‘Travel with Ann’ focuses on language, culture, and women’s empowerment

February 24, 2015
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During one of her many trips to Costa Rica, Ann Becker received an unusual offer: a serving of termites.

“They said it tasted just like carrots,” recalled Becker recently. “And I thought, ‘I’m just going to go for it.’”

This is the kind of fearless experimentation Becker craves when she organizes trips to Costa Rica. Becker is 62 years old and lives in Chicago, but each year she leads small groups to Central America to help introduce travelers to tropical experiences. But unlike a traditional tour operator, who might steer customers toward resorts and popular packages, Becker focuses on intimate interactions: home-stays, Spanish immersion courses, and all-female sojourns called the “Wonderful Women Adventure Trips.”

“Travel has always been very important to me,” she said. “And bringing together a cross-section of women, some of whom don’t know each other, for 11 or 12 days in another country, is an incredibly rich bonding experience. It’s the intensity of the sharing.”

In retrospect, Becker’s expeditions seem almost inevitable: Becker is founder and owner of Ann Becker and Associates, Inc., and she spent 35 years as a Midwest-based event coordinator and consultant. But despite the toilsome organization that such work requires, Becker still made time to take trips with her attorney husband. They preferred rigorous hikes in alpine locations, such as Switzerland and the Pyranees, where she used the French she learned during an exchange program in Nice.

In 2005, the couple wanted to plan a vacation with their 15-year-old son, but he had one request: no strenuous trekking. Becker searched around for a teenager-friendly destination, and she decided on Costa Rica. They planned a 10-day tour of Tortuguero, Arenal, and the Osa Peninsula.

“I was just blown away,” Becker said, still looking astonished by her discovery. When they arrived in Corcovado National Park, they watched exotic birds lifting off the water. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘I’m in love.’”

Becker’s passion for Costa Rica snowballed quickly. After a helpful conversation with the service-oriented organization EcoTeach, the Seattle-based staff made a life-changing recommendation: Why not lead groups of people to Costa Rica, including an itinerary just for women?

Bolstered by this idea, Becker led her first group of 13 women to the region in early 2006. The trial was extremely well received, and Becker has led 10 all-women groups and five Spanish-immersion classes in the years since. Participants have ranged in age from their early 30s to 75, and they come from a variety of backgrounds.

“Some have reached an age where they want to ‘do something for themselves,’” said Becker, using air-quotes. “Others have been through a major life change, like a divorce.” One past traveler is seeing-impaired and has completed four different trips. “She said she had never received that kind of support before.”

Despite her high-pressure career, Becker is a calm and friendly presence. She has none of the snippy, type-A intensity one might expect of a longtime event planner. In conversation, she sounds like nothing so much as a nurturing, maternal type. But as feel-good as these journeys can be, participants in Travel with Ann are expected to test their boundaries. Each trip is unique, and travelers can expect to spend time bobbing in small boats, eating strange foods, and spending two full nights in a Costa Rican household. There is usually a service component, enabling travelers to volunteer for local organizations. Becker has guided people to the indigenous reserve of Boruca, into the forests of Drake Bay, and to a baseball game in Nicaragua. Indeed, high-thrill, low-risk adventure sports like zip-lining are a routine part of the itinerary.

“I’m really clear about expectations,” said Becker. “I tell them beforehand, this is what you should expect, this is what you shouldn’t expect. If they’re not interested in a home-stay, then this won’t be for them, and they should know that right away.”

The luxury of Becker’s position is that she retired from full-time work two years ago. Now she can siphon her energy into these trips without needing to turn a profit. “At this point in my life, I don’t want to create a large business. I just want to facilitate a kind of travel that’s meaningful.”

One question remains: How were the termites?

“They taste like carrots!” she said. “Yes, I would do it again.”

To learn more about Becker and her trips, visit her website.

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