While baking holiday cookies to “Jingle Bells” two days before Christmas—when my family would leave for Costa Rica on a trip we’d been planning for six months—my daughter suddenly said: “I can’t find my passport. I must have left it in San Francisco.”
Gulp. Nothing says “the holidays” like a twelve-hour round-trip road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Christmas Eve.
My husband, two teenage daughters and I had previously stuck to holiday trips at the ski slopes. To shake things up, this time we’d set our sights on sun and surf. Costa Rica seemed full of adventure and exotic experiences, and yet our carefully planned vacation already seemed at risk.
The next day, behind the wheel somewhere between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, I realized I’d gotten so far out of the loop in my daughter’s life, I didn’t know how to get back in. But despite the chaos before take-off, what lay ahead was the beauty and wisdom of the unknown—and a vacation that unlocked the true spirit of the season.
Here are four ways that you, too, can put the joy back into holiday travel.
1. Give experiences, not things.
Most of the stress surrounding holiday travel involves stuff––buying it, paying for it, packing it, carting it, checking it, wrapping it, hiding it, exchanging it.
Before our Costa Rica trip, my family had grown tired of all the things we would just outgrow, pile up and given away. Somehow, we’d lost sight of the true nature of the holiday––generosity, joy and love. So we ditched the stuff and gifted ourselves an experience instead.
We were grateful for that decision when we toasted our arrival at our hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica, where cool breezes played with the sheer white curtains that dressed our open floor-to-ceiling windows. And again as we sat in our open-air hotel room in the jungles of Tortuguero on the Caribbean, where rain poured over the tin roof and I felt my family’s storms passing amid howler monkeys, two-toed sloths, toucans and butterflies. And most of all as we hiked through the rainforest during a rainstorm, when my daughter held a green tree frog and laughed like I hadn’t heard in years.
2. Buy gifts with travel in mind.
If you’d rather buy someone a more tangible gift, give your loved ones the perfect item to help them unpack treasured memories—whether they prefer glamping, camping, mountain climbing, or road tripping. Simple gifts such as journals, cameras, tripods, lenses, backpacks and language lessons can make travel more comfortable and enjoyable.
On the day we embarked for Costa Rica, we’d each unwrapped a pair of binoculars under the Christmas tree. These came in handy when we sailed downriver to our hotel in Tortuguero National Park and into a rainstorm. As water dripped off massive leaves in the rainforest and raindrops exploded in the swollen river, I looked through my binoculars and spotted a sloth. He slowly stretched his arm to grasp a tree limb so he could get out of the river and snack on the leaves of the Cecropia. Close by, a four-meter crocodile lay on a rock, and I closed in on his teeth and got a better look at the scales around his eyes.
I realized what a gift it is to truly see; that travel helps me appreciate the deeper layers of the world, my family and myself.
3. Slow down and savor special moments.
Whether your vacation leads to cherishing favorite traditions or discovering new ones, travel can lead to magical moments that you may not experience during a hectic holiday season at home.
Our magic appeared in the middle of the rainforest on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, outside a small town called Quepos. A wild cab ride led us up a tiny road as darkness fell, and I wondered if the driver was lost or if I’d given him the wrong address. Just when I’d begun to give up hope of finding the restaurant, I saw the jungle awash in candlelight.
The car stopped, we got out and I stood staring. Hundreds of lights lined the winding, uphill drive and encircled the restaurant, as if we’d entered a fairy tale. To my surprise, I saw that the lights were wax-lined paper cups that had been cleverly perforated—they were ordinary objects, transformed.
We were the only guests at the restaurant that evening. The owners greeted us warmly and invited us into their kitchen to pick our dinner from the catch of the day in their cooler. At our own private restaurant, in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle, we laughed and dreamed and received the gift of an unexpected adventure––the joy of discovering a different side of ourselves while enjoying our hosts’ incredible hospitality.
4. Don’t be afraid to ditch the plans.
While in Costa Rica, we learned the benefits of bowing out of pre-existing plans and making room for the unexpected.
After experiencing the thrill of ziplining in the jungle for the very first time, we swam in waterfalls and then lounged at the pool before dressing for the New Year’s Eve party at the resort. But the party seemed a bit stuffy and low on the fun factor. Earlier that day, our ziplining guides had mentioned a New Year’s Eve carnival in Quepos and encouraged us to come. So we decided to go to the carnival instead.
At midnight, they set off fireworks right in front of us. A reggae band played music and before long the whole crowd began dancing in the street together. No pretense. No perfect outfits. No perfect hair. We danced to the soulful songs, holding each other in celebration as the old year gave way to the promise of the new.
Our holiday travel in Costa Rica was coming to a close, but not before it had helped my family and I rediscover the meaning of the season: Joy. Pura vida. Pure life.
For holiday vacation ideas in Costa Rica and other exotic destinations, check out the Marriott Vacation Club Explorer Collection.