“I am in love,” Ann said to her husband as their boat sped alongside the pristine southern Costa Rican coastline. Unfazed, he knew she didn’t mean with him. She was hooked. Costa Rica had her in its Pura Vida grips and wasn’t letting go anytime soon.
Ann Becker started her own business in Washington, DC at the age of 26 and relocated to Chicago three years later. She now has more than thirty-five years experience in meeting design and management, and strategic consulting. It was during that fateful family vacation back in 2005 that she became unexpectedly smitten with Costa Rica. When she returned to Chicago, all she could think about was how to get back there…and she now has – many, many times.
After extensive research, planning, and connecting, Ann led her first “Wonderful Women” trip to Costa Rica the very next year. She created small group experiential adventures to combine her love of Costa Rica with her business expertise. And since that first trip, , she has now been to Costa Rica nearly 25 times! She continues to lead an annual women’s adventure each February and also offers an annual co-ed Spanish/Cultural Immersion trip. I was fortunate enough to meet Ann at one of my Meet Plan Go Chicago meet-ups and we became fast friends.
Why Costa Rica? What is it about that particular country?
First and foremost, it’s about the people. The Costa Ricans are proud of their heritage, long-standing democracy, and peaceful existence. They welcome visitors to experience and enjoy their country’s beauty and traditions. In general, Ticos are warm, embracing and happy. Whether it’s a storeowner, taxi driver or one’s homestay “Mama Tica”, you feel it. Their smiles are infectious.
Secondly, it’s about the land. I’ve had the good fortune to travel in many beautiful places such as Switzerland, Vietnam, Italy, the Philippines, and, of course, the United States. Costa Rica has extraordinary beauty, too. However, I was initially awestruck by Costa Rica’s extraordinarily powerful biological complexity. How can there really be more than 5% of the world’s bio-diversity present in a small country the size of West Virginia. I’m still awestruck.
Third, it’s about the “full of life” moments or as the Costa Ricans say, the “Pura Vida” element. When I’m in Costa Rica I’m a bit more adventurous, a little less self-conscious, and a bit more spontaneous. One of my favorite illustrations of that was when a guide asked if anyone wanted to taste a termite while we were hiking in the rainforest. Who would have ever thought that I would have been one of those to stick my hand out and say “yes”? (By the way, it tasted like a carrot.)
I traveled to Costa Rica for the first time after a particularly rough stretch in my professional life. Although I didn’t anticipate it, I was clearly open and ready for something new.
You’d never worked in travel or had been a guide before. How did you learn how to do this?
I’m a planner; I’ve always been a planner. I understand that it’s not just the details, but it’s also about how to make the most of the human experience. On the personal front, I’m often the lead organizer of family get-togethers, a bi-annual sisters/cousins weekend, and occasional reunions of a great group of women friends from grade and high school days. My husband and I have done some fabulous small group experiential travel adventures where I’m delighted to be a participant and observe someone else manage and lead the group.
Most importantly, I’ve spent much of my professional life building and managing a meeting management and consulting business in which I worked with a broad array of individuals and organizations to make the most of their events. I understand that a successful experience means combining the needs and desires of participants with a clear vision of the type of people, place, and Pura Vida experience that they can’t easily get elsewhere. I also know that not every single moment can or should be programmed; sometimes those are the best moments of all.
What makes your trips special?
First, it’s the connections with local people and communities off the typical tourist path. For instance, both my annual women’s trip and annual co-ed Spanish/Cultural Immersion trip begin with two to three day homestays where no or very little English is spoken. One learns and experiences firsthand Costa Rican family life, food and traditions. In contrast to our dinner hour, daily family time for many Ticos is late afternoon/early evening gathering over coffee and a snack. You won’t simply hear about this; you’ll be having coffee and conversation right along with them.
I also frequently invite Costa Rican friends to join us at different points during my trips. My colleague, Pedro, from the indigenous community of Boruca frequently joins us to share his community’s history, culture, and extraordinary masks and textiles. In April, my “mama tica” and the director of my program partner, Personalized Spanish, traveled with us to the Osa Peninsula for their first time. It was wonderful to watch them fall in love with a part of their country they had never before visited and for my Spanish/Cultural Immersion group to continue to build their Spanish skills in conversation with them.
I also research opportunities for my group to “take the road less traveled”. Sometimes they are places that even my long-time guide (he’s been guiding groups all over the country for more than 20 years) has never visited. One such highlight was our overnight at a small eco-lodge on Chira Island in the middle of the Gulf of Nicoya. It was built against challenging odds and is also run exclusively by a group of local women who recognized that rural ecotourism was a vehicle to help bolster the island’s economy. Even their boat captain is a woman—the only woman boat captain I’ve ever met or seen in Costa Rica!
For whom are your trips? What kind of travelers do you attract? Want to attract?
Obviously, my annual women’s adventure each February is for women. My Spanish/Cultural Immersion trip is co-ed and available to anyone over 21. Beyond that, I usually answer this question by initially saying ‘If you want to go to Costa Rica and sit on the beach for several days, then my trips are not for you.’ Seriously, the itinerary for my trips always includes a document called “Is this the right trip for you?” It’s not about exclusivity; it’s being clear about expectations. No one stands to gain if a participant arrives in country expecting to always “plug in” with ease and then learns that connectivity in some areas can be very temperamental.
In general, all my trips are geared to:
- Curious, open minded, and positive attitudes: I’m seeking people who want to experience firsthand different cultures, customs and local foods, They also want to get to know traveling companions of different ages, diverse walks of life, and geographic locations.
- Active (not extreme) travelers: Each trip offers an array of physical activities and tropical climates that require overall good health and physical condition. Travel times, road conditions and weather can all be unpredictable.
- Travelers excited about staying for a few days with experienced host families in private homestays and also often locally owned, comfortable small hotels and eco-lodges. One shouldn’t expect constant air conditioning!
What have you learned?
- Learning Spanish mid-life is more challenging than learning French as a teenager, but it can be done, and it’s exhilarating. I love that I can carry on simple conversations now and appreciate more than ever that knowing the local language is often the gateway to the soul of a local culture.
- Never plan a trip itinerary without personally visiting all the locales and properties beforehand with one’s local program partner or guide. Their perspectives are invaluable and they know better than anyone the real distance, travel times and best bathroom stops!
- I need downtime, too.
- Word of mouth is still my most important marketing tool.
- I’m not a birding “life lister”, but being able to identify a chestnut colored ant bird, black throated trogon, or a red-legged honeycreeper still gives me a huge thrill.
Why not just move there full-time?
I have no desire. My husband and I both feel incredibly fortunate to live in Chicago, one of the greatest cities in the world, and to have wonderful family and friends in close proximity. Yes, the Cubs are part of the reason, but we also love the Chicago Symphony, the neighborhoods and living by Lake Michigan. There are many places in the world that we still look forward to discovering.
We now have close Tico friends who live all over Costa Rica. It’s much more fun to visit them and still uncover new places in Costa Rica than it is to envision being tied down to a home in one spot there. I wouldn’t even know where to begin!
We’re happy living our lives the way we are now. That said, who knows what new adventure may lie around the next corner? Pura Vida.