by Cheri Eplin

Traveling alone can seem like a daunting task. When you read about women such as Elizabeth Gilbert finding herself by eating, praying, and loving through exotic lands, it seems like a fanciful thought for someone else. But if you’ve fantasized about jetting off solo, no one said you had to plan the trip by yourself. That is why I connected with Reefs to Rockies for my Costa Rica experience.

Reefs to Rockies, based in Colorado, is an adventure travel company dedicated to ecotourism and although I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into, I took the plunge. Unlike Gilbert in her limitless amount of time she could spend traveling, I had less than a week (including my travel) to plan one of my bucket-list items. I’d always dreamed of zip-lining past three-toed sloths in the rainforests of Costa Rica, just as Diego had every Saturday morning (the famous cousin of Dora the Explorer, a regular visitor to my household when my son was young.) So it was a trip to this Central American country that would become my first opportunity to leave the details to someone else.

Owned by Sheridan Samano and Lynda Gregory, these entrepreneurs organize itineraries for Costa Rica, The Galapagos Islands and African Safaris. When exploring their website, one of the first things that caught my eye was their focus on “travel to diverse destinations as a process of discovery, and that amazing lessons are waiting to be learned.” I couldn’t wait to sign up for this class, as I could soon become an overachieving student.

I loved the idea of leaving a smaller carbon footprint and exploring what it means to travel with an environmental awareness. Upon meeting Sheridan, one of the dynamic duos, she immediately struck me as an Isabella Rosselini look-alike. If Rosselini is famous for her movie roles, Sheridan is famous for her dedication in promoting principles of sustainability and responsible ecotourism. What began for me as an initial fear of sleeping in tents enclosed with mosquito nets and filtering water from streams evolved with the completion of my Costa Rican adventure, knowing it had to be one of the most amazing experiences of my lifetime. And it was inspiring to learn the lengths to which some of the local hotels and their staff are doing to help preserve the rainforests and environment in Costa Rica.

The first major lesson I learned in traveling alone is, you are never alone unless you choose to be.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but every hotel we stayed at was incredible, both in customer service and in location. From Trogon Lodge in the highest peaks of the rainforest to Villa Blanca Hotel and Spa in the cloud forests – from guided hikes through Los Angeles Biological Reserve to relaxing in the hot springs of Eco Termales Hot springs (made famous by Brangelina) – each experience was unique and felt as if it were out of a dream. Every hotel was enveloped by rushing river streams and blanketed in jungle-shrouded slopes of the surrounding mountains. Ecotourism wasn’t at all what I imagined, it was much, much more.

Education about sustainability was ever present from our visit to the coffee bean grower who utilizes his land in a responsible way with only fair trade principles, to the hotels that hired primarily local people, to the great lengths people went to preserve the natural environment – from the 3 “R’s” (reduce, reuse, recycle) to limiting the number of people visiting popular sites such as La Fortuna Waterfalls. All of these principles proved to be both important and possible. Lessons that are important to each of us; to conserve our natural wonders.

With a local expert driver Gerardo guiding us throughout the central part of Costa Rica and the extraordinary guide Pika who informed us about local culture and traditions of Costa Rica and her people, (ticos and ticas) it was an educational journey that treated the senses and embodied the familiar local saying “Pura Vida!” (the good life)

Ten of us caravanned from place to place over six days and the driving and details were left to the experts. There is no way I would have seen as much as I did if I would have tried to do it all on my own. There were wonderful surprises throughout the trip from a ride on the largest boat I have ever been on at the base of Arenal, where we kayaked and danced to Latin music (and I even jumped off a high plank into the lukewarm water along with my new BFF Cherie) to a special dinner at a local restaurant with a talented and energetic Costa Rican singer.

Just like a high school campus, we formed cliques and bonded in old, familiar ways. Those who tended to be more adventurous tended to stick together and the rest were outliers that created a line-up of characters that rivaled the best novel. I truly did appreciate everyone on the trip – especially the humor provided by those “special characters” we often run into on a bus or in an airport. There were a myriad of experiences that provided great opportunities for shared laughter and clenched bellyaches, which were abundant amongst “my homies.” From our dance with the largest arachnid I have ever seen to our visit on an organic farm, where we tasted unknowns and “moonshine.” Ample opportunities were provided for team-building and there were spotlights into why “some of us are not like the others.” All I know is I loved “my team” – women of strength, character, and a lust for adventure and life.

Our trip to La Fortuna waterfalls dropped right out of a scene from Peter Pan. Waterfalls cascaded from insane heights and pools of warm water invited even the most timid swimmer. We paraded in front of the camera at the base of these cascading beauties, as if we were posing for Sports Illustrated. The walk down the insane number of steps only meant that the hike of insanity would greet us after our 15 minutes of fame. I felt fortunate to have bonded with Sheridan and appreciated her patience when I was winded climbing up. Pervasive joking occurred when I asked about flora and fauna whenever I needed to catch my breath. The amazing thing is Sheridan would embark into the most interesting mini-lectures about the forest floor and the animals that resided there and we were captivated kids in the palm of her hand.

When one of our fellow hikers realized she’d left her jacket back down 800 steps, I was no longer a loyal friend. I was most impressed, however, when Sheridan remained at her side, descending many stairs in order to support her lost possessionn. As I continued to sweat at the top of that climb, waiting for the duo to return, I could swear I saw Sheridan wearing a red cape upon her return.

The Costa Rican people – lovely, the food – amazing, the scenery – stunning, the trip – unforgettable.

Highlights: Irazu Volcano, agouti -small wild and cuter than raccoons (although stupid tourists kept trying to pet them and hold them), dense vegetation housing the most beautiful insects and more birds than I could ever imagine. I now know what a quetzal is – and why I had to get up so damn early to spot this bird from a “birding guide” Sheridan carried around. Spotted in a tree behind a local woman’s house, there it was. Looking like it ingested an entire box of Lucky Charms, the quetzal’s rainbow of colors were simply stunning.

And yes, one of my dreams came true. I zip-lined. I zip-lined past a sloth in the most torrential downpour imaginable and inked the tattoo of friendship in my heart forever as my favorite comrades and I continued to bond when we finished the zip-line with a Tarzan swing that pushed everyone’s envelope. There we were, deep in the jungle, taking risks in a way none of us would in the comfort of our own backyard.

Pablo Picasso once said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” We definitely learned that we could jump off a platform of 50 feet before our fall was broken and survive. If you go to Ecoglide Park and don’t get a chance to see a howler monkey, you will certainly have the opportunity to scream like one!

Yes, traveling solo can seem like a daunting task but I never felt so alive and so much a part of a “team” as I did in a remote jungle with women I had only met a couple days before. A week in my life, yet forever changed. Lessons learned.

Relevant Links:

Reefs to Rockies Conservation thru Tourism

Trogan Lodge

Arenal Manoa Hotel

Arenal Ecoglide Park

Villa Blanca Resort & Spa