Top 7 Ways to Stay Spontaneous (In Group Travel)
As I was counting down the days to my first ever European trip I couldn't help but feel nervous. Not only was it my first Euro trip, but my first group travel experience as well. I've thought of myself, up until this point, as a fairly well established solo traveller, having done 100% of my previous world travels, alone. The reason being? I love being spontaneous. I thrive in not having to worry about scheduling, rules, bonding etc. I can go about my trip as I so please. That being said, when Topdeck got in touch about an opportunity to explore the Trail of Columbus, I did not hesitate. And to my outmost surprise, it ended up being my favourite trip. Not only did I have ample opportunity to be spontaneous, going off and exploring what I wanted, but I genuinely connected with everyone in my group in a way I didn't think possible. Honestly from this point forward I might always consider group travel. But before I start packing my bags and booking the next Topdeck trip, let me share with you the top 7 most spontaneous things I did on the Trail of Columbus tour. Hopefully it can inspire you to open up to all different ways of travel.
1) Monkey See Monkey Do
It's easy enough to be drawn to what's familiar, especially when away from the comforts of home.
For example, every time I wandered into a gelato shop the flavours 'chocolate', 'cheesecake', 'birthday cake' screamed nostalgic North America to me. I however started to tune in to what the locals were ordering. Flavours I had never heard of, and colours that hadn't been introduced to America yet. So after a couple days of adjusting to my new surroundings I decided to only order what the locals suggested every.single.time.
I left Portugal having the best meals of my life. Foods that I honestly can't remember, gelato flavours that I wish I could pronounce to find again. Open yourself up to new foodie experiences, they're popular for a reason!
2) Trust The Locals
On our first day in Lisbon, Portugal, we as a group, had the option to go on a private Tuk-tuk tour of the city. We rose early and were welcomed with about 6 tuk-tuks ready to take us out exploring. It was my first tuk-tuk ride and I had an absolute blast. We saw side streets we would've missed otherwise, we got to learn some incredible things about Lisbons' history and honestly the ride itself was thrilling. While we zipped in and out of corner streets and historic districts our driver pointed out certain areas of the city he highly recommended we check out in our free time. One of these particular areas was called the LX Factory which is a popular market in Lisbon.
Our tour, however, finished at the food markets where everyone at once decided to pile out and make their way. Even though I was a bit nervous about doing so, I decided to stay on the tuktuk and asked the driver to take me to this so called LX Factory.
He was absolutely raving about it so I figured it was worth experiencing. I was very nervous to leave my group in a city I had never set foot in before, but I trusted my gut and on we went. I had an amazing afternoon exploring the markets, walking away with beautiful and unique pieces of jewellery and trinkets. On the private tuk-tuk ride the driver also pointed out parts of Lisbon that were significant to him like where he grew up and where he had his first kiss. It melted my heart how excited he was to share his story with someone who was intent on hearing it.
3) Stop And Smell The Roses
The time we had in certain places on our trip were quite limited. We were aware of our time constraint so we all had a list of things we wanted to fit in to our days: Top tourist destinations, best cup of coffee, historical land marks.. and the list goes on. When we landed in Sintra, Portugal I had about 10 things I wanted to see, but the problem was I had only had 2 hours to see it all! I strolled the cobble stone alley ways, bought my souvenirs, got lost between the old stone palace walls, ate a glorious lunch of wine and bread, (no sarcasm, it was glorious) but I started to feel the inevitable rise of tourist stress. Yes it's a thing. I was running out of time. My pace quickened as I headed toward the national palace that I wanted to explore, but as I got closer to the castle gates I heard the faint sound of a guitar playing. I stopped in my place and turned slowly to the direction it was coming from.
The music was absolutely beautiful. Tradition Portugues sound called 'Fado'. It sounded like music like that of Pavlo and I was instantly hypnotised by it. I found the guitar player sitting in a cove off the main road sitting next to a hidden waterfall. The view took my breath away. I sat down next to the guitar player, sank in my seat, tilted my head back and closed my eyes. I swear I was there 5 minutes but my alarm to head back to the bus started buzzing. Unfortunately I got nothing else on my list done, but I had the most remarkable experience, one that I would never be able to plan.
4) Explore Outside The Itinerary
So far I've suggested listening to the locals, immersing yourself in the history of your new surroundings etc. but sometimes you really need to give in to your guilty pleasures. What better way than to visit some touristy sites that strongly influence pop culture?
As I started to get to know my trip mates more personally, I started to notice that we had quite a bit in common. Music, culture, hobbies and of course guilty pleasures; like Harry Potter and... the Cheetah Girls. Now if you're a fan of either you're probably aware that a lot of the inspiration for Harry Potter developed in Porto, Portugal and the Cheetah Girls movie was filmed in Barcelona, Spain; both of these locations were stops on our travels.
Worth the mention:
We stopped by Café Majestic in Porto Portugal for a slice of amazing cheesecake. This cafe is where J.K Rowling wrote the vague idea of Harry Potter on a napkin. And the longest bench in the world located in Park Guel, Barcelona, Spain is where the Cheetah Girls had a bit of a dance off during the song 'Strut' as seen in the film. Now I'm all about the history and the cultural aspect of travel, but sometimes you just have to have a laugh.
5) Collect Memories In A Unique Way
Some collect magnets (guilty), some collect postcards (guilty), some collect keychains (guilty), but I for one love to take my memory collecting to the next level. I collect tattoos when I travel. Now, I really didn't plan on getting a tattoo while on the Trail of Columbus, but something about Portugal just stuck with me. It's beauty and vibe were something I'd never felt before and I wanted to bring it home. Now, everywhere you look in Portugal you'll find Azulego's (glazed, ceramic tiles). Azulego's hold a very significant piece of history in Portugal dating back to the 13th century. But you'll learn all about them on YOUR trip to Portugal, you history buff, you.
I fell in love with these tiles. The creativity, how they added a certain elegance to the city streets and hotel walls. I took a quick snap of the tiles outside our hostel on the first night and I decided to get it inked onto my thigh. Lisbon is known for some pretty incredible tattoo shops so I wandered in to a few until I met the perfect artist to bring the piece to life.
6) [Travel Hack] Book a Locals Tour
If you ever find yourself in a predicament where tickets to enter a museum or a park or an exhibit are sold out, ask for a guided tour in the local language.. I would ALMOST guarantee there would be spots left. Now let me share my story of the spontaneous tour I took of Park Guel in Barcelona.
I bought the last ticket of the day to Park Guel in Barcelona, a place that was #1 on my list of things to see on this trip, however I had no idea how quickly the park tours would sell out. My ticket to enter the park was for 9pm, however my final dinner with my travel crew was 8pm and I really didn't want to miss it. I arrived at the park at 630pm - because you never know what the internet says is true - there easily could have been a queue waiting, but unfortunately everything was in fact sold out. But I decided to wait patiently to see any movement behind the ticket counter. Within 30 minutes, I saw a family walk in and walk out with tickets to the park, I was stunned. Have I been scammed? Lied to? I decided to investigate. I walked up to the ticket counter and asked about the family that had just been.
"Oh! Were sold out of single day passes, we're only selling guided tours in Spanish"
"I'll take 1" I insisted.
"But ma'am you already have a ticket for 9pm! You won't receive a refund"
"I don't mind!"
"Do you understand Spanish?"
"Well, I'm looking to get cultured"
After a very puzzled look from the teller, she sold me a ticket for a time slot that was leaving immediately.
I have to say the guided Spanish tour was still quite nice AND the tour guide spoke English for a few moments in each place we stopped so I definitely got my moneys worth. We entered the park hours before my ticketed time, just as the sun was setting beautifully over the city of Barcelona, I had my Cheetah Girls moment, thanked the tour guide for the experience and still made it back for dinner and a night of karaoke.
7) Stay Up Til The Sunrise
I'm telling you now, I'm not a late night kinda gal. I like a solid 9pm sleep time. As a full time student I relish the nights I get a full rest. So on this trip I was introduced to a night life I'd never experienced. In Portugal & Spain, dinner started at around 10pm for most folks, while a post pub beer started AT midnight. I almost laughed at the image of myself starting my night at 1am. The practice of being out with my crew helped night by night but I still found myself turning in early to catch the sunrise or grab a morning coffee; bliss. On our very last night, before our morning goodbyes, I made a promise to myself that I would try to stay out with my new travel friends for as long as I could, to cherish the last little while we could spend together. Our night started as a BBQ dinner, a karaoke night in some random hole-in-the-wall bar in Barcelona, which lead to the night that I will never forget.
We all sang our hearts out until about 3am singing karaoke songs we all know and love (Call Me Maybe) we made friends, we danced, we limbo'd. I made a new friend while singing some Avril Lavigne duet or rather and we found ourselves in one of those late night talks about travel, life and what was next for us. Myself? My very first year of university, which I am now very much looking forward to, and her? Her upcoming wedding. We took a stroll through downtown Barcelona and randomly waved down a tuk-tuk driver, a really nice 360 to rap up the trip. We drove all around the cobble stone back streets listening to faint club music get louder then fade again as we drove by. We snickered at the partiers all staggering around the main square and then finally we both had the same idea.. a late night ocean swim.
We were dropped off at a random beach and we didn't hesitate to sprint towards the water. The water was crystal clear, warm and to be honest we weren't the only travellers that had this idea; the beach was packed. I don't know where the time got for us, but at some point the sky was starting to reveal it's morning haze. The water soon matched it's colour and we were surrounded by a wall of pink. The sunrise reflected off the water and skin. I was wide awake. We stayed until the sun truly revealed itself and decided to head back to the hostel then. We talked about how we may never see each other again in our lives but we thanked each other for the hilarious experience and wished each other luck on our own journeys. Our hotels were right next door to each other, so outside we shook hands, wished each other a good life and went our separate ways. I don't remember her name, oddly.
So, dear traveler, there you have it. A world of spontaneity to inspire you on your next trip. Whether it be with a group tour (recomended) or solo (recomended) open yourself up to the wanders of following your feet and listening to your heart.
Travel Taggs xo