Has travel blogging changed the way I travel?
I opened my blog, My Adventures Across the World, less than two years ago – in September 2014. Actually, that’s when I finally bought my own domain. In fact, I first started travel blogging on a free platform in March 2013, after a very eventful trip to Cuba. Back then, I wasn’t focusing on turning my blog into a career. I just wanted to rant about Cuba and perhaps write about my other travels. I had no intentions of abandoning my academic career yet.
Read more about my academic career in my post “How I went from being an academic to a travel blogger.”
I eventually bought my own domain because I had heard from someone that it would be easier to install Google Ads to get a passive income. Who doesn’t want an effortless, passive income? I surely did! I thought it would be an easy way to earn a little extra money to increase my meager tour leader paycheck and to add to my future travel consultant income.
Less than two years after buying my domain and less than 18 months after deciding to ditch my tour leading career (or any other career, for that matter) and start blogging full time, I haven’t installed Google Ads or any other affiliates yet, and I have come to the conclusion that travel blogging is not nearly as easy as I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong: I love it and wouldn’t do anything else for a living, but this isn’t nearly as easy-peasy as I thought it would be.
Here are 13 things I have learned in my first 15 months of full time travel blogging.
Do I look at things differently since I have started travel blogging?
13 things I have learned about travel blogging in the last 15 months
Travel blogging is a real job
Just because I don’t walk into an office every day and I don’t have fixed hours, that doesn’t mean blogging is not a real job. Sure, I am free to work whenever and wherever I want, but for most bloggers (including myself) this translates into anywhere and at any time (and all the time).
I actually have a strict working routine, where I average 10 hours per day (with peaks of up to 12 hours), sometimes even during weekends. I work much more now than I did in my previous jobs. What’s different now is that I actually really enjoy what I am doing, for as hard as it is.
Travel blogging? It ain’t all beach and games
Travel blogging is much more work than I thought
Before starting to blog full time I was under the impression that managing a travel blog would be fairly easy. I thought it was just a matter of writing something, placing some nice photos here and there, and hit the publish button.
I wish it were that easy. I know that a post doesn’t necessarily have to be a masterpiece, but I still like the idea of writing to the best of my abilities. Putting together a post takes me anything between a day and even a couple of weeks, depending on the topic and on how inspired I am. Once I have an idea in mind, I have to build the post in an appealing way, one that makes people want to read it. The language I use, the phrasing, and even seemingly silly things as the length of a paragraph all make a difference.
Once the post is written, I have to find the right pictures to go with it, edit them at least a little bit (I am no photographer), caption them and place them along the relevant text.
This is why I find it very frustrating when I get contacted by people who ask all sort of questions the answers to which can be easily found on my blog. It is rather annoying when they tell me that they don’t have time 10 minutes to read that post that took me well over two weeks to write!
There’s more to travel blogging than just exploring amazing places
In travel blogging, SEO is a must…
Search Engine Optimization (which bloggers refer to as SEO) is the most efficient way to make sure that traffic is driven to a post and to the blog. When I wrote my first post, I had not even heard of these words. I just thought that because I had written and published something, people would magically find it and read it. How naïve of me!
Eventually, a travel blogger who took pity on me explained the basic tricks of SEO so that I could optimize my posts and make them stand out in google searches. Using keywords, people may be able to find a post I have written and hopefully if they like it, they will come back for more.
This doesn’t mean that all my posts are optimized. Indeed, I still appreciate the act of writing in a more spontaneous way. And I think that readers do too.
…as well as social media
Travel blogging and social media go pretty much hand in hand. Most travel bloggers have accounts across the best known social media. Using social media smartly means showing the world that I am out there, driving traffic to the blog and growing an audience, something which isn’t necessarily easy thanks to the constant changes in the way social media work – posts aren’t necessarily shown to all followers.
I admit that I can hardly keep on top of things. I use social media persistently but I have no real strategy. I post regularly, I try to keep my audience engaged, I reply to comments and hope for the best.
Gone are the days in which I used Facebook to see what my friends around the world were doing, and Instagram to post selfies and pictures of my cats (ok, I still post the occasional picture of my cats, but I have never really posted any selfie!).
Travel blogging isn’t nearly as solitary as I thought
Although I am travel blogging, I still have to deal with people…
… and they are not necessarily nice.
One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy my previous jobs was that I had to deal with other people, which wasn’t always fun. In my previous working life I have had a number of backstabbing colleagues, who went as far as stealing my research. I’ve also had to work hard to please difficult customers – and often didn’t succeed.
Read more about the kind of people I dealt with as a tour leader on my post “11 persons I have met during a guided tour.”
Travel bloggers may not work in an office building, but that’s about the only difference with the rest of the job market: I still have colleagues (other bloggers) and anybody who requires my services – whether it is for a consultancy, for a writing job, or for a marketing campaign – is a customer.
The job environment isn’t different from any other: there’s gossip, there’s envy, there’s a good dose of competition, there’s some who aren’t nearly as professionals as they try to show and others who act as rockstars. And there is a lot of networking to do.
A few bloggers have become really good friends: I respect them, I admire them and they are a constant source of inspiration. The others are colleagues with whom I prefer to keep a strictly professional relationship. And there are some that I would rather not deal with.
Finding a travel blogging niche is harder than I thought
I blog about travel. But that is too wide a topic and I have been told many times by very successful bloggers that I need to find my own niche, become my own brand (whatever that means) and concentrate my efforts on that. They also said it wouldn’t be easy. How right they were!
The process of finding a travel blogging niche and of establishing myself as an authority in that is actually really hard and requires a lot of trial and effort. At the beginning, I thought I’d want to concentrate on budget backpacking. But I regularly blow my budget any time I travel, to the point that I concluded I am an unsuccessful backpacker. I need my niche to be something I am actually good at.
