8 Travel Ideas That Will Push You Out of Your Comfort Zone
When you teach English to Buddhist monks in Laos or join a woman’s surf camp in Mexico, you also learn about yourself
The new year is a good time to think about reinventing. But where to start? How about with a vacation that will push you out of your comfort zone and thrust you toward your goals? I’ve pulled together the most interesting projects from postings on Portico, the site I built to help you go deeper, to find unusual experiences that bring meaning to your life. Portico is your ultimate travel organizer that helps you save, plan, and share amazing travel adventures, all in one place. Here are my favorite get-out-of-your-skin experiences, which will stay with you long after you’ve unpacked your bag back home.
1. Learn to Surf in Mexico
Las Olas is an all women’s surf camp outside of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. Even the coaches are women! Not only will you learn to surf, but you’ll become part of a wonderful community of women who are supportive, interesting, and hail from all walks of life. The company was founded by Bev Sanders, who worked in the male-dominated snowboarding industry for 20 years and learned to surf late, at age 44. She decided to start a company to teach women like herself without any pressure or judgment. Bev is now in her 60s, and when I visited Las Olas in 2014, she was still hitting the waves. Learning to surf taught me a lot about patience in life. You have to wait for the wave. As much as you want to rush it, you simply can’t — just like most things in life. And when the wave knocks you down, you get up and try again. This trip also reminded me that the world is small and people want to help. In our group of 25, I quickly became friends with two women who drive down my sister’s street everyday, and they introduced me to a woman on the trip who became my life coach and helped give me the confidence to follow my dream of Portico. It’s also not so bad waiting for those waves when you’re on a beautiful beach.
2. Volunteer in Laos
Head to the capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, to volunteer with Global Vision International (GVI). You’ll teach English to young Buddhist monks (they are 9-15 years old) and other children and young adults in the community. While your lessons improve their opportunities for future employment and academic growth, you get to explore a beautiful and ancient city. A few years ago, my friend found herself without a job and with time on her hands. She had the urge to do something radical — something far away and foreign — but where she could also give back. She researched several programs and settled on GVI’s program in Laos because it was exactly that. “As soon as I landed in Luang Prabang,” she says, “I was immediately immersed in the local culture. The guest house, where 20 of us stayed, was owned by a Lao family who prepared traditional Lao dishes for us throughout our stay, such as ‘or lam,’ a flavorful stew comprised of vegetables, basil, and chilis, and sticky rice. It was a staple with every meal, eaten with your hands.” Many of the monks she taught were sent from poorer families in far away villages. “It was exhilarating to be able to connect through language and humor on a human level with people whom I thought were so different from me.” She tells us it’s an experience you will cherish forever.
3. Get in Shape Around the Globe
With Escape to Shape, you can experience incredible culture combined with wellness and movement. The founders hand-select and curate activities for a memorable, active experience that is also luxurious and relaxing. They do trips all over the world — Istanbul, Morocco, Slovenia, India, to name just a few — and there’s still time to sign up for one to Lake Como in May. I had a friend who did Escape to Shape in Tuscany, Italy, and can’t recommend it enough. She said, “It’s the perfect blend of fitness, mindfulness, culture and making deep lasting personal connections.” She couldn’t stop gushing about the beautiful hikes, or the fresh local cuisine, or the daily restorative yoga and intense boot camp in different locations around the city. “It felt great to stay active and eat healthily, but equally healing to make new friends,” she shared. “In fact, the meaningful connections made in a four-hour hike has made more of a lasting impression on me than the few pounds I shed.”
4. Learn Spanish in Costa Rica
Have you been dying to learn Spanish? Then head down to Costa Rica with Conversa. Tucked away in a small town called Santa Ana — about 30 minutes from the capital of San Jose — Conversa is a six-acre complex up on a hill with beautiful views of the countryside. There, you can immerse yourself in a totally encompassing “language park,” with activities, walking trails, and even mock stores that force you to practice your new words. You can bunk at Conversa or live in town with native-speaking hosts; a bus brings you to the campus daily. I found the Costa Rican people to be incredibly friendly. I even met a local named Sofia on the plane and we’re still good friends! The school will also help groups of students organize weekends away to nearby areas such as Manuel Antonio or Volcan Arenal, or take you to a coffee plantation tour. Go for two weeks for a total immersion experience (you can do shorter if you like). Conversa offers virtual workshops and lessons to help you continue learning once you’re back home.
5. Get Your SCUBA Certification in Thailand
Koh Tao, Thailand, is a diver’s paradise with some of the best diving on earth. It’s not unheard of to encounter some of the world’s best divers hanging around on the island. It’s also an inexpensive spot to get your open water scuba certification. In just about three days you can get certified and swim with whale sharks with Roctopus Dive. You’ll learn theory first, then hop into their pool to practice on the first day. The second day you’ll do two dives and two more again on the third day. My friend said the staff was amazing — incredibly knowledgeable and professional, and fun. The final celebration was held at a nearby beach bar called Victor’s to watch the sun go down, toast their new certifications, and watch a video Roctopus made of their dives.
6. Do a Yoga and Meditation Retreat in Cambodia
Travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and do a six-day yoga and meditation retreat with Hariharalaya. The staff meets you in town before whisking everyone away in tuk-tuks to the beautiful countryside and the Hariharalaya complex. Choose to stay in your own hut, an open-air bungalow, or even a dorm. You’ll practice yoga and meditation (suitable for all levels) every morning and every evening. There are optional workshops like acro yoga throughout the day, or you can opt to bike into town, read a book in one of the hammocks, or grab a smoothie at the juice bar. There are also evening activities like “darma talks” from the founder and an “ecstatic” dance night. The vegan food is so good my meat-eating friend who stayed there said it made her think about becoming vegan. Stay an extra couple days after the retreat is over so you don’t miss seeing Ankor Wat, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World.
7. Learn to Cook in Italy
If you’ve always wanted to learn to make your own pasta, pesto, and tiramisu, look no further than LovexFood, set in the home of Lorenzo and Luca in the spectacular rolling hills of the Chianti countryside. Lorenzo will meet you at the train station in Florence for the quick trip out to their gorgeous farmhouse. Luca waits for you and welcomes you into the kitchen to immediately prepare lunch for the day-long class. He shows you how to make dishes like his grandmother did, such as pesto with a mortar and pestle and pasta made by hand. At the end, you will all sit down together to enjoy the pastas of your labor at their beautiful outdoor rustic table before heading back to Florence.
8. Write Your Story in Wales
If you’re looking to hone your writing, try the Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre in Llanystumdwy, North Wales. It’s a highly-rated yet affordable option for a writing retreat with world-class instructors. The cozy 15th-century family estate turned writing center (where you will stay and take classes and meals) is located in a tiny seaside town with minimal distractions, so you can focus on your writing. Class schedules vary, but you typically meet twice a day for 90 minutes with roundtable-style feedback, and there’s an optional final reading. My friend loved that the staff was Welsh for the cultural element, and that the other students were from all over Great Britain and the world, so she was able to meet and make friends with people from all around the globe. You can sign up for a wide variety of writing retreats, from fiction to poetry to memoirs.
Jacqueline Hampton is the founder of Portico, your ultimate travel organizer built for the curious explorer. She founded @porticotravel because of her love of travel and belief in helping people discover authentic experiences while traveling.