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What if you went to the airport without a ticket or a plan, looked up at the departures screen and chose your destination on the spot?

Check out this blog post about Alison and Allison’s incredible Mystery Trip last year! 
 In May 2016, Alison and Allison went to Newark airport without a plan. They only had their passports and a suitcase filled with a little bit of everything to cover any weather condition…

You can read more about their adventure here (hint: they ended up on the beaches and rainforests of Panama!)

They leave this Friday night, May 5th, for their second annual Mystery Trip. 
Join them on social media for some suspense and surprise as they head to JFK once again without a clue as to where they will land…

In early January 2016, we went out to dinner and Allison presented me with an idea.

What if we picked a week at the halfway point between our 45th birthdays and planned a mystery trip together?

The catch?

We couldn’t plan it.

We had to pack our bags the night before and arrive at the airport the next morning with no destination in mind. We were to look at the departures screen (this visual made us both very happy) and choose a place to go.

Right then.

We only made one rule for this trip…neither of us could have been at our mystery destination before. We decided on a 3 day adventure and packed for a variety of weather conditions.

For months we looked forward to it, not even knowing what “it” would be.

As the weeks approached, we became bombarded by every reason under the sun NOT to go.

Stuff for the kids, events we should attend, work piling up…it felt too easy to be lured by the pull of life’s demands and cancel a trip to no particular destination, one without an airline ticket or hotel reservation. How could we take the time? Two workings moms who have no reason to jump on a plane just for fun and explore a new land where there were 37,069 things potentially holding us back. But we stayed the course and held on to our commitment to each other.

The night before we spent an hour on the phone, laughing like crazy, as we packed for trip to who knows where…

We went through our very unplanned list.

Bathing suit? Check.

Winter gloves just in case? Check.

Sweater? Check.

Hiking clothes? Check.

Most importantly…passport? Check.


The next morning we both dropped our kids off at school on opposite sides of NYC.

3 blocks into our plan to go to JFK we decided to change our route right then and there. We were going to Newark. Of course…we are Jersey girls!


The Uber driver turned around and asked us, “Newark airport? Which terminal?” We belted out in laughter and replied, “We have no idea…which one do you think?!”

The entire cab ride was spent deciding which terminal would hold the most promise for our adventure. We finally chose the terminal that not only seemed like it had the most international flights but the one in the middle of the airport, making it easy to do a mad dash to a flight from any gate. When we walked into Terminal B, it was a ghost town. There was one flight leaving for Tel Aviv, and not only was it already boarding, we had both been there before.

We rushed over to Terminal C aware that every minute might mean losing a coveted flight option for our adventure. As we looked over Terminal C’s options we saw Albany, Dayton, Tallahassee, Dallas... suddenly reminded of why getting to the airport by 5am is a good idea. By 930am, we had missed hundreds of early morning options, and most other international flights wouldn’t leave until evening. Note to selves (amateur spontaneous adventurers), lesson learned for next year.

But there was one destination smack in the middle of the screen that almost called out to us, seemingly standing out more boldly than the rest.


Panama City, Panama.

We could get there on a United flight leaving at 3:40pm, direct and on time. We looked at each other and almost instantly agreed it was our place. We could get would arrive by dinner time, it (sort of) fit without our pre-discussed budget, and…it was warm.

We walked over to the counter to purchase tickets and the woman informed us that a few tickets were still available. She also told us that if we bought them on the airline’s website, we could save some money. We quickly pulled out our phones, filled out all the info and counted in unison to make sure we both ended up on the flight – 1,2,3 submit!


We both got confirmation emails and walked immediately to the kiosks to printout our boarding passes and get seats next to each other. We checked our bags and felt giddy as we went through security to our freshly known destination – Panama.

We sat down to order lunch when all of sudden, as if reminding us just how spontaneous this trip was, we realized we needed to figure out where to stay!

We stopped at an airport bookstore and staring at us from the travel section was the last Lonely Planet guide on Panama.

We quickly purchased it. Then we googled Panama City and tried to quickly absorb the city’s sections, learn its geography and uncover the places we wanted to visit. We made a short list of all the things we wanted to do on our trip…tour of the historic district, Casco Viejo, a rainforest hike, the Panama Canal and visit a “deserted” island…all in 3 days.

Our greatest source of advice about what to do, where to stay and what to see? Facebook. One social post about our chosen mystery destination and we were flooded with tips, hotel recommendations and ideas about things to do.

The first recommendation came in from a well-traveled friend. She told us to call the American Trade Hotel and make a reservation…so we did. We checked that they had availability for 3 nights but only booked for one. Who knew where this trip was going to take us? We wanted to keep our options open.

Our taxi from the airport drove through the financial district of Panama City and then into Casco Viejo, a 15th century Spanish town that has seen conquest by pirates, colonists, militants and gangs. Its dilapidated buildings are now being repaired, one by one, and the city’s revival is both visible and visceral. Think urban decay meets funky hipster. Every other street displays a 15th century church, cushioned between run-down buildings ornamented with graffiti that looks more like it belongs in a Chelsea art gallery. Squatters pull electricity from neighboring buildings, but those buildings continue to blossom, highlighting that people trust in the revival and instead choose to offer an eclectic mix of venues that cater to everyone.






The American Trade Hotel is the anchor of Casco Viejo -- presiding over the neighborhood’s historic square.

