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From Solo To Sidekicks: Notes On My Central America Group Travel Experience

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Good times with new friends in Masaya Volcano National Park in Nicaragua

This post is part of a multi-story series based on my latest trip with Intrepid Travel. Here is the trip link

I’m not going to lie; when Intrepid Travel first invited me to experience their 17-day Way to San Jose Tour — which began with some Guatemala travel before heading through Honduras and Nicaragua and ending in Costa Rica — I was hesitant.

It’s not that the tour didn’t seem exciting or that I had anything against Intrepid — I’d actually used them in my early 20s before I was a blogger and had a great experience; it was that I wasn’t sure how I’d feel traveling with an organized group when I’d become so accustomed to traveling solo.

Would I feel trapped into activities I wasn’t really into? Would I have sufficient alone time? Would I get along with everyone?

Spoiler alert: I had so much fun I almost paid a $500 change fee to spend one extra day with the group, crying and sputtering when I had to leave everyone to go to the airport. This video pretty much sums up my happiness.

This is my introductory post to my new blog series, Way to San Jose, where I detail some of my favorite adventures from the journey, like summiting an active volcano in Nicaragua, playing in paradise while traveling Honduras, and white water rafting in Costa Rica — all highlights of traveling Central America.

I’d also like to take this time to talk about why I loved my trip so much, as well as who might and might not like this style of travel.

While I’m still very much a solo traveler, I can definitely see myself sprinkling a few Intrepid trips into my yearly travel schedule. Here’s why.

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Summitting Conception Volcano On Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, with new friends

1. Strong Bonds

It took a mere day for my group to go from strangers to family.

As in, teasing-inside-jokes-sharing-food-wrestling-summiting-mountains-nonstop-laughing-bite-my-butt (cough cough Tim)-family. I happily gave up sleep in exchange for late nights out and numerous daily adventures.

There were many times I felt more like myself with these people than I did with friends I’d had for years.

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Comfy transport on my Way to San Jose trip

2. Ease Of Travel

I think the main draw of a group trip is that there’s almost no planning needed on the traveler’s part.

Your destinations and transfers are all sorted for you, so there’s no need to wake up early to hit the bus station for times and tickets or figure out the best way to cross a border and change money.

Javier, our guide, handled this all for us, which was definitely a nice stress relief on the road.

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Javier and I exploring the Blue Channel off Roatan Island in Honduras

3. A Local Guide

Intrepid’s policy is that all guides should be a local of one of the destinations visited on the trip.

As the founder of the Responsible Travel & Tourism Collective (#RTTC) I really value the hiring of local guides — seriously, don’t book tour companies who don’t abide by this policy, as both your experience and the ability to support the local economy are compromised.

Javier was knowledgeable about all of the places visited and knew the activities like the back of his hand. Best of all, we got to hang out with his local friends in each city we visited, which is always a treat as getting to know the local people is the best part of travel, at least in my opinion.

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Exploring Masaya Volcano National Park with a local guide

4. Responsible Tourism

Intrepid not only hires local guides and works with local businesses and transportation companies, but they’ve been making a slew of changes in the past years to make their products more responsible.

Some of these changes include eliminating elephant trekking, not supporting animal experiences that involve hand-feeding/touching, investing in renewable energy in the communities they visit, promoting cross-cultural experiences, offering an intro sheet to the local language (although I think carrying a pocket dictionary is still be helpful), operating under a Leave No Trace philosophy, partnering with local nonprofits to try to address real local problems (instead of assuming they know what’s best), and starting the nonprofit Intrepid Foundation.

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Paddleboard yoga on Apoyo Crater Lake

5. Special Experiences

Some of the experiences I had I knew I’d be signing on for before the Way to San Jose Trip even began, like summiting Conception Volcano in Nicaragua and white water rafting in Costa Rica; however, there were a number of offbeat activities I had no clue even existed, and that I likely wouldn’t have found out about or been able to book without a local guide.

The first was a beach barbecue under the stars on Roatan Island, Honduras. While visitors can visit Half Moon Bay Beach during the day for a lunch barbecue, Javier was able to coax the chef into doing a special evening barbecue for us, which was amazing (especially when paired with the generously poured Cuba Libre we’d pre-concocted).

Another was a day spent at the Laguna Beach Club outside of Granada, Nicaragua, which for less than $8 gave us access to swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding in the uber blue volcano-hugged Apoyo Crater Lake.

I’m in the clouds when visiting Costa Rica!

6. Flexibility

I typically enjoy planning a trip without making plans.

While a group trip means your daily transfers and destinations are planned, Javier kept the itinerary loose, making suggestions for activities and meals and planning optional group outings but not forcing anything on anyone.

Intrepid Travel has different trip styles, with Basix, the bottom-tier style I was on, being a cheaper base price with mid-range accommodations and not including meals or activities so you can plan as you go.

It’s essentially an unbundled fare trip, as you’ll pay only for what you use/do. There’s also Original and Comfort for those wanting more inclusions and luxury.

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This looks more luxurious than it was…but oh was it fun

7. Group Spontaneity

There are certain spontaneous adventures you can only have while traveling solo, and there are those that happen more naturally in a group.

