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I’m not pushing any editorial boundaries when I say this, but vacations are tremendous. There’s nothing quite like experiencing a place far from home (or, more importantly, the confining human walls of your open office.) With Instagram allowing us to patch into everyone else’s dream life whenever we’re riding in a car, laying on the couch, or avoiding that work assignment, trip envy is at an all-time high.
But if you’ve been felt up by a TSA employee during a security check, or stood in the middle of New Orleans wondering where in the hell normal people hang out, you know that changing your status to OOO isn't all glamour. In fact, it can be a bit of a glorious nightmare — which is why El Camino Travel is serving up travel envy in serious doses. Their small-group trips take a dozen people at a time through Nicaragua and Colombia — and starting next year, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago — while showing them places, people, and experiences they’d only been able to experience while scrolling through their Instagram feeds.
It’s no surprise that founders Katalina Mayorga and Marianna Jamadi are essentially the kind of women you’d want to cast as yourself in a biopic of your life. They’re cool, they’re smart, and they bootstrapped their way towards creating one hell of a company. The duo launched El Camino in July of 2014 without ever having founded a company, or even met face-to-face — they joked about being Catfished. Their mutual love for and expertise in photography, travel, and social responsibility led them down a journey that has resulted in eight successful trips thus far, a profit percentage dedicated to local entrepreneurs and, as they assure me, a significant amount of new friends.
In the 14 months El Camino has existed, Mayorga and Jamadi have cultivated nearly 20,000 Instagram followers, met incredible locals, and documented enough glorious photos to make you want to drop everything and sign up to meet your 11 new best friends in Nicaragua or Colombia ASAP. (You’ll have to wait until 2016 to do so, though — they’re fully sold out until then.)
There’s a lot that makes El Camino different from the group trips for single party people or the ones packed with pickpocket-proof walleted, vest-wearing olds, but the one you’ll probably mention to your friends in an e-mail saying "We should go!!" is this: they’re for millennials, by millennials, and this, of course, means they have their social media situation on lock. Each trip has a dedicated personal photographer who takes awe-inspiring, dreamy, Instagram-style photos throughout the day, edits them at night, and e-mails 20 or 30 to the group the following morning, so you can take a real Ron Popeil rotisserie chicken approach towards posting while out on your trip — simply set it and forget it.
"When you travel now, there are phones everywhere... you see people traveling on their own, in groups, and a lot of the time they’re more focused on capturing the moment than living in that moment," Marianna says. "We’re just trying to provide that service [that can] satisfy both of those needs: wanting to unplug and refresh and have authentic experiences, and then also have the images to share their story."
Is it weird to have someone take photograph you all day long when vacations can be welcomed respite from hair straightening and cheekbone contouring? Is it possible to relax and not seize up like a new actress on a red carpet when cameras are around? Before my waterproof mascara-hoarding panic sets in, the founders assure me the photog is a fly on the wall who works within everyone’s comfort zone, and often surprises people with the genuine, candid photos they tend to capture, which are actually pretty glorious and joyful, and in no way forced.
They tell me, too, that guests on their trips cut down their phone use significantly, which is kind of incredible — after all, the experience of ignoring your phone for over a week to enjoy a perfect vacation, leaving the meth addict’s itch to post beach photos incessantly, is truly one-of-a-kind. (Simply daydreaming of a vacation with no pressure to create the perfect hands-holding-a-cup-of-coffee snap almost feels like a serene trip in itself.)
As obsessed as I am with the fact that you can travel with a human Instagram machine, they assure me that’s not the thing that sets them apart. It’s their itineraries, which they say are so carefully curated that guests wouldn’t be able to recreate them on their own if they showed up in a country.
"One of the biggest compliments we’ve gotten is that people feel like, when they travel with us, they’re traveling with a really good friend who knows the country really well," Katalina explains. Marianna adds, "We’re really looking for opportunities that…[we’re able to] create or make available because of the relationships we’ve built on the ground. We don’t want people to do all-inclusive resorts where you’re stuck and you don’t really get to know the culture."
Considering my only point of reference for their Colombia trip is that one time Entourage’s Vinny Chase was cast in Medellin, they’ve got a point. I wouldn’t know where in the hell to start researching for a trip of that caliber, and El Camino’s 9-day sample itinerary has guests tasting local fruits, learning AfroColombian dancing, exploring street foods and hopping on a unique open-air bus for a tour of the city — all in the first 48 hours.
I love the idea of flying off to a totally new country and hitting the ground running, but if you watch as much travel TV as I do, you can’t help but call bullshit on the duplicability of those producer-led trips. You can go to that same Sicilian market that Anthony Bourdain is devouring octopus at, but unless you’re there with a famed chef and his nonna, you’re going to be at a minimum, lost, and at a maximum, walking around with a practical neon "tourist!" sign above your head. It’s incredibly hard to replicate those serialized travel experiences, but El Camino has figured out how to do it.
"We’re putting together activities that are going to expose them to movers and shakers who are doing awesome things in the country that are really inspirational," Katalina says. "[These are] secret hidden gems that not many people know about." They’re hooked up, they know the right people, and they’re going to make sure you have the exact kind of modern-day, wanderlust-y, expedition that the internet has promised you does exist but never truly did, until now.
Falling down the rabbit hole of their picture-perfect trips may be the only feed of gorgeous travel delights that didn’t require a spouse or BFF to hear the phrase "Take it again!" as often as "...Where are we?!" On these vacations, you meet real locals, you befriend cool fellow travelers, and you get to live the online pipe dream of Valencia-tinged travel ‘grams. You think, "could this get any better?!" and then they tell you of the unexpectedly feminist aspect to it: that El Camino can be an ideal option for a female traveling alone. It’s safe, it’s comfortable, and there’s no Eat Pray Love-angle to it in any way. Most attendees are solo or duos, and it’s not at all a single’s fiesta — many women who sign up alone are actually just frustrated enough by their friends’ nonresponsiveness or partner’s lack of vacation days to just go dive in and take the trip themselves. (And hey, can’t you relate?)
Gorgeous trips, ideal memories, like-minded company and once-in-a-lifetime experiences — let’s just sit back see the creepy TriVaGo guy even try to one-up that.