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Costa Rica: The centenarian cowboy

Beyond the rugged coastline of Costa Rica's isolated Nicoya Peninsula are the cattle-ranching communities that live there — where the sabaneros' lifestyle means they have some of the longest lifespans on earth

Costa Rica: The centenarian cowboy
Pachito's house, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Image: Ash Bhardwaj

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It’s a mild day in San Juan de Nicoya and I’m waiting for Pachito the sabanero (cowboy) to finish tying up his horse. His one-storey house is set in the hills and valleys of Costa Rica’s driest state, but Pachito’s garden still bursts with flowers and bees.

He turns towards the house, strides firmly up the garden path, and calls out to his daughter to bring coffee. Looking around the porch, I notice the signs of what makes Pachito unusual: photos of him with five generations of his family, a guest book full of good wishes from researchers, and a birthday card celebrating his 101st birthday.

“Sorry if you’ve been waiting,” he says. “I’ve spent all my life as a sabanero, and I can’t be happy if I don’t spend at least half an hour on my horse each day.”

Ten years ago, Dan Buettner, a National Geographic writer, discovered five regions around the world in which people live unusually long lives. Of those five regions, a small district on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica is the only one that doesn’t belong to the Developed world. Far from the capital, San Jose, this area has seen less development than the rest of the country.

“When I was young, things were scarce and life was difficult,” says Pachito. “There weren’t even any doctors here. But we did things that made us strong: everyone was a sabanero, and we worked with our hands, looking after the land and the animals.”

The unusual lifespan of the people of Nicoya has brought researchers and scientists here, who have come to discover how the rest of us can live longer lives, too. They have identified several causes, including a high concentration of calcium in the water, the genetics of the indigenous Chorotega people, a diet that’s high in maize, sensible exposure to sunlight and an active lifestyle.

“The land was good,” Pachito says. “It gave us maize, rice and vegetables. We ate three meals a day but never too much, and rarely any meat: only the wild animals that we hunted, or chickens once they got older. That’s different to now, where everyone can get a great assortment of food, but they don’t know where it’s come from.”

One of the key things that Buettner identified in Nicoya was that older people remain central to their families, and maintain active social lives into old age.

“That’s the most important thing,” adds Pachito. “In my life I haven’t been a rich person or had a grand position in society, but I’ve always been a good friend. You have to love yourself and others, and you have to love God.”

As I stand to leave he gives me a firm handshake, but when my photographer friend moves to shake his hand, he gives her a peck on both cheeks instead. “And you have to love beautiful women,” he adds with a laugh. “That’s the secret ingredient that will keep you on your toes for life!”