Part of the Family

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View from the Lost Iguana resort outside La Fortuna, Costa Rica

There’s pros and cons to every form of travel—whether you’re with a tour group, a self-guided trip, alone or with friends, we all have our own image of a perfect vacation. Within the millennial travel blogger realm, I see a lot of think pieces about traveling solo, with tips on what to do/ not to do, safety, or the benefits. Those are great pieces to read about, especially for me, a woman, who may face certain challenges as I backpack across Europe alone. It’s important to read up on others’ experiences and hear their advice before going on your own trek.

However, what if you decide to travel with a group? Or even more specific, what if you decide to travel with your family? On your solo adventures, the only person you have to cater to is yourself—you get to dictate which museums you visit and when, how late you want to stay at a bar, or if you should change your flight and stay on an island one extra day (tempting, right). But when you’re with a group, your needs are as equal as the others you’re traveling with, and many times you have to compromise to make sure everyone has a good time. That’s the key too—everyone needs to have fun.

Such was the case for me earlier this year when I traveled to Costa Rica. The country itself had never been high on my radar, but when an opportunity to visit my youngest sister there came up, I was sprinting out to the store to buy a guidebook. What I learned in my own research first, is that Costa Rica is a hub for adventurers (which made me wonder why I had never had it on my list before!). Between each coast you can hike in the rainforest, climb a volcano, zipline through the canopies, and surf the Atlantic or Pacific (your choice). And let’s not forget about the sloths. There are so many sloths.

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The beaches at Manuel Antonio.

If I was traveling solo, my trip would easily be booked with days and days of adventure. Instead, I was traveling with family, where each member had his/her own skill set, interests, and comfort level when it came to traveling through a new country. Originally, I had written out an itinerary similar to the trips I had organized in Europe—day to day outlines with travel, hotel options, and activities in each location. Because of the timing, I set aside two parts to the trip—a few days on the beach, and a few days up in the mountains.

Reading into the travel portion of our plans, I forgot that driving in a foreign country is never the same as driving in the U.S.—five hours of straight driving here is easy, but there, you’re venturing through winding streets up and down the mountains of the countryside (and watch out for gators!). Luckily, it was my father who suggested we hire a driver to do the heavy lifting. It was the best decision we made on that trip.

For first timers to the country, I would recommend consulting a travel guide. We went through Costa Rican Vacations (http://www.vacationscostarica.com) and they hooked us up—they set up the drivers, scheduled our tours, and booked our hotels for us for the whole week. All we had to do was show up.

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Hiking selfie in La Fortuna.

For me, going through a tour guide isn’t always my first choice—I tend to feel restricted, and without the freedom to travel at my own pace (very fast), I worry about missing something. But due to our circumstances, and the fact that none of us had traveled to Costa Rica before, this was an opportunity to put the planning in the hands of the experts. It was our priority first to have fun.

Of course, there was also compromise in our day to day decisions—the heat was difficult to deal with, so spending an entire day at the beach wasn’t ideal for everyone in our family. The cliffs made it hard for the non-hikers to get to certain beaches, and I had to learn how to sit still, but together, we were able to make memories we’d cherish forever.

During our trip we stayed in two areas: Manuel Antonio and the Arenal Volcano region. We took a few guided nature walks and got to see sloths and monkeys up close, we swam in the warm ocean, and hiked through the rainforest (on our last day in Arenal, I stepped on a viper while hiking and determined it was time to go). But what I remember (and miss) most, were the hours we spent lounging by the pool, with the gorgeous view of the ocean behind us. It’s an out of character memory for me, but those were the moments where I was able to reflect and simply enjoy the ride.

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Local Costa Rican iguana + a view in Manuel Antonio.

Change of Plans

Growing up, my family and I would spend a week once a year vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. During those trips, we’d typically get beautiful 80-degree days perfect for hiking, boating, swimming or biking, but there was always that one day that would be a wash—literally.

I remember once we had planned to take a train up to the top of a mountain, but because of a forecast of pouring rain, we had to cancel that plan, and instead spent the day indoors shopping and catching a movie at the theater. My mother told me that this was part of traveling—that with every trip, you have to plan for a bad day, so whatever the reason, you’ll have a backup in case something goes wrong.

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This is what you call a ‘classic’ tourist in Greece photo opp.

