A Girls’ Trip to Costa Rica. But With No Phones, Did It Happen?

We were on a quintessential girl’s trip to Costa Rica. Together, we gulped icy drinks by the hotel pool, were battered by waves during a surf lesson, had our tarot cards read aboard a catamaran, and danced our hearts out, powered by espresso martinis, to early 2000s anthems on a rooftop.

But we didn’t capture any of this on our phones. No Instagram stories were posted of the fun being had. No TikToks either. We didn’t text photos to friends and family in far colder climates back home.

And if there wasn’t a picture, well, did it happen? I had wondered if a vacation without my phone would reprogram my iPhone-addled brain, whether it might deepen the connections I made or improve my travel experiences. So, in mid-April, I joined a group of 10 other women in their 20s and 30s for a four-day, phone-free tour of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province, on the country’s northwestern coast, a picturesque place of breathtaking beaches, tropical forests and, everywhere around you, the chance of a surreal wildlife sighting.

To document my vacation, I brought only a pen, a notebook and a disposable camera.

FTLO Travel, which started offering group tours in 2016 for solo travelers 25 to 39 years old, organized our phone-free trip. Most FTLO clients are women, said Tara Cappel, the company’s founder and chief executive, and the majority of them are traveling solo for the first time.

The company has long had a rule prohibiting phones at dinner, she said, and the phone-free trips, which began this year, are an extension of this. “Removing that sort of temptation has always helped facilitate better bonding and conversation,” said Ms. Cappel, 35.

The hope in providing an entirely phone-free experience, she continued, is that travelers could “be present in the experience and the destination and with each other.”

She added that FTLO’s phone-free trips this year, which start at $1,699 and also head to Iceland, Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico, are in strong demand. My Costa Rica trip was sold out and overall, the company anticipates about 3,000 travelers across the hundreds of trips they’re offering this year.

The interest in these trips stem in part from a growing trend among travelers to try to escape technology’s tether on daily life. Operators are moving beyond offering meditation retreats and truly remote locations — even cruises and hotels in buzzy vacation hot spots these days market their disconnection experiences. At the Grand Velas Resorts, on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, guests can opt for a detox concierge, who will remove the hotel room’s flat screen television and lock all personal electronics in a safe. With Unplugged, a company specializing in tech-free escapes, you can book a “digital detox cabin” to spend three tech-free days in the English countryside.

Heather Orton, a nurse practitioner and my roommate in Costa Rica, said that going phone-free was the main reason she’d booked the FTLO trip. She’d previously gone on two trips with FTLO, to Crete and to Morocco, experiences where she made lasting friendships.

“At work I have to always have my phone on, be responsive to texts, emails and calls,” said Ms. Orton, 37, of Ohio. “It’s nice to turn that off and get away.” She said she felt she was “more present in the moment” and fully immersed in Costa Rica.

We’d come from all over the United States, including Texas, Alabama, California and Minnesota, and most of us were meeting for the very first time.

It felt like sleepaway camp, or college orientation — it was a social situation structured around group activities that quickly gave rise to new friendships, even if they were brittle ones. Two ebullient trip leaders corralled us to various activities and recited facts about local flora and fauna, all adding to the feeling of a camp for adults, and at times like being chaperoned on a school trip.

They directed us to their favorite restaurants and watering holes, and attempted to draw everyone into conversation and ensure no one felt left out. One afternoon, Mandy, one of the co-leaders and a certified yoga instructor, led a trio of us in a restorative flow at our hotel. Dani, the other trip leader, who was born in Costa Rica, was on crutches because of a recent ankle injury, but he hobbled along energetically on nights out, swaying to dance music on one leg.

Companies targeting younger travelers, like FTLO, G Adventures, Flashpack and others, aren’t touting their ability to get you to a place, but the connection they can deliver.

“The inspiration was really to help people go abroad who had the desire but didn’t necessarily have people to go with,” Ms. Cappel said of creating FTLO.

Sambavi Venkatesen, a 32-year-old therapist who lives in Austin, Texas, told me she had booked the trip after turning to TikTok to research group travel for people of color.

“The opportunity to meet other diverse women is not something that’s easily accessible in your 30s. That was kind of a big appeal,” she said, adding that she felt a real connection to other tour participants by trip’s end. “I genuinely want to see people again and hope they visit me.”

We were based in Tamarindo, a lively tourist playground set along the Pacific Ocean that spanned just a few blocks, making it easy to navigate without GPS. We were given a printed map of the town, which I barely used. With my phone and laptop locked in the hotel room safe, gone were all the tools I usually rely on while traveling (and check frenetically): map and translation apps, social media and internet, for restaurant and activity searches. But thanks to the tour, this work had already been done.

We spent an afternoon ziplining through canyons and then crossed a rickety suspension bridge to plunge into the icy, refreshing waters by a waterfall. We surfed and drank beer — two activities I do not generally voluntarily sign up for. We lounged on the netted deck of a catamaran, where we watched a deep-red sun sink into the sea. Nearly every night we frequented a different nightclub.

We started the trip knowing nothing about each other’s lives, from our ages to interests. Our first night was characterized by icebreakers (“share a fun fact about yourself”) and the occasional awkward silence. But by the third night, we were screaming the lyrics to Lil Jon’s “Get Low” in the club. And the conversation grew more nuanced, as we shared stories about jobs, relationships, beloved pets and the rhythms of lives back home.

Some of the best moments happened during the time left unscheduled, when I made my own decisions about activities. A highlight of the trip was an excursion my roommate and I booked on our own, through the hotel, to kayak in a mangrove-bordered estuary, where we spotted iguanas, howler monkeys and a crocodile, watchful and still in the murky waters.

Overall, I didn’t miss my phone. The absence of Slack notifications and countless other digital intrusions was bliss. Conversations unspooled more fluidly than I expected they would without the crutch of a phone for idly filling silence. I slept deeper than I had in months. But my phone’s phantom presence loomed large. I swiveled my head, a Pavlovian response, when I heard the ping of another tourist’s phone. My bag felt too light, which made me feel uneasy.

Mainly, I missed a good camera. Others had wisely brought digital cameras along, but I had to ration the pictures on my disposable camera, and only allowed myself to take one food photo. It’s fuzzy.

Not everyone on the trip was fully committed to the screen time ban. One night, as I tried to capture sunset using my disposable, one of my trip mates pulled out her phone and took a picture. I’m sure her photo is better than mine.

Toward the end of the trip, I learned that some other travelers had surreptitiously used their phones throughout (to text and call their moms, mostly).

But we delighted in seeing a drowsy tapir, a large mammal almost mythical because of its rarity, wake from an afternoon nap in Hacienda Guachipelin, a private property by Rincon de la Vieja National Park. There were also dozens of howler monkeys perched atop mangroves swaying in the wind, and one night, a man who was absolutely shredding on the guitar at a beachfront bar. All were incredible moments that I’ve already revisited in my memory.

On the last day of the trip, we switched our phones back on, literally jolting us back to real life with pings and vibrations. We shared Instagram handles to connect online, and I returned, almost without realizing it, to a stream of information, push notifications, digital itineraries, unfettered scrolling and the expectation of a quick reply to a message.

I’ve tried, however, to maintain the feeling of being phone-free in Tamarindo: the delicious lack of immediacy, the way time seemed to expand languidly.

Simply put, I’m using my phone less.

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