For the past two decades, Dan Buettner has traveled the world gathering the wisdom of the world’s longest-living centenarians. The result is seven books for National Geographic on longevity and happiness, the most recent, The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer, published in 2023; the Netflix documentary Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, which claimed the number three spot shortly after its debut in August; and the Blue Zones diet, whose guidelines have inspired millions of people to eat more beans.
(Photo: Courtesy Netflix)
Before he became an oracle, Buettner, who is 63, rode his bike from Alaska to Argentina, around the planet, and across Africa, setting three Guinness World Records. Then he became my boss. In September 2000, Buettner convinced eight of us, including archaeologists, biologists, photographers, videographers, and writers, to cross the Australian outback on bicycles while on a mission to solve the mystery behind the Aboriginal songlines, which Australia’s Indigenous people believe are routes, or land markers, to their ancestors. We interviewed knowledgeable experts and tasted staple foods like witchetty grubs, and beamed our discoveries via satellite to schoolkids following our adventure in real time.
During that six-week quest, however, our lifestyle was the antithesis of one that would ensure a long life. We ate gas station junk food, stayed up until dawn squinting at computer screens, and downed shots of tequila to soothe frayed nerves and celebrate milestones. Months later our team drove through Mexico and Guatemala for another six weeks, this time trying to solve the mystery behind the collapse of the Maya civilization. Had Buettner not shifted his focus to finding the world’s longest-living people, our hard-charging life might have killed us all. But it sure was fun.
In 2009, I wrote a story for Outside as his Blue Zones project started gathering steam worldwide. Buettner is on an ever-evolving quest, but today his lifestyle habits are comparatively monk-like, aligning more closely with his Blue Zones findings. “When you marinate in this stuff, you start to taste like it,” he joked when I spoke with him recently, adding that he abides by 90 percent of what he’s learned (although the Blue Zones diet frowns upon over-imbibing, he did confess to ringing in the New Year with one shot of very fine tequila).
As the result of the Blue Zones and books like Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, by Peter Attia with Bill Gifford, and Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To, by David Sinclair, more and more travelers are seeking the fountain of youth. Wellness tourism reached $651 billion in 2022, according to the Global Wellness Institute, and international wellness tourists spent $1,746 per trip that same year—41 percent more than a typical international tourist.
For those who want to travel to the original Blue Zones instead of couching it through the Netflix series, we tapped Buettner’s experience on how to soak up the centuries of health and wellness wisdom found in these five places. Then we added our own adventurous Outside twist for each destination.
Why Are the Blue Zones So Healthy?
Plant-based meals and keeping family close both play into Blue Zones principles. (Photo: David McLain)
In the early 2000s, the National Institute on Aging awarded Buettner a grant to identify the world’s longest-living populations and learn their lessons. Independent from Buettner’s work, demographer Michel Poulain and medical statistician Gianni Pes identified Sardinia, Italy, as the region with the highest concentrations of male centenarians. In 2004, they published an article in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology identifying the region as a “blue zone.” (Pes used blue ink to denote villages of exceptional longevity, hence the name.) Buettner eventually partnered with Poulain and Pes, and extended the Blue Zones attribution to four additional longevity epicenters around the globe, eventually identifying nine common lifestyle habits found in every one. He calls these lessons the Power 9 (outlined below).
“People in the Blue Zones don’t do any of the stuff that is relentlessly marketed to Americans,” such as eating junk food and going to a gym or a spa, says Buettner. It’s not that people in Blue Zones have better genes, he adds, “it’s that their day-to-day unconscious decisions are appreciably better.” And that adds up over decades to more than eight years of additional life expectancy. “Blue Zones has become a movement to change our environment, so we mindlessly make better decisions about our health, and that’s what works,” says Buettner.
Blue Zones Map: Where in the World Are They?
This Blue Zones map outlines where each of the world’s healthiest five locations exist. Notice any similarities? (Illustration: Tim Schamber)
As you can see from the Blue Zones on this map, all five fall in middle latitudes with temperate climates. Additionally, says Buettner, “Blue Zones are always hill people. They are not coastal. These cultures “grew beans and grains and garden greens and tubers, and brilliant women over the course of 100 generations got really good at making this food taste gorgeously delicious.”
The Five Blue Zones are:
The Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: The residents of some of the mountainous villages of this Pacific coastal peninsula are twice as likely as Americans to reach a healthy age of 90.
Okinawa, Japan: Located 400 miles south of the Kyushu (the country’s southwesternmost main island), this 463-sqare-mile destination is home to the oldest women in the world.