Find out why I think I am an unsuccessful backpacker on my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”
Truth be told, I am still looking for my niche and I am still thinking of the best ways to brand myself. I have a few ideas in mind. Only time will tell if these ideas work, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Travel blogging press trips are actually tiring!
Travel blogging press trips are hard work…
One of the perks of travel blogging is traveling for free. Or so I thought until I was invited on my first press trip to Indonesia. I concluded that there is not such thing as traveling for free – where by free I mean that I don’t have to do anything in exchange.
Participating in a press trip indeed means being employed to visit places and promote them on my blog and social media.
A typical press trip involves visiting a huge amount of places in a very limited time, as tourism boards generally try to maximize their budget. It means days of up to 16 hours, when I have to be concentrated on what I see all the time and can’t just opt out if I don’t feel like doing something. It implies traveling at an imposed rhythm, where I don’t get to just do what I want and like – I don’t even get to pick where I want to eat, or what I want to eat for that matter.
During press trips, as blogger I have to take notes, take (and edit) pictures and I am expected to post on social media, which means being constantly online. Once back, I must produce a minimum amount of posts within a specific time period. There is a contract, instructions, deadlines.
It is better (and definitely sounds more glamorous) than most jobs, but it is still a job. And a very tiring one too.
…but a lot of fun too
I would lie if I said that travel blogging press trips are boring. They are tiring, they are hard work and whenever I get back home after one I am so exhausted that I have to rest and do nothing for at least a day. But they are a lot of fun too. After all, I have always said that organized group tours don’t necessarily have to be bad, and press trips are a bit like group tours of like minded individuals.
Read what I think about group tours on my post “10 reasons to take a guided tour.”
On a recent press trip to the North of Spain, not only did I get to visit some amazing places, but a spirit of camaraderie developed, jokes were thrown all the time, and I feel like I have learned a lot from the other bloggers who took part in the trip.
Read more about the North of Spain on my post “Amazing places to visit in Spain.”
In travel blogging, I feel a duty to report about the not-so-great experiences too
In travel blogging, integrity is everything – at least to me.
As a blogger, I am constantly thorn between my duty towards my readers and the need to keep the brands and tourism boards I work with happy, and to establish a reputation as a good blogger to work with.
What should I do if I am invited to use some services or to visit a place and my experience isn’t as good as I had hoped for? Should I write about it and be honest to my audience, or should I just omit this information and avoid any confrontation with the sponsors?
I thought really hard whether to write about a really bad experience I had on Mount Bromo, in Indonesia. I decided I should, because I felt I should warn other people who may be visiting and I did’t want to give a sugar coated version of my experience. I thought it would be a good way to give some constructive criticism too.
Read more about my experience on Mount Bromo on my post “Ring of Fire or Circle of Hell?”
Luckily enough, bad experiences are actually not so frequent and more often than not I find myself writing glowing reviews.
Travel blogging changed the way I travel
Traveling was way more spontaneous and definitely more relaxing before I started blogging. It was about enjoying my time at a destination and telling my friends and family about my experiences.
The “telling my friends and family” is now done on a different scale, where I actually write posts for the world (ok, perhaps not the world, but you get my point) to read. It makes me look at places in a different way. I ask more questions to the guides and I often take notes, as perhaps a good blog post will come from it. I even put much more efforts in taking good pictures – sometimes I actually feel like I am seeing a place from behind the lenses of a camera.
Before starting a blog and having multiple social media accounts connected to it, I didn’t care so much if I didn’t have internet when I traveled. In fact, it was refreshing to have a break from it. Now, I end up spending at least an hour every day posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And although I am not meant to really work, I end up checking my email, just in case some good business opportunity comes through.
No easy money in travel blogging
There’s no such thing as easy money with travel blogging…
Whoever said that it is easy to make money blogging said a blatant lie, and I realized that fairly quickly. Friends who have been blogging for various years warned me that money would take a while to come and predicted that I wouldn’t be making a dime for at least a year or a year and a half.
It took me months of hard work to make my first $100 USD through my blog. 15 months after having started taking this seriously, I still struggle but little by little it is getting better. Some months I get little or no interesting offers; others I am overwhelmed with requests and I accept them all, knowing that the following months business may be slow.
…and there is not just one, established way to make money with travel blogging
Different travel bloggers find different ways to make money. Some have established their own tour companies whereas other offer their consultancies; some work with sponsors and others make money through a variety of writing jobs.
Most bloggers also place affiliate links on their blogs, something which requires a careful study of the audience’ interests. Funny enough, placing affiliate links was the main reason I had for buying my own domain and I haven’t had time to consider doing that yet.
What I have learnt in these 15 months of full time blogging is that a blog is generally just a platform, a way to showcase a number of services. It just takes a while to decide which is the most viable way to earn a living through a blog, and this is something completely personal: what works for one, may not work for the other.
In case anybody is wondering, I am still exploring the various ways I have to earn money though my blog.
I have haters since I have started travel blogging
When travel blogging, it’s good to have haters
I know some (usually female) very successful bloggers who are swamped with hateful comments which are full of disturbing messages, and that can be really hurtful. I was actually happy when I got my first hate comment. I figured hatred comes from envy, and if someone envies me it is because I am slowly becoming more successful. Something to celebrate!
Sure enough, I didn’t expect travel blogging to be such hard work. Yet, I love what I am doing and every day I wake up with a big smile on my face, looking forward to a long day at work.
What are your thoughts on travel blogging?
Clouds on the horizon: the prelude to a stormy day?
“Stop wasting my time! Open the bus and let me check,” I yelled to the bus driver. I was so exasperated that I eventually raised my voice. People around us stopped and held their breath. I guess I scared them.
I am a hot tempered Italian. Worse than that. I am Sardinian, which also implies that I am stubborn and chances are I (almost) always want to have the last word.
