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April 02, 2015, Costa Rica

Ultimate fitness retreat

Winston Len finds a life worth living in the Central American country of Costa Rica

Winston Len

COSTA Rica, which means “rich coast” in Spanish, is a mountainous country set between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. However, I was not there to surf the azure waves or trek through the wilderness. Instead, I was there for the pain.

“Take a deep breath. Feel the energy. Breathe,” said the yoga teacher while fire crackled through my joints. It was only the first day of the luxury yoga-and fitness camp atop Casa Big Sur, the most beautiful villa in Costa Rica, and I was already wondering whether I would survive the week.

Living the pure life

It all began when my wife decided to celebrate my birthday by booking a fitness and wellness retreat. Her reason: “I want us to exercise and live a long life together.”

Going to a country like Costa Rica certainly makes one believe that a long life is worth having: beautiful mountains, beaches, pristine forests, the place has everything.

Well, almost everything. On our drive to the villa, we got lost. Road signs are sparse here. Not only that, the locals scoff at speed limits and drive like Formula One drivers.

Once we arrived at the resort, we settled in easily. Casa Big Sur is a Balinese-inspired villa, which commands a majestic view of a craggy Pacific Ocean coast. Nine of us — strangers from around the world — were here for the retreat.

During communal meals, we sat around and chatted. It was a fun group, prone to debates about the meaning of life, interspersed with discussions about the health benefits of chia seeds and the nefarious evil of sugar. For alone time, some chose to drift on floats in the infinity-edge swimming pool, a few watched the anhinga birds sunning their wings, while others dozed in the pavilion’s hammock.

In Costa Rica, there’s a saying: la pura vida. It means the pure life, a life worth living. It might as well have been the unofficial slogan of our retreat.

The Fitness Plan

Every morning, our trainer-cum-retreat organiser Petro Martynyuk led us in a workout, cajoling us through different exercise stations.

Exercising in a gym is quite different from working out high up on a hill, near the Pacific Ocean coast. During the hour, eagles soared overhead, glaring at us wingless mortals flapping our arms doing star jumps. In the tree canopy, we saw monkeys clambering through the foliage, inspiring our efforts to be limber and lithe.

After each morning workout, we discussed the rest of the day. While some chose to lounge around, others ventured out.

Go eco
The eco-tourism industry here offers many activities, ranging from kayaking to deep-sea fishing to basking at the nearby Dominical beach alongside lazy iguanas perched on nearby coconut trees.

One of the most memorable trips we had was a hike to the Nauyaca waterfalls, a frothing water wall 45m tall. After we got there, half of us leapt from a ledge almost 5m high into the waterfall’s plunge pool.

On another trip, we zip-lined at the Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, a 330ha rainforest preserve.

Ziplining is the safe version of the Tarzan treeswing. Up on a treetop platform, our guides hooked our body harnesses to metal cables, then launched us zipping to the next tree.

Yes, even our courage got a workout. While the trip was labelled a retreat, it seemed a misnomer since the activities pushed us physically and mentally.

That brings me back to yoga. Each evening, we regrouped around the yoga mats. Then, the pain began.

I am not dexterous. I do not flow or flex, nor can I put my nose to my knees.

But near the end, during a long-held plank pose, I remember feeling a sense of achievement at how long I could hold myself steady.

“You think we’ll live to a ripe old age after this?” asked my wife.

I didn’t have an answer. But I do know that I would love to go back and experience Pura Vida all over again.


- I flew from Singapore via British Airways to Juan Sanataria Airport (SJO). I made a transit at London and Miami. It takes about 30 hours to get there. From SJO, I rented a car and drove to Casa Big Sur.


- It is best to hire a driver from the airport to your accommodation. If you drive, it is essential to have a GPS unit updated with the latest maps.

- A number of trainers offer Costa Rican retreats. We arranged ours through Petro Martynyuk (, an internationally certified personal trainer.

- Costa Rica is renowned for its coffee. Also, the country borders the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, so be sure to try out seafood here.

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