Ikaria, Greece: Less than 100 square miles, residents of this tiny north Aegean island live eight years longer than Americans, have half the rate of heart disease of Americans, and almost no dementia.
Loma Linda, California: This bedroom community of Los Angeles is a bedrock for many Seventh Day Adventists who view their health as an integral part of their faith.
Sardinia, Italy: The island’s eastern Ogliastra and Nuoro provinces have the greatest concentration of male centenarians in the world.
The 9 Healthy-Living Principles of the Blue Zones
(Photo: David McLain)
“Only 25 percent of how long you live is dictated by genes. The other 75 percent is something else,” says Buettner. Given that information, Buettner reasoned that if he could isolate the places where people lived the longest without disease, and then find common denominators between each place, that “ought to be something to pay attention to.” The following are the commonalities he’s coined the Power 9.
Move Naturally: The world’s longest-living people don’t pump iron or go to a gym. They live in environments that constantly nudge them to move naturally, as in working in a garden or walking uphill to visit a neighbor.
Purpose: Whether it’s called ikigai in Okinawa or plan de vida in Nicoya, Blue Zones residents have a reason to wake up every morning.
Downshift: Each Blue Zone has a daily routine that diminishes stress; in Sardinia, one such option is happy hour, and in Ikaria that may mean an afternoon nap.
80 Percent Rule: Okinawans recite a 2,500-year-old Confucian mantra before mealtimes, “Hara hachi bu,” reminding them to stop eating when their stomach feels 80 percent full. Also, in the Blue Zones, people eat their smallest meal in the early evening and then stop eating until the next day.
Plant Slant: Beans are the foundation of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork in the Blue Zones—is eaten only five times per month on average, and one portion is three to four ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.
Wine at Five: People in every Blue Zone except Loma Linda drink alcohol moderately and regularly, which means one to two glasses per day, consumed with friends and food. Sardinian Cannonnau (known elsewhere as grenache), a robust regional red varietal, has three to four times the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory flavonoids of other wines.
Belong: All but five of the 263 centenarians Buettner and his team interviewed belonged to a faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter.
Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in Blue Zones put their families first. They keep their aging parents or grandparents nearby or at home, commit to a life partner, and invest in their children with time and love.
Right Tribe: Blue Zones centenarians were born into or choose social circles that support healthy behaviors. In Okinawa, they create moais, a group of five friends committed to each other for life.
Outside’s Ultimate Travel Guide to the Blue Zones
Some Blue Zones are more amenable to mainstream travelers than others, says Buettner. In the two decades since he began to research these five destinations, some have changed dramatically. In Okinawa, for example, U.S. military bases have brought increasing numbers of fast-food restaurants to the island, and many of the original centenarians Buettner interviewed have died. But there are still idyllic pockets in each place where travelers can glean the wisdom and lifestyle of its residents.
Before you book plane tickets, heed Buettner’s advice: “If you’re the type of traveler who likes to meet the locals, are not in a hurry, are intellectually curious, and don’t mind staying in a rustic place to really absorb the culture, the Blue Zones are nice places to go. But if you’d rather party, get a massage, and order room service, go elsewhere.”
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
“The gateway destination for the Blue Zones is the Nicoya Peninsula,” says Buettner. “It’s an easy place to start, because you can book a nice hotel, do a yoga class, eat good food, and meet health-minded people.”
Although it’s an hour away from the nearest official Blue Zone, Buettner recommends staying in Nosara. The resort town is lined with five idyllic beaches and outdoor activities that spiral out in every direction. The real Blue Zones, where the centenarians live, however, are the small villages in the mountains above the ocean, like Hojancha and Nicoya, less than 40 miles northeast by road.
(Photo: Jen Murphy)
Where to Adventure: Nosara is the perfect oasis for beginner and intermediate surfers, thanks to consistent year-round waves with clean breaks. You can also enjoy mountain biking and hiking in the tropical forest, Pacific fishing charters, and yoga everywhere.
