A Guide to Traveling During Life Transitions

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This week, I wanted to share my guide to traveling during life transitions. I have had the opportunity to ‘transition travel’ many times in my life, and each trip has helped me to close the book on one chapter and open a second.

Some of those trips were circumstantial, like the time I booked a trip to Paris because the tickets were cheap and it coincided with starting a new job. Others were intentional, like the time I left my job and traveled through Central and South American for 2.5 months. 

I wanted to share my thoughts on why you should travel during a life transition and some lessons I’ve learned from taking these trips. I also wanted to share three stories that illustrate lessons I learned; all three stories take place in Colombia. If you’re going through a major life change and are considering taking a trip, this post is for you!

A photo of Cork, Ireland. A place you might consider traveling for life transitions.
A view of the River Lee in Cork, Ireland.

Why you should punctuate life changes with travel

The simplest answer? Because changes are hard. When you’re going through a major life transition, such as a graduation or changing your job or leaving a long term relationship, you’re already experiencing change. Change can disorient you, making you feel like you’ve lost your footing. Traveling during life transitions can help you to feel more grounded.

Transitions are hard, even the positive ones. When our lives shift, even in ways that we suspect will ultimately be positive, it can create a sense of overwhelming instability. Transitions push us into the unknown, where we’re not sure of the outcome and can struggle to relate to the changing versions of ourselves. 

I think of change like an earthquake–there’s the fear and anticipation before the quaking starts. Then, in the middle of the event, it’s violent and disorienting and the floor won’t stay still. Towards the end, you start to see where the plates and picture frames and chairs have landed, but it’s not yet safe and you can only observe from under the table.

After it ends, we start to pick up the pieces and sweep up the broken glass and adjust to our homes in their new, altered state. Finally, we adapt and repair or replace the bits and pieces that broke during the great seismic shifts. 

It’s OK to celebrate yourself and your accomplishments and your growth. Change usually means that you’ve taken a risk. 

Spotted a sculpture while traveling during life transitions.
A sculpture that we spotted while in Mexico City, Mexico.

Leaving My Job to Travel to Latin America 

In early 2018, I felt hopelessly stuck in my job. I felt stuck and angry and disillusioned and disgusted and heartbroken. I had been working at a company for about two years and found myself struggling with my coworkers, the seemingly endless ethical dilemmas that felt endemic to the job, and the demands, knee-jerk reactions, and chaos of leaders trying to navigate the end stages of a failing startup. 

I knew I needed a change. I needed a new job, but I also needed to process the experience and heal and reflect and grow. I knew I needed to move on, but I couldn’t figure out how to get myself to do it. I was spinning and stuck and frustrated and lost.

It was in this headspace that I went on a trip to Seattle to visit a friend for a week. While I was there, I decided that what I most needed to do was travel. I needed to clear my mind and reset my soul and find some solid footing so that I could be prepared for whatever came next. My friend offered to join me for the first part of my trip, sealing my decision. 

A fountain spotted while traveling during a life transition.
A fountain we spotted in Mexico City. If you look closely, you can see that the building in the background is slowly sinking.

I started to set plans in motion, choosing to travel for about 10 weeks through Latin America. My friend would join me for the first month or so in Mexico and Colombia. Then, I would meet my dad and sister in Ecuador for 10 days to travel and see my sister off for her study abroad program in Cuenca. Finally, I would travel to Peru to meet my boyfriend for a 3 week trip, including about a week in Bolivia. 

Over the next few months at work, I quietly executed my exit plan. I spent my time preparing for my departure, saving money, and making travel plans. On the day I planned to quit my job, my boss didn’t return my request for a call, so I had to quit a day late. I spent my last day quietly working in an empty office suite, wrapping up projects and trying to execute the cleanest hand off possible. I dropped off my laptop to a few people I’d never met, and unceremoniously walked out of the building for the last time on a Thursday afternoon around 5:30pm. The next morning, I caught a 6am flight to Mexico City. 

Travel for at least 1 month

Take a real, extended, life-punctuating travel break. You’ll notice that you typically spend the first week or two still processing your life change. Give yourself the time and space to really sit with your feelings and adjust to your new surroundings. Don’t rush yourself. Do your best to avoid putting yourself on a timeline. Be kind and patient and gentle and loving. Embrace the newness of traveling and new surroundings and new people and new foods.

A view of a valley in Colombia. Spotted while traveling during a life transition.
A view of the Cocora Valley in Colombia.

