Out On the Dunes: ATV Adventures in Jericoacoara

You’ve already read how in just one week, I fell deep under Jericoacoara’s spell. While the tiny, remote Brazilian beach town had charm in spades, most people were drawn to what lay beyond its borders — miles upon miles of endless, untamed sand dunes, their shapes changing with the whims of the wind.

To explore them, you’ll need a set of wheels. From what I discovered, the tourism industry in Jeri is still quite underdeveloped and most “tours” are arranged on a whim. If you’re traveling solo like I was, you’ll need to form a group of your own before approaching a tour operator or they are likely to shrug you off.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Thankfully, I was adopted by a group of a dozen Israelis who arranged two separate days exploring on ATVs for us. The first day we had a slightly smaller group than the second, and each paid 140R ($40US), while for our second outing we each paid 115R ($33). My newfound travel tribe were excellent negotiators, I should note — I have no doubt we would have paid more had I been the one in charge of setting a rate.

In general, it appears there are two general routes the guides will lead you on — one to the east, and one to the west. You could also tackle either of these routes in a buggy with your guide behind the wheel, if you didn’t feel like self-driving. In our case, the guides zoomed ahead on monster-sized dirt bikes, leading the way for our caravan of ATVs.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

On our first day, we went west. I have to admit that I’m not the most comfortable behind the wheels of an ATV — I’ve had a few friends get in serious accidents in the last few years and well, I just feel vulnerable bouncing around on this big ‘ol hunk of metal that could flip over and crush me any second.

So I was more than happy to be a passenger on this little excursion, though within moments I could tell that at the speeds my crew was driving, I was going to spend a lot of the day screaming with my eyes clenched shut.

Our first stop was in the hamlet of Mangue Seco. It’s not every day you get to use the word hamlet, but in this case it seems the only descriptor appropriate for the blip on the map that Mangue Seco was.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Water levels were high in the area at the time, and so we eventually reached a standstill where our ATVs had to be loaded onto precarious rafts and pushed across the water onward. On the other side, our guide asked us if we wanted to take a short boat trip for another 10R to see the “Cavalo Marinho.”

We puzzled over what this could possibly be, my Israeli friends turning to me and asking if my Spanish knowledge might reveal any clues. “Well… caballo means horse in Spanish,” I said with a shrug. “Could they be talking about… sea horses?

I said it with incredibly trepidation. After all, we were crossing a freshwater lake, right? But shortly after we loaded into the boat, the new guide leaned over the hull and scooped into a mason jar, yup, three tiny little seahorses. It was my greatest moment of communication victory in all of Brazil. Six weeks, and I finally was able to accurately predict what sea creature I was about to see.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

After exiting through a surreal, jumbo-sized mangrove forest that we unfortunately didn’t stop to photograph, we were back to the dunes.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

We soon spotted a crowd in the distance, and paused as we pulled up next to them to see what all the commotion was about, out here in the sand-filled middle of nowhere. We found an enterprising group of locals selling rides down into a rainwater lake for a mere 5R. After watching a few groups face-plant in the sand, I grabbed a board and took my own turn publicly humiliating myself. It was wonderful.

Finally, a chance to relax after the super stressful day we’d been having (ha!) Looking back at a map, I can’t say for sure if we were at Lago Grande or Laguinho da Torta Tatajuba, but I can confirm that it doesn’t really matter. The dunes surrounding Jericoacoara are surrounded by scenic lagoons dotted with in-water hammocks and fringed by palm trees. I wouldn’t get too picky about which one you end up in.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

This was the best part of the day. It was incredibly windy, but we didn’t mind. Hours melted away as we lounged in the sun, watched kite-surfers work their magic, and marveled at the paradise we stumbled upon in what felt like the end of the earth. Seafood and beer were offered every time we so much as looked at a hammock; and my travel companions were all too happy to take one for the team with a few orders.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

All good things must come to an end, and eventually we packed up and prepared ourselves for the long drive back to Jericoacoara. Now, all day, I’d been lightly teased for my clear discomfort with our driving speeds. As our guides geared up, one of the boys, Eliko, approached me and asked what was making me so nervous. “These things flip over all the time,” I pointed out. “No, no,” he assured me. “You are very safe. We all drove in much more difficult circumstances in the army. You are safe.” Who can argue with a man who just dedicated three years of his life to compulsory military service?

I hopped on the back of another ATV and braced myself when the adrenaline-loving driver started taking it in tight circles. Maybe now would be a great time to ask him to stop doing this, I thought to myself, and in that exact moment I felt the left two wheels of ATV lift off from the ground as we both were launched into the air. Somehow, time really did go into slow motion, enough for me to push off with my feet to get as far away from the vehicle as possible, and enough for me to lock eyes with Eliko, who was looking on in horror. If I didn’t know better, I might even recall that I had time to shake my head with disapproval mid-air. When we hit the ground, time resumed at a normal pace, and I was quickly surrounded by a dozen faces of concern.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

We slowed down a bit after that. Eventually, the girls teamed up and I hopped on the back of Maude’s ATV for a bit, where we happily enjoyed the view from the back of the caravan. Never a dull moment, as they say!

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

A few days later, when my bruises and memories of the crash had faded, I was talked into doing it all over again (sorry mom.) This time, we went east.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Our first stop was the famous arch called Pedra Furada. It was quite the scramble to get there after we parked our wheels, but it was worth it for the gorgeous geological formation that awaited us. Here, I wowed everyone with my remote shooting capabilities to capture a group photo with my dSLR balanced on a rock and triggered from an app on my iPhone. Stick with the travel blogger, I assured them. They always have the best selfie tricks.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Next up was Arvore da Preguica, a truly amazing tree shaped by years of wind and harsh desert conditions. We didn’t have it to ourselves for long though before the next group rolled up next to us — this route was far busier and far less remote and wild than the one we’d taken the previous day, when I wondered how the guides knew which way to go into the endless dunes ahead of us.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

This was a much more subdued journey, a balance I was more than a-ok with.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Again came my favorite portion of the day, the one in which we lounged in Instagram-ready water hammocks. This time, we ditched the local beer shacks in favor of the upscale beach club (or should I say lake club?) Alchymist at Lagoa Paraiso. As the fanciest of its kind in the area, stepping into Alchymist felt a bit like stepping into a portal to a European beach club — and I didn’t hate it.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

That said, we didn’t spring for beach chairs or expensive cocktails. After splurging on a late lunch, we happily spent the rest of our time splashing around in the lagoon and enjoying our last day in Jericoacoara together.

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

ATV Sand Dune Tour in Jericoacoara, Brazil

Simply put, you’d be crazy to come to Jericoacoara and not spend at least one day out on the dunes exploring the wild west of the desert. These were some of my greatest adventures in all of Brazil — I loved them almost as much as the town we went home to.

Are you an ATV wimp like me or an adrenaline-loving daredevil like the rest of my crew?

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A Guide To Jericoacoara Brazil

ATV Adventures in Jericoacoara Brazil

The Great Escape: Month 59 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead — so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? 😛

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Oh, how hard it was to leave my island life! This was my final month in Thailand before jetting off to Brazil and a stateside summer, and it was a struggle to say goodbye. Aside from one hellish visa run and one giggle-filled girl’s weekend in Samui, I stuck close to Koh Tao and enjoyed my last bit of stillness.

This is a simple post for a simple month!

Where I’ve Been

• One night in overnight transit

• Five nights on Koh Tao

• Two nights on Koh Samui

• Twenty-one days on Koh Tao

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Highlights

• Breaking my Diet Coke addiction! Long time readers know that I’ve long considered the stuff to be carbonated gold, and I spent years jolting out of bed and immediately heading out on a mission to source a can if I happened to find myself without it. I was well and truly addicted.

When I started thinking about doing a DIY health retreat, I knew I wanted to kick my ridiculous Diet Coke habit. But it took me months to psych myself up for it! I knew that there was nowhere better than Thailand to do it, since I don’t actually love the Thai formula for Coke Light. And you know what? It was raging success — so much so that I extended my initial four weeks to six! I took a million notes and learned SO MUCH from the process. Literally one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself. It’s basically not travel related at all, but give me a shout if you’d be interested in a post about getting un-addicted from diet soda!

• Crushing my 5K time. Well, perhaps crushing is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did semi-train for a run for the first time ever, and I saw the results! I set a new best pace for myself, and had a blast crossing the finish line. It wasn’t just that final moment of euphoria though — I also cherished my sunset jogs with my running buddy Amy leading up to it.

• Easter Brunch. Our whole Samui girl’s trip was divine — not because we did anything super special (apart from the race, of course) or ate or drank anywhere especially noteworthy. But we were together, and it was our last big hurrah before my summer departure, and I just loved it. The highlight was our Sunday brunch complete with DIY mimosas and endless toasts to friends and upcoming farewells.

• Not one but two diving courses! A sidemount speciality and an enriched air certification were the perfect courses to take side-by-side. I learned so much, I got excited about diving on Koh Tao again, and I got to cap it all off with a group trip to Sail Rock surrounded by friends. I couldn’t have asked for better days in the ocean.

• Celebrating Sonkgran! My first Songkran years ago was just days into a heart-wrenching breakup with my boyfriend of three years, so suffice it to say that was pretty bittersweet. And I’ve been just missing the big day ever since in my comings and goings from Thailand. Finally, in 2016, I got to have a big wet and wild, happiness-fueled do-ver. Travel BFF Heather even flew in from Bali! Honestly, it was the best day I could have asked for. It’s one of the greatest holidays I’ve had the privilege of celebrating!

• Calling quits on Photo of the Week. It had to happen! I didn’t regret it for a second and I’ve really enjoyed focused more on my Instagram and Facebook since. (My newsletter has been far less successful, unfortunately.) It just took so much pressure off!