Read more about the stubborn Sardinians on my post “Eleven things you should never do in Sardinia”.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t endorse arguing as a daily practice. And surely, I don’t burst at just about every little thing. In fact, I try to avoid direct confrontation as much as I can, and to be as understanding and polite as possible.
So, if people scream in my face, I generally make it a point to keep my cool and stay calm. I do this for two reasons. First of all, I don’t think that just because someone is screaming, it means they are right or they should get their way. And second, the sadistic part of me enjoys the dirty pleasure of seeing others getting increasingly frustrated as I keep my cool (I know it is passive aggressive but I take it as a sociological exercise).
My general policy is to be respectful and demand respect. I can’t stand discrimination of any kind and the minute I sense I am being treated disrespectfully either because I am a woman, or because I am a foreigner, I try to put people back in their place. And on some rare occasions, I do argue quite fiercely: frustration builds up to the point I eventually explode.
The following are just a few tips, based on the lessons I have learned from some of the most epic arguments I have had while traveling, and how I reacted each time. Feel free to draw from my experiences!
Do what you can to cool off before fighting
Try to keep your cool
“There’s a cockroach in my bed!” I ran to tell the owner of the hostel were I had just checked in, in Playa Las Lajas, Panama.
I had arrived in Playa Las Lajas after about 8 hours of traveling from Bocas del Toro. It was a fairly isolated place, with not much in terms of facilities for tourists. All the better for me, as after the crowded and dirty Bocas del Toro, I needed somewhere quiet.
I had not bothered making reservations for a hostel. I had just read online that there was one, and I showed up at the door. It was around 7:00 pm, and the owner let me in saying that I was lucky: she would lock the gate at 8:00 pm and after that, no new guests would be allowed in. Just in time, I thought!
Before showing me to my dorm, I was lectured on the hostel rules.
“This is an ecological place” they said, sipping a glass of wine. “Please turn the lights off when you leave the room, and make sure to take very short showers so as not to waste water,” they added.
The yard was dark. Really dark. I couldn’t see a thing dark. I switched the light on in the dorm, and picked my bed. I made my bed and carefully placed the mosquito net around it. I then walked to the toilet, and went to wash my hands before going to dinner. That’s when I spotted a huge crab right by the sink. Except, it was not a king crab but the biggest spider I have ever seen.
One hour later, when I walked back and got to the dorm, I spotted something moving on my mosquito net. A closer look and I realized it was a cockroach. And it wasn’t outside. It was inside! There was no way I could sleep there. I appreciate the need to respect the environment. But I can’t take dirty and I won’t accept cockroaches as roommates.
“Sorry to bother you, but there’s a cockroach in my bed,” I warned the owner who was still sipping wine.
“There’s no cockroaches here,” she said, not making a move.
Except there were, not just in my bed but around the entire property. And, despite years of backpacking experience in tropical climates, I still haven’t managed to overcome my sever cockroaches fobia. They. Just. Disgust. Me.
I don’t like sharing my bed with cockroaches – photo courtesy of jo.sau (flickr)
“Well, perhaps if you came to my dorm you could see…” I started.
“I told you, there are no cockroaches here!” she insisted.
There was no point in arguing back, I realized. So I went back to the dorm, grabbed my backpack and walked back to reception.
“Look, I didn’t even use the sheets or the towels. If you give me my money back, I am out of here,” I suggested.
She stood up, slowly walked to the office, and handed me the money back. Then she started insulting me in Italian. She had known all along I am Italian, and it turned out she was too (we had only spoken English and Spanish until then, and I picked an accent but was unsure).
“Careful, wherever you may go it may be worse than here” she started.
“As long as there’s no cockroaches,” I said.
“This is not a place for snotty Italians” she started.
I didn’t answer to that. I just made my way to the door. As I walked out, I could hear her screaming all sorts of swearings in my direction. My total lack of reaction must have aggravated her alright!
Always stay calm and show respect
Respectfully put people back in their place
“Pasen y vean,” (come in and take a look) is the typical welcoming sentence that souvenir shop owners in Central and South America use to invite tourists in. Usually, saying “no thanks” and moving on is sufficient to discourage an eager vendor. However, at times the vendors become “too welcoming.” So welcoming indeed that they feel intrusive, if not outright rude and aggressive.
“No, thank you!” I automatically yet politely replied to the shop owner inviting me in, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. As I turned to talk to my sister, he heard we were Italian and decided it was a good idea to insult us.
“You stupid Italian w@@@@s,” he screamed as we walked away.
I really dislike racial and sexual harassment, so I stopped, turned around and right there, in front of his friends and co-workers, I calmly said to him: “We may be stupid Italians, but at least at the end of the day we have food on our tables. With that attitude of yours, we’re not sure you’re going to be eating tomorrow.” Not a word more, and I left. He was so surprised by my reaction that he didn’t reply. I wonder if he’s figured out that rudeness is not a good marketing technique.
Walk away from situations you can’t endure
Know how much you can endure – and walk away when you’ve had it
“I am leaving tomorrow,” I finally told the owner, after having only worked at her farm for 3 days.
“You are going to have to pay for tonight’s accommodation, then,” she said. I guess she didn’t take it well.
Soon after arriving in Tucurrique, Costa Rica, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to survive at the farm for nearly as long as I had planned.
I had been “employed” as a volunteer at the farm to tend to rescued animals – dogs, cats, a horse and two pigs. That seemed a noble enough cause to dedicate my time and efforts and to volunteer for.
Find out what I think about voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”
However, soon after arriving at the farm I found out that tending to the animals would only be a minimal part of my duties, which included endless cleaning shifts for what was meant to become a profitable business. All of this, in a place that was severely infested with cockroaches (thankfully none in my room) which I wasn’t allowed to kill – due to the owner’s belief – and where I was pretty much starved due to the owner’s dietary fixations (which she wanted to impose on me).
Feeding the pigs? No problem!
