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A week in paradise

Pura Vida: a Spanish expression meaning "pure life" that can be used as a greeting, farewell, or way to say "thank you;" a symbol of a simple way of life that revolves around enjoyment and being happy; the most commonly used phrase in Costa Rica.

Surrounded by lush, green mountains on three sides and a gleaming Pacific Ocean on the other, the 13 Midwestern ladies swirled and twirled in one of their resort's three luxe swimming pools, getting their morning fitness fix with a little Aqua Zumba.

It was 80-some degrees outside and the sun was shining, a warm breeze blowing; another beautiful day in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. A full 100 degrees warmer than it had been back in Minnesota just a day or two earlier.

The ladies were being led by instructor Nancy Hebert, who spearheaded this trip for them and also leads their Aqua Zumba fitness classes at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center. Later in the afternoon, as the sun set over the sea, Hebert led them again, this time in some stretches and relaxation exercises on the sandy beach outside the resort.

In between workouts, it was ladies' choice: they could take guided trips through the nearby rainforest, visit the neighboring wildlife sanctuary to see monkeys and other exotic animals, go snorkeling or scuba diving, do some shopping in town, hike to jungle waterfalls, zipline, go deep sea fishing, take a jungle safari boat cruise, go river rafting, tour an active volcano or take part in any number of other fun and adventurous outdoor activities.

Or, they could just relax at their 5-star hotel, where there was a spa, casino and five different theme restaurants right on site. Totally up to them. Tough choices, eh?

This was the ladies' posh lifestyle every day for a week. From Jan. 11-18, the group soaked up the sun in this tropical paradise.

Located in Central America, between Panama and Nicaragua, Costa Rica offers the perfect winter escape, with its year-round warm weather, endless options for outdoor excursions and plethora of opportunities to unwind.

It was the sixth group trip Hebert has led, and she said it was "beautiful." She plans a fitness-focused vacation to somewhere "warm and by the ocean" every winter, she said. Travelers in the group vary a little from year-to-year, but most of them attend her fitness classes at the Center, or are friends of those class members.

Beve Melgaard, for example, is in Hebert's Aqua Zumba class here. Prior to going to Costa Rica, she traveled with Hebert to Jamaica, Panama and Cozumel. She said "the camaraderie of the girls that go," the "great destinations," the reasonable package prices and the organization of it all make her want to keep going with the groups year after year.

The Little Cormorant Lake area resident described Costa Rica as "wonderful." She has particularly fond memories of walking across suspended bridges at the lush and foggy Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (clouds hover around the upper canopy of the forest and provide a bounty of moisture, creating a rare amount of biodiversity).

She also took a tour of a working coffee plantation up in the mountains (she learned a fun fact—lighter roasts have less flavor and more caffeine, while darker roasts have more flavor but less caffeine), saw wild sloths, monkeys and toucans, visited a butterfly house, and had hummingbirds sit right on her fingers.

The resort the group stayed at, Hotel Riu Guanacaste, is located in a secluded area on the country's northwestern coast, on the Gulf of Papagayo. Melgaard and Hebert both remarked on the hospitality of the staff, the perfectly manicured and colorful gardens and grounds, the spotless facilities, the beautiful beach, the diverse entertainment and dining options on-site, and the inviting pool area, among other amenities.

The resort was all-inclusive, Hebert said, so all the group's meals and drinks were included in the price of the trip: "There's no hidden costs. I kind of like that." It was recommended by Cheryl Chivers at Travel Travel in Detroit Lakes, who has booked all of Hebert's group trips.

"I prefer working with a travel agency so there's someone to ask questions of, and who can help with any travel issues," Hebert said. "It's just nice to have someone there, especially with a larger group."

Hebert said her goals for the trips are to get women together to travel and see different parts of the world, have fun, and "still do some physical activity, which is important."

"Some people wouldn't travel on their own, so being able to go as a group allows a lot of people that may not travel on their own to go," she said. "Of course, sun and beach and warm and ocean are high on the list, too!"

With its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, Costa Rica is widely known as the poster child of ecotourism. It's home to a rich variety of plants and animals, and is popular for its rainforests, pristine beaches, multiple tropical waterfalls, and several active volcanoes, all of which can be visited safely.

In 2016, Costa Rica was named the most environmentally advanced nation on earth by the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index. That index also ranked the country as the "happiest place on earth," based on measures of life expectancy, well-being, environmental footprint and equality. It's no wonder 'Pura Vida' has become the country's unofficial slogan.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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