SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – David Guzmán didn’t travel with the Portland Timbers to Costa Rica. He hadn’t been in Portland, missing out on the first six days of his club’s preseason training amid national team duty back home. As the Timbers’ Jan. 30 flight traveled south, Guzmán was already in his hometown, awaiting the arrival of his Major League Soccer teammates, and having a hand in the small welcome parties that awaited the Green and Gold.
Upon seeing their first views of the Costa Rican capital, Timbers players and staff were greeted by a small band of costumed dancers, celebrating amid music Guzmán had helped arrange. Though he wouldn’t be staying with the team immediately, the veteran midfielder met the group at their hotel, doing his part in welcoming the group to the city of his birth. Five days later, when Guzmán joined the group after Costa Rica’s friendly against the United States, the long-time Deportivo Saprissa stalwart had arranged gifts for the groups: white coffee mugs with letters spanning a rainbow’s colors, reading “Costa Rica” on one line, the country’s mantra, “pura vida” (pure life) on another.
It was more than the obligation of a host. Guzmán isn’t the only Costa Rican in the Portland squad, and he wasn’t elected to represent the group. But from the most experienced Tico on Portland’s active roster, the festivities seemed to serve a dual purpose. Not only did they welcome a group with whom Guzmán’s about to embark on a third season, but the welcome also gave the Timbers their first glimpse of a warmth the midfielder sees as endemic to his home.
“Here, in Costa Rica, people live a little differently than they do in the United States,” the 28-year-old explains. There are security issues that can’t be overlooked, he acknowledges. They’re evident in any cursory look around the nation’s capital, where fencing and guards are standards surrounding each shopping center in the urban core.
But to dwell on those details would miss the true Costa Rican experience, Guzmán implies. And that experience is as much about how life should be lived as any commercial precaution:
“Living here is different because people are always happy. They’re always intent on exploring; going out and enjoying the world. In the States, it’s similar in some places, but it’s also different in others.”
This is one part of pura vida (pure life), and exclamation that, in Costa Rica, is both mantra and salutation. It’s an expression of love, at the end of a conversation, but also an urging to enjoy a land where beaches and mountains, volcanos and rainforests all lie within a few hours’ drive. All of the country’s seven provinces can be touched within seven hours' drive, keeping Costa Ricans connected to one of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the Western Hemisphere.
But that connection is only one part of pura vida, though it may inform another. The way that Costa Ricans treat each other is much like they treat the land itself. There is an openness to how Portland’s Costa Ricans speak about their countrymen that feels too sincere, sparking insecurity at the thought that their feelings might be true.
Confronted, that insecurity gives way to something less threatening: a realization about a part of life Costa Ricans have embraced, that we too often overlook. To hear Guzmán’s description about his nation’s culture is to hear somebody speak of their grandmother, or a close uncle. In such a small country, living with similar ideals, Costa Ricans keep family at their core, extending their love for those closest to them to those across their world.
“We all live so close,” Guzmán explains, when asked about the primacy of family in Costa Rica. “My family is close. My wife’s family lives close. It’s different than in the States, where you can have relatives in Miami, or Los Angeles, or in any state. Here, it’s reassuring to be so close, because even the idea of it implies a special intimacy.”
Guzmán’s life is different than that of Julio Cascante or Marvin Loría, two of the other Costa Ricans in camp with the Timbers. They are younger, have yet to start their families, and are still establishing the type of international and club resumes that have defined Guzmán’s career.
But even in their fewer years, the pride of pura vida remains important. During Portland’s time in Costa Rica, they also wanted to amplify their home country’s lifestyle.
“Costa Ricans are very humble,” Cascante explains. “Here people do what they want, but they do it with the spirit of a tico, which goes hand in hand with feeling that kind of cultural support.
“So, when people talk about the idea of family, here, it’s about feeling that closeness with each other, no matter who you are. Whether you’re from a less-advantaged place in life, are middle class, or are well off, people are united and treat everyone like they’re each other’s supporters.”
It’s the spirit Guzmán was trying to evoke when he welcomed his soccer family home. “Family means everything to me,” he said, and in making the effort to welcome the Timbers to Costa Rica, Guzmán showed the Timbers what they meant to him.
“It really does make Costa Rica different than other countries,” Cascante said. “We are all family, here.”
It’s part of the reason Loría, a Timbers midfielder who recently made his first senior international appearance, is “so happy to be from Costa Rica.”
“In Costa Rica, everyone is close,” Loría explained, a reality that is particularly true for the country’s elite soccer players, who end up gravitating toward the major clubs around the nation’s. capital.
“The country is very small, but we all know each other, and we’re all very happy. We support each other like family, because we see that support and each other as beautiful in the same way we see the country, itself, as beautiful.
“The climate. The flora. The fauna. The beaches we have. Everything is so beautiful. When I came back (from Costa Rica’s international friendly in California against the U.S.), I was reminded of how beautiful it all is, and how hard it is not to be happy in Costa Rica.”
Loría’s is a vision of a lifestyle, one that lines up with those of Guzmán and Cascante but also explains why other Costa Ricans, like Rodney Wallace and Roy Miller, have been so popular during their times in Portland. It explains why, when looking at ways to vary their preseason routine, the Timbers saw San José as a natural fit, as well as why the relationship between Portland, Deportivo Saprissa and the Costa Rican federation may continue to flourish.
That relationship, according to Guzmán, allows “the club to grow more fans and followers,” albeit half a world away. But while those new fans may represent a return, of sorts, for the Timbers time in Costa Rica, Costa Rica will, in all likelihood, give Portland something that transcends an increase in supporters. In providing an insight into how Cascante, Guzmán and Loría view their worlds, Timbers players may be challenged to think about how they view theirs. That process may see some pura vida make its way back home.