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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Next stop, back to Buzios for one last land-based adventure!
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 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.
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.
Yup, I think these dishes might just be able to do the trick.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Later that day, as the afternoon faded into evening, the sky cleared enough to allow for a beautiful sunset.
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo by Heather Holt
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yup, these two art school nerds were in visual heaven.
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo 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.
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo by Heather Holt
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!
Photo by Heather Holt
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.
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.
Photo 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.
But have you ever seen a dreamier place to take a few twirling pictures?
Photos 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).
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.
Photo 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.
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo 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.
Next stop, Buzios!
I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.
After our amazing first day and night at the aptly-named Elephant Camp, we woke up raring to go for the second and third days of our adventure with Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park.
Elephant Camp, with its luxury tents set in the jungle, was already quite the departure from reality. Rainforest Camp, the sister property nestled even deeper into the wilderness, took an even greater leap into getting away from it all — no internet, no phone signal, not even solid ground beneath your feet — the twenty tents that make up the camp all float peacefully atop Cheow Larn Lake.
But first, we had to get there. Waving goodbye to Elephant Hills, we piled into decommissioned Thai military vehicles and made our way to a local market in Takhun. I’ve seen more than my fair share of markets in Thailand, but I still enjoyed having a brief wander and stocking up on snacks before the next leg of our journey.
Next up, a quick stop at the Ratchaprapha Dam, where we got our first glance of Cheow Lan Lake and started to learn the insanely fascinating history of the region.
And then it was onto the lake, where we hopped into a traditional long tail boat to sightsee.
After a gorgeous ride admiring the jungle and the towering limestone karsts that define the lake, we caught sight of our final destination — Rainforest Camp!
so distracted by our welcome drinks, we could only manage a silly iPhone selfie
Opened in 2011, Rainforest Camp is still one of the only floating tented camps in the world. Powered by solar and wind energy and using a unique waste management system, the camp is a model of low-impact accommodation.
And we had the wild neighbors to prove it. We might have left the elephants behind at Elephant Camp, but we still had monkeys prancing in the jungle behind our camp and fish darting around and below our tents. And there was way more going on than what we were lucky to see — just lookwhat gets caught on Elephant Hill’s hidden cameras!
Inside the tents, however, was a human-only zone. Somehow, thought I didn’t think it would be possible, I loved these tents even more than the ones we’d spent the previous evening in.
And we got right down to the business of enjoying them.
After a few hours of chill time, those who wanted to join for the afternoon’s jungle trek were rounded up and set off in boats bound for the shore.
As we touched down on land again, our guide began to elaborate on the fraught history of the land beneath our feet.
The story began in 1944, when a deadly epidemic wiped out almost the entire population of the Khao Sok region. The village became known as Ban Sop, or Village of the Dead, lying in the shadow of a nearby mountain known as Khao Sop, or Corpse Mountain. The morbid name was later rebranded to Khao Sok.
In 1961, the region was forever changed by construction of the 401, the first and only highway connecting Phang Nga and Surat Thani Provinces. Needless to say, the untouched wilderness of Khao Sok suffered.
In the 1970’s, tragedy struck Khao Sok again. In Thailand, October 6th, 1976 will always be remembered with sadness — it was the day of the military government’s fatal attack on student protesters at Thammasat University in Bangkok. The forty one recorded deaths are suspected, in fact, to be a low estimate. In response to the massacre, hundreds of students fled to Khao Sok, fearing for their lives. The deep, untouched forest provided cover for the newly-formed insurgency groups who buried explosives and patrolled the area with gunfire. The very caves we were hiking through provided shelter from air raids by the Thai military.
The rebels formed an unexpected sanctuary for the environment — they may have been aiming to keep the army away, but they also scared off loggers, hunters and miners for the seven years they controlled the area. In 1982, the government changed hands, and the students slowly returned to their lives. Allegedly, the last of the rebels left Khao Sok in 1989.
Thanks to the unintended protection of this unlikely ally, Khao Sok staved off development and exploitation long enough for the National Parks Division to take notice. With many rare species of flora and fauna (including the spiders I was very unwillingly sharing the previously mentioned caves with), Khao Sok was announced Thailand’s 22nd National Park in 1980.
But the area wasn’t done changing. Around the same time Khao Sok was applying for National Park status, EGAT (the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) discovered that Khao Sok was the largest watershed in southern Thailand. And so, before objections could be raised by the area’s newfound status, a massive portion of the National Park was intentionally flooded to create a 165km2 reservoir for generating hydro-electricity. Today, this reservoir is known as Cheow Larn Lake.
The flooding was a tragedy for wildlife. Many animals, including elephants, were forced into islands created by the rising water levels, and EGAT attempted the largest rescue in Thailand’s history… which was, unfortunately, largely unsuccessful. Of 1,364 “rescued” animals, the majority died of stress and the rest were relocated into areas overpopulated by other refugees.
It was a rocky, controversy and scandal-paved road that led Khao Sok to where it is today — 739 square kilometers of protected land that is a popular eco-tourism destination, and a sustainable source of hydro-electric power for much of Southern Thailand.
Back at camp, we marveled at an absolute stunner of a sunset and the fact that we could leap off our porch into its reflection in the water, if we wanted to. It had been the perfect day.
At Elephant Camp, the lush surroundings hid the fact that there was indeed a highway not quite too far away and at night, you could hear the occasional truck passing by the main road. But here a Rainforest Camp, this, this was pure peace.
In the morning, we sprung out of our tents for one final breakfast. I have to give kudos to Elephant Hills for being super accommodating to various diets — I had marked on our intake form that I eat no seafood and there was always plenty of variety for me, and others in the group with special dietary needs were also well tended to.
After, we had a bit of free time to go for a final adventure — a kayak down a snaking arm of the lake. We were kicking ourselves the entire time for not reserving the four day tour, which would have tacked on another night at Rainforest Camp, along with 24 hours to pretty much just kick around at your leisure. If I have one piece of advice for anyone heading to this particular experience, it’s to make room in your budget and itinerary for one more night!
At around 20,000B (about $560) for three days, this experience is not for those on a shoestring budget. However, when you consider the included transfers especially, and use Khao Sok as a stopover between Thailand’s two coasts, it represents pretty great value. The only things not included are soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, tips, souvenirs, and extras like the foot massages offered at Elephant Camp (heck yes I had one!). The included transfers will pick you up and drop you off door-to-door in Phuket, Khao Lak, Phang Nga, Krabi, Surat Thani or even from Koh Samui.
When to come? Well, basically, whenever you have a trip planned to Thailand. “Green season,” as Elephant Hills optimistically refers to Khao Sok’s monsoon, lasts from May to October, and comes with cooler temperatures, lush green foliage, and higher chances of spotting wildlife. The least busy months are May, June, September and October, so book then if you want to have the place to yourself!