Where to Stay: Buettner recommends the brand-new Silvestre Nosara, which opened January 25 steps from four-mile-long Playa Guiones, one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica. Each of its nine plush private residences has a fully equipped kitchen and other amenities like private barrel saunas. Above is a rooftop bar lining an infinity pool. Buettner will be speaking at the hotel on February 2, but if you miss him, there are plenty of other distractions. Silvestre also offers a studio with a range of wellness classes including yoga, boxing, breath work, tai chi, and movement options for kids and teens. Three-night minimum stay, from $960 per night
(Photo: Courtesy Silvestre/Sergio Pucci)
The Gilded Iguana has been a family-run community hub for the past 40 years. More recently it added a surf school, guided hiking and mountain-biking outings. Additionally, the hotel can arrange a custom tour of the nearby Blue Zones with local Spanish-speaking guides—because the centenarians don’t speak English. Airy rooms accommodate two to six people. From $276 per night in the low season (May, and September through October) and from $480 per night in the high season (November 1 to December 19, and January 6 to March 31)
(Photo: Courtesy the Gilded Iguana/Andres Garcia Lachner)
Where to Eat: Buettner recommends heading to one of the original Blue Zone villages to eat a casado breakfast, a word that translates to a “marriage,” in this case between fresh corn tortillas and beans. “Until the year 2000 or so, that was 80 percent of these villages’ caloric intake,” says Buettner. He also recommends stopping at a roadside fruit stand to stock up on mangoes, papayas, guavas, “and all these wonderful fruits that grow in their gardens like weeds.” In Nosara, Soda Rosie’s also serves casados. Expats hang out at the Destiny Café, known for its smoothie bowls, avocado toast, and organic roasted “cloud” coffee with fresh coconut milk.
(Photo: David McLain)
“Ikaria is my personal favorite, because I know and love the people,” Buettner told me, adding that rooms in the guest house where he always stays are still affordable, there’s great hiking on the island, and you’re still likely to meet a longevity all-star. “When I started coming here, it wasn’t known, but today you will sit down with people from Israel, Australia, Italy—all over the world.”
Where to Adventure: This island in the Aegean Sea has been off the beaten path since it was first inhabited in the sixth century B.C. There are rugged mountain paths for hiking—you’ll be sharing them with goat and sheep herders—a growing sport-climbing and bouldering scene, and incredible beaches that require not insignificant descents. On Messakti Beach, which beckons with a sandy-bottom break and gentle waves, Ikaria Surf School is a one-stop shop offering daily surf and SUP lessons, as well as rentals and yoga on the beach. For an insiders’ view of the interior, sign up for a trek with Ikarian Footprints, whose local guides who know the inland paths like the back of their hand.
Where to Stay: Buettner always boards at Thea’s Inn, in the northwestern village of Nas. The owners, Thea and Ilias Parikos, are dear friends of his. The inn “has a gorgeous deck overlooking the Aegean, and the family gets most of their food from an enormous garden right next door.” Plus, notes Buettner, “Thea herself will always sit down and talk to you.” Beyond the familial vibe and incredible food (some of her recipes can be found in the Blue Zone Solution cookbook), the property is directly above one of the island’s best beaches. Choose from one of five rustic rooms, each with personal bathrooms and French doors that open to a private balcony overlooking the sea, plus a small refrigerator for storing fresh herbs foraged on a hike. Time your visit for Thea’s cultural-immersion retreat, designed to teach guests how to incorporate the Blue Zones’ Power 9 habits into their daily lives. From $33
Where to Eat: It will be difficult to find better meals and views than the restaurant terrace of Thea’s Inn. She and her staff serve Ikarian specialties like soufiko and bean stew, a version of ratatouille, the vegetables of which “will likely have been in the garden five hours earlier,” says Buettner. Another beautiful spot Buettner recommends is Karimalis Winery, run by George and Eleni Karimalis, who work with grapes from a revived 500-year-old vineyard. “They have great cooking classes and make a very satisfactory wine,” says Buettner.
Sardinia’s Ogliastra and Nuoro provinces are worth the travel time. “It’s a road trip to get there,” says Buettner, but the cluster of five villages—Arzana, Talana, Baunei, Urzulei, and Triei are the most picturesque. Seulo, farther south, is home to the highest concentration of centenarians.
Where to Adventure: Test yourself on the 33-mile Selvaggio Blu route, seen in the video below. It starts near the coastal town of Santa Maria Navaresse, involves sketchy scrambling and via ferratas, has jaw-dropping views of the cliffs and Tyrrhenian Sea, and is dubbed the toughest trek in Italy. Dolomite Mountains offers a less extreme option with its seven-day Wild Blue Zone Trek (not affiliated with Buettner’s Blue Zones), where you’ll explore the 25-mile-long Orosei coastline, hiking to unexplored beaches, on narrow rocky trails along white sea cliffs, and spending two nights on a private boat anchored in cerulean waters. The tough limestone in Nuoro also makes it one of the premier sport-climbing destinations in Italy, with slabs, steep walls, and wicked overhangs.