• Getting enough sleep. It says something funny about our society that I write here every day about my travels around the world but I’m almost embarrassed to say that I get 7-8 hours of sleep a night when I’m on Koh Tao because I know what a luxury that is.

I’ve spent years with various degrees of sleep deprivation due to anxiety and extreme scheduling. Not that both those didn’t flare up occasionally over my time in Koh Tao — and not that I didn’t have the worst mattress on the planet — but overall it was the most well-rested half a year I’ve had.

Koh Samui Travel Blog

Lowlights and Lessons

• Another hellish visa run to the Burmese border. Paying to spend twenty-four hours being motion sick and be bored to tears by a bureaucratic puppet show? I vowed then and there to never do another one — and so far I’ve stuck to it! (I take mini-vacations instead.)

• Our Samui hotel was pretty disappointing. After all the fabulous places we’ve stayed over the years, it was kind of a letdown to land somewhere so meh for such an epic trip — I really wanted to treat my girls to something special! Ah well, that’s what we get for booking last minute! We still had a blast.

• My Brazilian visa photo. Lol? I know it sounds like a funny thing to complain about, but I was legit horrified to learn that the awful passport photo I’d submitted with my Brazilian visa application was PRINTED ON THE VISA AND PASTED INTO MY PASSPORT. Of all the passport photos I’ve had to submit over the years, none but the original have actually ended up in my passport! Lesson learned: I’ll never settle for anything less than frame-worthy again. Tears were shed, guys. My vanity knows no bounds.

• The Boat Party… ugh. Honestly, this was so traumatizing of an event that this is the first time I’m mentioning it anywhere in public. And frankly, I’m still going to be super vague, because I’m always on edge writing negatively about anything pertaining to the Thai Government or authorities, considering the country’s track record of warmth towards free speech and criticism.

But basically, what happened was this: a yacht was hired for a private party of mostly long-term expats. We boarded the boat with much elation and enjoyed our fun at sea for about an hour before being approached by a police vessel which boarded the boat and forced it back to a pier other than the one we’d departed from. When docked, we headed for the end of the long pier — only to realize the police had locked it from the other side. We spent two hours in the hot sun with no water or access to bathrooms, portions of it on our knees with our hands over our head, while the police tossed the boat and tried to figure out what charges we could be held on. When we were released, we had to write down names, passport numbers, addresses, and more. It was incredibly traumatizing and I actually cried when we were finally freed. Anyway, that’s the short version — for the longer one, you’ll have to wait for an incredibly juicy chapter of the book I’ve finally accepted I’ll try to write someday.

• Leaving Koh Tao. Seriously, it never gets any easier. This was one of the best seasons I ever spent on the island, and leaving literally felt heart-wrenching. That said, a travel writer stranding herself on an island that is the isolation equivalent of being a 4-5 hour drive from the closest, most expensive airport and a 7-8 hour drive from the more reasonably priced one is not a sustainable business plan and I recognize that my time off the island is necessary for both my business and my mental health! Still, there are always things I long for when I’m away.

Burma Travel Blog

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best: Well I didn’t really travel much this month but I did soak up my last beautiful weeks of sleeping in my own apartment! Kind of a shame that I loathed, ya know, my actual bed.

Worst: Easy — my evening on the night boat with broken AC followed by a miserable motion-sickness inducing car ride to the edge on Thailand on my visa run. (Though frankly, the hotel in Samui was nothing much exciting either.)

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Best: Our post-Songkran brunch at my friend Janine’s house! I made banana cinnamon pancakes and mango mimosas — hangover food in the tropics.

Worst: Sorry to be a broken record, but I’ll have to go with “whatever shitty snacks I compiled from a five-minute stop at 7-11 just over the Burmese border.” Yeah, I really hate those visa runs.

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Spending

I had another nice and low-key month of expenditures (much needed before the spend-storm that was Brazil!). While Songkran and our trip to Samui were mild splurges, my day-to-day lifestyle on Koh Tao is so affordable it can definitely absorb the blow of a few fun activities thrown in per month. In Samui I also used some built up hotel credit I had — nothing special for being a blogger, just normal loyalty programs anyone can use! — to cover the majority of the cost of the rooms.

Unusually for me, two of my biggest splurges were clothes and accessories — new bikinis from local Koh Tao designer Flip Flop and Treacle, and some new jewelry from local island jeweler Amy Jennifer Jewellery. Had to send myself off in style!

Saving

Hallelujah! I doubled my income from the previous month thanks to a few big campaigns coming in with my regular blog partners, as well as a successful month for affiliate income. Again — right before Brazil, I seriously needed it.

Health and Fitness

Between my 5K, the training for it, and trying to use up all my gym and yoga passes before heading off to Brazil, I basically crushed it. Admittedly, Songkran was quite debaucherous, but overall

What Was Next

Six weeks in BRAZIL!

Koh Tao Travel Blog

I simply couldn’t ask for better travel companions than all of you!

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

The Great Escape: Month 58 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead �” so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? �Ÿ˜›

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Looking back (way way back, at this point!) this was just one of my favorite months ever. Frankly, none of these travels felt wildly exotic — I was exploring my own backyard, in a way, of my adopted part-time home in Thailand. But I got to travel with some of my favorite people, discover new corners of one of my favorite places, and mostly enjoy the fruits of seeds I planted here in Thailand years ago — a close-knit circle of friends, exciting professional opportunities, and an island I love to come home to.

Where I’ve Been

• Two nights on my Thailand Wine Tour

• Three nights in Bangkok

• Three nights in Hua Hin

• Two nights in Khao Sok

• Seventeen nights on Koh Tao

Khao Yai Travel Blog

Highlights

• Hostel highs! We kicked off our wine trip with a night on Khao San Road, where I discovered an awesome new hostel. I’m so excited to have a great place to recommend in Bangkok’s backpacker epicenter! It’s called Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and we managed to fill a ten person dorm, essentially making it a private room.

• All the wine! My Thailand Wine Tour was an absolute victory. Huzzah. It was my favorite trip I�™ve taken in a long time �” a challenge and adventure to plan, and unbelievably rewarding to execute. I�™m blessed with the most amazing group of friends and getting to explore a totally new destination together in a country we call home (at least part-time, in my case!) is a memory I�™ll treasure. Especially a destination as beautiful and peaceful as this one. All three wineries were totally unique and lovable in their own ways. Granmonte was so special for the beautiful grounds, amazing restaurant, and the fact that it’s a family business helmed by a woman. PB Valley was a legend for letting us pick our own grapes! And Alcidini was a crazy cute family run vineyard with an emphasis on organic. And again, Airbnb killed it — we loved kicking back in our enormous rental house in the countryside.

• Our skyline suite! A few hectic days in Bangkok were made heavenly by the fact that we had a plush suite at the Amari Watergate to call home — considering we had fourteen friends (!) in Bangkok at the time, it provided the perfect ground zero for our group, especially when we learned that we’d accidentally planned a birthday bar crawl on the holiest Buddhist day of the year, when alcohol sales are banned — oops. Hotel suite party it is!

• Spa time! It’s no secret that I love me some spa sessions, and Bangkok was no exception. I treated Janine and I to a spa package at the Breeze Spa in Bangkok and I am now their most loyal fan ever. Mango sticky rice fans, treat yourself to the mango sticky rice scrub — I’m now hooked on the stuff from the spa’s gift shop and feel like I’m eating dessert every time I take a shower.

• Bangkok eats! As always, a combo of new discoveries and old classics. This time it was a big group dinner at Peppina, a chic pizza restaurant I’d long been dying to try, and a much-anticipated ice cream at Coldstone, a serious guilty please from the US with outposts in Bangkok.

• Beach bumming! Ian and I were the worst tourists ever in Hua Hin and I didn’t care — we had the most adorbs hotel ever to hang in. The beach there was unlike any other I�™ve seen in Thailand, with wild waves and a strong salty smell that reminds me of the beaches of my childhood. This charming mainland beach city felt like a different country from the sultry tropical island we live on — and we loved it!

• ….and more win! Hua Hin Hills was the most scenic vineyard yet. Now that I’ve got four Thai wineries under my belt, I think I’ll have to just keep going until I hit them all.

• Khao Freakin’ Sok! This Thai National Park has been top-of-my list for a while now, and so I couldn’t jump out of my seat fast enough to accept when Elephant Hills, Thailand’s first luxury tented camp, reached out to invite me there. Janine and I played with elephants, wore matching ranger shirts, slept in a tent floating on a lake, learned the fascinating history of the park, and relished the rare joy of being out of cell service. It was an awesome little friend-cation too.

• Enjoying life back on Koh Tao! It’s easy to fall into a routine of working obsessively when I get back to Koh Tao after a trip, but if there’s one thing that can peel me away from my laptop it’s a yoga class. Over one fabulous weekend, I did back to back weekend workshops — an acro afternoon at Grounded followed by a day of inversions at Ocean Sound. Double score!

• Tackling a new hike! After one previous failed attempt, this was the month I finally conquered the Dusit Buncha route. Considering we had no directions and were basically feeling our way through the jungle, it was an enormous accomplishment! And this reminds me, I need to hit that trail again soon…

• Trapeze in the breeze! Another fun physical challenge this month? Getting back on the trapeze rig. I had so much fun swinging among the palm trees…

• Boozin’ on the beach! Always one of my favorite activities. Sadly, the amazing establishment that served actual craft cocktails (as opposed to crappy piña coladas) on the beach during the day was short-lived on Koh Tao — but we really enjoyed it while it lasted.

• St Paddy’s Day! It’s always a super-fun holiday on Koh Tao, and last year was no exception.