Every night, I pondered on what to do. I loved the animals, but the fact that I was literally starving didn’t help and after yet another horrible night, I eventually announced that I would be leaving.
When I was told that I would have to pay for that night’s accommodation, I replied before I actually had time to consider the various options.
“Fine, I am leaving today then,” I said. I went back to my room to pack my stuff and go. The fact that it was the 1st of January and public transport may not be running as normal, if at all, didn’t worry me. I may hitch a ride if necessary.
Not long afterwards, she was banging on my door, screaming that she’d call the police.
“What for?” I asked. “Exactly what crime have I committed?” I didn’t barge. I closed the door behind me, finished packing, and left.
The minute I was out the door, a car drove by and I hitched a ride to the village. As I was waiting at the bus stop, I spotted the owner of the farm. She had been driving around, looking for me. She was begging me to go back. There was no way on earth I would.
Customer service – a lo cubano!
Accept that customer service is not a given in some countries
“I am going to call the police,” said the short, bulky travel agent in Spanish.
I was in Trinidad, Cuba. After 10 days of fiercely haggling my way around with taxi drivers, working hard on avoiding scams, dealing with dodgy guides who’d take me where they wanted rather than where I wanted, I’d had it.
Read more about Cuba on my post “Things to do in Cuba: the ultimate guide for a trip to Cuba.”
“Let’s book a tour with a travel agency,” I begged my sister, who was traveling with me. So we went to one of the State owned agencies, and browsed around for a tour that would suit us. After asking the agent about a million questions, we decided to visit Cayo Blanco. We’d travel on a catamaran that would take us to the coral reef, were we’d be given gear to snorkel, then head to Cayo Blanco to have lunch and relax before heading back to town.
It was an all inclusive tour, so we’d have drinks included (“Even mojitos?” I asked, hopeful. “Yes, even mojitos!” the agent confirmed), lunch included (“Beware I am severely alergic to bell peppers!” I told the agent), transport included. And, most importantly, not a single worry about being scammed, about any service, product, souvenir, guide, or whatever else forced on us. That sounded like a good deal to me.
Customer service?! What is that?
Too bad we didn’t get to do any of the things the brochure and the agent promised. We never saw the coral reef and never stopped to snorkel. Lunch was a sad business where I had to beg for some food as everything had bell peppers; and there surely were no mojitos included – though the rest of the people on the tour were not bothered and got drunk on cuba libres.
The minuted we got back to Trinidad, the westerner in me could not resist: I went to complain about the tour and to demand at least some form of compensation. A conversation started, in Spanish as the agent didn’t speak a word of English. Try to explain the concepts of “customer service,” “customer satisfaction” and “compensation” to an agent who works in a State run agency in Cuba, and it’s easy to understand why I call it mission impossible. They have zero incentives to give a better service, so they make close to zero effort.
“You said we’d stop at the coral reef, but we never did,” I explained.
“Yes, you did,” said the agent.
Luckily, some other people who were on the same tour walked in and confirmed my version of facts, because it was pretty clear that the agent had no intention to listen to me.
“Since we didn’t get to do anything that was promised to us, we’d like compensation – we want at least a partial refund,” I suggested.
Bewildered looks followed. “A what?”
“I want my money back,” I stated more clearly. “You sold me a tour that said I would go to the coral reef, and I never did. So I want my money back, or at least some of it.”
That’s when he started getting seriously mad at me, suggesting I had called him a liar and I had offended him. I suppose the fact that I was a foreign woman didn’t really help: in a country where I was generally seen as a sexual object or, in the best case scenario, as a tourist to be ripped off, being a stubborn foreign woman demanding respect wasn’t exactly expected nor welcome.
“I am calling the police!” he announced.
“That is fine, let’s wait here to see what they say,” I gingerly said.
Saying “I am calling the police” in Cuba is a good way to get rid of someone. People generally don’t like having to deal with the police. I suppose I was meant to be afraid too. But I wasn’t in the least.
In the end, I was offered to go on another tour to the barrier reef the following day as compensation. But I had to pass on that offer as I was leaving to go to Cienfuegos. Needless to say, I never got my money back and it turned out that I just wasted my time arguing. Do I regret wasting that? Not one bit. If anything, at least I gave him a piece of my mind, I showed him that I could not be easily fooled and quite importantly so for me, I proved myself that my Spanish is good enough to get into some heated conversation and even have an argument if needed.
When a pretty smile doesn’t work, be prepared to have a row
Lose it when you need to
“I am sorry, sir, I think one of our day packs may have been left on the other bus,” I told the guide as soon as we realized that one of our day packs was missing.
I had been traveling through Argentina for a few weeks and for some reason I decided that joining a guided tour of Torres del Paine, in Chile, was a good idea. That was simply poor thinking: I read the words “Torres del Paine” and was hooked. I hadn’t realized how vast Torres del Paine National Park is and how much there is to see there. I had not consired that the best way to see such a fantastic natural attraction would be by hiking one of its many trails and not hopping on and off a bus where at most I’d be allowed 1 hour to walk around by ourselves. I guess this goes to show once more that I am an unsuccessful backpacker.
Read more on why I think I am a lousy backpacker on my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”
At 4:00 am sharp I boarded a bus that would take me to the border. The guide seemed nice enough. The driver, on the other hand, was snappy.
“Hurry up!” the driver yelled at me after a stop to use the toilets.
“I am sorry, but there was such a line for the toilet!” I offered as an apology. There had been such a long line that of course the 10 minutes we were allowed off the bus turned into almost 30. I would have imagined that, since he was right there with the rest of the group and saw that most of us were in line, he’d notice. Apparently not.
I took my seat again, not bothered by his rudeness.
