pregnant and nursing women, containing black or red beans cooked with a bone, lard and a type of green plantain that is very rich in potassium and magnesium, eaten with boiled eggs.
Other centenarians and children of centenarians whom I talked to confirmed the importance of providing pregnant and nursing women with special nutrient-rich foods. In a region where residents were predominantly farmers and ranchers, pregnant and nursing women ate as solidly as everyone else but also received extra bone soup (broth made with chicken, beef, pork or other animal bones) every day while pregnant and for at least the first forty days while breastfeeding. The region’s residents especially seem to have revered free-range chicken soup, which typically also would be offered as a gift to the children’s godparents after the christening ceremony.
I eventually found the one-hundred-and-nine-year-old woman, Doña Francisca (Panchita) Castillo. She has been interviewed by many foreign investigators over the years;1 unfortunately she is now blind, almost deaf, and bed-bound most of the day. I arrived in the morning, just after her daily bath, and found her sitting with her caretaker granddaughter and other family members (including Don Pedro, her ninety-four-year-old son) on the patio of their humble home. I asked Doña Panchita and her family about their traditional dietary habits. Because communicating with Doña Panchita was somewhat difficult , her granddaughter and son helped me fill in the gaps.
Doña Panchita’s granddaughter and son told me they lived on meat and that everybody in the past loved meat and in particular fresh liver. Don Pedro hunted game, and when he or other hunters killed an animal, everybody fought over who got to eat the liver. Don Pedro also fished (he loved dried salted fish) and ate plenty of eggs and chicken. Don Pedro noted that children often went to look for shrimp and other seafood to eat. It was common to drink whey and sometimes make soup with it.
Don Pedro and other older Nicoyans reported that pork, lard and chicken skin were the principal foods and fats traditionally consumed, while other menu items were perceived as “extras.” Nicoyans used abundant lard and other animal fats for cooking. When I mentioned to Don Pedro that some foreigners question the veracity of reports on using lard, his response was, “What else could we have cooked with?” One hundred years ago, Costa Rica produced so much lard that the country exported it. Even in recent years, indigenous people come by bus to the town of Turrialba, my side of the country, east of the capital city San Jose, to purchase every single part of the pigs, including all available fat the butchers render to make chicharrón (fried pieces of pork belly or rind), a big treat to Costa Ricans. When families slaughtered one of their pigs, the animal yielded five gallons of lard, providing one month’s worth of cooking fat for seven to eight people.
Don Pedro was eight years old the first time he ever saw tapa dulce (a dark brown traditional sweetener made from evaporated sugar cane, known as piloncillo in Mexico and jaggery in India). All of the centenarians I talked to reported that tapa dulce was the only form of sugar they encountered or consumed in their childhood and youth (other than fresh fruit), and it was eaten only very occasionally, mixed with coconut or pumpkin. However, Don Pedro recalled the arrival of white sugar in the local markets when he was in his twenties.
In Samara, I met a woman whose grandparents had very recently died at age one hundred and two, and whose grandmother had been a midwife. This woman told me where I could buy the famous local dish, sofrito, telling me that her aunt sells it every Saturday in town. Traditionally, sofrito—made from the brain and cheeks of a pig—has been the recourse of anyone needing a “boost” (and even those not in need) and was regularly given to pregnant women. My informant reported that her grandfather was a medicine man who advised her during her own pregnancy to eat not only the bone soups and other foods mentioned above for pregnant and nursing women, but also iguana soup. When making iguana soup, Nicoyans always skimmed the fat off the top and saved it as a cooking fat, just like they did with chicken fat and lard. This medicine man also recommended that pregnant women eat plenty of fish eggs.