We had so much fun on this trip that we made a little video! I’ve hardly been giving my GoPro HERO3+
the loving it deserves lately, and so I was super excited to bring it along on this trip. It’s hard to switch back and forth from photo to video mode (for me at least!) but we got some really fun shots and I laugh every time I watch this video — and not just because an elephant tried to eat my camera.
As filled with natural beauty as Thailand can be, it can also be a chaotic and overwhelming place. Our days in Khao Sok were so refreshing and recharging, I left feeling more connected with nature and myself than I had in months.
It was a reminder of something I wish I didn’t have to be reminded of so often — sometimes there’s nothing more important in the world than to unplug, disconnect, and listen to water lapping against your tent, monkeys playing in the trees, your best friend laughing at a story, a paddle hitting the surface of a lake, or best of all — the rare and beautiful sound of nothing.
And with that, we were back to home sweet home — Koh Tao!
I was a guest of Elephant Hills in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill.
If you follow me on Facebook or on Instagram, you’ve probably already heard my big announcement: I’m going to Bali!
Best of all? You can come with me! I vowed that I wasn’t going to travel anywhere in March… but then I got an offer that was just too good to refuse. I’m incredibly excited to be attending an immersive coding retreat with The Institute of Code from March 3-13th. For ten days we’ll be staying in a gorgeous villa, waking up to poolside yoga, digging into some delicious website creation, and exploring Bali on our breaks! After years of having to turn to a developer for every little issue on my blog, I cannot wait to feel empowered to just do it myself!
Want to join? (Who wouldn’t?) There are still spaces available for the retreat I’m attending, so check out the details here and shoot me an email if you have any questions. Ahhhhh… I literally cannot wait!
When you live on a tiny tropical island, it’s going to the mainland that actually feels like a vacation. Which is why it was one of my highlights of 2016, way back at the beginning of it, to finally visit Khao Sok National Park.
After a wine tour around Khao Yai, a weekend in Bangkok, and a getaway in Hua Hin, I’d finally arrived on last stop on my big winter trip around Thailand. After Hua Hin, Ian headed back to Koh Tao, and Janine tapped back in as my travel buddy. We’d only been apart for a few days but we were thrilled to be back on the road together, and excitedly reunited at the Surat Thani train station after an overnight rail journey on my part and an overnight boat ride on hers.
There, we were met by a driver who whisked us away to Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills. Spoiler alert: yup, there were real live elephants involved.
I’d been itching to visit Khao Sok National Park for years — it’s a popular getaway among Koh Tao expats — and while there is a wide variety of accommodation there for all budgets, I’d always been drawn to Elephant Hills, arguably the most unique and luxurious option in the area.
Here, deep in the Thai mainland, luxury doesn’t mean a soul-less corporate chain hotel. Nope, it means a lovingly crafted safari tent perched alongside a lush river. Elephant Hills consists of two tented camps: Elephant Camp in the Khao Sok jungle, and Rainforest Camp floating on Cheow Lan Lake.
We were on the Jungle Lake Safari package, a three-day-and-two-night-tour with one night at each camp.
Our tent, one of thirty-five that make up Elephant Camp, was stunning. Attention was paid to every detail, and we felt like we were on a true adventure safari. While the luxury tent concept is obviously wildly popular in Africa and catching on in other parts of the world as well — I’ve glamped in places as far flung as Peru and as local as Upstate New York — it’s fairly unique to Southeast Asia. In fact, Elephant Hills was the very first luxury tented camp in Thailand!
Elephant Hills is more than just a place to lay your head at night. All visits there are part of comprehensive tour packages that include accommodation, all meals, activities, a tour guide, and most impressively, transfers to and from several of Southern Thailand’s most popular hot spots. The location combined with the convenient transfers make it the perfect stopover when hopping between Thailand’s two coasts.
While we had a busy itinerary of activities ahead, we were grateful that before lunch we had some down-time to lose it over the amazingess of our tent, gossip by the pool, and get excited about the days ahead.
At noon, we were summoned for a beautiful buffet lunch. Over several of our favorite Thai dishes, we chatted with both our tour guide and the other travelers who had made their way to Elephant Hills.
After lunch, it was time for our first adventure: a jungle river canoe trip down the Sok River.
We were pumped to paddle our own canoes, but quickly adjusted to relaxation mode when we realized local river guides would be doing the heavy lifting. The water levels were very low — one of the guides told me they were just days away to switching to a further away rafting location — and so it was a very chill float.
That left all our energy to focus on the stunning scenery of limestone karsts in the background, and to be on the lookout for wildlife in the foreground. We didn’t spot much aside from some frogs and snakes, but I couldn’t get enough of the natural beauty of the area.
After, we’d make our way to the Elephant Hill’s namesake draw — it’s elephants! Canoeing was lovely, but let’s be real — we were all there for the pachyderms.
As we giddily piled into the decommissioned military vehicles that whisked us around Khao Sok, Janine and I could barely contain our elephant-induced excitement.
Elephants certainly aren’t hard to find in Thailand, but unfortunately ethical animal encounters are.
The tide is turning on the idea of tourists riding elephants. On my first trip to Southeast Asia in 2009, I cluelessly rode an elephant at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and found it fairly underwhelming — there was very little interaction with the animal to enjoy. In 2013, I visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where I learned about the cruel domestication system known as the phajaan which all elephants destined for riding must endure. Days of claustrophobic confinement and brutal beatings break the spirit of the elephant and the fear of pain it learns allows it to be ridden by tourists and perform tricks for the rest of its life. I knew then I’d never to ride an elephant again.
I wasn’t alone. In 2014, Intrepid Tours announced they were no longer offering elephant rides on their tour itineraries. In 2016, a man was killed by a captive elephant on Koh Samui, and across the border at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, an elephant dropped dead of a heart attack after fifteen years of carrying tourists day in and day out (my heart broke wondering if I’d been among them.) Pressure from those incidents, among others, prompted Tripadvisor and their partner Viator to cease ticket sales for all elephant riding experiences. The same year, I attempted to find the elusive elephant in the wild by journeying to Khao Yai National Park, home of the largest remaining wild elephant population in Asia. While my mission wasn’t technically successful, it was an unforgettable adventure. But yet I stillcraved another elephant encounter.
And then I learned of Elephant Hills. Once upon a time they too offered elephant rides, as was standard for Southeast Asian tour companies. Yet in 2010, they made the drastic decision to cease riding entirely in their continuous efforts to create an experience as enjoyable for the elephants as it is for the guests. And what they designed is an interaction that is far more rewarding and respectful than simply sitting on an elephant’s back.