Be prepared to raise your voice when needed
As we reached the border, immigration procedures were longer than expected. Apparently, despite having been told several times not to, someone on the bus was carrying fruits across the border, and the Chilean authorities were fining him. The overall process took a long time, so the guide told the group to wait at the coffee shop (it was so windy that waiting outside and walking around was not an option) while the driver and he would transfer our bags on the bus that was waiting for us right across the border.
When we eventually were called to get on the (new) bus, we noticed that one of our day packs was missing.
“One of our bags is missing,” I warned the guide. He immediately stopped the driver, so that we could get on the other bus, which was still parked outside, and check if it was there.
He explained the situation to the driver as politely as I could. He didn’t flinch. All he said was “We took all the bags on the other bus.” That was it. He didn’t offer to check.
“Well, I looked everywhere, and the bag just isn’t there. Do you mind if we get on the other bus and check? Could you just open it for me please? It will only take one minute,” I promised.
“No. All the bags were taken to the other bus. You already made us wait forever when we stopped for the toilets, now I can’t wait for you any longer.” That was it. He had been picking on me all day for no reason. We had been stuck at the border due to someone else’s, and there I was, trying to explain that if he’d just let me on the bus, we could quickly check, and move on.
I raised my voice: “You’ve been picking on me all day and it is time you stop. Just let me on the bus now!”
I guess he wasn’t expecting such a potent voice to come out of such a small girl. Taken aback, he finally let me on the bus, where I triumphantly found my bag which he had omitted to carry to the other bus.
Was raising my voice worth it? Totally. This guy had no intention to listen to me. He was on his own agenda which did not include being polite to tourists. That put him in his place and we could finally move on, and (not) enjoy the rest of our day.
Read more about Argentina on my post “Great things to do in Argentina.”
Do not mess with me: I am small, but I am tough
Today, I have somehow fond memories of those arguments, as they still represent a crucial moment of my travel and life experience.
Have you ever had an argument while traveling? What did you learn from it? Let us know in the comments below!
One of the places I would like to visit in 2016: Banff National Park in Canada – photo courtesy of davebloggs007 (flickr)
“Where do you find inspiration for your travels?” people often ask me.
“Anywhere,” I say. “It can be a book I am reading, a story I have heard, a conversation with a fellow traveler, a documentary I have seen on tv.”
But I would lie if I didn’t say that, as of late, my biggest inspiration for my travels came from a number of other blogs I follow and a few good Instagram accounts who post stunning picture after stunning picture. Talk about the power of blogs and social media when marketing a destination! Yes, I admit it: reading a bunch of posts and seeing some fantastic pictures of some destinations has been influencing my travel plans.
Furthermore, I have lately come to terms with my obsession for volcanoes. There is something about them that draws my attention and if I can express one wish for 2016, I’d say that I wish to hike many more volcanoes. The good news for me, in this case, is that I don’t have to travel too far to find them. Italy itself is home to at least 10 active volcanoes.
Drawing from my old passion for adventure travel, hiking and archeology and for the curiosity instilled in me by travel blogs and social media, I have been thinking that I should really narrow down the number of places I would like to visit this year (“Keep it realistic!” I keep telling myself). The fact that quite a few of them are close to each other (and not too far from where I live) gives me hope that I will manage to visit them all.
So, let me cut the chase and name 10 places that I am really keen on visiting in 2016, divided by continent.
I am in a bad need for a holiday and I really want to go to the Maldives. I want to forget my phone at home, forget internet exist and just relax, hopping from beach to beach, snorkeling, relaxing, drinking a cocktail and eating all the seafood I can manage to stuff in my mouth, and working on my tan. Rumor has it that the Maldives are incredibly expensive, but apparently it is also possible to visit the Maldives on a budget, so I am not too worried.
Snorkeling is among the top things to do in Maldives
South East Asia
South East Asia has been on my radar for a while now. Last October I have visited the continent for the first time, going on a crazy 3 weeks trip across Indonesia that left me longing to visit more of this incredible part of the world. So, my plan for 2016 is to see more of it.
Indonesia is the first place I have visited in South East Asia – not a bad start!
Read more about Indonesia and the many things to do there on my post “Fantastic Things to do in Indonesia.”
Traveling to continental South East Asia seems fairly easy, as transportation works quite well there, plus there are a number of budget airlines that offer very cheap flights. My idea is to spend a month wandering around, during which I will probably only manage to scratch the surface of the many incredible sights this part of the world has to offer. There’s two main places I would like to visit in South East Asia.
The Sapa Valley in Vietnam
The first country I would like to visit in 2016 is Vietnam: the mixture of interesting history, unique culture and minority groups, buzzing cities and incredible natural sites is what attracts me to it. If I had to pick one place in Vietnam that I wouldn’t want to miss during my trip, I would say the Sapa Valley. Cascading rice terraces, mountains, small villages where people still follow a traditional life style, colorful markets, and the possibility to go on amazing hikes: it seems that Sapa Valley has all that I look for in a destination!
One of the places I look forward to visiting in 2016 – Sapa Valley, Vietnam
Angkor Wat in Cambodia
I love visiting archeological site and I would never dare going to South East Asia without planning a visit to Angkor Wat, the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cambodia. The Khmers’ national symbol is a fantastic example of architecture, the epicenter of their civilization and it is little wonder why Cambodian are so proud of it. My plan is to spend at least 3 days wondering the entire complex of Angkor and one of them would be definitely used to visit it at sunrise, to admire it under a special light.
I can’t wait to see Angkor Wat at Sunrise
Europe is an incredibly varied continent, with landscapes that span from the picture perfect beaches of Sardinia to the astonishing fjords of Norway. Europe has a lot to offer to its visitors, and despite the reputation of being incredibly expensive for travelers, with a few tricks and research it is possible to visit it even on a limited budget. Eurorail passes connect the entire continent and budget airlines make traveling cheap and easy. I intend to explore more of Europe this year and I have a few places in mind to check out.
One of the best places Europe has to offer: Sardinia
Read more about my beloved Sardinia on my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia.”
