I’ve written before about group travel, so you know I’m a fan. While my first group travel experience took me into the unknown, I’ve been at least marginally familiar with everywhere I’ve traveled in a group setting since. So, although I enjoy having my itinerary planned by someone else, not having to worry (too much) about money on the trip, and basically kicking back and letting someone else handle my vacation, I think I was missing a vital aspect of group travel: the tour director’s knowledge in the face of my utter lack thereof.
I rectified this oversight this summer when I traveled with a group to Costa Rica. In my last article, I talked about how much I loved the country and all the activities I tried. I feel very confident in saying that without my group and my tour director, I would not have loved it nearly as much as I did.
I’ve always wanted to go to Costa Rica. I know people who have gone and enjoyed it, I speak Spanish and always like to take trips where I can speak it, and, let’s face it, I’m a sucker for a beautiful country. So, when the opportunity came up to go, I grabbed it with both hands.
Of course I did my research before I left. I knew what activities our tour included, and which ones I would and would not be doing. I had a general idea of the topography – enough to know to take motion sickness medication with me. (Pro tip: if you are prone carsickness, take meds along when you go to Costa Rica!) I looked into weather forecasts, packing lists, suggested attire for various activities, and everything I could find about the local currency (colones) and how much I’d need.
But, even with all that preparation, I am eternally grateful for Erick, our tour director. He made the entire experience absolutely perfect – and, if it hadn’t been, he would have found a way to fix it.
Tour directors prove their worth so many ways, and Erick was no exception. We ended every day with a rundown of the next day. He would tell us what time to be at breakfast, what to wear (closed toe shoes? long pants?) and what to pack in our bags (water, sunscreen, bug spray – always! rain gear, sometimes). That little touch of someone else who would know what I needed before I did, who would make sure I was properly dressed and that I had all the necessary items, but nothing I wouldn’t need – it removed a potential stressor, and let me relax and focus on enjoying the activities. He kept us safe, warning us when we could not drink the water – which only happened at one hotel – and making sure we had the opportunity to purchase plenty of bottled water before we arrived there.
Erick and Johnny, our drivers, made sure we arrived to all of our activities, meals, and hotels without incident. As I stated above, Costa Rican roads are no joke. Super highways do not exist in the same form there as they do here, and in any case, the topography does not lend itself to a smooth ride. The roads are narrow, winding, and trace paths up and down hills. For two days, we spent most of our time on dirt roads. Curves even on paved roads were treacherous. Guide rails are barely visible, and would not stop you from going over an edge. I couldn’t imagine driving myself around the country. Even GPS wouldn’t be able to help you stay on the road – as we learned when we saw a car on its side over a hillside, the disoriented couple who had been driving it standing on the side of the road. As I stared down at it, I could hear Erick explaining that that is why it is best to see Costa Rica in the company of an experienced driver. I wholeheartedly agree!
The activities were another place that Erick added so much to our trip in so many ways. First, this was not his first rodeo. He could tell you exactly how challenging any given activity would be, and suggest alternatives if a traveler didn’t feel up to completing it. For example, the climb down to La Fortuna Waterfall was amazing. Swimming at the bottom of it was unforgettable. Climbing back up convinced me that I need to spend more time at the gym. Erick knew how challenging that climb was, and let us know, in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way, that there were alternatives to going all the way to the bottom
He also knew the potential pitfalls of any given activity. When we visited Manuel Antonio National Park to go to the beach, he gave us more information than any of us wanted about the monkeys who live there, and their penchant for stealing food from unsuspecting beachgoers. He gave us a long list of what to do and what not to do before we even left. (Pro tip: chips are not allowed in the park. The monkeys are addicted! Yes, really!) He also taught us how to keep our food and belongings safe – and not a bite of food was lost from our group. I cannot say the same for others at the beach – we definitely saw some raccoons make off with someone’s sandwich!
Erick also enriched our itinerary was through additional activities. Some tour companies allow their tour directors to add what are called “tour director options” to the tour. Erick offered two: a night walk through the rainforest, and a chocolate tour, each for a small additional cost. Of course, I took advantage of both. These were both wonderful additions to the trip. I didn’t question the integrity of the guides who led us into the rainforest, or my own safety in going with them. I didn’t hesitate when the guide of the chocolate tour put a raw cocoa bean in my hand; I popped it straight into my mouth. Being on a tour gave me a sense of security that freed me to try these things, to have these experiences, without needing to worry about any safety issues. Moreover, they are activities that I would not necessary have heard about or found on my own – his expertise was necessary to lead me to them.
Without Erick there to direct our group, I doubt any of us would have seen Costa Rica the way we did. We had to travel in a group to do it. I’m sure you’re curious about my fellow group members. No, they did not annoy me – no more than anyone else that I see all day. Yes, we spent a lot of time together. But, we also had free time when we could explore independent of each other. Although we were all traveling on a bus together and doing our activities together, we had our smaller groups with whom we had arrived in Costa Rica – these were our roommates, not the near-strangers sitting around us on the bus.
But, that’s the thing: by the end of the trip, we weren’t strangers anymore. The woman sitting behind me on the bus was from Texas, but the week after we got home from Costa Rica, she and her husband moved to my hometown of Pittsburgh. It was wonderful for us to make that contact and become friends before we became neighbors. You forge friendships on these group trips with people who share one important thing with you: a love of travel. And, that is a passion not to be taken lightly.
Would you like to participate in a group trip? It’s easy to join a group – or, to pull a bunch of friends together and create your own private group! I’d love to talk more with you about it – find me on Facebook at Upon A Star Michelle or send me an email to start the conversation!