When I studied abroad in 2008, I spent a good part of my spare time planning my fall break trip to Greece. That was the first time I had to plan a trip all on my own, from the transportation, to the hotels, to the activities, and I had everything scheduled down to the hour. Day 1: Fly to Athens and spend the afternoon wandering the gardens near the Acropolis. Day 2: Visit the major tourist sites; Eat gyros; Day 3: Nine-hour boat trip to Santorini; Sleep on beach. You get the picture.

In between the basics I had a list of all the things I wanted to see and do, but I forgot one very important fact: things go wrong, and plans change. During that trip my companions and I encountered three transportation strikes—one in Italy where we nearly missed our train to Milan, a second in Athens which shut down public transportation for a day, only to reopen as soon as we landed in Greece, and a third the morning we had to catch our boat to Santorini (in all cases, we nearly missed our ride, but by some miracle were able to have everything work out at the last minute). On the third leg of the trip, a violent storm was expected to blow through the Mediterranean and we were unsure if our high speed boat would take us to Crete (almost all of the boats leaving Santorini that day were docked, but we got lucky—ours was the only boat allowed to leave. The water was incredibly choppy, and I hit another life milestone that day—first time throwing up from sea sickness).

Things could have gone very differently on that trip if we were delayed at any point. In my mind, I had pictured Greece’s weather as sunny and warm every day—I never factored in that rainy day. We got lucky though, we caught every plane, train, bus and boat to get us to where we needed to be, and we managed to see almost everything on our list. We hiked a volcano, drank with strangers who later became friends on a beach and soaked in as much of this beautiful country as we could.

But every trip has its bad day. Our final day on Crete was short—16 hours total, with four spent on a bus, and six spent sleeping. It was disappointing because we had wanted to see the palace at Knossos, the former capital of the Minoan empire and potential home of King Midas, the guy with the golden touch. But poor planning on my part led us to only seeing a small portion of the island before rushing back to the airport to go home.

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It was a cloudy morning in Rethymno that day.

We made the best of it though. While I realized my mistake, I kept reminding my companions that this happens—that on every trip there is always one day where things don’t go as planned, and you have to make the best of it (I was repeating what my mother had told me ten years earlier). It’s an essential part of any trip, and it forces you to make something out of a bad situation. It teaches you how to go with the flow.

For all the travelers out there, there’s three ways you could approach this type of scenario. For all of my Type-A, obsessive planning types (you are not alone, this is how I describe myself most days), I would recommend before your trip researching alternative options you can do on a rainy day. That way, in the case something changes your plans, you can rearrange your schedule to make sure you still get to see the important stuff. Option 2 is to just wing it—if something goes wrong, don’t fret, instead, talk to your hotel concierge and ask about what you can see or do in the area. Usually they’ll steer you towards something you never would have expected, and you’ll head home with a story that is truly and uniquely yours. Option 3, which I’ve done a few times, is to say screw it and just stick to your original plan. If the site is open, you can still go, even if you get a little wet. As long as you don’t let a bad moment ruin your day, you’ll still get to enjoy your trip.

I will also stress that for the planners like me out there, prioritize what sites you want to see most. Unfortunately, there’s never enough time to do everything, so when I travel, I make a list of everything, and star the places that are top on my list. I feel that it’s better to devote as much time as you see fit towards the things you want to do, instead of trying to squeeze the most things into one trip. Plus, if you have to skip something because of time, it gives you an excuse to go back.

Our last day in Greece was spent in Rethymno, a city two hours from the capital of Crete. We arrived at our hostel around dinner time, and had enough time to shower and grab food and a drink before we had to go to bed. That night, we met travelers from all over the world, backpackers who would stay in the town for a day or two to freshen up before heading back out into the island’s backcountry. It was a hiker’s paradise, and I still regularly fantasize about how I want to return to Crete and hike and for a week (see, there’s always a reason to go back again). We woke with the sun the next morning, and got donuts and wandered the street just so we could get a taste of the town we settled in for one night. The trip was short, but it was worth every minute there.

And even though we weren’t able to see everything we wanted to see, that blip of a day still sits strong in my mind—Greece was my first time planning a trip, and it was my first time making a travel mistake. It taught me to adapt to changes and to go with the flow while traveling, because sometimes the things you don’t plan for are the most memorable.

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Remember: With every bad day, you get five great ones–our hike through Santorini’s volcano crater was a highlight of the trip.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.