On my last day, I went to the Casa del Anciano (retirement home) in the town of Nicoya. There I met the extremely alert ninety-nine-year-old Don Cristobal Nuñez, born in 1917. Don Cristobal was a fisherman, just like the other male members of his family. He stated that he was raised on seafood, eggs, organ meats (including one of his favorites, the famous sofrito) and plenty of chicken soup. In Don Cristobal’s day, people also viewed sopa de jarrete (beef shank soup) as an excellent means of strengthening children’s bones. He added that he drank a glass of sour milk (fresh cow’s milk left to sour overnight) every morning to “refresh the liver.” Don Cristobal recalled that he had no knowledge of sugar as a child, and up to now he drinks his coffee without it. He also remembered the exact year (1932) when industrialized cottonseed oil arrived in his part of the world.
NO ACHES AND PAINS
None of the centenarians I talked to—even Doña Panchita, at one hundred and nine years old!—had ever suffered from joint pain or gastritis, ailments that affect virtually all modern-day Costa Ricans, including the centenarians’ children and grandchildren. Centenarians have noticed that their descendants are sickly and that food has changed. Ninety-five-year-old Don Marciano explained, “Today’s food has the appearance of food but not the substance of it.” Changes in the food supply have come in many forms, including:
• Processed flours
• Packaged cornmeal that has not been soaked in lime
• White rice
• White sugar
• Artificial juices
• Artificial condiments
• Vegetable oils
• Crops grown with pesticides and fertilizers
Vaccines and chlorinated water represent other significant changes, although some people reported that the chlorinated water prevented small children from dying from parasites.
One magazine article that I read suggests that Nicoyan centenarians’ long lives can be explained by genetic factors. It seems to me that Nicoyans’ longevity instead is much more likely be due to their nutritious animal-based diet and the absence until recently of refined foods and chemicals, combined with their family-oriented and technology-free lifestyle. Of course Nicoyans ate a lot of starchy plant foods in the form of maize and tubers (yucca, taro, yam or green plantain), just like the French and Portuguese—which happen to be the countries with the highest percentage of centenarians in the developed world.2 However, as with the French and Portuguese, one could hardly conclude that Nicoyans’ traditional diet is or was primarily plant-based.
Sadly in my recent travels I found far fewer centenarians than I had five years ago. Everywhere I went, I was told that some centenarians had recently died. Before leaving the retirement home in Nicoya, I asked employee Danny Espinosa about the shrinking population of local centenarians. He said, “When I arrived here six years ago, the home had forty-five centenarians. Today we have just two.”
A CENTENARIAN’S TYPICAL CHILDHOOD DIET
Don Pedro, the ninety-four-year-old son of one-hundred-and-nine-year-old doña Panchita Castillo, described his childhood meals and daily routine. People generally got up early (3:00 or 4:00 AM) to beat the heat and then worked hard to produce all of their own food, going to bed at 6:30 or 7:00 PM. Nicoyans also ate plenty of fish; the Nicoya Peninsula, as the name implies, is surrounded by ocean and also covered by rivers.
BREAKFAST (5:00 AM)
Corn tortilla with a big piece of fresh cheese (cheese could also be made from whey)
Rice (from the garden) and beans (left over from soup cooked with bones) cooked in lard
Coffee from the farm
SNACK (8:00 AM)
Cornmeal cooked with milk (sometimes with a bit of lard added, particularly in the last month of pregnancy)
LUNCH (9:30 AM)
Same as breakfast, plus meat or fish or bone soup with pieces of meat and plenty of corn and tubers
SNACK (12:00 noon)
Coffee accompanied by boiled tubers or tamales (corn paste mixed with lard with a piece of pork inside and
cooked in banana leaves)
DINNER (3:30 PM)
The same as lunch, or bone soup (fish soup once a week)
Tubers or tamales
SNACK (6:00 PM)
More cornmeal cooked with milk
1. Rodríguez S., Irene. Alegre nicoyana se convierte en tataratataratatarabuela. La Nación, January 26, 2014. http://www.nacion.com/vivir/bienestar/Cumplir-Solo-Dios-sabellevo_
2. Institute national de la statistique et des études économiques. Bilan démographique 2015.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2017.