The problems that you need to solve when traveling are usually very different than the ones you face at home. Don’t be surprised if you’re a little caught off guard by the creativity needed to figure out how to get to your 6am flight when the city doesn’t use Uber and the trains don’t run in the middle of the night. The longer you travel, the better you’ll get at navigating these sorts of issues. Travel problem-solving requires different types of thinking than you use at home, and this can help you to feel more grounded and more alive.

When I left my job in 2018, I spent the first two weeks or so of my trip processing. I was with a dear friend and she listened patiently while I talked through my frustrations and grievances. We traipsed around Mexico City eating guacamole from small but packed restaurants, trying chic coffee shops full of tech workers typing away on their laptops, and wandering through the city’s beautiful parks.

The time processing helped. The further I got from that job and my life in Boulder and all of the problems that had building for months, the more centered I felt. I was ready for new experiences and to start learning from my surroundings. I got more comfortable speaking Spanish. We started laughing more. I felt calmer and more able to be present during conversations.

Related Post: How to Practice Self-Care While Traveling

By the end of my 2.5 months of travel, I could tell that I had transformed. My Spanish skills were much stronger, I felt a newfound reliance on myself and had regained a lot of the confidence I had lost. I was able to be more present in the company of friends, and stop comparing myself to others so much. My body was strong from walking most every day (I still regret that I didn’t use a Fitbit or Apple Watch to track my steps!).

I found myself feeling more patient when things went wrong. When confronted with a long wait or a grumpy waiter or some other travel problem, I rarely felt upset. I started to notice that I was more grateful and better able to appreciate small moments of kindness or grace from other people. I started to feel more curious and embraced vulnerability.

Traveling during a life transition helped me to learn to be less reactive, and I wanted to hold onto that feeling. After I returned to the US, I spent a few months trying to keep up my routine of walking every day (I had some success here, but I learned that it takes a long time to walk 10,000 or 15,000 steps!). Because of my trip, I was drawn to try yoga–I wanted to stay connected with the feelings of presence and strength that I had cultivated while traveling. Yoga helped me to find more presence through movement, and has been a big part of my life ever since I returned from that trip.

Having a long enough trip helped me to use travel to reprogram myself. I’m not sure that I could have had the same experience on a whirlwind trip; it would have been too much movement to really sit with my feelings and work through them.

A meal I ate while traveling during a life transition in Colombia.
A typical lunch in Colombia.

Try not to move around too much 

Transit is stressful, but necessary. While it can be tempting to add one more place to your itinerary, be sure that you have enough time to really catch your breath and embrace each new destination.

Once you arrive, embrace the slower pace. Step out of the fast lane of work and school and life and try to live at the speed of a traveler. Try to spend at least a week in most of the places you visit to be sure that you get enough time to absorb a different speed of life. Go for depth instead of breadth. Give yourself a chance to meet other people and learn from them and share stories and cultivate friendships. Stay long enough that the local barista recognizes you and asks how long you’re in town.

While there were parts of my 2.5 month trip where I moved from city to city somewhat rapidly, I spent the first two weeks at one Airbnb in Mexico City. I tried to go for depth over breadth in my travel planning, and dedicated myself to spending enough time in each place to try to get a sense of it. There’s certainly no need to stay in one place for your full trip, but think about it this way: every day that you fly between cities is a day spent in transit. The fewer days you spend in transit, the more time you have to explore and experience the depth of a place.

A photo of me in front of Laguna de Guatape, a place I visited while traveling during a life transition.
A photo of me in front of Laguna de Guatape near Medellin, Colombia.

Do something nice for yourself

When I left my job in 2018 to travel around Latin America, I booked a massage in Mexico City. Set aside time for something you enjoy. Eat a nice meal, plan an adventurous hike, go see a play, do anything that feels like a real treat to you. Take a moment to celebrate yourself for everything you’ve done and everything you are doing and everything you will do.

It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but it should be something meaningful to you. There are few rituals in modern life to signify change, so create one for yourself. We have weddings when we get married, baby showers when we get pregnant, funerals when we die, birthdays when we’ve aged a year, and only a few other ritual celebrations in our lives. Create your own rituals by doing something you love, acknowledging yourself, and–maybe–inviting others to appreciate and celebrate you, too.