• House of Cards! Yes, the release of a new season of House of Cards was one of the highlights of my month. What is the purpose of renting a long-term apartment with a couch if not to binge-watch an entire Netflix series upon it?

Bangkok Travel Blog

Lowlights and Lessons

• Our wine trip driver. Seriously, he was hilariously bad. He missed every turn, ignored all our Google Maps traffic warnings, and put us hours behind schedule. But he was a pretty good sport about having a dozen rowdy farang in the van, so we gave him a big tip despite our dozens of internal eyerolls.

• Rooftop bar rules. Nothing annoys me more than Bangkok’s obsession with footwear. Our group was turned away from a rooftop bar because a few of the crew were wearing stylish dress Havaianas, while frumpy looking tourists wearing Crocs were ushered right in because their toes were covered. Hello, is this the fashion police? I’d like to report a crime against HUMANITY!

• Janine’s birthday disaster (turned not-at-all-disaster). Yes, we were bummed when we discovered we’d planned a massive birthday bar crawl for Thailand’s one single day of no alcohol sales. Ha ha. But it turned out beautifully — we stocked up on booze the day before and had a tipsy night of cake and champagne in our hotel suite instead. More quality time together, less overpriced cocktails in bars, and more hours in our sweet suite? It ended up a massive win in my book. Oops — I guess that’s not really a lowlight.

• Getting my Brazilian visa. O. M. G. You guys. That was a mission! I’ve always had empathy for those who have to fight through red tape to nab a visa for every country they want to travel to before, but now I have SERIOUS RESPECT for those people. I couldn’t believe the amount of paperwork (and, um, money) that I had to compile and confusion I had to work through in order to prepare my application. And I was shocked by the interrogation I received at the embassy in Bangkok when I went to submit it! When I realized I had forgotten to copy my passport and politely asked for a copy, I seriously thought my application might be denied based on the vitriolic response I received. Obrigada, Brazil, for letting me in!

• Getting to Hua Hin. Ha ha, yeah we messed up — we just rocked up to the train station expecting to waltz into a second class train seat and found that the only remaining tickets were for third class wooden benches. The next five hours were a hazy hell of profuse sweat, sore bums and jostling our belongings around to make room for an ever-increasing crush of humans. I’ve enjoyed the third class train ticket in Thailand before, but it’s a strict no-go for me from here forward for rides of more than two hours.

• Missing the wine bus in Hua Hin. Then leaving my wine in Hua Hin. Ha ha, we had some vino-related snafus in Hua Hin. First, we missed the shuttle to Hua Hin Hills vineyard, forcing us to pay for a more expensive private taxi (not the biggest deal ever). Then I left my three new bottles of wine at our hotel before heading to the train station, forcing me to pay to have them shipped to Koh Tao (that hurt a little.) Frankly, I think I was starting to get stressed about my work backlog at this point in the trip and so I was letting little things get to me. Ah well, all’s well that ends… soaked in wine.

• Leaving Khao Sok. Oh, how I wish we’d had one more night at Rainforest Camp! Then, that trip truly would have been perfect.

Hua Hin Travel Blog

LOLs

“Because France.” Oh, how we still laugh about this! At Granmonte Winery, our adorable young guide was making an impressive effort to give the vineyard tour in two languages.

However, as one point, she became exasperated trying to explain why their sparkling wine product could not be called champagne, and after stammering a bit finally gave up and spat out, �œ…because France.” Everyone onboard, including the guide herself, doubled over with laugher and �œbecause France” has become our crew’s catchphrase for “ugh, well, you know and I know you know, so why bother explaining it” ever since.

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best: I’m pretty torn — our chic beachside design hotel in Hua Hin or our barefoot luxury floating tent in Khao Sok? Both basically blew my mind.

Worst: Didn’t have a bad one — what a blessing!

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Best: Vincotto. Can’t beat a three-course meal at a winery topped off with grape cheesecake. You just can’t. (Although the next day’s lunch at a castle in Khao Yai definitely made an effort to.) Come to think of it, homemade dinner prepared by friends in our Airbnb didn’t suck either. Basically, we ate well that weekend.

Worst: Again, I can’t remember anything that stands out as unpleasant. Dang, it was a great month!

What Was Next

A low-key final month on Koh Tao and Koh Samui… and then off to Brazil!

Khao Sok Travel Blog

Thanks for looking (way!) back over my shoulder with me.

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I�™ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

Florida Fanatic: My Summer Plans for the Sunshine State

Happy Thursday! This post is sponsored by AVIS
.

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“How did you end up here?”

I can’t help it – it’s one of my favorite questions. When I talk to other travelers on the road, my insatiable curiosity kicks in and I always want to know how they picked this destination, what their itinerary is, and why they chose that particular route. I just love to know how people’s minds work when it comes to travel!

Florida Travel Blog

Florida Travel Blog

That’s why sometimes I like to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into planning a trip before takeoff. These posts are a good reminder that a big part of my “job” happens off-screen – coordinating my Tetris-like calendar, figuring out when I need to be where, and what I’ll be doing when I get there.

Last year I shared a post about my holiday getaway to Siem Reap and Bangkok as a real life example of how my Wanderland Guide to Travel Planning comes to life! Now, I’m going to give you another glimpse into the planning process for an upcoming trip to Florida. Or as I like to say, here’s how I got from daydream to departure gate.

Florida Travel Blog

1. Picking a Destination

The destination was pretty much picked for me! Last summer one of my best friends from high school announced his wedding in Sarasota in May.

Florida is the punchline of a lot of jokes (I’m looking at you, Florida Man Twitter account) and to some seasoned adventure travelers, might not seem like the most exotic destination. But I love it. For me, since I was little, Florida has meant family and kitschy fun in the sun. Now, I have even more family members (and friends-who-feel-like-family) there than ever, so I knew I’d want to turn this wedding into a larger, multi-destination trip.

Miami Scenic FlightFlorida with friends…

St. Pete Florida Color Run…and family!

Feeling out my dates was the first step. As usual, I’m currently spending the winter in Southeast Asia, and so this year I booked a flight back to New York landing just in time to make it up to Albany for Mother’s Day weekend. I gave myself just four short days of jetlag restoration and repacking there before jetting off to Florida on May 16th (a full week would have been ideal, but you can’t have it all!)

On the other end of the calendar, I’m going back to Bonnaroo! So I knew I had to touch down in Nashville by June 7th. That gave just around three weeks in Florida to play with.

Florida Post Office

Florida Beaches

2. Booking Airfare

Traditionally, the next step is to book flights. Now I know I’m going to fly into Tampa, however some of the trip is still up in the air (and you’re going to help me finalize it!) so I’ve held off booking the return trip. And it’s a good thing, too, because I ended up fitting in a work opportunity that will take care of this for me.

USA Travel Tip: Booking with Southwest is a perfect choice for those who need a little flexibility in their schedule. Technically I booked a Southwest flight from New York to Florida using miles a while back when I saw they were having a sale, but thanks to Southwest’s amazing flexibility, I can easily get a refund for those miles and use them for another summer flight.

Florida Food

Florida Travel Blog

3. Creating an Itinerary

With quite a few items on my Florida bucket list and not enough time to pull them all off, creating an itinerary was (and actively is!) the struggle of this trip.

• First stop: Tampa

Family time! There are several direct flights from Albany straight to Tampa, and so that will be my first stop to soak up time with my hilarious aunts.

I’ve been to Tampa a billion times but I always look for something new to do when I’m there. A walking mural tour through the Central Arts District and a visit to the Tampa Museum of Art are calling to me for this trip.

The Florida Aquarium Tampa

Scuba Diving in Florida

• Next up: Sarasota

Wedding time! I’m super excited about watching Steve and his gorgeous wife-to-be Ali at the end of the aisle, but I’m also looking forward to time with my fellow wedding guest and childhood BFF Kristin. I’m also hoping to take in some of Sarasota’s big sights – the Ringling Brothers Museum is top of my list, as well as a possible boat tour of the tiki bars strewn around the surrounding Keys.

Florida Yacht Miami

• And then: Orlando

I am actually obsessed with water parks but strangely as a woman in her late twenties, I struggle to find friends to join me (so weird right I know). So basically I could not be more excited to be attending the opening of Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort from May 22-26th!

I will in fact be seeing a lot of Orlando this summer — at some point I’ll also be bringing my sister and our friend Ashlee for a little Muggle Marriage Harry Potter themed bachelorette party! We can’t wait – though I suppose first I should actually, er, read the books.

Universal Studios Orlando

Universal Orlando Resort

Plus, though I’m generally not a Disney World fan (I FAR prefer Disneyland in California), I am also super excited about Pandora, the long-awaited Avatar themed land opening in Animal Kingdom this summer. My dad is a DVC member, and so we might do a family weekend there at some point as well – though we will definitely give it a few months post-opening for the crowds to thin out.

Universal Orlando Resort

• After: St. Petersburg 

Breaking news: I’ve just confirmed I’ll be partnering with Visit Florida in May to promote the state’s fabulous array of boutique hotels. I’m super excited to be spending three nights exploring St. Petersburg, a destination I’ve spent so much time near — it’s Tampa’s neighboring city! — and so little time actually in. This is my absolute favorite kind of project.

Dali Museum St. Pete

Dali Museum St. Pete

• Finally: You pick!

From May 26th-June 7th, the calendar is wide open (apart from whenever I fit in the aforementioned campaign). What to do with those beautiful twelve days? Well, I have a lot of options! The most sensible one would be heading back to Albany to rest and regroup before Bonnaroo. But I think we all know I’m rarely sensible when it comes to booking a trip. Which is why I’m also considering these three options:

— Central Florida diving trip: A road trip to Central Florida’s amazing dives (Blue Grotto, Devil’s Den, etc.) via an adorable vintage VW vans… with some mermaids and a paddle boarding side trips thrown in!

