The Transformative Power of Travel: How 5 Days in Costa Rica Changed My Life

Mary Cate Hansen
October 1, 2019

Originally published July 5, 2016

When I initially considered the idea of writing this post, I was excited to share my experience with others but was feeling incredibly vulnerable. I had never written a blog post before, nor am I the most seasoned traveler in this community.

But I had an experience that changed me. An experience that continues to move, transform, and excite me. And for these reasons, I am thrilled to share it with all of you.

An Ordinary Life

Before traveling with Under30Experiences to Costa Rica in April 2016, I was content. I led a very 'typical' life in that I enjoyed my career and spending time with friends and family.

I had traveled internationally before, but nothing could have prepared me for the adventure I was about to embark on with U30X. 

Adventure Awaits

Never thought I'd be kayaking by a volcano...

There is something strangely exhilarating yet unnerving about meeting up with a group of 11 strangers in a country you are unfamiliar with. 

From zip-lining through the jungle, to hiking and kayaking at the base of a volcano, to dancing with the locals and telling stories underneath a starlit sky, to eating clean and learning about how to live a more sustainable life – I was in awe. This was a totally new experience for me.

And I became transformed in more ways than one. Let me explain.

Costa Rica & Pura Vida

Pura Vida at its finest

Life in Costa Rica is simple and pure. The local mantra, 'Pura Vida' rings true in every aspect of their culture.

I have never felt so moved by a place. I felt fulfilled...even at peace. And through meditation, yoga, & lessons in sustainability, I connected to the earth in a way that was almost spiritual in nature. 

I had never seen a night sky so bright or breathed in such fresh air. The landscape was strikingly beautiful, and from the sheer magnitude of the Arenal volcano to the bustling, lush, jungle canopy, I was hooked. 

There is a slowness and a kindness to their way of life that is nothing short of refreshing, and I found the locals to be incredibly compassionate and welcoming.

New Friends For Life

But it was more than the absolute and undeniable beauty of Costa Rica that moved me. It was the conversations and relationships I made along the way that warmed my heart and continue to inspire me. 

Our group of 11 strangers--who soon became friends-- connected in such a meaningful way, opening up to the experience and giving each other permission to be honest, authentic, and unapologetically ourselves. To have a group of people see you and validate your passions, fears, and dreams, is such an incredible and unforgettable experience. 

The relationships I made with those 11 individuals are some of the most meaningful relationships in my life, and I am grateful for what they taught me about life, love, friendship, resilience, and the importance of following your dreams.

Back to 'Normal'

I came back from my week in Costa Rica an emotional wreck. Seriously, I cried the entire way home. Seven hours. Constant tears. 

On one hand, I felt refreshed, inspired, and ready to take on the world. On the other hand, it felt like my life in Normal, Illinois (yes, I actually live in a town called Normal) wasn’t enough for me anymore. I had changed. I had grown. I had experienced something that few people could understand. 

It seemed the only words I could use to describe my emotions were that I was “made for more.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had heard these same words almost 6 months earlier at a TedX talk by fellow U30X alum, Liz Flores

But they were the only words I could formulate to make sense of what I was feeling. I soon came to realize I had more to learn, more to give, and room to grow.

The Transformation

Stepping out of my comfort zone has empowered me to seek out new and exciting opportunities.

The restlessness I felt slowly gave way to an acknowledgement of my need for exploration, the importance of a creative outlet, and the value of connecting more deeply with other people and cultures through travel. 

It took me a long time to make sense of exactly what I was feeling, and heck, I’m still trying to make sense of it. But I have learned to open myself up to the opportunities that present themselves to me, and I know that I am destined for a life beyond “Normal.”

So, here I sit writing this post -- trying to articulate an experience beyond words.

What I had intended as an adventure or vacation became so much more.  A spark within me has been ignited and is kindling the fire of what it is I am truly meant to do. I know that there is a more purposeful and meaningful life waiting to be discovered, and I am well on my way to uncovering it.

Turning Lessons Learned Into Practice

I am now trying to have the courage to allow myself to be open to the opportunities and experiences that may lead me to diverge from the path I initially had planned for myself.

For now, that means traveling as much as I can. It means continuing to practice my Spanish even though that may mean looking foolish at times. 

It means enhancing my photography skills to be able to capture more impactful images. It means writing this blog post, even though it terrifies me. 

It means living a healthier, more sustainable, and more authentic life. It may even mean uprooting my life and moving where I feel called...even if that means sacrificing a salary, job security, and relationships that are important to me. 

I have also discovered that there is a certain empowerment (that can sometimes be disguised as guilt) in following your heart or chasing your dreams. Not everyone is going to understand your journey or support you in taking the risks you feel are necessary. 

Take them anyway. 

You cannot ignore your desire to learn, grow, and experience the gifts this world has to offer.  There is immeasurable value in experiencing the world as an active participant and not simply a tourist.  

Costa Rica is breathtaking. Fortunately the oxygen is great ;)

Traveling is easier and more accessible than ever before. Go explore colorful markets in Marrakesh, hike the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, or pray in a temple in Thailand. There are lessons to be learned from meeting people who are different than you; people who live a life you know nothing about. There is value in sharing a meal with strangers and attempting to communicate despite any language barrier. 

There is magic in allowing yourself to be inspired by your gifts and in letting yourself be transformed by the act of stepping outside your comfort zone. 

I encourage you to open yourself up to what, or who, or where life is calling you to be. Break free of what no longer serves you. Chase your dreams, wherever they may take you. 

Explore. Take risks. Be vulnerable. Be brave. 

And most of all, find joy in your journey, because life is too short to be anything less than spectacular.  

Mary Cate Hansen
Mary Cate is a U30X Alumni with a passion for travel and creative expression. In her spare time you may find her exploring new destinations, belting out Broadway show tunes, or at the dog park with her favorite four-legged friend, Stella.

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