The minute we stepped foot into the hotel we were taken with the intoxicating atmosphere. Although the hotel was built in the past 10 years -- it felt entirely authentic. The history of the neighborhood was built into the walls – ushering the past into the future. We looked at each other and both knew this was the place for this trip. The first person we encountered was Victor – one of the front desk team members at the American Trade. From this point on Victor would be our connector to everyone and everything we met and experienced in Panama City.


We were hungry after our flight and asked Victor to point us in the direction of his favorite restaurant.  On our way we passed by an El Salvadorian and a French restaurant that had both opened that very night.  
Over a 5 star-tasting meal at Madrigal, we talked about our upcoming 48 hours in the country. We had only two full days and Victor gave us a lot of options.
We settled on the Panama Canal in the morning (how could we not go) and a tour around Casco Viejo in the afternoon. Victor arranged for us to be taken to the Panama Canal by a taxi driver who he said could give us historical perspective on the drive. It turns out our “taxi driver”, Juan, had been a local tour guide for nearly 20 years. He could not have been a more perfect match for us. He was a kind father to young children. We asked him every question under the sun and he had an answer for every one of them. He was our personal guide at the canal – squeezing in more information on US/Panamanian politics, culture and commerce than a rigorous college course.


On the way back from the Canal we passed a sign for Gamboa. From Lonely Planet…and talking to Victor, we knew Gamboa was the rainforest we wanted to visit. We asked Juan if he would be willing to stretch out the day a bit and take us there. This meant a change of plans. We needed to reschedule our tour of Casco Viejo (Victor to the rescue). And like that, we went from the Panama Canal to the rainforest. Both less than an hour from our hotel room.
And Juan? He happened to also be an avid bird watcher bringing him to Gamboa on a regular basis. He had a favorite trail (we were the only ones on it) and pointed out tropical birds, exotic trees and “called” a family of 30 or so whiteface monkeys who put on the most incredible 20-minute private show for us.

He also knew where to find an afternoon drink in the forest.  After sucking down the most incredible mango smoothies at the Gamboa Resort, we headed back to the American Trade Hotel which, in just 24 hours, had a quiet charm that made it already feel like home base.
Juan and Victor both recommended that we try a restaurant called Las Clementinas, the sister restaurant to Madrigal. Our mouths remained wide open for the next two hours, in awe at how we happened upon this spot with funky, live Parisian music in a back garden, cozied up against 15th century brick. We were given complimentary welcome drinks upon arrival, made more friends, letting in new people, new ideas and new energy. It felt like that very moment was precisely the reason we had taken this trip.
Walking back to our hotel we saw new restaurant after new store, each one popping up almost in real time, it felt like a city awakening to the city’s promise of safety and tourism. Only 10 years earlier, the very streets we strolled had been littered with gangs, with gunshots being the most predominant sound. Now it seemed to be a pocket of the world that included a welcoming people, the most delicious food and an incredible amount of possibility.  This gorgeous city was finally catching up with itself and we felt a part of it.  
The next day, based on Victor’s recommendation, we took a 90 minute ferry from the city to explore Contadora, an island off the coast, surrounded by deserted island after deserted island. We planted ourselves in the sand of a remote beach where we saw 5 other humans over the next 5 hours. We talked and talked and swam and ate, receiving food delivered straight to us from a nearby restaurant (even that meal was fresh and delicious). The antidote to the madness of working and raising kids in Manhattan may easily be found in a single day Contadora Island.

We returned to our home base in the city sun-drenched and exhausted. We received an infusion of energy as we rushed to meet our local tour guide as we explored Casco Viejo. St. James was a Vietnam Vet who was part of a group of former gang members that straightened out their lives and now gave city tours with pride. His charm and constant jokes kept us smiling as we strolled the streets, stopping to talk to every other local on the way.
In the middle of St. James’ tour we popped into a new bar called Malibu and were immediately greeted (what we now know is Panamanian style) by the owner, Adolfo and given free shots by his incredibly friendly bartenders.
5 hours later, the two of us, St. James, Adolofo and the bartenders were still in the exact seats we sat down in when we first arrived but had now eaten dinner and had a few rounds together talking non-stop. We learned more in that evening than we had in a long time – not just about a country but also about humanity. You see the kindness of strangers when you open yourself up, simply smile with wondrous curiosity and say yes to opportunities.


Fear drives many of us. Anxiety around the unknown can be so stressful that it more often than not hinders us from trying new things. We need to know what’s next. We need to plan. As business owners, as mothers, as human beings, we know what it’s like to lay out each day providing both comfort and security as the hours unfold.  
The truth is that when you let go of expectations, you find that you can’t be let down. Expectations can create a sense of anticipation, often adding excitement to any future plan (for our trips, but also for our work, our kids and ourselves). But they can also set us up to be disappointed. If we let go of strong expectations, stop projecting into the future and live exactly in the present, it can be the most liberating and satisfying feeling. It is a true definition of happiness.
Since we arrived home many people have asked us how we did this mystery trip. The truth is – traveling has never been easier. You just do it. You don’t plan and you say yes to every opportunity as it arises. You don’t look for outs – you look for ins. You allow your spontaneity to give you even more spontaneity.  And 4 ½ hours later you find yourself in Panama City on one of the greatest adventures of your life.


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