— Florida Keys camping trip: Enjoying all the great campsites and natural adventures throughout the Florida Keys from a brightly painted camper van… do you sense a theme here?

— Jacksonville and Amelia Island friendcation: Now that Angie’s officially a homeowner (!) I’m dying to get up to Jacksonville and see her new digs, hang with the extended Orth crew, and get a proper tour of the city (we never left her apartment last time I visited due to an unexpected cold snap and our resulting panic). My friend Kristin’s coverage of her recent visit has me even more excited. Plus, we’ve been throwing around the idea of sneaking off to Amelia Island for a little friend-cation, too!

Which trip would you like to see me go on?

Florida Manatees

Homosassa Manatee

4. Booking Ground Transportation

Since Florida’s destinations are relatively compact, air travel within the state is a bit silly – you’d spend as much time going through security as you would hitting the highway.

Enter Avis. I’ve been dying to put their new Avis Now app into action since reviewing it for this blog, and this is my big chance. I know that I’ll be flying into Tampa so I used my phone to reserve a car with a few simple swipes. When I land, I’m going to receive push notifications to my phone letting me know where my car is located so I can simply bypass the rental counter, find my car in the parking lot, and unlock the car straight from my phone. I’ll be able to save time and best of all, drive off the lot having never made contact with another human. Sound intriguing? Read my full review here! Fellow introverts, I know you feel me.

SUP Yoga Tampa

Miami Florida

Right now I’m thinking that I’ll want to drop off my rental in Orlando, since I won’t be leaving the property once I arrive at Universal. Avis is the Official Car Rental Partner of Universal Parks & Resorts, which means I’ll be able to drop the car right at my hotel when I check in! How dang handy is that?

But – if I decide to change that last minute it’s not a problem. The app allows you to modify your reservation, extend your rental, and even change your drop-off location on the fly.

Sapphire Falls Resort Orlando

5. Booking Accommodation

Like flights, booking accommodation was an unexpected breeze for this trip – so far, at least.

In Tampa, I’ll be crashing with my aunts. In Sarasota, my friend and fellow wedding guest Kristin and I debated several of the official wedding hotels but decided to crash with her mom and dad, who are like my second parents and will be renting a house nearby on Siesta Key for a few months to celebrate their retirement (how perfect is that!).

In Orlando, we’ll be staying at the budget-friendly onsite Cabana Bay hotel, which I’ve been dying to check out since I toured it briefly during our retreat in October (which yes, you’ll read about eventually!)

Beyond that, it will depend on which final leg of the trip I choose! But it looks like I’ll either be camping or crashing with Angie. Both options I love!

Miami Restaurant

The Freehand Pool Miami

Florida Food

 6. And beyond!

And then comes all that good stuff that’s planned after the big decisions are made and the important stuff is booked – decisions like which artisanal donut to eat in Tampa or which tiki bar to hit up along the Sarasota Keys.

My research for my first three destinations was pretty minimal considering I’ve been to Tampa a million times, I’ll be in Sarasota with a group, and in Orlando I’ll be on a work trip where I won’t have too much control over my schedule. In St. Pete, I’ve already thrown myself into a super detailed itinerary with museums, active adventures, beach bars and more!

Everglades City City Hall

Weeki Wachee Mermaids Florida

Weeki Wachee Mermaids Florida

But whatever destination I chose for my final week, I can’t wait to really dig deep into planning some fun adventures… and man am I curious to see which trip you all are most interested in.

Airboat Rides Everglades

Florida Travel BlogDid you enjoy this behind-the-scenes peek at how my May came together? Let me know and I’ll write more of these! In the meantime, help me decide which trip to take for my final week – and give me your Florida tips in the comments!

How are your summer plans coming together? Tell me all about your planning process below!

Florida friends

Miami Sunrise

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 Many thanks to Avis for sponsoring this post! As always, you receive my honest thoughts and opinions regardless of who is footing the bill. 

Two Tanks Are Better Than One: My Review of the PADI Sidemount Course

This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!

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I didn’t get to hit up many bucket list dive destinations in 2016. While I absolutely did some very cool dives — in Thailand, Brazil, Jamaica, and Hawaii! — I didn’t go on any dedicated dive trips and didn’t check off any dream dives. And so, as many of you know, I instead focused on keeping myself engaged and excited about diving by jumping headfirst into a trio of continuing education courses.

So, my fellow dive enthusiasts may know that there is kind of a catty term in the scuba community which refers to someone who is obsessed with racking up specialty certifications — “card collectors.” Well, I’m saying loud and I’m saying it proud — I am now officially a certified card collector. If I could take a PADI specialty in getting PADI specialities, I would probably enroll right now. I loved these courses!

I kicked things off with the Self Reliant Diver course at Master Divers, then made my way to Ban’s for an Enriched Air certification, and finally rounded it out with a Sidemount Diver speciality at Sairee Cottage.

PADI Sidemount Diver Speciality

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

So um, what the heck is sidemount? It’s basically a new gear configuration — it simply means that you carry two tanks at your sides instead of one on your back. I’ll get into why you’d want to do that in a bit! Sidemount originated with cave diving in Europe, where pioneers realized moving their tanks alongside their bodies allowed them to keep a lower profile, and to remove one or both cylinders as needed to squeeze through tight passageways. The modern sidemount configuration as we know it today mostly evolved in communities of cavern and cave diving enthusiasts in Florida and The Yucatan. And now it’s spreading around the world.

Including to Thailand. My friend Gordon is a long-time PADI Instructor who got super pumped about sidemount after traveling to Egypt to continue his advanced Tec dive training. He enthusiastically brought a set of the specialized gear back to Koh Tao and started singing the sidemount siren song! I’m so grateful that he did — I have to admit that not long ago, I wanted nothing to do with sidemount. Tec related courses are kind of intimidating to me, and I just didn’t get what the point was. But after a year or so of watching so many of my close diving friends take Gordon’s course and rave about it, I just had to join the club and see what all the fuss was about. And it turns out I really had nothing to be intimidated by — it was the simplest of the three courses I took in 2016 and required only an Open Water Certification and twenty logged dives to begin.

You have two choices when it comes to sidemount training — the PADI Sidemount Diver course introduces divers to sidemount techniques for recreational scuba diving, while the Tec Sidemount Diver course teaches technical divers how to mount at least four tanks for their technical diving adventures. I enrolled in the former.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

One of the best things about my little continuing education experiment here on Koh Tao was finding a new dive shop that was the perfect fit for me. I get asked for advice on this constantly and I now have a much wider range of personalized recommendations to dole out. While I had excellent experiences at all three of the dive shops I studied at, it’s Sairee Cottage that has become my go-to for fun diving with friends ever since.

For me, it’s the perfect size — not so big that you get lost in the mix, but still buzzing enough that there’s always someone to grab a coconut with at the swim-up bar after a dive. What’s that? I should have just opened with the swim up bar? Tell me about it! Between the fabulous pool, the coolest classrooms on the island, and a great team of instructors and divemasters — many of whom are my close friends! — I know where I’d sign up to do my Open Water if I was doing it all over again.

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

PADI Sidemount Diver Speciality

The PADI Sidemount speciality consists of one confined and three open water dives. For Gordon and I, that translated to one pool session, one shore dive from the beach right in front of the dive shop, and two open water boat dives that we checked off on a super fun trip to Sail Rock! We spread that out over three days, but some people do it in two.

The speciality also consisted of coursework from the PADI Sidemount and Tec Sidemount Diver Manual — section one pertains to PADI Sidemount Diver, while two and three are for Tec Sidemount Diver. I carefully read section one of the manual, completing quizzes along the way, and wrapping up with a knowledge review to ensure I’d absorbed the information. Of my trio of courses it it was the least time in the classroom, as there isn’t really any complicated dive theory behind sidemount.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Instead, the primary focuses of the course were learning a new equipment setup, perfecting “trim” (your underwater body position and posture) and practicing “back-finning” (swimming backwards using just your feet and fins), learning gas management, and practicing emergency procedures. When I first jumped in that pool with this strange new gear setup I had a flashback to trying drysuit diving in Iceland. After being a certified diver for eight years a lot of my dive routine is on autopilot, but not on these days! My whole body was like, whoa, what is this crazy thing we are doing! If you need to be shaken out of a dive routine — this is one way to do it.

I actually found the trim and backfinning focus to be among the most challenging and the most interesting of the course takeaways, considering those are both important skills that can be used on any dive. Your trim underwater is as important as your posture on land, and though back-finning is primarily of interest to cave divers who need to be able to negotiate tight spaces, it is also a fabulous skill for underwater photographers and videographers who need to nail the perfect composition, too.

After a long day in the pool and digging into my manual and another day putting our skills into practice with a sixty minute shore dive, Gordon and I were joined by several of our friends for the final day of our course on Sairee Cottage’s popular weekly trip to Sail Rock, where I’d really get the chance to put the pieces of the course together and see how I felt about this whole sidemount situation once and for all.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

I was absolutely thrilled to be out on the water and surrounded by so many of my favorite people. The Sail Rock trips typically consist of two dives at Sail Rock followed by a third back closer to Koh Tao. One of the biggest pros to diving sidemount is having double the air, which gives you a significantly longer dive time –of course you still need to follow your dive computer’s limits closely to avoid decompression time.

Our friend Brian joined Gordon and I on sidemount, and so while a big group of us all kicked off the dive together, when the single-tank crew surfaced the three of us on sidemount were able to stay down and complete one super-long dive instead of popping up, taking off gear, having a surface interval, putting gear back on and descending a second time. One point for sidemount!