We started with the way to any elephant’s heart — food. As hungry trunks poked around wooden pavilion we were gathered in, we chopped up fruit, sugarcane, bamboo and other pachyderm favorites. Then, with the blessing of their mahouts, or trainers, we had the thrill of feeding them.
My favorite part? Aside from seeing and feeling the power and dexterity of those gorgeous trunks, it was seeing how each elephant really had their own preference when it came to snack time! My girl was a big fan of pineapple — I knew we were going to get along great.
Next, we gathered round and watched while the elephants played in the mud. This actually may have been one of my favorite parts of the day — just kicking back and watching the elephants do their thing the way they would in the wild.
Finally, it was bath time, and we scrubbed our muddy buddies down with coconut husks and hoses and squealed with joy as they used their trunks to rinse off their backs (just wait until you see the video!) One broke off for a five minute back scratch against a tree. We might have been following a well-coreographed itinerary, but the elephants were basically just doing their thing — and I loved it.
Finally, we gathered around to learn a little bit about the special relationship between mahout and elephant. All of the residents of Elephant Hills were rescued from either illegal logging operations (an industry banned in 1989 in Thailand) or cruel sectors of the “entertainment” industry. Rather than separate the elephants from the mahouts they know and trust, Elephant Hills offered these men and their families the opportunity to move to Khao Sok to continue working with their beloved animal companions.
While all the mahouts must adhere to certain standards set by the company, Elephant Hills also wanted to provide these men with some autonomy, which means that many of them still chose to ride the elephants at their necks and some use so-called “bull hooks” to steer the elephants. Purists may sneer at that choice and I have to admit that I didn’t love to see the hooks in use. But considering the alternatives, I’d say these are still some of the luckiest elephants in Southeast Asia.
There are currently around just 3,000 wild elephants left in Thailand, with another 3,500 or so in captivity. Sadly, there just isn’t enough wilderness left in Thailand to provide home for those captive creatures, even if the country woke up tomorrow and decided to return them there. The outlawing of logging in 1989 effectively created a crisis of elephant unemployment, and tourism swooped in to provide for the enormous food bills these animals rack up. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of wrong turns on that road.
But we can course correct. Now that I myself have had my eyes opened, I plan to pass it on by participating in ethical elephant encounters and promoting them here on Alex in Wanderland. Elephant Hills has won awards for animal welfare and for conservation, and I applaud them for their continuous efforts to try to provide better lives for the elephants in their care — during my visit, I was shown plans for expanding the elephant’s private sleeping area, a project that guests won’t even get a peek at, but will make on crew of elephants pretty pleased.
While I’ve been a big proponent of Elephant Nature Park over the years, I am thrilled to also now have a positive elephant experience to recommend in Southern Thailand, for those who may not be making it all the way north to Chiang Mai.
Feeding, washing, and interacting with Asia’s largest land animal? Yeah, I’d say that’s going to be a highlight of almost anyone’s year. Doing it with one of my favorite humans? Even better!
Back at Elephant Camp, we retreated to our tents to get ready for the evening entertainment. While we spent most of the night gossiping over a glass of wine, we did peek in and enjoy some of the numerous official offerings including nature documentaries, a cute traditional Thai dance performance by kids from the local school, and a Thai cooking demonstration (they post the menus online in case you had too much wine — er, have a bad memory.)
After another lovely meal we eagerly retired to our tent where we fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle and the memories of the elephants we’d met that day.
Stay tuned for our journey onward to Rainforest Camp! How important is it for you to find ethical animal encounters when you travel?
I was a guest of Elephant Hills in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill.
To visit a favela or not to visit a favela: it’s a controversial decision many travelers to Rio will ponder at some point or another.
Critics call it poverty tourism, proponents say it de-stigmatizes and brings income to marginalized communities. Even amongst my own peers, there’s discord. Friends from South Africa have made me cross my heart that I’ll never take a township tour, and some of my Brazilian friends strongly discouraged me from visiting a favela as well. Their concerns were not for my safety, but rather that tourists create a “human zoo” by paying to ogle at the darkest side of economic inequality. That, I wanted no part of.
And yet, pretending favelas don’t exist also seemed cruel in its own way. I desperately wanted to be educated, to be exposed, to experience multiple sides of Brazil. After much research and reflection, Heather and I decided we were going to visit a favela in Rio de Janeiro — and that the most respectful way to do so would be to take a walking tour with a small, locally owned company. (Big, drive-by tours in armored vehicles were out from the get go, obviously.)
There are many favelas in Rio. We chose to visit Santa Marta for several reasons. First, it was literally within walking distance of our hostel in Botafogo, and we were eager to explore the neighborhood we were staying in. Second, as artists, we were magnetically drawn to the popular mural project at the base of the favela and were excited to see it in person. Third, we found a locally-owned, ethically-run and reasonably priced walking tour with Tour Santa Marta.
We met our guide at a petrol station across the street from Santa Marta. We were pleased to learn we’d lucked out with a private tour, which meant we’d have no distractions from the bajillion questions we were planing to pepper our guide with.
And Pedro was more than happy to answer them. When he first approached us, we did a double take at how young he appeared to be. Later, when Pedro was flipping through his backpack I noted several textbooks, and he confirmed he was attending university nearby using his earnings from tour guiding. Based on his amazing English, I could only imagine his studies were going well.
Pedro explained we’d start the tour with a ride up to the top of the favela via cable car, and wind our way slowly back down on foot. Chiago, the owner of the small tour company, met us briefly to say hello and invite us to stop by his home in the favela on our way back.
As we approached the cable car, I noticed a small piece of street art and reached for my camera, only to realize I’d made the day’s massive face-palm: I left the battery charging back in our hostel room. To my surprise, Pedro translated that Chiago was a photography aficionado and had offered to quickly run home to see if he had a spare on the same size. A favela-dweller with a dSLR camera collection? Our misconceptions were already being broken down.
After an initial bout of the blues I realized it was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Heather, with her journalism background, is much more comfortable and skilled at taking photos in sensitive situations. Frankly, I’d been stressing even before we arrived. Freed from my discomfort and my obligation to take photos, I could focus fully on the experience. So with the exception of a few iPhone snaps, full credit for the photos in this post go to the talented Heather Holt.
As we disembarked from the cable car, a gift from the government to the favela upon pacification, we marveled at the amazing views over the city. Pedro laughed when we commented what high real estate prices vistas like this would command in the US, and countered that the top of the favela was actually traditionally the least desirable, as pre-cable car, it was a difficult slog up the steep hill on foot.