As I talked about in this post, I created a small New Year’s Eve/end of year ritual for myself. You are worthy of celebration, and it’s OK to spend time appreciating yourself for your accomplishments. In a way, that massage in Mexico City marked the end of my journey up and to that point, and helped me set a path forward. It was a moment of self-care, of expansiveness, of trying something new in a new place. It wasn’t a huge ordeal, but I chose it as a way of signifying my life change and I am happy that I did.

A view of Laguna de Guatape. A place I visited while traveling during a life transition.
A view of Laguna de Guatape near Medellin, Colombia.

Travel Stories from My Time in Colombia

I wanted to share three travel stories from my 2018 trip, and specifically from my time in Colombia. After leaving my job to travel in 2018, I went to Colombia for about two weeks. Traveling during life transitions can be challenging, but there’s a joy in embracing newness. While you’re on your trip, here are three things to remember: 1.) Be playful, 2.) Take photos of the little things, and 3.) Enjoy the moments of chaos.

These travel stories are all small moments when things didn’t go the way we expected, and we learned to adapt and move forward anyway.

Be Playful

Spend time on your trip adventuring, wandering, playing. Having fun while traveling can help you to feel more alive and free, and it can help you to get in touch with your inner child. Be willing to play in the waves, to look silly trying a new food, to jump in puddles, and to swing on rope swings. Don’t let embarrassment ruin your good time! 

Sometimes, playfulness can even help you solve problems, like the time I maybe (probably?) save someone’s life playing Marco Polo. 

My friend, Cecil, and I were hiking from one beach in Tayrona National Park to another, more remote, beach up the coast. To get to the next beach, we needed to hike straight into the jungle, until we reached a small settlement. Then, we’d make a sharp turn and hike back towards the ocean, sort of like a triangle.

As we hiked into the jungle, we noticed that our previously wide and well-marked trail had become more like a footpath. Fearing that we might have lost our way, we debated between pushing on and turning back to see if we could find the trail. After a minute or two of brainstorming, we decided to play Marco Polo so that we could scout out a bit of the trail ahead without losing our spot.

Cecil stood in place and called out “Marco!” while I followed the narrow trail through the jungle, shouting out “Polo!” We continued like this, as I hiked further and further from her, until I heard her shout something other than “Marco!” I listened for a moment before I heard a loud and clear, “Turn back!”

A photo of a monkey spotted in Tayrona National Park, a place I visited while traveling during a life transition.
A photo of a monkey taken in Tayrona National Park in Colombia. Photo by Berend Leupen on Unsplash.

I figured she had lost sight of me, so I turned back and hiked towards her, still exchanging “Marco!”s and “Polo!”s. A few moments after I reached Cecil, we heard a man yell, exasperated, “¡ESPERE! ¡ESPERE POR FAVOR!” In Spanish, espere means “wait.” A strange voice was calling out to us from the jungle to “please wait!”

We weren’t sure whether or not to wait for this guy to catch up to us, but before we could decide two people in their late 20s appeared. They told us that they were from Spain and that they had been lost in the jungle for about four hours. They had run out of water and were desperately trying to find their way back when they heard our voices in the distance. They followed the sound of our voices until they eventually reached us.

Cecil offered them a few swigs out of her water bottle, and before we knew it they had set off back towards the beach we had come from. We followed after them and soon after found the juncture we had missed earlier. Without our creative problem-solving and use of a children’s call and response game, we, too, might have gotten lost in the jungle.

Related Post: A Guide for Ethical (and Safe) Horseback Riding on Your Next Trip

A view of a beach in Tayrona National Park, the location of two of my travel stories.
A beach view in Tayrona National Park. Photo by Datingjungle on Unsplash.

Take photos of the little things

You might not know until years after your trip the significance of all of the photos you took. On our first night in Tayrona National Park, my friend and I had booked a private tent in Cabo San Juan because it was slightly cheaper than booking one of the large number of hammocks strung up in a covered, open air structure. We also thought that the tents would feel slightly more private, so it seemed like a win-win. 

We spent our afternoon at the beach, ate dinner in the campsite’s restaurant, and headed to bed around 10pm. Afraid of spiders and other insects, we used our flashlights to do a quick search of the tent, as it had been left open and unzipped all day. We didn’t see anything, so we climbed in with our belongings and started to get ready for bed. After about a couple of minutes, my friend calmly, but firmly, said, “Amber, get out of the tent.”

Confused, I asked her why. She repeated, a little more firmly, “Amber. Get out of the tent.”