We set a goal of a 100 minute dive time — crazy, right?! — and while I admit I was getting a tad chilly towards the end, it was a pretty fun milestone to cross. The average dive time, at least on Koh Tao, is around 45 minutes, so more than doubling that at the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand was a huge deal. Over and hour and a half kicking it with these amazing underwater critters? Who wouldn’t love that!

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

PADI Sidemount Diver Speciality

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diver

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diver

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Eventually we remembered that we hadn’t grown gills, and returned to the surface.

After our amazing underwater marathon at Sail Rock we took it easy and did a typical 45-minute dive at the third site for the day, my beloved Shark Island. I was amazed by how quickly I’d taken to the sidemount procedure. While I did struggle with getting the gear on at time, once I was underwater it felt incredibly natural, and after just a few dives my muscle memory had already picked up the habit of switching between air sources every 50 bar or so — you don’t want to just let one tank empty all the way before switching to the other, as that would leave you lopsided — as the empty tank grew lighter — and without a backup tank.

It was a beautiful dive and the perfect note to end the course on.

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving on Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Well, that and the swim up bar drinks we had when we were back on dry land!

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving with Sairee Cottage, Koh Tao, Thailand

So after three days and many, many hours underwater, I definitely got a feel for what all the fuss is about when it comes to sidemount. The benefits are significant — increased air supply (which increases dive time), accessibility of all stages and gauges (as they are under your arm instead of on your back), self reliance in out-of-air situation, a more streamlined underwater profile, easier equipment transport (with two small cylinders as opposed to one big), and versatility (it’s great for those with physical challenges that prevent them from diving a traditional configuration).

What are the drawbacks? Well, you do have to switch between tanks throughout the dive, which make it a more complex gas management system. Also, since sidemount is still fairly rare, you’re unlikely to find a buddy who’s familiar with the equipment unless you BYODB (Bring Your Own Dive Buddy, duh). But mostly, it’s just plain cost.

Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!

I’d recommend this course to potential tec divers who want to get their feet and fins wet,those interested in cavern and cave diving, those who blow through air quickly and long for longer dive times, petite divers who struggle with a traditional configuration, and anyone who wants to shake themselves out of a diving rut.

There are only a few schools on Koh Tao currently offering the PADI Sidemount Diver speciality. The course generally lasts 2-3 days and costs 12,000B. I can’t recommend it — or Sairee Cottage — more highly.

Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diverportrait by my friend Paddy of Peach Snaps

Personally, I loved the sidemount configuration. While I have no problem with running out of air (I’m almost always the last person to hit a half tank!), I do have issues with the size of a traditional scuba cylinder compared to the size of my body.

As a 5’1″ woman, I often struggle with the traditional tank-on-the-back setup. Between the system of attaching weights to the tanks and getting the tanks off my back and under my arms, the lower back pain that normally plagues me after a day of diving was completely non-existant! And with slightly smaller cylinders, I’d have even more mobility both above and below the surface. I greatly look forward to sidemount configurations becoming more widely available as I personally would be thrilled to dive this way more often.

I had a blast with this course. Between our hundred minute dive record, the skills I learned, the amazing day I shared with my friends and the absolute badass I felt like underwater, it was not a course I’ll forgot anytime soon.

Divers, would you consider a PADI Sidemount speciality? What should I do next?

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All underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.

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Becoming a PADI Sidemount Scuba Diver

Learning to Scuba Dive Sidemount

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Spring Sale!

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Surviving Songkran: Celebrating Thailand’s Wet and Wild New Year on Koh Tao

Surviving Songkran: Celebrating Thailand’s Wet and Wild New Year on Koh Tao post image

You thought fireworks were cool? Just wait until you see how Thailand marks the start of the Buddhist New Year: with a nation-wide water fight. This is real life.

From April 13th-15th every year Thailand is consumed by the joy of celebrating Songkran, which comes from a Sanskrit word translating to ‘passing.’ Once a solemn, sacred event in which images of Buddha were bathed, young Thais sprinkled water on the hands of elders and traditional dancing symbolically washed away the misfortunes of the previous year and warmly welcomed the new one. Even prior to Buddhism’s introduction to the Kingdom of Thailand, throwing water was part of a ritualistic Spring Festival in which farmers hoped for rain for their crops.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Well… times have changed. These days, Songkran has morphed into a super-soaker fueled, wet and wild water fight. It’s a truly joyful day in which locals, expats and tourists come together to literally bring the party to the streets.

Bangkok and Chiang Mai are among the most popular destinations to celebrate Songkran. In fact, Koh Tao isn’t even close to being one of the biggest draws — but we love our small island celebration and I can’t imagine spending the day elsewhere. While in many Thai destinations the party can rage from the 13th-15th, on Koh Tao, Songkran lasts just one day, April 13th. Conveniently, it’s one of the hottest, sweatiest days of the year.

Read more about Koh Tao’s annual holidays and events!

I’m lucky to be approaching my third Songkran here on Koh Tao. My first in 2011 was a blast, and the 2016 edition was even better. In preparation for 2017’s celebration, I’ve put together my top Songkran tips. While these are specifically written for those celebrating on Koh Tao, I’m willing to bet there are a few drops of wisdom for those ringing in the year further afield.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

The Cardinal Sin of Songkran

This is literally the most important thing about Songkran: make sure you aren’t in transit during it! If you’re on the move, make sure to arrive on Koh Tao by April 12th at the latest (personally, I’d add in a buffer day in case of travel delays, and to leave a day to get prepped to party.)

And if you’re leaving the island right after the big day, be careful. The festivities may be over on Koh Tao, but Bangkok and Chiang Mai will still be popping off and you will not be granted mercy simply because you’re wheeling a suitcase.

If you absolutely must travel on one of these days (like I had to on April 14th last year), take a regional flight so you can pass through Bangkok without ever having to leave the airport. Bonus! You’ll get to see immigration officers celebrating at work in their cute Hawaiian shirts, a bizarrely charming part of the unofficial Songkran look (I’ve never been able to get an answer why!)

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Also, Don’t Drive!

So you’ve made it safely to Koh Tao and are all settled in in time for the big party. Now, put away those bike rental keys for the day — seriously. I would never drive on Songkran!

Putting aside the fact that you’re most likely going to be boozing, and driving is the biggest safety hazard on Koh Tao on a good day, locals set up stations specifically to throw water and flour at passing bikes, which can cause a serious hazard for those not super experienced on two wheels. Accidents are crazy common. Stick to your own two feet to get where you need to go, and be extra careful on the road even when walking.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

What To Wear To Songkran

You can’t just rock up to Songkran. No, you’ve got some serious prepping to do!

First, your outfit. Obviously, I’d start with the base of a bathing suit and wear fairly little on top of that — though I would wear something, because walking around in a bikini off the beach isn’t really cool in Thailand, and this day is no exception. Lots of Thai people wear the aforementioned Hawaiian shirts and lots of Western people wear ridiculous costumes. Last year I wore a surfing spring suit, a sparkly gold visor, and a donut pool floatie. So there’s that. You might also consider goggles or a ski mask, especially if you have sensitive eyes. Believe it or not, Koh Tao has a pretty well-stocked costume shop in Mae Haad next to in the Lomprayah building. Go wild!

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

A lot of people go barefoot on Koh Tao and especially on Songkran, when they’re worried about losing their flip flops. Personally I’m not about that barefoot life — get a cheap pair of knock-off Havianas, do your best to keep track of them, and you won’t weep if they get lost, but best case scenario you won’t step on a broken beer bottle either. Win-win!

Waterguns are fun to have, but not necessary, so don’t fret if you don’t grab one. They often get broken or bored of fairly quickly; if you don’t feel like spending money or contributing to a landfill a second-hand bucket will also do the the trick.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

If you plan to drink throughout the day, bring along a sealed bottle or cup. Open-top cups are just asking to be contaminated with unfiltered water splashes, and I know you know you don’t want that.

Another thing to prepare for — many restaurants and shops close for the entire day. And you will want to line your stomach pre-Songkran. Last year, my friends and I did a big champagne brunch while we got ready — it was a blast! So ask around for somewhere that may be open or gather supplies for a snack-fest in your hotel before you go out. If you get stuck, 7-11 is always open.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Tip: Waterproof Everything

Aside from a water-tossing vessel and a beverage-drinking one, bring as little as possible. I usually have a small bag with my waterproof camera, some cash, and my house key. That’s it. As a contact-wearer who had way too many direct shots to the eye last year, I’ll also be throwing an extra pair into my dry-bag for this year’s festivities.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

But basically — if you don’t want it wet, don’t bring it out of the house. If you do, you’ll spend the entire day getting agitated, and that’s no recipe for fun. Buy a proper diving dry bag (they are for sale all over Koh Tao and Khao San Road in Bangkok), grab one of those geeky phone pouches that goes around your neck or just simply seal things into ziplock bags.

But again, bring as little as possible. There’s a lot of spontaneous ocean swims and getting pushed in the pool, so you might want to tuck some cash into a pocket, put your room key on a string around your neck, and enjoy a day totally untethered.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Green Your Songkran

Koh Tao is a little tiny island with limited resources. Consider filling up your buckets, water guns and reserve tanks with sea water. The environment will thank you!

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Pace Yourself

It’s easy to get carried away with day-drinking on such a debaucherous day. But remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint… or whatever it is people tell themselves to avoid blacking out early. Get a good night of sleep the night before, wear sunscreen, seriously drink a lot of water, remember to eat occasionally, and generally make a valiant attempt to pace yourself.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Make a Meet Up Plan

Because I don’t take my phone out on Songkran, I like to have a loose plan in place with my crew so we know where to find each other in we go off on solo adventures for a bit — intentionally or not. We usually kick things off at Banyan Bar before moving en masse down the beach, slowly making our way towards Fishbowl and Maya Bar with an obligatory stop at the DJL Pool. Last year we decided to retreat to a private villa party post-sunset, where I had a blast regrouping with anyone I’d lost throughout the day.