Together my group of nine was like a Think Tank of great (and stupid but fun) ideas, never a dull moment to be had.

Whether bounding down insane water slides, having late night dock parties, creating new dance moves, having water fights, finding dirty beach cabanas while sipping margaritas in paper cups, seeing who could shove their hands in their mouths the farthest, doing our best Kentucky Fried Wat Wat impressions…okay, I’ll stop there before this gets awkward.

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One of many fun nights out, chock full of dancing and rum, of course

8. Confidence With Others

I love traveling solo; however, there are certain activities that aren’t as fun — or safe — as when you’re in a group.

Take summiting Conception Volcano when visiting Nicaragua, for example. This was the hardest thing physically I’ve ever done, and I’m not sure I would have finished if not for Tim, Eric, and Javier acting as my cheerleaders and offering to carry my pack.

Moreover, even if I had finished on my own I definitely wouldn’t have felt the same elation that comes with a giant group hug followed by a victory dance to Rihanna.

Central America also isn’t the best for walking alone at night, so having others watching my back after heading home from our nightly dance outings was a welcome change from my normal routine.

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Javier, my Intrepid guide, and me eating the world’s best ice cream (well, it tasted like it at the time) in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Who WOULDN’T Benefit From An Intrepid Tour?

While I absolutely loved my Way to San Jose Tour, a group trip may not be for everyone, at least all of the time. The main issue I would say would be for those who find themselves never wanting to settle on a set plan and changing their minds a lot.

For example, there was an attractive rafting instructor I met on the trip who invited me rafting with him in La Fortuna; however, I had to decline because the group was catching a bus to San Jose that day. If I’d been traveling solo I would have extended my La Fortuna stay.

That being said I had a blast in the capital with my group, so I wasn’t exactly upset. Just think about if you’re okay giving up last-minute changes in destination.

Also, note that the Way to San Jose Tour, in particular, is more suited to adventure travelers and backpackers than luxury or family travelers.

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Sunset on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Packing List:

This will obviously vary by trip — and you should leave some space for a few finds in destination — but for the Way to San Jose Trip specifically I packed the following, including link recommendations:

For more posts from my Way to San Jose trip, click here. Bonus: Get 25% off last minute deals with Intrepid Travel by clicking here.


*My trip to Central America was hosted by Intrepid Travel. I was not compensated nor required to write this post. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.

About Jessie Festa

Jessie Festa is an New York-based travel content creator who is passionate about empowering her audience to experience new places and live a life of adventure. She is the founder of the solo female travel blog, Jessie on a Journey, and is editor-in-chief of Epicure & Culture, an online conscious tourism magazine. Along with writing, Jessie is a professional photographer and is the owner of NYC Photo Journeys, which offers New York photo tours, photo shoots, and wedding photography. Her work has appeared in publications like USA Today, CNN, Business Insider, Thrillist, and WestJet Magazine.

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  1. This trip itinerary is killer! I’ve never done a big group trip, but this is the first one I’ve seen that I could get pretty jazzed about. I think I enjoy my flexibility, but I’ve never done a trip like this either. It might be nice to ease into it! I will have to check it out. Nice highlights!

    • Jessie Festa on at 6:29 pm

      @Amanda: It was seriously so amazing. I lucked out with a great group, too. If you have any questions about the itinerary happy to answer them!

  2. Stef on at 9:05 pm

    I agree, awesome itinerary and I’m happy you enjoyed your travels in a group. I look forward to reading more about this trip.

    • Jessie Festa on at 9:07 pm

      @Stef: Thanks. Stay tuned! And let me know if you have any questions/interest in the itinerary. Such awesome experiences!

  3. Michelle on at 3:52 pm

    Great post Jessie! I second everything in your post, but most importantly the strong bonds. I am really happy to have new friends/family all around the world! Can I get a Wat Wat!

    • Jessie Festa on at 3:56 pm

      @Michelle: Thank you my love. I literally have the note you wrote me on a napkin tacked to my wall in front of my desk to read all the time. Can’t wait to travel with you again in the future! Wat Wats 4 lyfe <3 ha

  4. Vicky on at 10:49 pm

    Hi Jessie! I have enjoyed reading about your trip! I am leaving on this trip next week and I was wondering if you could give me advice on a couple of things. On average, how much money do you recommend per day, and should I bring enough local currency for each country? Was it possible to withdraw money or pay with credit cards? Also, as far as weather, how often did you need to wear warm clothes? Thank you!!

    • Jessie Festa on at 12:09 am

      @Vicky: You rarely need local currency. Almost everywhere accepts USD, especially Costa Rica. Your clothes will really depend on the time of year you go, but I’d definitely pack layers, especially at higher altitudes. Money per day varies, especially as you move from Honduras (more inexpensive) to Costa Rica (more expensive). If you plan to do excursions this will also cost you more. Are you going with Intrepid? If so your accommodation and some activities are included in the rate.

      • Vicky on at 5:04 am

        Thank you for the tips Jessie. I am going with Intrepid. Actually it’s the exact trip that you took and I leave in one week!

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