I got up and crawled out, confused. She followed me out of the tent and, once we were safely out, she pointed to the absolutely enormous spider that had been inside the tent with us, walking behind me. Its leg span was at least 4 inches, and it was so large that its steps made distinct thuds against the taught tent material. We were in the Colombian jungle, at night, and had no idea if this spider could harm us. 

We wandered around to try to find some help, asking a small group of 20-somethings in broken Spanish if they could help us. They turned us down, letting us know that they, too, were terrified of spiders. Without many other options, we returned to the tent to try to devise a plan to deal with the spider. The group of 20-somethings eventually found us, and they had brought a rake to try to help coax the spider out of our tent. It worked, but my friend was far too rattled by the ordeal to return to the tent and I certainly wasn’t going to try to sleep in there alone. 

We wandered towards the reception area, where she resigned herself to a night of sitting sleeplessly on a bench. Around that time, an employee noticed us and, after initially dismissing our concerns, decided that he’d rather not spend the night with us sitting around in his reception area and offered to let us sleep in hammocks instead.

We got to the hammocks, hanging quietly and covered in mosquito nets, seemed like the sweetest possible relief in that moment. After calming ourselves down, we were finally able to get a restful, though brief, night of sleep in the hammocks. When I woke up around 7am the next morning, a gecko had crawled under my hammock and was watching all of us sleep with what seemed like curiosity. When the girl next to me got up, he scampered off.

Before we left the hammock tent, I snapped the following picture. It wasn’t great, but it served as a reminder of the fright of the spider ordeal, the kindness of a stranger, and the spirit of adventure.

A photo from my travel story. A hammock covered in a mosquito net that I slept in while traveling during a life transition.
This is a photo of the hammock that I slept in after finding a spider in our tent.

Enjoy the moments of chaos

One day while in Medellin, Colombia, my friend and I were killing time in a giant mall waiting for our flight later that evening. We were casually shopping for bathing suits, wandering slowly from store to store to try things on and stopping to enjoy a coffee at the Starbucks on the ground floor.

After a while, we decided it was probably time that we headed back to our Airbnb to collect our things and head towards the airport. We opened Uber, the most reliable and safest way to get around Medellin, and were shocked to see that traffic had all but slowed to a stop. Suddenly, our casual trip back to our Airbnb and then to the airport became a mad dash. We couldn’t skip the Airbnb, that’s where our bags and passports were, so we had to go there first. Worse than the almost stopped traffic was the fact that the airport was not, in fact, in the city–it was over and hour away. 

We did the math really quickly and realized that we were very, very much running the risk of missing our flight to Cartagena. As soon as our Uber arrived, we ran to it, had him wait at our Airbnb while we grabbed our bags and dropped our keys, and then headed towards the airport.

The driver drove exactly the speed limit the whole way, fearing a speeding ticket and being caught driving for Uber, which was illegal in Colombia at the time. While he drove, I Googled the airline’s late passenger arrival policy and asked my boyfriend to try to look into alternative flights if we missed this one. The alternative flights weren’t looking good, it was very much in our interest to make this flight.

We arrived at the airport and literally sprinted to the check in counter, where we arrived exactly 2 minutes before the check in was set to close. The desk agent told us that we had missed our flight and would have to rebook, but I had the airline policy open on my phone and pleaded with her for a few minutes before she relented and let us check in. We dashed through security and ran to our gate, making our flight by only a few minutes. 

By the time we were finally seated on the plane, we collapsed in a puddle of relief and triumph and exhaustion. It was the closest I’ve ever come to missing a flight without missing it, and it was a great example of the ways that travel can grace you with strange moments of serendipity, even if it doesn’t seem like you necessarily deserve them.            

A photo of the inside of a mall that I took while traveling during a life transition.
This is an art instillation that we saw while wandering around a mall in Medellin. Shortly after I took this photo, we realized that we were very late for our flight!

Final Thoughts

If you are going through a life transition, I encourage you to travel. Travel so that you can celebrate yourself and help to define the chapters of your life. Travel so that you know, in your heart, that the world is full of people who want to make tea for you and share their culture and celebrate being alive together. Travel so that you can live without the regrets of staying in one place and never pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone.

When I think about my 2018 trip to Latin America, I think about all of the tiny moments of beautiful things that I saw. I remember sitting on airplanes and feeling free. I remember looking at art unlike anything I’d seen before, and being struck by how unabashedly huge and wonderful and varied and spectacular the world is. I want that for you, too!

Have you ever traveled during a life transition? Have you ever left a job to travel? Share your travel stories in the comments!