It doesn’t have to be that full-on, though. Just agree that if you get separated, you’ll meet at a certain bar at sunset.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Don’t Be a Jerk

Honestly, just don’t. Don’t put ice water in your water gun. Don’t put food coloring into the water you’re throwing on people. Don’t aim at people’s eyes, or ears, or drinks. (As if that needs further elaboration, you could ruin a contact wearer’s day, you could give a dive instructor an ear infection, or you could give someone a tummy bug. So just chill.) Yes, it’s a day of mayhem and no one should walk outside expecting special treatment, but it would be nice to just like, be kind of nice about the whole thing, no?

Also be aware that there’s kind of an unofficial cease-fire after sunset. After that is when most people head back home to dry off and change before heading back out again to continue their debauchery. Don’t be that one lone dude soaking people at midnight in the bar. You’ll deserve the dirty looks.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Make a Day After Plan

Chances are, April 14th is going to be a bit of a wash (how many water puns can I fit into one post?!) I strongly recommend a fresh coconut, a banana, and a breakfast with eggs in it — my go-to Thailand hangover cure — followed by as many massages as you can fit into the rest of the day.

Seriously though, the island will be pretty subdued, so you might not want to book any major tours or dive trips for that day. Last year my friends and I planned a hangover brunch at one of our houses, a tradition I hope will be annual.

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Need one last peek at the fun cyclone headed Thailand’s way in just two weeks? Check out my silly Facebook video of behind-the-scenes footage from last year’s celebrations.

Happy Songkran soon, my friends!
Have you been lucky enough to celebrate this festival?
If so, leave your tips and tricks in the comments below!

Songkran photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing or with a GoPro HERO3+ — both are perfect choices for photography on a wet day! See a full list of my photography gear here.

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Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Celebrating Songkran on Koh Tao

Spring Sale!

Right now is the perfect time to kick off or up your blogging game. Why? Travel Blog Success is on sale!

Travel Blog Success Spring SaleI rarely stop yacking about how Travel Blog Success helped me make Alex in Wanderland what it is today — a financially successful and creatively fulfilling travel blog that just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It’s the first thing I recommend to those who write to me for blogging advice! Our secret member’s Facebook group gives me daily inspiration, feedback, and hearty laughs. Yes, the warmest community in travel blogging is on sale now! And now’s definitely the time to buy, as this is the biggest discount of the year by far.

Bonus: Recently, Travel Blog Success launched an exciting new Brand Partnership Course, one of several new specialty courses also on sale. Another? Videography for Travel Bloggers, which I’ve also taken and reviewed. So if you’re already a member, now is the time to invest in continuing education. Purchase two or more products and get an additional 10% off your purchase!

Click here to receive 25% off all TBS memberships — no code needed! Sale ends Friday at 11:59 PM EST. Please note that I’m a proud affiliate of the program and thus will earn a percentage of your purchase at no extra cost to you. See you in the forums!

Buggying around Buzios: Our Bonus Days in Brazil

Guys I am going to shock you here. Like really blow your mind. Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan.

Yeah, I know. Hard to believe when you’re a Tracy Flick loving, organizational spreadsheet making, perpetually over-planning-yet-somehow-still-a-scattered-helpless-hot-mess like I am. But every once in a while those plans just really go off the rails. Sometimes the weather is relentlessly terrible, sometimes your professional life crumbles at very inconvenient times, sometimes a dream trip you’ve been planning since you were thirteen is peppered with daily disasters.

Sunset from Praia Manguinhos, Buzios, Brazil

Some of you may have picked up that yeah — I’m talking about my trip to Brazil. And yup, it really boiled over when we got to Buzios. The day that we returned from diving, Heather and I went to check in for our flights to the final leg of our trip, a crazy whirlwind three days and two nights at Iguaçu Falls. I was stressed out from trying to decide what to do with my last week of travel after Heather left and exhausted from weeks of already being on the road. When I looked at the forecast and saw nothing but relentless thunderstorms for the next week in Iguaçu, I almost burst into tears.

We had had crazy downpour in Paraty. We had had rain in Rio. We had had drizzly days in Buzios. We couldn’t handle any more rain at a freakin’ waterfall, of all places.

So I did something crazy, something this type-A planner is not likely to do.

We skipped our flight.

Brigitte Bardot Statue, Buzios, Brazil

Courtyard at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

And DAMN, did it feel good. I am not one to throw money down the drain no matter how small the sum, and I am not one to veer from the plan, no matter how awful a plan it seems when it comes time to execute. So this was a very big deal.

We traded an insanely ambitious 72 hours of non-stop travel and sightseeing for an extra night in Buzios and an extra night in Rio before our flights, an absolute luxurious bliss of near nothing-ness. I swear, it was the best decision I made in all of Brazil — as we booked an extra night in our hostel and headed out to a celebratory dinner, I was actually giddy.

I was free of the terrible professional situation that had been haunting me. I was free of the bad weather. I was free of the questionable itinerary I’d created for us. I was so flippin’ free.

And I was thrilled to have another night in Buzios, which I’d been stressed out feeling like we were short-changing. Between the work awkward-ness of our first few days and the bad weather that had delayed our diving and put cancelled two straight days of our plans, we’d hardly gotten to explore this highly-anticipated destination.

Can you even imagine a cuter place to enjoy our newfound liberation than the waterfront Nomad Hostel?

Name Sign at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

Private Room at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

At 210R ($67US) per night, our room wasn’t exactly the cheapest room I’ve ever booked. But for a private bathroom, a nice included breakfast, an oceanfront balcony, and the most central location a backpacker could ask for, it represented pretty good value for bougie Buzios. And dorms are available for those who have a little tighter of a budget.

View at Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

Nomad Hostel, Buzios, Brazil

With our newfound day and night by the sea, we strolled the waterfront at sunset, more relaxed than we’d felt in ages. While I’m not much of a shopper, even I couldn’t resist the adorable boutiques of Buzios, and ended up with a new dress — and an adorably endearing hug from the salesgirl at check-out.

We had a celebratory dinner at Salt, where we ordered Thai curries and toasted to our new plans.

Buzios, Brazil on a budget

Shopping in Buzios, Brazil

Dining in Buzios, Brazil

No longer shackled to a before-sunrise wake up call to get back to Rio for our flights, we finally got the chance to experience Buzios’s wild nightlife and danced the hours away at Privilege, an overpriced, high society nightclub along the waterfront.

View from Nomad Hostel, Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

Armacao dos Buzios, Brazil

The next morning, we braced our hangovers for to check one last thing off our Buzios bucket lists — renting a buggy and exploring the peninsula’s dozens of beaches. This is pretty much the thing to do in Buzios, and it was bordering on criminal that we hadn’t gotten the chances to do so yet.

Renting a Buggy in Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Confession: we got a pretty late start on the day. Considering the cost of buggies — our rental was $20US each for the day and we also spent $7US each on gas and $5US each on parking — I’d recommend snagging one the second the rental companies open, or even better blocking off two or more full days to play. We were leaving the next morning for Rio but didn’t waste a moment lamenting our lack of buggy hours — after all, it already felt like we were on gifted time.

Our first stop was the beautiful rumored tide pools of Praia de Ferradurinha.

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Perhaps the tide was really high or perhaps we went the wrong way, but we didn’t actually find a beach. We couldn’t have cared less though, captivated as we were by the gorgeous local scenery. The place was pretty much deserted aside from a local fisherman who enthusiastically showed us his catches and told us a long, dramatic story with so much passion that it didn’t matter to any of us that we didn’t understand a single word.

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Ferradurinha, Buzios, Brazil

On the way back to the main road, we stopped briefly at popular Praia de Geriba so I could photograph some colorful buggies and swan floats that reminded me of a Gray Malin photograph.

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Brazil

The next few hours were a blur of beaches, viewpoints, and colorful vignettes we pulled over on the side of the road to photograph. Buzios had such a different climate and feel from anywhere else we’d been in Brazil; it was as if we’d somehow driven our buggy all the way to Aruba.

Colorful Murals in Buzios, Brazil

Colorful Murals in Buzios, Brazil

The sun setting at around 5:30 meant that we often ate lunch only a few hours before sunset. Such was the case on this lazy day, when we drove along Praia de Tartaruga until we stumbled on the adorable Restaurante Tartaruga, where we watched beach-goers start to pack up for the day and head to their sunset spots.

Restaurante Tartaruga at Praia de Tartaruga, Buzios, Brazil

Restaurante Tartaruga at Praia de Tartaruga, Buzios, Brazil

Restaurante Tartaruga at Praia de Tartaruga, Buzios, Brazil

Eventually, we did the same, working our way towards the pier at Praia Manguinhos, Buzios’s most famed location for sending off the sun. The busy beachfront here was packed with chic boutiques and bars, a world away from the remote stretches of sand we’d spent the day exploring.

We decided to forgo the hustle and bustle — we were late to snag a prime seat, anyway — and walked to the end of the pier to dangle our feet over the edge and wait for the sky to catch on fire.

Sunset from Praia Manguinhos, Buzios, Brazil

After, it was a mad rush to return our buggy by the inconvenient hour of 6 (it would be nice if they gave you an hour post-sunset), reconfirming my suspicious that it’s best to take the buggy for at least two days.

The second half of our time in Buzios was a really happy high point for me in Brazil. With its close proximity to Rio, it’s amazing beaches, the great diving nearby, the indulgent nightlife and all the rest of the hedonistic fun on offer, I can’t imagine leaving it off any itinerary.

