One night not long ago, I sat at a picnic table on Caye Caulker, an island 45 minutes North of Belize City. Yards behind me, the sea was quiet. The air was heavy with moisture. Plastic cups of bottomless rum punch were mixed with Tang and ice cubes and being served to me and my friends Susan and Joanna. We were waiting as Fran, head chef of the barbecue pop-up, Fran’s, finished grilling our Jerk chicken dinner. Along with the endless faucet of cold alcoholic punch, made from ingredients purchased as needed from the food mart across the sandy street, the meal came with garlic mashed potatoes and garlic bread, heaped inside large to-go boxes, for the equivalent of seventeen U.S. dollars (rum punch included).
Sedated, I took stock of things: Islanders biked up and down the main dirt road, heading home or to one of the many bars with wide-open doors and floors of sand. Vacationing couples strolled by, hand-in-hand, smiling. Not far from our table a large cart painted in aqua—most structures on the island were given a pastel hue—held the official local slogan: “Go Slow.” A man, who we had started to see everywhere, tugged a cart behind his bike. “Coconut rolls!” he shouted over and over. “Magic brownies!” Each cellophane-wrapped treat sold for one dollar.
This was a normal Tuesday night on Caye Caulker. But also—with our generously-flavored grilled meat roasting a few feet away, the Caribbean just behind us, the island’s general disregard for shoe-wear, and a pervasive layer of calm—this was the life. I had arrived from New York City three days earlier, but on Caye Caulker, it no longer seemed to exist, and I had not felt this good in a very long time.
If you live in Brooklyn, and can count yourself among the lucky set of people who have a job—especially a mentally-taxing or creative one—doing it successfully can wring you dry. And while it might be easy to say, “I feel like I never stop; I’m perpetually depleted,” it’s also difficult to overstate how true those things are. Eventually, one must fill back up.
If you live in Brooklyn, and can count yourself among the lucky set of people who have a job, especially a creative one, doing it successfully can wring you dry.
Which is why Susan Ripley—who until a year and a half ago also belonged to this broke-down group of people—created Brooklyn Tropicali. Focusing exclusively on Mexico and Central and South America, her boutique agency creates off-the-beaten-path and inspiring itineraries in exotic destinations so that you can more successfully reap the intended benefits of a vacation (actually relaxing, reconnecting with yourself and travel companions, gaining fresh perspectives, plunging outside your comfort zone) without expending the stressful energy required to plan one.
“I think it’s really hard when you’re a busy person in New York to even know how to approach planning a trip,” Ripley tells me. We were sitting in a common area inside a well-kept hostel—Los Amigos—in Flores, Guatemala. It was the night before we would climb several Mayan pyramids and temples in the ancient city Tikal, a two-hour bus ride away. “And my whole thing is, I think it’s really powerful for people to have amazing immersive experiences, and not to go to places that are easy,” Ripley says, while sipping on a fresh mojito that had just been delivered to us by the friendly staff from the bar. “To try to really get immersed in other cultures, and get a little uncomfortable, and see new things,” she said—that was an effective vacation.
If one thing was getting me down in New York City, it was the exhaustion born of daily life, and feeling numb to my surroundings because of it. Even expansive metropolises—filled with so many people that you can see an entire city’s worth of new faces every day—become rote if you don’t shake yourself out of your routine. What I needed, as Ripley put it, was to be a little uncomfortable again.
With Ripley’s itinerary—traveling to Flores in a mid-size rural bus after walking across the border from Belize, clambering through a 350 million-year-old cave outside San Ignacio, Belize the day before, and swimming directly underneath a waterfall, with the expert guidance of one of the most intelligent people my travel companion Joanna and I had ever met, Léo (who also packed for us jugs of rum-punch, which was turning out to be the country’s national liquid)—that is exactly what happened.
But if there is one thing beyond creative inspiration that New Yorkers value, it’s time, Ripley says. The vacations we actually manage to take are short, so our experiences better be very well-planned, and meaningful, and that is where Ripley’s expertise further comes into play.
“If you have one week, it has to be amazing,” Ripley enthuses. “Time is so precious in New York, and you don’t want to stay at a mediocre place. You want whatever place you stay to be amazing. And you want your food to be amazing. You don’t want to end up at this shitty tourist restaurant just because you don’t know where else to go.” Ripley sharpened her research and planning skills over the last year and half, since she has been traveling through Latin America long-term, and house-sitting, with her husband Justin, a musician.
“I want people, especially those who work in creative industries, who need inspiration, who can’t just give and need to take somthing in, too, to get the inspiration to work,” Ripley concludes. “So I just think those people should have so much inspiration in that week! They should get an amazing experience, and so much material for their life, and for their work, too.”
In less than twenty four hours, I would be back in the city that—in that moment, for me—had ceased to exist. But despite our 4am departure the next morning, and our three connecting flights back to JFK, I felt fine. As designed, I had already been recharged by Ripley’s vacation magic.
On the subway the next morning, one day prior to the political shock of our lifetimes, I felt the energy of the city as if it were new. I looked people in the eye. I smiled at them as I transferred trains. I appreciated the professionals around me—focused, productive, driven. I did not dread the stress-hole that being a part of that community can push us into. For one day, New York City was alive again to me, and I was alive in it.
The very next day, as bad luck would have it, Donald Trump became president-elect, and our energies were directed elsewhere. Over the next years, we’ll require more energy and inspiration than ever to keep doing our work. But in the worst of those moments I plan to retreat back to the top of a 1,500-year-old pyramid in a Guatemalan forest. I’ll remember watching the sun set over soaring tree-tops and Mayan temples in the distance from its peak; taking in the last bits of light that, as it sunk beneath the horizon, was oblivious to our election, to entire empires for that matter, and, certainly, to any one of us. ♦
All images by Susan Ripley
Our print magazine has a new travel section; learn about exciting and far flung destinations each month.