Where to Stay: Santa Maria Navaresse, while not in the official Blue Zone, is a “nice seaside town with decent restaurants,” says Buettner. Base yourself there and you’re less than 20 miles from the nearest Blue Zone of Arzana. The Nascar, a family-run, 12-room hotel, sits 150 feet from the beach and near an 11th-century church next to a thousand-year-old grove of olive trees. With free beach towels and umbrellas and sunbeds available, the beach of Santa Maria Navarrese is an extension of the hotel. From $178
Where to Eat: According to Buettner, to experience a true Blue Zones meal, you’ll need to be invited into the home of a local, because restaurants in these villages cater to special events like birthday parties and, as a result, “the menu looks like a roasted petting zoo, with goat and piglet”—more celebratory foods than staples. The Nascar hotel’s restaurant menu is more seafood heavy than a traditional Blue Zones diet, but the red prawns are freshly caught.
(Photo: Getty/Pete’s Photography)
“Okinawa as a Blue Zone is gone. The only vestiges of it are the oldest people. You have to be a committed traveler to find them and also need to hire a guide, because nobody speaks English,” says Buettner. Sadly, the island now has the highest rate of obesity in Japan, largely due to the fast food introduced with the creation of the U.S. military bases. It may be lost as a Blue Zone, but Okinawa still has pockets of beauty, with stunning waterfalls, white-sand beaches, and dreamy resorts on the outer islands.
Where to Adventure: The Yanbaru region, which includes Yanbaru National Park on the main island of Okinawa, was designated a Unesco World Natural Heritage site in 2021. Its name translates to “densely forested mountains,” and its lush forests and limestone peaks make for incredible sightseeing. Hike to 75-foot-high Hiji waterfall, the highest on the island, paddle the Gesashi Bay Mango Forest, and camp near off-the-beaten-path beaches. There’s also an incredible undersea world off some of Okinawa’s satellite islands, like Ishigaki, where you can snorkel among healthy coral reefs, dive with manta rays, and soak up some vitamin D.
(Photo: Getty/Ippei Naoi)
Where to Stay: In Yanbaru, the whimsical accommodations at the Treeful Treehouse Sustainable Resort boast 360-degree views of the sub-tropical evergreens, and offer a symphony of bird sounds along with a sauna for increased relaxation. (From $826 per night for up to six people.) On Ishigaki, the Fusaki Beach Resort lines a half-mile long, sugar-sand beach. With 17 room and villa types surrounded by subtropical gardens, and activities on offer from resort diving courses to swimming off remote islands, there’s plenty of space to find privacy. From $147
Where to Eat: Buettner recommends Emi No Misi in the seaside village of Ogimi, which relies on the same seasonal vegetables that have been harvested from nearby fields for centuries. Because of its popularity and authenticity, reservations are required.
Loma Linda, California
(Photo: Getty/Michael Svoboda)
“Loma Linda is a very hard Blue Zone to see, because it’s about residents’ Adventist lifestyle—no drinking, no smoking, a 24-hour Sabbath, and church on Saturday morning,” says Buettner of the 9,000 Seventh Day Adventists who live here. But it’s possible to live the Loma Linda lifestyle for at least a day, then retire to nearby Palm Springs, 50 miles southeast on I-10, for further adventure.
Where to Adventure: Do as the Loma Lindans do and spend a day at the University of Loma Linda’s Drayson Center, a one-stop shop for fitness classes, aquatics, nutrition classes, and, of course, a wicked game of pickleball.
Where to Stay: Korakia Pensione, in Palm Springs, offers a respite from the world. Set on 1.5 acres, two historic villas were combined to create a lush Mediterranean-and-Moroccan-themed oasis of bungalows, guesthouses, gardens and pools. Wake up with a yoga class, head to the Tahquitz Canyon for a short, rigorous, sweaty hike to a 60-foot waterfall, then return to lounge poolsidethe rest of the day. From $220
Where to Eat: Being in one of the world’s five Blue Zones, Loma Linda Market claims to have the largest vegan and vegetarian meat selections in Southern California. It also has treats like gluten-free, vegan, chocolate peanut butter cupcakes.
(Photo: Courtesy Jen Judge)
Outside contributing editor and 2023 National Geographic Explorer Stephanie Pearson lives in northern Minnesota and gives herself a solid B average when it comes to maintaining the Power 9.
The post Why Your Next Trip Should Be to a Blue Zone from Outside tzemke appeared first on Tom Bettenhausen’s.
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