Am I said I didn’t get to see Iguaçu Falls? Kind of… but I also kind of know it will still be there when I eventually boomerang my way back to South America. And so why make myself miserable trying to fit it into this one trip? I’ll always be grateful to Buzios for reminding me that sometimes an impulsive decision is the best one, and that sometimes plans really are made to be broken.

What To Do in Buzios Brazil

Next up, back to Rio!

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We were full-paying guests at Nomad Hostel and all other businesses mentioned in this post.

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The Best of Buzios Pin

The Best of Buzios Pin

Blowing Bubbles in Buzios: Diving in Brazil

This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!

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It’s pretty much a guarantee that when Alex in Wanderland regular Heather and I do a trip together, we’re going to find somewhere to go diving together, even if it’s the inside of a particularly spacious bathtub. Thankfully it hasn’t come to that quite yet, but suffice it to say these two PADI aqua-addicts love to get their scuba on.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

While Brazil has some five star diving destinations like Fernando de Noronha and Bonito, neither were on our original itinerary due to that ever delicate balance of time, location, budget, and season.

But we were hopping along the coast, after all, and spots we were stopping in like Paraty, Ilha Grande, and Buzios all had diving on offer — each of which we were keen to try. Unfortunately it rained non-stop for our time in Paraty, and by the time it cleared up and we reached Ilha Grande, the local divemasters assured us the visibility was so torn up from the storm we might as well be diving in pea soup. So Buzios it was!

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

From our research, we knew that while there are local dive sites in Buzios, most hardcore divers head to nearby Arraial do Cabo, about an hour west back towards Rio. We called around to several local dive shops in Buzios and ended up booking with P&P, who promised to whisk us to Arraial and back for two dives plus equiptment rental for 320R ($104), or 290R ($94) if we paid in cash — an upcharge for using plastic was common throughout Brazil, unfortunately.

The morning of our dive we were met by a fairly surly dude who refused to make conversation even when I dragged out of him that he was in fact Argentinian and excitedly attempted to speak Spanish. By the time we arrived in Arraial we weren’t super excited to spend the day with him so we were actually fairly happy to realize we were being handed off to another dive operation entirely, Seaquest.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

We hopped aboard with Seaquest and were immediately impressed with the organization and cleanliness of the boat, and the friendliness we were greeted with. Within seconds of stepping onboard we pulled away from the harbor, we went to set up our gear and realized that we had been assigned large and extra large wetsuits — we laughed as I held mine up to myself, the legs spilling over a foot beyond my short frame.

We waved over a divemaster who pulled an “oh shit” face before revealing those were the wetsuits they’d been given for us by P&P, to whom we had given our height and weight as requested. Considering an oversized wetsuit is not only ineffective (unless it sits firmly against your skin, cold water will seep in rendering it useless) but can also be dangerous (that water trapped between you and your wetsuit can create drag that restricts mobility), we both immediately refused to wear them and requested that we be brought back to shore rather than sit on the boat for two hours waiting for the other divers to have their fun.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

We called P&P en route to ask what had happened, and were shocked when we were indignantly told that based on our weights, they had given us the correct sizes. I replied that with a couple hundred dives under my belt oh and uh, twenty-seven years living in my body I was pretty sure that I knew what size I wore and this enormous mess of unisex neoprene I was holding wasn’t it. We can only assume that they didn’t have enough small wetsuits — a common issue at dive shops everywhere — and were too embarrassed to say so. But we were pretty livid.

At that point, Seaquest radioed back to their shop and asked them to rush a small and medium wetsuit to the dock, and turned around for us to get them. We were embarrassed to delay the whole boat but incredibly grateful to Seaquest for saving the day for us. Lesson learned — I certainly will never leave the dock without checking my equipment again.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

Suffice it to say, it was a very dramatic start to the morning! However, once we had two properly fitting wetsuits we decided to leave our frustrations at the surface and enjoy every second of our long-awaited first dive in Brazil.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

And oh, how much there was to enjoy! Teeny tiny starfish, curious boxfish, arrow crabs, pufferfish, and my absolute favorite, flying gurnards — a fabulous new-to-me species that was literally everywhere I turned on the dive site. As we began to ascend for our surface interval, I already couldn’t wait for the second dive.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

There were even more sea surprises awaiting us at the next dive site. This time, Heather and I had our divemaster to ourself, and he waited patiently while we oohed and ahhed and snapped a million photos of spotted drum, more flying gurnards, and then finally, my favorite find of the day, a colorful spotted eel who bravely darted from coral to coral, letting us admire every inch of his bright pattern.

Turned out Brazil was as colorful underwater as it is on land.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, BrazilShot by Heather Holt on a GoPro HERO3+

We giggled into our regulators when our divemaster pointed out a man-made wonder — a tiny replica of Rio’s famous Cristo Redentor statue, sunken by what we can only assume was an enterprising local dive shop.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Just as our dive computers began prompting us to make our way back to the land of air-breathers, we spotted one last wonder of the deep — two perfectly posed batfish (different from the orbiculate batfish I know and love in Thailand) practically preening for our cameras.

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

We had the best time diving with Seaquest — the owner Gabi in particular was an absolute gem! Unfortunately, based on our multiple negative experiences with them, I cannot personally recommend P&P, though perhaps they were just having a really bad day. We left Buzios at 8am and were back by around 2pm. The water temperature was around 73 degrees fahrenheit in May.

If I could do it all again, I’d rent a car for the day and drive myself to Arraial do Cabo (while the diving there was amazing, from our quick glance around town I was glad we were staying in Buzios). Seaquest’s rates are cheaper than those we were quoted in Buzios, so depending on what kind of deal you can get on transportation, it might work out to the same price.

Bottom line? Regardless of how you get there, don’t miss the opportunity to blow bubbles in Brazil!

Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Next stop, back to Buzios for one last land-based adventure!

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All underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.

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Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Diving in Arraial do Cabo, Brazil

Hotel Crush: Casas Brancas in Búzios

It’s been called the Brazilian St. Tropez and the Hamptons of Rio; basically, it’s this pocket of the planet’s infamous playground for the rich and famous. Welcome to Búzios, Brazil.

I’ve never been to the Hamptons and I couldn’t point out St. Tropez on a map, but I knew I had to go to Búzios. Less than three hours north of Rio de Janeiro, Búzios boasts seventeen beaches strewn around a jutting peninsula so narrowly connected to the mainland, it almost feels like an island.

When Heather and I were invited to experience this extravagance-studded paradise via one of its most sought-after boutique hotels, how could we resist?

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Lobby of Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas oozes understated luxury. Perched on the far end of Orla Bardot, the town’s charming cobblestone beachfront promenade, it’s just a short stroll from a statue of Brigitte herself. Yup, Brigitte Bardot, the French actress now in her 80’s, is somewhat of a legend in Búzios.

Prior to her “discovery” of Búzios in the 1960’s with her Brazilian boyfriend, this was but a sleepy fishing village. Simple fishing boats still line the harbor, but these days they share dock space with yachts. High-end boutiques, fine restaurants, and posh beach clubs round out the upscale vibe.

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Lobby of Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Hard as it had been to leave Rio, we were bursting with excitement to reach Búzios. And yet we’d barely made it.

The transfer we’d literally triple confirmed from Rio to Buzios left us cooling our heels on the sidewalks of Copacabana for two hours after handing in the keys to our Airbnb, and we eventually had no choice but to take a $90 Uber if we were to reach our accommodation by nightfall.

Frankly, it was one of the most stressful days we had in Brazil — sitting on the hot curb of a notoriously crime-heavy city with thousands and thousands of dollars in electronics and one slowly dying phone waiting for a confirmed transfer that never arrived and then later being reprimanded for missing it — and it put us in a pretty funky mood.

For now, just know that if you find yourself in Brazil having a terrible day, Casas Brancas is a pretty great place to end it.

And I’d recommend a meal at Rocka thrown in there too, if possible. For ultimate healing.

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Yup, I think these dishes might just be able to do the trick.

Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Steak at Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

Dessert at Rocka Restaurant, Buzios, Brazil

All jokes aside, Casas Brancas was the perfect place to rest our bruised travel hearts after a hectic day.

The staff was so, so endlessly sweet. I was having a completely unrelated work drama to the one otherwise mentioned below in this post (I know!) — a company that had hired me to review a product shipped it to Brazil, which set off a chain of customs disasters and endless hours on Skype, confused and trying to get it delivered — and Gabriel, the head concierge, was so kind in his attempts to assist me it almost made me cry.

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

And oh, how chic the design! We agreed, our stylish rooms would have earned a nod of approval from Ms. Bardot herself. A true boutique hotel, all thirty-two rooms are every-so slightly unique.

Room at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Bathroom at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Bathroom at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

We had just two nights at Casas Brancas, and we had big plans to make the most of them. Originally, we’d decided on one of the area’s famous boat trips around the peninsula for our first full day in Búzios, but with a so-so forecast we decided to scrap it.

Porch at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Instead, we kicked off the day with an onsite yoga class followed by an afternoon at Casas Brancas Spa, where Heather treated us each to a package in an attempt to calm my frayed nerves and get us back on relaxation track.

Spa at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Spa at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Later that day, as the afternoon faded into evening, the sky cleared enough to allow for a beautiful sunset.

Pool at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Pool at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Sunset at Casas Brancas, Buzios, BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Pool at Casas Brancas at night, Buzios, BrazilPhoto by Heather Holt

Sunset at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Sunset at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

We were lucky to dine at two restaurants owned by the Casas Brancas group (along with Rocka, which is offsite overlooking Praia Brava beach) — 74, the onsite lunch and dinner restaurant at Casas Brancas, and Mistico at sister hotel Abracadabra. A lot of the food in Búzios is overpriced and underwhelming; here, you won’t be disappointed.