Meteora in Greece
I am embarrassed to admit that, despite having been to Greece 3 times already, I haven’t made it to Meteora yet. Ages ago, when social media didn’t exist and internet wasn’t really a thing, I saw a documentary about it and thought it would be a great place to visit, yet for some reason I had this idea that it would be almost impossible to get there, thinking it would be too remote and isolated. Yet this UNESCO World Heritage Site intrigued me.
Let’s hope I make it to Meteora in 2016 – photo courtesy of Daniel Solabarrieta (flickr)
I then started researching and reading around (bless the many blogs I follow) and realized Meteora is less than a 4 hours drive from Athens, there are many lovely villages to stay nearby, and several hiking trails to get to the many monasteries. There even is a monk jail – how weird and interesting is that?
Bergamo in Italy
I have resolved to visit more of Italy in 2016. Despite having lived in Italy most of my life, the fact that Italy has way so many interesting places to explore means I only know a limited amount of them. Big cities and smaller villages, museums, archeological sites, fantastic mountains, incredible coastline and regional cuisine, Italy really has it all.
The gorgeous Bergamo Alta
One city I am curious to explore but that doesn’t get much attention from travelers is Bergamo, a lovely hilltop town that owes much of its architectural splendor to the influence of Venice. I don’t know much about Bergamo, aside from the fact that it is divided in two main parts: Bergamo Alta which crowns the hill with its cluster of medieval and renaissance buildings, and the more modern Bergamo Bassa below. I am curios to find out more, and the good news is that thanks to In Lombardia I will have a chance to tour the city and its surrounding for a few days in February.
Etna volcano in Italy
In the course of time I have become more and more interested in volcanoes. I have hiked Cerro Negro in Nicaragua, Volcán Pacaya in Guatemala and Mount Bromo in Indonesia. Find out more about my adventure on Mount Bromo, Indonesia. There’s at least 10 active volcanoes in Italy, which is home Mount Etna, towering at 3370 meters above sea level.
The stunning peaks of Mount Etna
Etna is incredibly active and photographers from around the world try to capture the incredible show of its eruptions. It is only fair that I put together my interest in volcanoes, my addiction to hiking and the love for my country together and pay a visit to Mount Etna – anybody can agree on that! Read more about my passion for volcanoes and Nicaragua on my post “Awesome things to do in Nicaragua.”
Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland
Following on with my interest in volcanoes, one of my biggest wishes for 2016 is to visit Iceland and hike Eyjafjallajökull. Perhaps by the time I go (hopefully in the summer) I will be able to pronounce the name of the volcano that kept Europe ransom for a good while in the spring of 2010. Rumor has it that the hike to its crater is one of the best in the world and I simply don’t want to miss on that. And I would not miss a chance to stopover in Reykjavik.
After it stopped the air traffic in Europe for weeks in 2010 I am curios to see what this volcano is all about – photo courtesy of Ars Electronica (flickr)
Teide volcano in Tenerife (Spain)
The Canary Islands are pretty easy to reach from Europe, and it is even easier to travel around them as – well – they are part of Europe and I wouldn’t have to bother with issues such as exchange rate (have I ever mentioned I am hopeless at math?). Lots of Europeans choose to spend their Tenerife Holidays. My trip there wouldn’t be so much of a vacation: I would go there to quench my thirst for adventure. Tenerife has some unique landscapes and nature. It is home to the Teide volcano, whose 3718 meters summit is the highest peak in Spain as well as the highest peak of any of the islands on the Atlantic. By now it is pretty clear that I want my 2016 to be much more about hiking and exploring volcanoes so inserting the fairly close Teide in the places I want to visit in 2016 seems quite obvious!
Teide, where volcano meets ocean – photo courtesy of Mike Beales (flickr)
Aushwitz and Birkenau in Poland
Interestingly enough, I am writing this post on the Day of Remembrance, when Italy pays its respect to the millions of people who died in concentration camps during World War II. The thought of the cruelty that other human beings have gone through, of the constant violations of even the most basic human rights that still occur in the world has shaped much of who I am today – I have worked as a human rights lawyer and spent most of my life doing research for universities and non-governmental organizations.
My interest in visiting Poland and the concentration camps dates back to time immemorial. It is just something I have to do because of who I am and of what I have done all my life, a place I must visit to keep the memory of those who died there alive, to pay them my respect.
Will I feel emptiness when I visit concentration camps? Photo courtesy of Clelia Mattana
I am not sure how I may react to a visit to the concentration camps. My friend Clelia, who visited them last September, felt nothing, in what almost seemed as post traumatic stress disorder kind of reaction. Her total lack of emotions (which I interpreted as simply too many emotions to be let out) is well expressed in a beautiful post on her blog, which can be read here. What would visiting the concentration camps mean to me, considering the impact human rights issues have had on my whole life? I need to go and find out.
I am on the constant lookout for good flight deals. I have subscribed to all the major airlines newsletters so I get regular updates on their offers. With a bit of research and good planning, flying to the other side of the world can actually be cheaper than one would imagine. I will keep monitoring prices in the hope that I manage to get some cheap ticket to cross the Atlantic and go on further exploration of the Americas. I have a few places under my radar.
Banff National Park in Canada
The fact that someone like me, who is generally obsessed with South America, eventually develops an interest in Canada is the proof that social media have an incredible power in marketing and selling a destination to even the most reluctant. For a while now, each time I open my Instagram feed I see photo after photo of the incredible work of nature that is Banff National Park in Canada. Alright, I get it and yes: I want to go!
I am drooling over photos of Banff – photo courtesy of Shane Lin (flickr)
Mountains, lakes that reflect the view of the snowcapped peaks, forests of a million shades of green, wildlife that includes bears, charming chalets and quiet little towns and infinite possibilities for adventures. I can’t wait to make my way there and hike around.