Santa Marta was the first of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas to be pacified back in 2008. Pacification refers to the government’s plan to wrest control of the favelas from drug dealers and gangs and hand it to a special police force known as the UPP, or the Pacifying Police Unit in English. The results have been mixed, but in Santa Marta, once one of the most violent slums in Rio, it’s almost impossible not to see the changes as positive.
Favelas have been a part of life in Rio since the late 1800’s. The word favela comes from the favela tree, a plant that, ominously, causes skin irritations to all those who come in contact with it. The moniker stuck for the communities mushrooming up all over Rio, populated by former slaves, poverty-stricken squatters, and soldiers who had nowhere else to go.
With 22% of Rio’s population living in them, favelas are an unmistakable facet of Brazilian life. At 8,000 residents, Santa Marta is on the small side.
Pedro’s fascinating stories were regularly paused to greet friends and acquaintances as we walked. From tiny tots calling his name and running over to ask for help finding their cats to the local barber stopping him to discuss football scores, it truly felt that Pedro knew every single person in Santa Marta.
And we weren’t left out. One of my favorite moments of the day was when we walked by a street-side barbecue and an older gentleman called Pedro over to try some, and translated through him his absolute insistence that Heather and I have a taste as well. With Heather being a vegetarian, I thought it only polite to eat enough for both of us!
Pedro explained that Chiago had created the tour company to change the conversation on favelas. Born and raised in Santa Marta, he wanted to show the world the energetic, vibrant community that he loved and continues to live in to this day by choice.
That spirit we were starting to understand was introduced to many in the world when Michael Jackson and Spike Lee traveled to Santa Marta in 1996 to film scenes for Jackson’s controversial music video They Don’t Really Care About Us. The government initially opposed the project and they pushed forward regardless, hiring residents as extras in the video and making Jackson a hero to the community in the process. Pedro proudly showed us the football field where Jackson’s helicopter had landed for filming, and the mural and statue the community built in his honor after.
Around the statue there were a handful of ramshackle souvenir-shops with locally-produced art and gifts, as well as a few small bodegas and snack shops.
Knowing that Santa Marta was the first pacified favela and continues to be one of the safest in the city, I frankly didn’t have any security-related qualms whatsoever about visiting. However, we got a serious reality check when, moments after stepping into a local shop to browse, we heard shouting and commotion out the door. While the owner of the shop smiled and tried to distract us, our hearts pounded as we pressed our faces to the window and saw military police with assault rifles aggressively shoving a local resident to the ground.
Just drug related, Pedro later assured us.
It was a reminder that yes, Santa Marta was once one of the most violent slums in the city and many people died here in bloody shootouts. In one of the most poignant physical symbols of change, bullet holes still dot the colorfully painted walls of a former day care center, now HQ for the Pacified Police Unit.
As our heart rates returned to normal we continued to ply Pedro with questions. In turn, he volleyed them right back at us, asking everything about where we live, what we studied, our travels, and beyond. Soon it felt like we were being shown around by a friend.
That feeling was only reinforced when we arrived at Chiago’s house. He offered us juice and showed us photos of famous visitors he’d welcomed to the favela, big names from Madonna to Vin Diesel to Alicia Keys and beyond. I marveled at how lucky we were to be seated in that cozy living room, invited guests in world that seems so mysterious to so many.
As we continued our descent down the hill, I reflected on how the day was different from my expectations.
I’d read so many posts from my fellow travel bloggers about their favela experiences before arriving that frankly, they’d all started to run together in my head and I’d even started to feel blasé about the entire experience. After reading about nightclubs and hostels opening in some favelas, and the growing concerns of gentrification, I think I half arrived expecting some sort of hip facsimile of Bushwick. Um, yeah, guys — I’m guessing you don’t need a spoiler warning for this, but Santa Marta is no Brooklyn.
So while many visitors to favelas seem to have their eyes opened to the fact that these are tight-knit, supportive communities with a lot to be proud of, I kind of already went in expecting that. Instead, what humbled me were the bullet-hole riddled reminders of gun violence, the relentless smell of open sewage, and walking paths carved out of mountains and rivers of garbage. Having just come from a morning of hang-gliding over some of Rio’s plushest ocean-side manors in São Conrado, it was quite the contrast. I’ve been exposed to poverty many times in my travels. And yet, my eyes were wide open to it here.
The further down we traveled in the favela, the more “cleaned up” it felt. Soon, we were almost back down at sea level, and we found ourselves face to face with the mural project that had partially inspired us to visit Santa Marta in the first place.
Just look at this beautiful work! The project was pioneered by two Dutch artists who lived in the favelas for some time and eventually hired local youths to bring their paint-swatch daydreams to life. The project energized and made proud the local community, Pedro assured us with a smile. In fact, the same favelas that residents were once dying, literally, to get out of, have become desirable real estate that some are actually moving into by choice.
Earlier I mentioned that Santa Marta was within walking distance of our hostel. Santa Marta is in Botafogo, which felt like an entirely different city than the one we’d later experience in Copacabana and Ipanema. We loved our time there and I was sad to learn that our hip hostel, Oztel, has permanently shuttered — so I won’t be writing a full review of it. Admittedly, we had several issues there that in retrospect didn’t look promising for its future, but shucks — isn’t it cute?
Had we had more time at Oztel, I would have happily returned to the base of the Santa Marta for dinner or drinks. We’d actually booked a favela nightlife tour for later in the trip to see yet another side of favela life — with a different company — but had to cancel due to travel burnout and the worst hangovers of our lives (ugh). While I can no longer recommend Oztel specifically, I highly recommend considering a few nights in Botafogo, which is the perfect base for exploring Santa Marta.
Favela tourism, I predict, will only continue to grow. If you are coming to Rio, I gently encourage you to do some research to find the right fit for you. I never feared for my safety, just for the possibility that I was being unintentionally disrespectful or voyeuristic — however my concerns were quickly assuaged upon arrival.
I believe Chiago had amazing intentions of supporting his family and his community when he started this business, and that Pedro is a fabulous tour guide and all around cool dude to hang with. He even invited us to a football match the next evening with his friends, which we regretfully had to decline because we had other plans. How many tour guides have you ever had that are so friendly?
So, do you need to do a tour? We did see two girls who appeared to just be wandering around without a guide, which in Santa Marta is totally possible to do. However, we felt the most respectful way to visit was to be led by a member of the local community, and had we just gone for a stroll we never would have left with such an informed understanding of the social and economic dynamics of the neighbhood.
Tour Santa Marta offers two hour tours twice a day, at 10am or 2pm, for a minimum of two person, at a cost of 100R per person ($32USD).
What I took away from this experience, in addition to a profound respect for people who manage to live with dignity regardless of their external circumstances, was a reminder that the world is so very small. From Brazil to Bangkok to Brooklyn, gentrification brings both the blessings of stability and de-marginalization but also the curses of scrutiny and rising prices, and people everywhere are just trying their darndest to find a balance between the two.
Only time will tell what the future holds for the community of Santa Marta. But in this present moment, I feel grateful for the opportunity to have been welcomed into it, if only for an afternoon.
What do you think? Would you visit a favela in Brazil?
Thank you again to Heather Holt Photography for the photos in this post. We paid full price for our tours and I was not compensated for this review.
Picture this: Your plane lands. You collect your baggage and walk bleary-eyed to the car rental counter, groaning as you see the line that snakes around the corner. When you finally make it to the front, you make dreaded small talk with the counter agent while they tap away on a keyboard until, finally, you have keys in hand, and trudge out to your vehicle.
Or how about this.
Your plane lands, and you turn your iPhone on. You open up the Avis Now app while the plane taxis, and with a few swipes you have a car reserved before the pilot turns off the fasten seat belt sign. You walk directly to the lot, locate your vehicle, and unlock it using your phone. You cackle as you pull out of the lot, leaving dozens of less savvy travelers in your dust.
Avis’s new mobile app puts customers in the driver’s seat – literally and figuratively—to control every detail of their rental through their smart phones using cutting-edge technology. Book, pickup, and return, all without ever waiting in a line.
In short, you book, confirm, cancel, and even extend a rental all with a few swipes of the iPhone screen. But that’s just the beginning.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that some of the features in the Avis Now app are going to shake up the car rental industry: they beat everyone to the punch in synching with connected vehicles so that they can be locked and unlocked via the Avis Now app, which is my personal favorite feature. You can even flash the headlights to help find the car if you’re lost.
Once the car is located, you can take it or leave it. If you’ve spontaneously decided to upgrade to an SUV or feel passionately about matching your ride to your snazzy outfit (it happens), swipe and choose a replacement in real time from a view of all vehicles available in the lot at that moment.
Curious to see how it all works? Check out this quick YouTube video highlighting the app’s key features.
The Avis Now app is free — you just need to sign up for an Avis Preferred account to use it, which is also free. Avis Preferred is the Company’s express rental/loyalty program, so you’ll also earn points with each booking which can be redeemed for rental upgrades and optional add-ons.
Room for Improvement
My only complaint? I want to use it even more!
Avis Now was just released in July, and with over 5,000 Avis rental locations in more than 165 countries, it isn’t yet available at all Avis locations – but it is becoming more widely available all the time. Avis Now can currently be used at more than 60 locations across the United States, and gradually will become available in other countries as well. When you’re searching locations in the app, just look for those designated “Avis Preferred,” and you’re good to go.
I just booked my first road trip using Avis Now, which you’ll hear more about later this month. It was insanely easy and intuitive, and I can’t wait to geek out over unlocking my car with my iPhone! I’m confident I’ll be on the road faster and easier than I ever have been before.
Avis claims this app was “co-created with customers,” and it shows. I feel like while I was sleeping an app developer snuck into my room, scanned my brain, took every frustration I’ve had with a car rental since I first got my license, and found some way to solve it.
In the last year I’ve had a lot of car rental issues that were such hassles and are now made obsolete by the development of this app. Want your rental a few more days? No phone call necessary – just swipe to extend. Don’t like the car you were assigned? No need to wait in line – just swipe for another one.
In the past I have always hesitated to really be loyal to a single car rental agencies and really just gone wherever the best price pointed me. Because frankly? There wasn’t a point of differentiation great enough not to. Now? I kinda think there is.
Download Avis Now on your Android here and on your iPhone here. I was compensated for my time in reviewing this app.
Hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro was just one of those things I had to do. Back when I was a distracted student sketching maps of Brazil in the back of my math notebooks, I must have come across a guidebook or an early blog post that highlighted it as a top attraction — because while I can’t pinpoint where or when I first heard about it, hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro has been a must in my mind for as long as I can remember.
Lucky for me, Heather was enthusiastically onboard. She was also, with very little convincing, wiling to wear matching Brazilian flag leggings with me. And this is why I love Heather.
No, this is not the face of a girl who’s totally sold on the idea of running off a cliff.
Little time had passed since we were whisked from our hostel doorstep to the white sand beaches of São Conrado, the epicenter of hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro. A strip of glide shops formed a neat row along the beach, and we were directed into the appropriate one to sign waivers, pay 30R (about $10USD) in fees, and get matched up with an instructor. Then we were back in the van, winding our way up to the launch point in Tijuca National Park, the largest urban forest in the world.
Although I was incredibly impressed with how organized, efficient, double-checked and safety-focused the whole affair was, the idea of flinging myself off a mountain was starting to seem suspect. Despite of, or perhaps because of, the expression on my face, I was the first one called forward to fly, and after receiving the world’s shortest briefing — which literally consisted of “keep running until you don’t feel the ground under your feet anymore” — I started to sprint.
And soon I couldn’t feel the ground any more.
The adrenaline rush of the launch was overwhelming, but within moments my heart-rate returned to something resembling normal and I was struck how peaceful it was, up there among the clouds.
While I admired the view, my instructor expertly navigated us using the wind. That’s the beauty of flying tandem — you pretty much have your own private air chauffeur and you can just kick back and focus on making thumbs up signs and flashing peace fingers at the camera. (Why, Universe, why is must this be my default?)
Rio de Janeiro has no shortage of incredible views, but these were particularly impressive. Not only could we make out our friend Christo Redentor in the distance, but we also had front row seats for Pão de Acuçar, the lush Mata Atlantica forest, and of course the white sands of several of the city’s most famous beaches.
We also had a poignant vantage point of Rio’s infamous gap between extreme poverty and opulent wealth. In one direction, we gazed at the infamous Rocinha Favela; in other, the ocean-front mansions of São Conrado. If you do want a voyeuristic look at the houses (and pools!) of Brazil’s rich and famous, you can’t ask for a better bird’s eye view.
The final challenge? Landing. Again, on my part it involved little more than simply running till I was told not to. For an “adventure sport,” I was sure taking it easy up there.
And then we were back on land — or sand, rather. While my instructor took care of our harnesses and rig, I ordered up two fresh coconuts and waited to cheer Heather’s landing on.
She rocked it! Once reunited, we giddily recounted every moment of our experiences, and gave ourselves some serious high-fives for checking another adrenaline rush off our travel wish lists.
Unfortunately, we soon encountered our one and only complaint about the tour we’d booked. We carefully selected a package that said “photos and videos included,” and technically, there were some photos and videos included, our instructors explained to us while we perfected our mutual RBFs. The gliders are set up with two GoPros, and the included photos and video clips are from only the front camera. The side camera shots will run you an extra 100R (around $32USD). Also, they give them to you on a DVD unless you pony up 20R (around $7 USD) extra for a USB or memory card.
Considering we were traveling with approximately twenty-seven USB sticks and memory cards between us, we were pretty annoyed we hadn’t been given a heads up in order to bring our own. And we were extremely irritated that the photography exclusions weren’t clear when we booked. I begrudgingly paid for the extra photos, which to his credit my instructor gave to me on memory card that he didn’t charge me for, in order to smooth out the situation. Considering it was an expensive experience, being nickeled-and-dimed at the end didn’t feel good. It definitely left a bitter taste in our mouths to feel like we’d been mislead, so if you’re heading to Rio and booking a hang gliding package, just clarify exactly what’s included before hand.
Three hours later, we were back where we started on the steps of our hostel. Our photo frustrations aside, I loved this experience and would recommend our tour package. The ease of transportation (our driver offered to drop us at Ipanema or Copacabana beaches if we preferred, which was lovely), the efficiency with which we got up and off the mountain and the high safety standards all left us impressed.
After so many years of anticipation, and so many other amazing adrenaline-inducing experiences in between, it would have been easy to be let down by this one. But nope, hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro lived up to every math class I ever daydreamed about it through.
As I told Heather that morning… it’s a beautiful day to leap off a cliff!
I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!
It’s no secret that I’m traveling less than usual this year. But that doesn’t mean I’m planning to sit around in a bathrobe, drink breakfast cocktails while cackling at the morning news and watching the world burn. (Though now that I write it, it is tempting…)
Nope, 2017 is going to be my year of learning.
I’ve always loved being a student, and in the last few years I’ve focused a ton of energy on my dive education, and loved every scantron-bubble-filling moment of it. This year, I’m turning my attention to another kind of learning: blogging and business.
I know to some of you, that literally couldn’t be more of a snooze fest. But I also know there are plenty of you who are interested in entrepreneurship, and so I’m excited to share little bits about this journey along the way. In fact, I’ll be making a pretty major announcement in my newsletter later today about a ten day learning retreat I just enrolled in… if you want to be the first to know, sign up in my sidebar or at the end of this post right now!
In the meantime, I’ll tell you about the online course I kicked off the year with. This is the one course that I’ve prioritized for the year that is truly specific to travel blogging; the rest have a less targeted audience.
Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards: A Guide to Successful Partnerships
I knew I wanted to take this course as soon as I saw who wrote it: my friend and fellow blogger Amanda of A Dangerous Business. Amanda is like that really smart and sweet girl from high school who was friends with everybody and you just really always wanted to peek at her project because you were sure she did the assignment better than you — and literally, now you can.
Amanda is one of my most respected peers and I have always admired her business savvy and her pro-activeness in seeking brand partnerships that are the perfect fit for her blog, so I was super excited to hear that she was was spilling her secrets for this special collaboration with Travel Blog Success. With both a degree in hospitality and management and seven years of travel blogging experience, Amanda really knows the ins and outs of the travel industry and has successfully pitched and partnered with a wide range of travel brands and tourism boards (Intrepid Travel, Visit Norway, Marriott, and Visit Scotland, to name a few.)
Travel Blog Success will always have a special place in my heart as the first online course I ever enrolled in, a turning point for me in investing in myself as a business. Over the years they have expanded to offer several satellite courses to the original membership, and as a matter of fact, this weekend they are holding a massive sale for members, so if you’re already enrolled in Travel Blog Success and are interested in investing in another course, there’s never been a better time to do it (more on that later!)
Those who read Alex in Wanderland regularly know that I already work with brands and tourism boards on a regular basis. However, as someone who has been totally self-taught, I wanted a “tune up” course to reflect on the methods I’m currently using, find a renewed sense of focus, and think about being more proactive in business for the year ahead.
Module 1: An Introductionlays out the key terminology and helps lay ground guidelines for when to start pitching and to whom to pitch.
Module 2: Media Kits was the module I personally took the most away from. It includes detailed information and examples on what and what not to put into your media kit, design ideas, and how to best market yourself. Includes media kits of big name bloggers.
Module 3: Pitchingcovers crafting the perfect pitch, finding contacts at the companies you wish to pitch to, samples of successful email pitches that worked, how to follow up and how to handle rejection.
Module 4: Sponsored trips is mostly about setting expectations for what sponsored trips really are (AKA, kryptonite to introverts or anyone who needs personal space or quiet time not to go crazy), but also includes incredibly helpful details and examples of wrap-up reports for presenting at the conclusion of a campaign.
Module 5: Social Campaigns introduces the concept of social media only campaigns, of which I have been offered several over the years. Instagram and Snapchat are the focus, but there’s info on all channels.
Module 6: Brand Ambassadorshipstalks through the holy grail of brand ambassadorships — and includes an interview with your truly!
Module 7: In Depth Interviews shares the real life experiences of Adventures Kate, Expert Vagabond, Borders of Adventure, and a PR expert. Two are video interviews that are also presented in transcript form.
Module 8: Conclusion wraps things up.
Whether you’re interested in scoring press trip invites and receiving products, designing your own campaigns, or just pitching the occasional quick projects, you’ll find what you need to get the wheels turning here. Once you land a pitch, this course guides you on how to carry out out projects with utmost professionalism.
While Amanda is very generous with her own experience, she also shares the perspectives of other top bloggers and PR industry experts.
Just like the Travel Blog Success main course, Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards includes access to a private Facebook group, where we gossip, ask questions, offer feedback, and talk all things blogging and social media partnerships.
How Long Will It Take?
I started and stopped a timer every time I finished reading a module and taking notes, and came it at just under two hours. Keep in mind that’s from the perspective of someone who is a very fast reader, a thorough note taker, and also has some experience in this field.
Now I have several hours of action to take from my notes ahead, which in my case will include overhauling my media kit, designing a campaign wrap up report, implementing a few new tools and apps I learned about, and acting on a few brainstorms I had while reading. I’d say you could knock out the coursework in a very busy weekend, though bloggers new to pitching and starting this process from scratch will probably take more away from it by spreading it out over a week, completing one module per day, and giving the ideas some time to sink in.
What I Loved
I enjoyed that this course really unapologetically targets the intermediate blogger. Too new, and you likely don’t have an audience to leverage yet. (Though even if you’re not quite to the pitching and partnering stage yet, you may wish to look ahead and see what mistakes to avoid along the way.) Too established, and you risk not taking away anything new. Though frankly, based on the to-do list I walked away with, it’s certainly not a problem I had.
If you’re looking for concrete examples of and step-by-step guides on how to create pitches, media kits, campaign conclusion reports, and actionable tips on apps and products to use along the way (I literally downloaded two apps and started using two new programs that I already feel revolutionized my workflow from the moment I finished this course), you’ll find them here. If you’re wondering what press trips are really like, you’ll have your expectations set — and read an example itinerary.
I nodded along to so many clever tips and tricks that took me years to figure out on my own. For example? I really appreciated Amanda’s insights on how to reflect your stats in a way that is both savvy to you and honest to the brand you are pitching, such as showing total pageviews of all time instead of per month, or focusing on your rate of growth as opposed to your total followers.
As someone who firmly believes that bad pitching from bloggers who aren’t truly ready to partner with brands yet is harmful to the influencer industry, I was a little nervous this course might promote reckless pitching or over-ambitious brand partnerships. Silly me! Amanda keeps it real — she addresses many of my concerns about knowing when you have influence or skills worth leveraging, how to always put your readers first, and how to stay gracious as you grow.
The course has a strong emphasis on proactive pitching rather than accepting what rolls your way, which is just what I needed to absorb right now and is a very inspiring message for me as someone who tends to do the opposite. I feel fired up to dream big!
Room For Improvement
Frankly, there’s not much. I took separate notes with feedback to give to the course creators with anything I thought could be even better and it was a pretty sparse list — mostly just a few suggestions on, like, font styling. You know you’re doing something right when the only advice someone can give you is your bold font isn’t bold enough.
The one area I would have liked to see a little more emphasis would be the downsides of purchasing social media followers and fudging traffic figures. I think it’s something that is super tempting for new bloggers to try but can be really harmful in the long run, and I would love to have seen that more widely addressed.
I’m coming at this review from the unique position of a fairly experienced blogger — one who is actually quoted and interviewed in the course material. So I had a different experience than most of the target audience will, though I was still impressed by how many action points I walked away with and how renewed my focus feels upon completing it.
I learned a lot of what is in this course the hard way, through heartache and rejection and big mistakes. You know what? It might be nice to avoid that! If something like this had been available when my blog was a baby, I would have happily saved myself time, money and missed opportunities by investing in a course like this.
Buy It Now!
At $197, Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards: A Guide to Successful Partnerships is definitely a ponderable purchase. No? Just me? I’m the only one that uses that term? You know, it’s like when you find the absolute perfect pair of jeans but you got lost in the mall and accidentally went to a store where they wrap things in tissue paper and they aren’t in the clearance section and you panic. You just need to go to Auntie Annie’s, get a soft pretzel with extra salt, and ponder that purchase.
If I was the friend shopping with you today, I’d be the one whispering “go for it!” (through a mouthful of pretzel, obviously).
Enrolling in the Travel Blog Success main course was an enormous investment for me, too, when I first signed up all those years ago. But the act of investing in myself was a powerful one and the knowledge I gained and community I joined still serve me to this day. This course specifically is so filled with actionable information, you could realistically recoup the cost with one well-worded pitch for weekend hotel stay.
Plus, are you guys ready for this? For some of my friends here today, this thing is half off.
I know that plenty of you are already enrolled in the Travel Blog Success main course. Great news, if it somehow escaped you so far — it’s the 7th anniversary sale this weekend! Until midnight, you can save 50% on any satellite course, plus an additional 10% if you buy two or more. Just check the latest newsletter for the code (and shoot me a note if you’re a member but for some reason not on the mailing list). The sale applies to all satellite courses, including:
Yes, I’m a proud affiliate of Travel Blog Success and earn a percentage of every sale I recommend. And I’d love to return the favor. So, I’m going to offer a bonus incentive to anyone who buys this course today — I will personally take a peek at your media kit, your “work with me” page or a pitch email of your choice and give you my feedback. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and trust me when I say this blogging gig has attempted to murder me multiple times, so I have lots of strength and side eye to share after five years in the game. Just shoot me an email with your purchase confirmation and you can redeem any time!
Is there another online course you’d like to see me review next? Let me know!
Let’s talk — I’ll answer any questions as best I can in the comments.
Note: I requested a free copy of this program in order to review it for this post, and because I wanted to copy Amanda’s homework. I am a proud affiliate of the Travel Blog Success program and thus will earn a percentage of your purchase at no extra cost to you. As always, you’ve received my honest opinions, thorough reviews, and completely irrelevant TV references, regardless of who is footing the bill.
And one more thing — spots are still available for March slots of my Featured Blogger. Come hang out in my sidebar (plus other perks!) Get in touch for more details.
There are two attractions that are pretty much non-negotiable must-sees for more travelers to Rio — the Cristo Redentor statue, also known as the Christ Redeemer statue, and Pão de Açúcar, also known as Sugarloaf Mountain. Heather and I were no exceptions, and planned to make both a priority during our one week in Rio de Janeiro.
However, we chose to check off each in what I considered especially spectacular fashion.
As a professional photographer and a professional blogger, it pretty much goes without saying that photos are a top priority for Heather and I when we travel (but I went ahead and said it anyway, just in case.) Which is why, despite being very distinctly not morning people — at least not setting-the-alarm-for-before-sunrise-morning-people — we enthusiastically signed on for a Viator Exclusive: Early Access to Christ Redeemer Statue Tour. Photos of Rio’s top attraction without hundreds of our fellow tourists loitering in the background? I could get up early for that.
And so on our first morning in Rio de Janeiro, we sprung out of bed, grabbed our cameras, and set off to meet Jesus — and maybe let him take the wheel (please tell me I have at least one country music fan in this crowd).
Photo by Heather Holt
We were mildly irritated by the three different phone calls back and forth that were required to confirm our tour, but at this point we had grown at least mildly accustomed to the daily miscommunications that were a fact of traveling in Brazil for us. We were also a little bummed that our hostel in Botafogo wasn’t within the pickup zone, which required us to travel in the opposite direction of our final destination in order to reach the designated meeting point for those not on the pickup list, but we just rolled with it.
At 7am, we were scooped up from the meeting point in Copacabana and on our way. Our tour guide Solomon switched seamlessly between English, Portuguese and Spanish for the mini-bus full of travelers from around the Americas, and we settled in for the ride up to Corcovado Mountain.
We reached the ticket gate about ten minutes before the attraction’s opening time, and remarked on the chill at 2,300 feet above sea level — bring a cardigan, friends! As soon as the clock struck 8:00am, we were on the very first official park shuttles from Paineiras (private vehicles cannot go past this point).
When we reached the top, we had the choice of climbing the 220 steps to the top or hoping on the elevator. Heather and I were not shy about practically sprinting onto the elevator in our attempt to be first to the top — and it worked! We probably had a good three or four minutes before the rest of our group appeared, and then another five or six more before another bus-full showed up. It might not sound like much, but if you’re shutter-ready, you can get drool-worthy travel shots in a matter of seconds. When it comes to having one of the world’s top attractions to yourself, every minute matters! We were pretty lucky that things stayed low key the entire hour or so we were onsite.
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo by Heather Holt
When we were finally able to momentarily chill and cede our perfect shot spot for others the snap away at, Solomon filled us in on the history of the iconic statue. Constructed in 1931 from concrete and sandstone and named one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the statue was bigger in our minds than it was in reality — we both remarked we though it would be bigger! Apparently, we don’t have a concept of what 130 feet tall with a 98 foot arm span really translates to.
GoPro fail // Photos by Heather Holt
The morning, like many in Rio, was foggy, giving the city below us an other-worldly feel — but making it somewhat tricky to photograph. Still, the morning light was perfect for photographing the statue, as well as taking portraits in front of it. And of course that was that whole “escaping the crowds” thing going on too — which was made even more successful by the fact that we came on a weekday.
If you still want to beat the crowds and the heat but your priority is taking photos of the view, you might prefer to come in the late afternoon.
Photo by Heather Holt
About as crowded as it got // Photo by Heather Holt
When Solomon finally summoned us we’d had plenty of time to snap statue selfies, soak up the view and enjoy the morning air. We opted to take the steps back down to basecamp, and after getting the okay from our guide, grabbed a morning tea and snack from the overpriced onsite cafe… which we immediately had to frantically chug/inhale because we were told we couldn’t bring them on the shuttle with us. Ha! Cue us asking Solomon why he encouraged us to get hot beverages when we knew we couldn’t bring them onboard and we had to leave urgently that moment, and filing it away in our “We Literally Never Knew What Was Going On Ever in Brazil” folder.
Would I recommend this tour? I’m going to skip yes and just go straight ahead to DUH. Despite some of the logistical hassles, we were just giddy with happiness at at the swoon-worthy photos and exclusive experience we walked away with. I often find myself seized with stress at big crowded tourist attractions, and it was so dang nice to just saunter around the place like had rented the place out for a small private party of ourselves and a dozen friends.
One thing to keep in mind is you will not be taking that cute little cog train up the mountain. We didn’t read the tour description very well and were a little disappointed, so just be aware of the trade-off when booking. A minibus might be little less glamorous than a train car (and a lot more motion sickness inducing, so prepare for that if needed) but in my opinion the compromise is well worth it.
Back at the base of the mountain, it was time to go our separate ways. The tour actually offers an optional upgrade in which you can visit Sugarloaf on the same day, which is awesome for those with limited time, though because we had a whole week we decided to save that for another outing.
Plus, we had big plans for the rest of the day. We decided to forgo our ride back to south Rio and instead take advantage of being up in the north to do a little DIY walking tour of Lapa and Centro using my trusty guidebook to lead the way.
Next stop? Escadaria Selarón! This expansive piece of open-air, public installation art is the brainchild of Chilean-born Jorge Selarón. Began in 1990, the steps lie between the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, and are a popular draw for art-lovers from around the world.
Wandering the steps, I was reminded me of similar mosaic installation projects I’ve seen in Philadelphia and in Utila — each the inspiring work of one dedicated artist. This 215 steps that make up this constantly evolving work of art are covered in tiles from over sixty countries, many of them gifts once Selarón’s project became widely known — in the early days, he scavenged tiles from trash and construction sites and sold paintings to fund the work. Selarón once claimed that “this crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death,” a quote that felt omniscient in retrospect when he was found dead under mysterious circumstances at the top of the stairs.
While many arrive, take a quick glance around, snap a few photos and then leave, Heather and I spent ages on the steps. We moved slowly, admiring the various tiles and excitedly pointing out to each other the ones from destinations we ourselves had visited. We also did some wonderful people watching — the homes along the stairs are still very much occupied, and it was fun to imagine what it must be like to walk along art every day to make it to your front door.
If you want people-free photos on the steps, you’ll have to follow one of my favorite photography tips: be patient. Still on a roll from our successful morning at Cristo Redentor, we were relentlessly persistent while waiting for those brief moments when the steps cleared so we could frame the shots we envisioned. As you can see from Heather’s behind-the-scenes shot below right, it was no easy feat.
But the portraits we took of each other in front of the most famous section of the stairs were well worth the wait.
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo by Heather Holt
One of the things I love about traveling with Heather is seeing how different the world looks through her lens! One thing this chick excels at is portrait photography. Generally, I am far too shy and too nervous to take portraits when I travel, but Heather comes from a journalist background and really makes magic happen when she points her camera at someone. How beautiful are these portraits of the people of Selarón steps?
After spending so long at the steps we basically became honorary locals, it was time to wander on. We meandered over to the nearby Arcos da Lapa, an aqueduct dating back to the 1700s. A local landmark, the aqueduct was architecturally impressive, but we didn’t linger long in the nearly abandoned square. Both of our guards were up and we later agreed that this square was one of the few places in Brazil that we felt uneasy.
Luckily it was a relatively short walk to our next stop, Catedral Metropolitana Church. Our guidebook had a long list of Rio churches to explore, but this one stood out to us as the one must-see. Built in 1976 after over a decade of construction, the cathedral is a textbook example of ultra modern, brutalist architecture. Though we both felt there was a very strong spaceship inspiration going on, we later read the true muse for the cathedral was the Mayan pyramids.
Next up, we made our way to the Theatro Municipal, a stunning theater built in 1905 to mimic the Paris Opera. Though we skipped the guided tours of the ornate interior, we loved admiring the building from the outside, which truly did feel like a piece of France plopped down in the middle of a South American street.
After wandering by a few more museums, churches, and busy downtown streets, we could wait no longer for lunch. We decided to dine at one of Brazil’s famous per kilo buffets, settling on The Line. Bursting with color and set along a busy, narrow alley, we exercised literally zero self control at the buffet and piled our plates as high as can be before nabbing ourselves two outside seats. For both our heaping plates and drinks below, we paid just 40BRL, or about $11 — not a bad deal in pricey Brazil.
Most tourists head to the Christ the Redeemer statue, but few stick around the explore Lapa and Centro during the day. I can’t recommend more highly to start your day with Viator Exclusive: Early Access Tour, and then take advantage of your location and strategically spend a few hours exploring Rio’s under appreciated downtown.
It was the perfect day. We experienced a very, very different side of Rio than what we saw in the southern zone — and both left so glad we set aside time to explore here. And with a dash of patience and the help of the perfect tour, we captured it beautifully in priceless photos.
What’s your secret for getting crowd-free travel photos?
I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!