If you’re looking for a splurge in Buzios, you really couldn’t go wrong with either. Just look at that view!

Night view from Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

The next day, we enjoyed one last lovely meal at Casas Brancas before moving onward. We’d scheduled two more nights at accommodation slightly closer to the center of town in order to go scuba diving, so while it wasn’t quite time to say goodbye to Búzios, it was time to say goodbye to the luxury that the getaway has become infamous for.

And what better way to toast goodbye than with a decadent breakfast buffet!

Breakfast at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazl

Breakfast at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazl

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Breakfast at Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazl

Looking back, I regret that I was in such a dark place mentally when we were in such a beautiful one physically. I’ve struggled greatly with how much to share about what was essentially one of the greatest communication disasters of my entire blogging career, which followed me through Brazil and came to a head in poor, blameless Búzios. The missed transfer that left us in tears of frustration was just one piece of a big, messy puzzle. Considering it was a professional issue, it’s not something that would effect you, my dear readers — in which case I’d be obligated, of course, to be much more detailed.

However, I was so deeply effected by the whole ordeal that it had an enormous impact on my trip, and it’s hard to tell my true story of this experiences without mentioning that I was struggling with a professional meltdown in the midst of it.

I’m really not a scorched earth kinda girl, and so I hope you’ll allow me this bit of vagueness, which allows me to be honest with you all without totally burning my blogging house down. For those who are still curious, I’ve written more about the lessons I learned for an upcoming roundup post.

I know this — someday, I’ll return to Casas Brancas with a clear head and a happy heart, just like it deserves.

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas, Buzios, Brazil

Next up… Buzios underwater!


I was a guest of Casas Brancas in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill. To clarify, they were completely blameless in any of the professional partnerships that left me in tears.

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A Luxury Guide To Buzios, Brazil

Casas Brancas Hotel Review, Buzios, Brazil

Street Art, Sunset and Sugarloaf: The Perfect Last Day in Rio de Janeiro

A week in Rio de Janeiro flew by. I knew it would.

Heather and I had debated what to do with our final day in the city. There were so many options! We’d hit a lot of the major must-sees — we’d woken up before dawn to be (literally) the first two people at Christ Redeemer, we’d gone hang gliding over São Conrado, we’d sampled the southern beaches, and we’d toured a colorful favela. Top attractions? Check. Adrenaline activities? Check. Beach bumming? Check.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

So for our final act, we decided to tick the culture box, and signed up for Viator’s Rio de Janiero Street Art Tour. I’d been amazingly inspired by the works I saw from the creative community in São Paulo, and I wondered how the two cities might compare.

We knew from the moment that we were greeted by our cute guide Nina — also the founder of the tour! — that we were going to get along great.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

For starters, Nina spoke some of the most fluent English of any Brazilian we’d met along our journey, which felt like an undeserved treat after weeks of butchering Portuguese. And thank goodness, because we would have been devastated to miss a single word!

For the next four hours, we were under Nina’s spell as she led us through tunnels, around school yards, into craft breweries and beyond to discover some of Rio’s most intriguing pieces of public art. It’s a relatively new industry, at least from a legal standpoint — it was only in 2009 that the Brazilian government decriminalized street art.

Unlike every other street art tour I’ve ever been on, this one is not exclusively a walking tour. Rio is sprawling and the best works are spread out around the city, so a comfortable, air-conditioned bus transported us from stop to stop where we’d often then walk for a bit.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Generally, the tour meets at Siqueira Campos Metro station, however, we were getting a slightly abridged tour. We’d hoped to schedule this activity earlier in our stay, but there was only one tour running the week of our trip, and it was a chartered trip from a wealthy group of wives of expatriate bankers from neighboring South American countries — mostly Venezuela and Colombia. Heather and I were disappointed to learn that they’d strictly specified that they refused to enter a favela, which is normally a popular stop along Nina’s route. It was an eye-opening reminder of the terrible stigma that favelas have in Brazil, and of the enormous income inequality that plagues the country.

But we tried to focus on the positive: we had a beautiful day and a great tour guide, and lots of intriguing art to admire. Nina took time not just to point out impressive works, but also to educate us, explaining the difference between a tag, graffiti, and murals — in both the eyes of artists and the law. She pointed out different methods and materials, and most notably seemed able to recite the name and backstory of the artist responsible for every brushstroke in the city.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Nina is, it was slowly revealed, personal friends with many of the artists, which allowed her to share an amazing number of quirky insider anecdotes.

We quickly caught on that if you pay attention, there are actually a relatively small number of artists creating street art around Rio. Which means that once you recognize an artist’s work, you’re likely to see it everywhere. Even more fun? Many of them are frequent collaborators, which made looking at a mural like trying to solve an equation — perhaps a bit of Bruno Big in one corner, a Carlos Bobi portrait in the center, and is that one of Rodrigo Villa’s birds up top?

Many of the pieces also addressed social injustice, or current events in Brazil. The FIFA World Cup and the then-upcoming Olympics were two hot topics. Many artists voiced the outrage some Brazilian citizens felt at the overspending on these events, funds which could have been channeled into education and healthcare, for example. Others were hired to do official projects promoting the events. It was one small example of the complexity layered on these simple concrete walls.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Yup, these two art school nerds were in visual heaven.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

A brief stop near Botafogo reminded us that we still had one major attraction to tick off our list: iconic Sugarloaf mountain! We still hadn’t been, but not for lack of trying. On the day we’d arrived in Rio we’d breathlessly thrown our bags down, turned around and rushed into an Uber and flew over to Sugarloaf, perfectly timed to catch sunset… except the star attraction was closed for cable car maintenance. For three days. Oops.

The day it reopened, there was full cloud cover and no sunset. Then we were hungover. Then it rained. Then suddenly, it was our last day in Rio and we were on an art tour. That evening was our last try.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Back on the bus, we made our way towards the last stop of the tour, a microbrewery and gallery hybrid in chic Leblon. After a quick drink — and free popcorn! — we gave Nina an enormously heartfelt thanks for the day.

Love art? Interested in seeing an alternative side to Rio? Want to support a young female entrepreneur? Take this tour! While we were a bit bummed out that our tour was huge and had so many outside-imposed restrictions that we didn’t agree with, it sounds like it’s a rarity. Plus, it’s good to keep in mind that all tours have a flexible itinerary since street art is always changing. One thing likely to remain the same for a long time to come are the talented artists Nina features — she even emails you a PDF run-down after the tour so you can keep an eye out for their works when wandering on your own.

Which is one reason of many to take this tour as early in your trip as possible. Nina will also give you plenty of tips for what to see and where to eat, and give you a heads up about upcoming events and shows. I wish we could have attended some that she recommended!

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

Rio de Janeiro Street Art TourPhoto by Heather Holt

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

So how did Rio’s street art compare to that of its rival city? In my subjective opinion, the scene as a whole wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the street art scene in São Paulo, but considering the latter is the center for art and design for the entire country, that’s not too much of a surprise.

Plus, the quality of Nina’s tour was just so high it kind of offset the ranking.

Rio de Janeiro Street Art Tour

We had a bit of time to kill before sunset at Sugarloaf, and so we ambitiously tried to squeeze in a visit to the famous Jardim Botânico, since we were quite close in Leblon. And it probably would have worked if we hadn’t wasted some time time looking for a snack (could have gotten one at the Botanical Garden), having trouble connecting with an Uber driver, and then literally having one of the two worst Uber drivers we had in all of Rio.

By the time we arrived, we had tragically little time before we had to turn around and leave again.

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical GardenPhoto by Heather Holt

With basically zero minutes, we made a straight shot for the park’s most famous row of historic palm trees, took a few (billion) portraits, and off we went. I hope to return someday — designed in 1808 with over 8,000 plant species, it’s certainly worth more than the very brief glance we had to give it.

However, assuming you are less rushed and have better driver luck than we did, this truly is the perfect post-street art tour activity — it’s a very convenient location, and the natural beauty perfectly complemented the man-made one we’d just soaked up.

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

But have you ever seen a dreamier place to take a few twirling pictures?

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Rio de Janeiro Botanical GardenPhotos of me by Heather Holt!

And then we were off to our Pão de Açúcar, the famous Sugarloaf Mountain. Remember when I said our driver to the Botanical Garden was our second worst taxi driver in Rio? Yeah, well the driver who eventually brought us to Sugarloaf — he was number one.

We were in agony as our driver got lost, boldly ignored Uber’s driving directions, pulled the car over to consult with locals, and then missed the entrance to one of Rio’s most visited attractions multiple times. The ride took twice as long as it should have and it was the first time I’ve ever asked Uber for a refund (which they granted).

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at Sunset

We caught the last of the sunset from the window of the first cable car. We ended up getting some gorgeous photos and having an amazing experience regardless, but it was hard to shake off the chaos and stress of getting there and just enjoy the moment.

However, when the lights of Rio started to blink on in the darkness, that was certainly just what I needed to switch gears on a sour mood.

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at SunsetPhoto by Heather Holt

We stayed up at the top of the mountain for ages watching the sky change colors. From our brief anecdotal experience, sunset seemed like a great time to go — we got gorgeous city views, the lines were very short, and we mostly had the place to ourselves.

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at SunsetPhoto by Heather Holt

Sugarloaf at SunsetPhoto by Heather Holt

It was a surprisingly rocky road to get there, but ending our final day in Rio at one of it’s most iconic viewpoints was a beautiful note to go out on. Chaotic, rushed, stressful, but ultimately stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous and inspiring — our last day in Rio was a bit of a metaphor for our entire trip to Brazil.

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Sugarloaf at Sunset

Next stop, Buzios!


I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.