Mendoza in Argentina
One of the places I look forward to visit again – photo courtesy of Roman Korzh (flickr)
I have already been to Argentina twice. There are so many things to do in Argentina, and the country is so vaste, that I doubt I will ever tire of it. During my last visit I spent a few days in Mendoza, enjoying the city and wandering around the vineyards, having one too many glasses of fantastic Malbec. Needless to say, I want to drink more of it (and no, drinking it from the comfort of my home in Italy is not nearly the same thing) and I want to spend a good amount of time there so that I can also do a proper wine tasting course, enjoy the harvest festival and have a chance to hike the mighty Cerro Aconcagua.
Read more about Argentina and the many things it has to offer on my post “Great things to do in Argentina.”
It remains to be seen whether I will be able to really visit all of these places or if I will have to postpone some of these destinations further away in the future and the only way to find out is to stay tuned and keep following my adventures!
Where are your travel plans for 2016 taking you?
Not long ago I wrote a rather extensive rant in which I explained the many reasons I do not recommend or endorse voluntourism as a way of traveling, or any of the work away from home programs into which many of the younger backpackers eagerly enroll into. Having to work for a business that actually makes profit and doing it in exchange of just a bed and at most a meal is wrong, because really, we all deserve compensation for our work, especially when that work we are doing is producing a revenue.
Read more of what I think of voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?“
As with every rule, however, there has to be an exception. And I found my exception to the “no voluntourism” rule in Indonesia, and more precisely in Melo, a lovely village in Eastern Indonesia.
The real face of Indonesia: Melo
Melo is set at about 17 km from Labuan Bajo (access point to the fabulous Komodo and Rinca islands), in the island of Flores and thousands of miles away from the lively chaos of Jakarta and of other cities in Indonesia. More than anything else, it is a fantastic place to visit in what evidently is my favourite part of the country. Here is where I got to know the life of the local Manggraian community. This is where I was able to experience the Ndundu Dake dance and other Caci performances. This is where I felt I wanted to stay longer, way longer.
Read more about Komodo and Rinca Islands on my post “How to find heaven on earth.”
One of the women of Melo carries her identity proudly
I arrived in Melo on a hot October day. Together with other visitors, I was met by the head of the local community in the Panorama hut, a bamboo hut that is located in the highest spot in the village and whose name really gives an idea of the stunning view that it embraces: the sea and the islands of Komodo National Park, as well as the surrounding hills and mountains. There, the head of the community introduced us to the local culture through some traditional rituals, he offered us a drink of sopi, a local liquor made of palm, and then invited us to take part in the dance we had been seeing, too.
Melo people will always spare a smile
Melo village doesn’t offer much in terms of comforts, but it is charming to say the least. People live in modest homes and the only electricity is that generated by solar panels. The main livelihood is farming. They live their lives according to their traditions, proudly speaking their language, and keeping their culture and identity alive. People in Melo are welcoming, they smile a lot, they are completely charming and always willing to share their lives, their experiences and their culture with the visitors that occasionally venture in their village. I could see them peeping through their doors and windows, at times shying away as I walked by, and other times inviting me in, proudly posing for pictures. It all felt very peaceful, very real, and very relaxing.
This older lady did not mind posing for me, but the rest of the people in the house were shy!
Taman Bacaan Pelangi: volunteering done right
My visit to Melo, however, was not restricted to observing and experiencing the beautiful local culture. Melo village, indeed, is one of the locations of the project of Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Gardens), a no-profit organization that focuses on establishing children’s libraries in remote areas of eastern Indonesia, which has the lowest literacy rate in the country. Taman Bacaan Pelangi got word that a bunch of tourists was in the area and asked us to visit for an afternoon and volunteer for them. As a former human rights lawyer who has worked closely with disadvantaged communities, I could not help being curious about this project. I have always believed in education as a key factor in empowering people, and in my previous career I strived to promote equality in access to education too.
A relaxing walk around Melo – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
The right to education is indeed considered a fundamental human rights, that has been codified in a variety of international legal instruments, but that some countries still struggle to guarantee. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in article 26 states that ‘everyone has the right to education’ and, further, on paragraph 2, ‘education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship […].’ Education has been linked to the development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and, according to the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, it enables people to participate effectively in a free society. The right to education has also been stressed by article 28 of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child of 1989.
Having a good laugh with the kids at Taman Bacaan Pelangi – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
Taman Bacaan Pelangi fully understood the importance of education as a way to improve the lives of children who live in the most remote areas of Indonesia. Its project is quite simple: providing children with books, so that through reading they will broaden their horizons and opportunities. It does not simply ask for financial contributions (which are by all means accepted) but it encourages its supporters to donate books, which can be sent to its various locations via mail and even be dropped off directly. It really is a simple, yet ambitious project that in my view is bound to success.
That is why, even though I am not a supporter of voluntourism as a way to travel, if I had to pick a project to become a volunteer in Indonesia and have the chance to experience more of this gorgeous country, I would surely apply for Taman Bacaan Pelangi. Not only it is located in what to me is the most beautiful and remote part of the country, which is amazing to explore, but I also truly believe in the great potential of the project. Because really, when deciding to volunteer, the decision has to be made based on the project rather than the location and the tourism that may be involved with it. I feel that the volunteering project of Taman Bacaan Belangi rightly answers all the questions that a volunteer-to-be should consider before committing his time and effort. The first, and most important one is on the type of organization it is.
Lesson time with the volunteers – photo courtesy of Umei Teh
This no-profit organization works in a way that does not demand volunteers (who are screened through a proper application process) to pay any fee in order to take part in the volunteering program. Taman Bacaan Pelangi partners with other international no-profit organizations too. It has a clear mandate, a clear project and it benefits the local community, with the aim of empowering children so that they have better opportunities in life. It is a well established organization, founded in November 2009 when the first library, with only 200 books, was opened in Roe, a small village at the foothills of Flores. The project has since developed and to date, 37 libraries have been opened all over Eastern Indonesia. All this information, which can be found on the Taman Bacaan Pelangi’s website, goes to show that Taman Bacaan Pelangi is seriously committed to improve the living conditions of the local communities and aims at empowering the local people.
