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!

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 tonight 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!

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.

Floating on a Feeling: One Night at Rainforest Camp

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

And then it was onto the lake, where we hopped into a traditional long tail boat to sightsee.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailandso distracted by our welcome drinks, we could only manage a silly iPhone selfie

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

And we got right down to the business of enjoying them.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, 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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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!

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

And with that, we were back to home sweet home — Koh Tao!

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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.
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Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

Rainforest Camp at Elephant Hills: A Review

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Special Announcement!

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!

Glamping Among The Elephants: A Journey to Khao Sok

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.

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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!

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Bathroom at Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Bathroom at Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, 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.

Outdoor Shower at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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. 

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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!

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

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.

From Bullet Holes to Murals: An Afternoon in Santa Marta Favela

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.)

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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!

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

Oztel Hostel Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Oztel Hostel Rio de Janeiro

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).

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

Santa Marta Favela Tour, Rio de Janeiro

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.

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Car Rentals for Introverts: A Review of the Avis Now App

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.

Avis Now Travel App Review

 

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.

This is Avis Now.

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.

Avis Now Travel App Review

Avis Now Travel App Review

Features 

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.

Avis Now Travel App Review

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.

Avis Now Travel App Review

Avis Now Travel App Review

Price

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.

Avis Now Travel App Review

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.

Avis Now Travel App Review

Avis Now Travel App Review

Conclusion 

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.

Avis Now Travel App Review

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.

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Avis Now Travel App Review

Avis Now Travel App Review

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Download Avis Now on your Android here and on your iPhone here. I was compensated for my time in reviewing this app.