A relaxing stroll in Melo, on the island of Flores – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
I only spent an afternoon volunteering with the children of Taman Bacaan Pelangi, but during that time I have had the chance to meet and chat to some longer term volunteers who arrived all the way from Germany and who committed themselves to 18 months of work. Their duties vary, but they all generally contribute to the maintenance and running of the library; they help the children with their homework; they teach English as well as sports and crafts; they take part in environmental protection education workshops and they hold the much needed and very welcomed reading classes.
People in Melo live a modest life, and so do the volunteer of Taman Bacaan Pelangi
Volunteers usually live and eat together with the local community, so there really is a proper cultural exchange and they really do get to embrace the local way of life. They receive a small allowance by their government and, in their free time, they have the opportunity to explore the wonderful area in which the village is located. Their feedbacks convinced me even more that this is a viable, recommendable project and that if anybody who is interested in combining their travels to this part of the world with a bit of field work asked me, I would eagerly recommend to apply.
I gave volunteering a second chance
The time I spent with the children that participate in the Taman Bacaan Pelangi project was by far the highlight of my visit to Melo. The skeptical part of me, the one that is always checking for how a good organization should work, had yet to be convinced about the effectiveness and viability of the project. But then I tagged along, and I am happy I did. I was indeed thoroughly overwhelmed by emotions as the multitude of children surrounded me and the other volunteers, observing us, smiling at us, holding our hands, asking us questions, making us feel as whatever little effort we made was helping them in achieving a better life, and making a proper show of their reading and other skills for us.
Trying to explain where Sardinia is on the map – I could not reach as high!
All we really had to do during the few hours we spent at Taman Bacaan Belangi was tell the children about ourselves, share our stories and show them that travel can open minds, build bridges, and create opportunities. We taught them songs, we played with them. The children were eager to listen, curious about us and our country, they wanted to chat in whatever little English they spoke (it was quite good, actually!), they wanted their picture taken and asked to pose with us. But, more than anything, they wanted to learn, and they were hopeful and happy. Hopeful that one day they can do big things in life, that they will have a choice in deciding what to do.
It really felt like a mutual exchange, however, where we, the volunteers, learned about life just as much as they did. I left with a huge smile on my face. And to me, anything that puts a smile on my face, anything that puts a smile on anybody’s face is bound to be good.
Indonesia has a huge heart, and one of the things to do in Indonesia is volunteering. I am pretty sure that its heart is well set in Melo. And that is where I left my heart too.
Read more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”
Have you ever taken part to a volunteering project? What was your experience?
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience.
For as much as I intended to, I never seemed to be able to make it to South East Asia. Something kept me from going – either I had no money for the flight, or I had some commitments that took me to the other side of the Atlantic. My trip to Indonesia happened in a real whirlwind. I got my plane tickets on a Monday, and left on a Thursday. I won’t lie here – Indonesia was a huge cultural shock to me. I am used to the big, empty spaces of countries like Nicaragua, or to the emptiness of the rural areas of Sardinia. My trip was very fast paced and I did not get to spend nearly as much time as I wanted in each location. Nevertheless, I had a blast and truly enjoyed the country, its culture, the sights and the people, and I am eager to visit again and spend more time exploring.
The following pictures show just a fraction of what Indonesia has to offer. Although I only spent 3 weeks there, I know it is a new favorite of mine and I will want to go back. Seeing these pictures will most likely make anybody want to go too!
My trip started on a hot day in Jakarta. Thankfully, I had no commitments then. I was so tired from the long flights and jet lag that I just relaxed at the lovely infinity pool of the hotel.
The trip then took me to Tangkuban Perahu, the crater of a volcano not far from Bandung.
That’s where I also had my first encounter with the locals. I was literally stopped and asked to be in their pictures. It was funny, and I felt very welcome.
The light in Indonesia immediately captured my attention. It was always stunning!
Kawah Putih is another volcano crater, but it has a fantastic bright green lake that shined against the grey sky.
Seeing the sunrise at Borobudur, the world’s biggest Buddhist monument, was an out-of-this-world kind of experience. It was simply magic!
I also enjoyed visiting Yogyakarta and getting to see a bit of local action.
Rato Boko Keraton is a interesting place to visit, although under the blistering sun it can be a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, it was lovely to take pictures there – mind you, those steps were blistering hot!
And Prambanan temple is an absolute must see, both at sunset
And at night.
Yogyakarta has some interesting street art too.
And the light is great for taking pictures, especially insite the Royal Palace.
Mount Bromo was a demanding stop on my tour, as I had to wake up at 2 am to see the sunrise over it. It was challenging especially as the sun did not seem to want to come out! But when it finally did, I got to see this…
Next stop was Labuan Bajo, on Eastern Indonesia, which welcomed me with an incredible sunset.
I got the chance to volunteer with the children of Taman Bacaan Pelangi in Melo Village, and it was an enlightening (not to mention a lot of fun) experience.
Komodo National Park, spread over the islands of Komodo and Rinca, was by far the highlight of my trip. There, I saw the Komodo dragons.
And got some of the best views one can imagine.
I also made it to the Pink Beach – I found paradise there!
The final stop was Bali. And there are few words that can describe how marvelous the sunsets there are. The ones in Kuta Beach…
The ones from Ulu Watu…
Bali is inhabited by some funny and mean monkeys. They tried stealing my sunglasses, but did not manage.
And the rice patties, so green, so beautiful…
There is no doubt that I will want to visit Indonesia again.
Have you been to Indonesia? What was your favorite attraction there?
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience.