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.

Soaring Over The Land of Samba: Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro was just one of those things I had to do. Back when I was a distracted student sketching maps of Brazil in the back of my math notebooks, I must have come across a guidebook or an early blog post that highlighted it as a top attraction — because while I can’t pinpoint where or when I first heard about it, hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro has been a must in my mind for as long as I can remember.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Lucky for me, Heather was enthusiastically onboard. She was also, with very little convincing, wiling to wear matching Brazilian flag leggings with me. And this is why I love Heather.

This wasn’t my first time testing gravity — I’ve been parasailing on Maui, hot air ballooning in Laos, sky diving on Oahu and helicoptering and prop-plane-ing all over the show. But it was my first time hang-gliding, and I have the nervous-yet-hilarious GoPro shots to prove it.

No, this is not the face of a girl who’s totally sold on the idea of running off a cliff.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Little time had passed since we were whisked from our hostel doorstep to the white sand beaches of São Conrado, the epicenter of hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro. A strip of glide shops formed a neat row along the beach, and we were directed into the appropriate one to sign waivers, pay 30R (about $10USD) in fees, and get matched up with an instructor. Then we were back in the van, winding our way up to the launch point in Tijuca National Park, the largest urban forest in the world.

Although I was incredibly impressed with how organized, efficient, double-checked and safety-focused the whole affair was, the idea of flinging myself off a mountain was starting to seem suspect. Despite of, or perhaps because of, the expression on my face, I was the first one called forward to fly, and after receiving the world’s shortest briefing — which literally consisted of “keep running until you don’t feel the ground under your feet anymore” — I started to sprint.

And soon I couldn’t feel the ground any more.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

The adrenaline rush of the launch was overwhelming, but within moments my heart-rate returned to something resembling normal and I was struck how peaceful it was, up there among the clouds.

While I admired the view, my instructor expertly navigated us using the wind. That’s the beauty of flying tandem — you pretty much have your own private air chauffeur and you can just kick back and focus on making thumbs up signs and flashing peace fingers at the camera. (Why, Universe, why is must this be my default?)

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro has no shortage of incredible views, but these were particularly impressive. Not only could we make out our friend Christo Redentor in the distance, but we also had front row seats for Pão de Acuçar, the lush Mata Atlantica forest, and of course the white sands of several of the city’s most famous beaches.

We also had a poignant vantage point of Rio’s infamous gap between extreme poverty and opulent wealth. In one direction, we gazed at the infamous Rocinha Favela; in other, the ocean-front mansions of São Conrado. If you do want a voyeuristic look at the houses (and pools!) of Brazil’s rich and famous, you can’t ask for a better bird’s eye view.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

The final challenge? Landing. Again, on my part it involved little more than simply running till I was told not to. For an “adventure sport,” I was sure taking it easy up there.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

And then we were back on land — or sand, rather. While my instructor took care of our harnesses and rig, I ordered up two fresh coconuts and waited to cheer Heather’s landing on.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

She rocked it! Once reunited, we giddily recounted every moment of our experiences, and gave ourselves some serious high-fives for checking another adrenaline rush off our travel wish lists.

Unfortunately, we soon encountered our one and only complaint about the tour we’d booked. We carefully selected a package that said “photos and videos included,” and technically, there were some photos and videos included, our instructors explained to us while we perfected our mutual RBFs. The gliders are set up with two GoPros, and the included photos and video clips are from only the front camera. The side camera shots will run you an extra 100R (around $32USD). Also, they give them to you on a DVD unless you pony up 20R (around $7 USD) extra for a USB or memory card.

Considering we were traveling with approximately twenty-seven USB sticks and memory cards between us, we were pretty annoyed we hadn’t been given a heads up in order to bring our own. And we were extremely irritated that the photography exclusions weren’t clear when we booked. I begrudgingly paid for the extra photos, which to his credit my instructor gave to me on memory card that he didn’t charge me for, in order to smooth out the situation. Considering it was an expensive experience, being nickeled-and-dimed at the end didn’t feel good. It definitely left a bitter taste in our mouths to feel like we’d been mislead, so if you’re heading to Rio and booking a hang gliding package, just clarify exactly what’s included before hand.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Three hours later, we were back where we started on the steps of our hostel. Our photo frustrations aside, I loved this experience and would recommend our tour package. The ease of transportation (our driver offered to drop us at Ipanema or Copacabana beaches if we preferred, which was lovely), the efficiency with which we got up and off the mountain and the high safety standards all left us impressed.

After so many years of anticipation, and so many other amazing adrenaline-inducing experiences in between, it would have been easy to be let down by this one. But nope, hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro lived up to every math class I ever daydreamed about it through.

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

Hang Gliding in Rio de Janeiro

As I told Heather that morning… it’s a beautiful day to leap off a cliff!

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I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!

How to Work With Brands 101

It’s no secret that I’m traveling less than usual this year. But that doesn’t mean I’m planning to sit around in a bathrobe, drink breakfast cocktails while cackling at the morning news and watching the world burn. (Though now that I write it, it is tempting…)

Nope, 2017 is going to be my year of learning. 

I’ve always loved being a student, and in the last few years I’ve focused a ton of energy on my dive education, and loved every scantron-bubble-filling moment of it. This year, I’m turning my attention to another kind of learning: blogging and business.

I know to some of you, that literally couldn’t be more of a snooze fest. But I also know there are plenty of you who are interested in entrepreneurship, and so I’m excited to share little bits about this journey along the way. In fact, I’ll be making a pretty major announcement in my newsletter later today about a ten day learning retreat I just enrolled in… if you want to be the first to know, sign up in my sidebar or at the end of this post right now!

In the meantime, I’ll tell you about the online course I kicked off the year with. This is the one course that I’ve prioritized for the year that is truly specific to travel blogging; the rest have a less targeted audience.

Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards: A Guide to Successful Partnerships

I knew I wanted to take this course as soon as I saw who wrote it: my friend and fellow blogger Amanda of A Dangerous Business. Amanda is like that really smart and sweet girl from high school who was friends with everybody and you just really always wanted to peek at her project because you were sure she did the assignment better than you — and literally, now you can.

Partnerships courseAmanda is one of my most respected peers and I have always admired her business savvy and her pro-activeness in seeking brand partnerships that are the perfect fit for her blog, so I was super excited to hear that she was was spilling her secrets for this special collaboration with Travel Blog Success. With both a degree in hospitality and management and seven years of travel blogging experience, Amanda really knows the ins and outs of the travel industry and has successfully pitched and partnered with a wide range of travel brands and tourism boards (Intrepid Travel, Visit Norway, Marriott, and Visit Scotland, to name a few.)

Travel Blog Success will always have a special place in my heart as the first online course I ever enrolled in, a turning point for me in investing in myself as a business. Over the years they have expanded to offer several satellite courses to the original membership, and as a matter of fact, this weekend they are holding a massive sale for members, so if you’re already enrolled in Travel Blog Success and are interested in investing in another course, there’s never been a better time to do it (more on that later!)

Those who read Alex in Wanderland regularly know that I already work with brands and tourism boards on a regular basis. However, as someone who has been totally self-taught, I wanted a “tune up” course to reflect on the methods I’m currently using, find a renewed sense of focus, and think about being more proactive in business for the year ahead.

Bloggers and Brands Course

What’s Inside

Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards: A Guide to Successful Partnerships consists of twenty-three written lessons broken into eight modules. The lessons include worksheets, example documents, video and written interviews, and more.

Module 1: An Introduction lays out the key terminology and helps lay ground guidelines for when to start pitching and to whom to pitch.

Module 2: Media Kits was the module I personally took the most away from. It includes detailed information and examples on what and what not to put into your media kit, design ideas, and how to best market yourself. Includes media kits of big name bloggers.

Module 3: Pitching covers crafting the perfect pitch, finding contacts at the companies you wish to pitch to, samples of successful email pitches that worked, how to follow up and how to handle rejection.

Module 4: Sponsored trips is mostly about setting expectations for what sponsored trips really are (AKA, kryptonite to introverts or anyone who needs personal space or quiet time not to go crazy), but also includes incredibly helpful details and examples of wrap-up reports for presenting at the conclusion of a campaign.

Module 5: Social Campaigns introduces the concept of social media only campaigns, of which I have been offered several over the years. Instagram and Snapchat are the focus, but there’s info on all channels.

Module 6: Brand Ambassadorships talks through the holy grail of brand ambassadorships — and includes an interview with your truly!

Module 7: In Depth Interviews shares the real life experiences of Adventures Kate, Expert Vagabond, Borders of Adventure, and a PR expert. Two are video interviews that are also presented in transcript form.

Module 8: Conclusion wraps things up.

Whether you’re interested in scoring press trip invites and receiving products, designing your own campaigns, or just pitching the occasional quick projects, you’ll find what you need to get the wheels turning here. Once you land a pitch, this course guides you on how to carry out out projects with utmost professionalism.

While Amanda is very generous with her own experience, she also shares the perspectives of other top bloggers and PR industry experts.

Just like the Travel Blog Success main course, Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards includes access to a private Facebook group, where we gossip, ask questions, offer feedback, and talk all things blogging and social media partnerships.

How to Travel With A Laptop

How Long Will It Take?

I started and stopped a timer every time I finished reading a module and taking notes, and came it at just under two hours. Keep in mind that’s from the perspective of someone who is a very fast reader, a thorough note taker, and also has some experience in this field.

Now I have several hours of action to take from my notes ahead, which in my case will include overhauling my media kit, designing a campaign wrap up report, implementing a few new tools and apps I learned about, and acting on a few brainstorms I had while reading. I’d say you could knock out the coursework in a very busy weekend, though bloggers new to pitching and starting this process from scratch will probably take more away from it by spreading it out over a week, completing one module per day, and giving the ideas some time to sink in.

Bloggers and Brands Course

What I Loved

I enjoyed that this course really unapologetically targets the intermediate blogger. Too new, and you likely don’t have an audience to leverage yet. (Though even if you’re not quite to the pitching and partnering stage yet, you may wish to look ahead and see what mistakes to avoid along the way.) Too established, and you risk not taking away anything new. Though frankly, based on the to-do list I walked away with, it’s certainly not a problem I had.

If you’re looking for concrete examples of and step-by-step guides on how to create pitches, media kits, campaign conclusion reports, and actionable tips on apps and products to use along the way (I literally downloaded two apps and started using two new programs that I already feel revolutionized my workflow from the moment I finished this course), you’ll find them here. If you’re wondering what press trips are really like, you’ll have your expectations set — and read an example itinerary.

I nodded along to so many clever tips and tricks that took me years to figure out on my own. For example? I really appreciated Amanda’s insights on how to reflect your stats in a way that is both savvy to you and honest to the brand you are pitching, such as showing total pageviews of all time instead of per month, or focusing on your rate of growth as opposed to your total followers.

As someone who firmly believes that bad pitching from bloggers who aren’t truly ready to partner with brands yet is harmful to the influencer industry, I was a little nervous this course might promote reckless pitching or over-ambitious brand partnerships. Silly me! Amanda keeps it real — she addresses many of my concerns about knowing when you have influence or skills worth leveraging, how to always put your readers first, and how to stay gracious as you grow.

The course has a strong emphasis on proactive pitching rather than accepting what rolls your way, which is just what I needed to absorb right now and is a very inspiring message for me as someone who tends to do the opposite. I feel fired up to dream big!

Bloggers and Brands Course_4

Room For Improvement

Frankly, there’s not much. I took separate notes with feedback to give to the course creators with anything I thought could be even better and it was a pretty sparse list — mostly just a few suggestions on, like, font styling. You know you’re doing something right when the only advice someone can give you is your bold font isn’t bold enough.

The one area I would have liked to see a little more emphasis would be the downsides of purchasing social media followers and fudging traffic figures. I think it’s something that is super tempting for new bloggers to try but can be really harmful in the long run, and I would love to have seen that more widely addressed.

Bloggers and Brands Course

Conclusion

I’m coming at this review from the unique position of a fairly experienced blogger — one who is actually quoted and interviewed in the course material. So I had a different experience than most of the target audience will, though I was still impressed by how many action points I walked away with and how renewed my focus feels upon completing it.

I learned a lot of what is in this course the hard way, through heartache and rejection and big mistakes. You know what? It might be nice to avoid that! If something like this had been available when my blog was a baby, I would have happily saved myself time, money and missed opportunities by investing in a course like this.

Travelpony Booking Site

Buy It Now!

At $197, Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards: A Guide to Successful Partnerships is definitely a ponderable purchase. No? Just me? I’m the only one that uses that term? You know, it’s like when you find the absolute perfect pair of jeans but you got lost in the mall and accidentally went to a store where they wrap things in tissue paper and they aren’t in the clearance section and you panic. You just need to go to Auntie Annie’s, get a soft pretzel with extra salt, and ponder that purchase.

If I was the friend shopping with you today, I’d be the one whispering “go for it!” (through a mouthful of pretzel, obviously).

Bloggers and Brands Course

Enrolling in the Travel Blog Success main course was an enormous investment for me, too, when I first signed up all those years ago. But the act of investing in myself was a powerful one and the knowledge I gained and community I joined still serve me to this day. This course specifically is so filled with actionable information, you could realistically recoup the cost with one well-worded pitch for weekend hotel stay.

Plus, are you guys ready for this? For some of my friends here today, this thing is half off.

I know that plenty of you are already enrolled in the  Travel Blog Success main course. Great news, if it somehow escaped you so far — it’s the 7th anniversary sale this weekend! Until midnight, you can save 50% on any satellite course, plus an additional 10% if you buy two or more. Just check the latest newsletter for the code (and shoot me a note if you’re a member but for some reason not on the mailing list). The sale applies to all satellite courses, including:

• Bloggers, Brands, and Tourism Boards: A Guide to Successful Partnerships
• Videography for Travel Bloggers (I took this course and reviewed it here!)
• Blogger to Bylines: A Guide to Freelance Writing (I decided a while ago freelance writing isn’t for me, but I’ve heard great reviews of this course from those who have taken it.)
The Complete Facebook Marketing Course (I couldn’t be more clueless when it comes to Facebook marketing — I think I’ll tackle this course next!)

Yes, I’m a proud affiliate of Travel Blog Success and earn a percentage of every sale I recommend. And I’d love to return the favor. So, I’m going to offer a bonus incentive to anyone who buys this course today — I will personally take a peek at your media kit, your “work with me” page or a pitch email of your choice and give you my feedback. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and trust me when I say this blogging gig has attempted to murder me multiple times, so I have lots of strength and side eye to share after five years in the game. Just shoot me an email with your purchase confirmation and you can redeem any time!

Build a Better Travel Blog

Is there another online course you’d like to see me review next? Let me know!

Let’s talk — I’ll answer any questions as best I can in the comments.

Note: I requested a free copy of this program in order to review it for this post, and because I wanted to copy Amanda’s homework. I am a proud affiliate of the Travel Blog Success program and thus will earn a percentage of your purchase at no extra cost to you. As always, you’ve received my honest opinions, thorough reviews, and completely irrelevant TV references, regardless of who is footing the bill.

And one more thing — spots are still available for March slots of my Featured Blogger. Come hang out in my sidebar (plus other perks!) Get in touch for more details.

Waking Up With Christ Redeemer in The City of God

There are two attractions that are pretty much non-negotiable must-sees for more travelers to Rio — the Cristo Redentor statue, also known as the Christ Redeemer statue, and Pão de Açúcar, also known as Sugarloaf Mountain. Heather and I were no exceptions, and planned to make both a priority during our one week in Rio de Janeiro.

However, we chose to check off each in what I considered especially spectacular fashion.

Downtown Rio de Janiero

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

As a professional photographer and a professional blogger, it pretty much goes without saying that photos are a top priority for Heather and I when we travel (but I went ahead and said it anyway, just in case.) Which is why, despite being very distinctly not morning people — at least not setting-the-alarm-for-before-sunrise-morning-people — we enthusiastically signed on for a Viator Exclusive: Early Access to Christ Redeemer Statue Tour. Photos of Rio’s top attraction without hundreds of our fellow tourists loitering in the background? I could get up early for that.

And so on our first morning in Rio de Janeiro, we sprung out of bed, grabbed our cameras, and set off to meet Jesus — and maybe let him take the wheel (please tell me I have at least one country music fan in this crowd).

Cristo Redentor Rio de JanieroPhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

We were mildly irritated by the three different phone calls back and forth that were required to confirm our tour, but at this point we had grown at least mildly accustomed to the daily miscommunications that were a fact of traveling in Brazil for us. We were also a little bummed that our hostel in Botafogo wasn’t within the pickup zone, which required us to travel in the opposite direction of our final destination in order to reach the designated meeting point for those not on the pickup list, but we just rolled with it.

At 7am, we were scooped up from the meeting point in Copacabana and on our way. Our tour guide Solomon switched seamlessly between English, Portuguese and Spanish for the mini-bus full of travelers from around the Americas, and we settled in for the ride up to Corcovado Mountain.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

We reached the ticket gate about ten minutes before the attraction’s opening time, and remarked on the chill at 2,300 feet above sea level — bring a cardigan, friends! As soon as the clock struck 8:00am, we were on the very first official park shuttles from Paineiras (private vehicles cannot go past this point).

When we reached the top, we had the choice of climbing the 220 steps to the top or hoping on the elevator. Heather and I were not shy about practically sprinting onto the elevator in our attempt to be first to the top — and it worked! We probably had a good three or four minutes before the rest of our group appeared, and then another five or six more before another bus-full showed up. It might not sound like much, but if you’re shutter-ready, you can get drool-worthy travel shots in a matter of seconds. When it comes to having one of the world’s top attractions to yourself, every minute matters! We were pretty lucky that things stayed low key the entire hour or so we were onsite.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

When we were finally able to momentarily chill and cede our perfect shot spot for others the snap away at, Solomon filled us in on the history of the iconic statue. Constructed in 1931 from concrete and sandstone and named one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the statue was bigger in our minds than it was in reality — we both remarked we though it would be bigger! Apparently, we don’t have a concept of what 130 feet tall with a 98 foot arm span really translates to.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Cristo Redentor Tour RioGoPro fail // Photos by Heather Holt

The morning, like many in Rio, was foggy, giving the city below us an other-worldly feel — but making it somewhat tricky to photograph. Still, the morning light was perfect for photographing the statue, as well as taking portraits in front of it. And of course that was that whole “escaping the crowds” thing going on too — which was made even more successful by the fact that we came on a weekday.

If you still want to beat the crowds and the heat but your priority is taking photos of the view, you might prefer to come in the late afternoon.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Cristo Redentor Tour RioAbout as crowded as it got // Photo by Heather Holt

When Solomon finally summoned us we’d had plenty of time to snap statue selfies, soak up the view and enjoy the morning air. We opted to take the steps back down to basecamp, and after getting the okay from our guide, grabbed a morning tea and snack from the overpriced onsite cafe… which we immediately had to frantically chug/inhale because we were told we couldn’t bring them on the shuttle with us. Ha! Cue us asking Solomon why he encouraged us to get hot beverages when we knew we couldn’t bring them onboard and we had to leave urgently that moment, and filing it away in our “We Literally Never Knew What Was Going On Ever in Brazil” folder.

Would I recommend this tour? I’m going to skip yes and just go straight ahead to DUH. Despite some of the logistical hassles, we were just giddy with happiness at at the swoon-worthy photos and exclusive experience we walked away with. I often find myself seized with stress at big crowded tourist attractions, and it was so dang nice to just saunter around the place like had rented the place out for a small private party of ourselves and a dozen friends.

One thing to keep in mind is you will not be taking that cute little cog train up the mountain. We didn’t read the tour description very well and were a little disappointed, so just be aware of the trade-off when booking. A minibus might be little less glamorous than a train car (and a lot more motion sickness inducing, so prepare for that if needed) but in my opinion the compromise is well worth it.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Back at the base of the mountain, it was time to go our separate ways. The tour actually offers an optional upgrade in which you can visit Sugarloaf on the same day, which is awesome for those with limited time, though because we had a whole week we decided to save that for another outing.

Plus, we had big plans for the rest of the day. We decided to forgo our ride back to south Rio and instead take advantage of being up in the north to do a little DIY walking tour of Lapa and Centro using my trusty guidebook to lead the way.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Next stop? Escadaria Selarón! This expansive piece of open-air, public installation art is the brainchild of Chilean-born Jorge Selarón. Began in 1990, the steps lie between the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, and are a popular draw for art-lovers from around the world.

Wandering the steps, I was reminded me of similar mosaic installation projects I’ve seen in Philadelphia and in Utila — each the inspiring work of one dedicated artist. This 215 steps that make up this constantly evolving work of art are covered in tiles from over sixty countries, many of them gifts once Selarón’s project became widely known — in the early days, he scavenged tiles from trash and construction sites and sold paintings to fund the work. Selarón once claimed that “this crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death,” a quote that felt omniscient in retrospect when he was found dead under mysterious circumstances at the top of the stairs.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

While many arrive, take a quick glance around, snap a few photos and then leave, Heather and I spent ages on the steps. We moved slowly, admiring the various tiles and excitedly pointing out to each other the ones from destinations we ourselves had visited. We also did some wonderful people watching — the homes along the stairs are still very much occupied, and it was fun to imagine what it must be like to walk along art every day to make it to your front door.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

If you want people-free photos on the steps, you’ll have to follow one of my favorite photography tips: be patient. Still on a roll from our successful morning at Cristo Redentor, we were relentlessly persistent while waiting for those brief moments when the steps cleared so we could frame the shots we envisioned. As you can see from Heather’s behind-the-scenes shot below right, it was no easy feat.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

But the portraits we took of each other in front of the most famous section of the stairs were well worth the wait.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

One of the things I love about traveling with Heather is seeing how different the world looks through her lens! One thing this chick excels at is portrait photography. Generally, I am far too shy and too nervous to take portraits when I travel, but Heather comes from a journalist background and really makes magic happen when she points her camera at someone. How beautiful are these portraits of the people of Selarón steps?

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

People of Rio de Janiero

People of Rio de Janiero

After spending so long at the steps we basically became honorary locals, it was time to wander on. We meandered over to the nearby Arcos da Lapa, an aqueduct dating back to the 1700s. A local landmark, the aqueduct was architecturally impressive, but we didn’t linger long in the nearly abandoned square. Both of our guards were up and we later agreed that this square was one of the few places in Brazil that we felt uneasy.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Luckily it was a relatively short walk to our next stop, Catedral Metropolitana Church. Our guidebook had a long list of Rio churches to explore, but this one stood out to us as the one must-see. Built in 1976 after over a decade of construction, the cathedral is a textbook example of ultra modern, brutalist architecture. Though we both felt there was a very strong spaceship inspiration going on, we later read the true muse for the cathedral was the Mayan pyramids.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Next up, we made our way to the Theatro Municipal, a stunning theater built in 1905 to mimic the Paris Opera. Though we skipped the guided tours of the ornate interior, we loved admiring the building from the outside, which truly did feel like a piece of France plopped down in the middle of a South American street.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

After wandering by a few more museums, churches, and busy downtown streets, we could wait no longer for lunch. We decided to dine at one of Brazil’s famous per kilo buffets, settling on The Line. Bursting with color and set along a busy, narrow alley, we exercised literally zero self control at the buffet and piled our plates as high as can be before nabbing ourselves two outside seats. For both our heaping plates and drinks below, we paid just 40BRL, or about $11 — not a bad deal in pricey Brazil.

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

Most tourists head to the Christ the Redeemer statue, but few stick around the explore Lapa and Centro during the day. I can’t recommend more highly to start your day with Viator Exclusive: Early Access Tour, and then take advantage of your location and strategically spend a few hours exploring Rio’s under appreciated downtown.

It was the perfect day. We experienced a very, very different side of Rio than what we saw in the southern zone — and both left so glad we set aside time to explore here. And with a dash of patience and the help of the perfect tour, we captured it beautifully in priceless photos.

What’s your secret for getting crowd-free travel photos?


I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!

One Week in The Cidade Maravilhosa

One Week in The Cidade Maravilhosa post image

“On the eighth day, God created Rio.”

It doesn’t take long to understand why cariocas love to say so. Palm fringed beaches bookended by iconic granite morros, the world’s largest urban forest, and one infamous statue of Christ perpetually watching over the city. One of the most geographically blessed cities I’ve had the privilege to visit, it’s hard not to believe that whatever or whomever created this universe, they had a soft spot for Rio de Janiero.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

And so did I, long before I first set my own eyes on the city. When I was cleaning out boxes of old college notebooks and projects last summer, I came across detailed ramblings about a fantasy semester in Brazil scribbled in the margins of many a class note. More recently, my mom took on a similar project purging my sister and my’s grade school stockpiles, and came across a report I’d done when tasked with researching any continent – I’d lovingly selected South America. For years, when asked what destination topped my bucket list, I barely had to hesitate.

For as long as I’ve loved travel, Brazil was a tornado force of a desire, with Rio at the eye of the storm. That’s a lot for one city to live up to, regardless of how marvelous it may be.

Sunset at Sugarloaf

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Rio de Janiero Botanical Garden

Itinerary

Originally, as this dream began to take shape in reality, I hoped to spend two full weeks in the city. Later, as I negotiated with Heather, my travel copilot, and accepted how much else of the country I wanted to see, that time was pared down to just one week.

I was determined to make the most of it.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Sunset at Sugarloaf

By the time we arrived in the Cidade Maravilhosa, we had partied at Tomorrowland in Itú, fallen for the biggest baddest city in Brazil in São Paulo, been charmed by Paraty, and got lost in wild Ilha Grande. We were ready for Rio.

After careful consideration, Heather and I had chosen to split our time in Rio between two different digs – kicking things off at a hostel in Botafogo, and then later moving to an Airbnb near Copacabana beach (get $35 off your first booking!) We bit off a lot before we’d even arrived, booking several tours and creating an exhaustive itinerary. We were so excited we were practically powerless to do otherwise, despite being fully aware of how burnt out we’d be by the end of the week. We even skipped one tour we’d pre-payed for, a favela nightlife tour – pretty much unheard of from this penny pincher — because we were too exhausted and hungover to make it.

Santa Marta

In one week, we crammed in a sunrise tour of Cristo Redentor, a DIY photo safari of Lapa and Centro, hang gliding over São Conrado, a walking tour of Santa Marta favela, a sunset at Aproador, a night out in Ipanema, two beach days, a street art tour, a trip to Jardim Botânico, and sunset at Pão de Açúcar. We literally loved every single one of these activities and I’ll be writing in more detail about each of them.

Even so, we left with much not crossed off our lists.  Rio is a big, sprawling city with so much to see and do — it could take weeks, or months, or a lifetime to explore. I think one of the biggest struggles for any do-and-see-it-all-er heading to Rio will be accepting that in this city, that would be an impossible mission.

Cristo Redentor Early Access Tour

Hang Gliding in Rio

Impressions

There’s a famous comparison that Rio is Brazil’s Los Angeles and São Paulo, Brazil’s New York. After being well and truly and very unexpectedly swept off my feet by São Paulo, I couldn’t help but see why.

While what I loved about Rio did remind me of what I love about Los Angeles — the beach! — a lot of what I didn’t like about Rio reminded me of what I don’t like about Los Angeles – namely, urban sprawl and charmless seediness.

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

Santa Marta Favela

The rivalry between the Cariocas (people from the city of Rio de Janeiro) and Paulistas (residents of São Paulo) is an intense one, just like that between residents of the US’s largest east and west coast cities. To state the obvious, Rio wins by a landslide when it comes to setting. The city’s natural beauty is unrivaled, and the ocean it’s surrounded by is its number one draw.

Sunrise over Sugarloaf

Experiencing this city’s unique beach culture was the highlight of my time in the city, so much so that I’ll be dedicating a whole post to it coming up — stay tuned! While we were visiting in Brazil’s autumn, we found the beaches pleasantly buzzing.

The weather, our busy itinerary and a few unexpected wrinkles in our plan (hello, last minute work assignment and Heather going to the hospital) meant we spent less time there than we would have liked to, and so I dream of returning one day in the summer to spend a whole week doing not much more than beach bumming.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Beaches aside — and I admit, it’s a rather important factor to put aside — I was surprised to find myself favoring São Paulo in many other categories. Through my eyes, São Paulo had an undeniably chicer, hipper vibe. The art scene was a bit more sophisticated, the restaurant scene a bit more diverse and trendy, and transportation was more accessible (though traffic in both cities was insane).

The more I travel, the greater emphasis I have placed on food. After really swooning over the restaurant scene in São Paulo, especially for Heather as a vegetarian, we were a little disappointed in Rio’s — though I was warned. That said, we did find a few gems. We fell in love with hip Meza in Bogafoto (we went for both dinner and Sunday brunch – with a bubbles bar!) and bohemian Zaza in Ipanema, and made three different trips to cute Oficina Gelato. Yet overall, we were super grateful for the kitchen in our Airbnb – it meant we could cook a few meals, eat takeaway in comfort and not rely on eating every meal out at a restaurant.

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Brunch at Meza, Rio de Janiero

Getting around in Rio was a bit of a struggle at times. Traffic was intense and destinations were quite spread out. Due to the language barrier we used Uber exclusively for cab needs — get a free ride of up to $20 with Uber here — but even then we did run into some issues with drivers getting lost and taking ridiculous routes. We spent ages attempting to use the city’s municipal bike program but it requires a local SIM card to unlock the bikes. Heather had one but I didn’t, and so that was out.

The best thing we did for ease of movement was simply splitting our time in two different areas of the city and creating a logical itinerary around those two bases. This allowed us to walk quite a bit, which is always my favorite way of getting around a new city. Next time, I’d love to try using the metro.

Cristo Selfie

One of the pleasant surprises of Rio was how comfortable we felt as two women traveling alone. While we were constantly — like literally, constantly — warned by everyone we encountered to be careful with our cameras, we were vigilant and cautious and had zero issues and really felt surprisingly safe and secure throughout our time in the city.

Frankly, overall we felt this was all throughout Brazil, but it was most poignant in Rio, where multiple viewings of City of God had prepared me to be relieved of all my belongings within moments of stepping onto the streets. It was a nice surprise.

Rio de Janiero Street Art

Ideas

Bottom line? We had a blast. But we were also so busy – and rounding the corner of travel burnout – that we didn’t leave much time to just soak up the magic of the place, which Rio requires quite a bit of.

I look forward to returning someday and putting less emphasis on tours and attractions (only because I’ve now seen them – I don’t regret a single one) and focusing instead on soaking up the beach culture, my absolute favorite aspect of the city, enjoying some of the nightlife, which we regretfully missed out on aside from one over-indulgent night, and attempting some of the beautiful urban hikes and beginner surf breaks I learned about in the area.

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

Sunset at Arpoador

I hope I don’t have to wait too long for that return. In the meantime, I can’t wait to share more details from our week in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you been to Rio? Did it live up to your expectations? What part of my trip are you most excited to read about?

3-devide-lines

Many thanks to Heather for the beautiful portraits she took of me throughout this post!

New Year, New Passport Stamps: My Travel Plans for 2017

Hello, 2017. You’re a sight for sore eyes.

You’re also, so far, a bit of a mystery. Since I started this blog, I’ve never kicked off a year with less travel on my plate. In a way, it’s thrilling — anything can happen! — and in another it’s a little scary. Can I really let a year pass by without ticking one of my dream trips off my list? For someone who often can’t fall asleep at night because they are so consumed by all the places in the world they still have yet to see, it’s kinda of a panic-inducing thought.

Travel Plans 2017

And yet I find myself quite content, settled back in Koh Tao with a bright and cheery little apartment, a faithful little motorbike and unpacked bag nestled in the corner of my closet. As I do weigh up options for the year, I’m torn as always between revisiting old favorites (oh hello, island I’ve been returning to for seven years and currently living on again) and big bucket list dream trips (oh hey there, diving in Mozambique, which I daydream about constantly yet have no plans to actually make a reality).

Anyway, last year’s post outlining my 2016 travels was fairly accurate — it will be fun to see how this one fares!

January-May // Asia

I state this with a pretty inordinate amount of pride for someone who makes a living as a travel blogger, but at the moment literally only like 14 out of the first 120 days of 2017 will be spent not in my bed here on Koh Tao. I need this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being I am so backlogged on content here on Alex in Wanderland. I just need to lock myself away and furiously type until I’m caught up writing on all my trips! I’ve already nixed two opportunities to travel to new countries in the first quarter of this year, with this being one of my primary reasons.

So what will I be getting up to?

In January, I will spend just three nights off Koh Tao — a quick trip to Bangkok to see my sister off. (In fact, I’ve already come and gone!) I actually wasn’t planning to leave the island at all as I really just got here in December, but alas, I can’t say no to Olivia — nor can I turn down a weekend in one of my favorite cities in the world. In fact, what started as a fun fantasy over the years solidified on this quick jaunt into a very strong determination to rent an apartment in Bangkok for a month or two someday, and see what it’s like to experience one of my favorite places for longer than just a few days at a time. Maybe in the fall that will come to fruition.

Bangkok

I have some pretty exciting plans at home for the rest of the month, though, like a week-long aerial silks workshop with Flying Trapeze Adventures and all my favorite shows re-starting after their winter hiatuses (don’t judge).

In February, I’ll be taking my “big trip” of this Southeast Asia stretch. First, I’m cobbling together a big crew to take to Wonderfruit, a festival in the Pattaya countryside that I couldn’t be more excited about attending. Between the fanciful stages hosting musicians from around the world, the wonderfeasts by some of Thailand’s top chefs, and the workshops on everything from yoga to living a plastic-free life, I’m not even sure which aspect I’m looking forward to the most.

Wonderfruit(source)

After the festival, Ian and I are off to Penang, Malaysia — Ian has to go to process his Thai work permit, and I’m tagging along for fun (and to reactivate my own visa.) I’ve never been to Penang other than in transit and look forward to exploring the city of Georgetown and hiking in Penang National Park. I’m still fairly bitter that the direct flight to Penang from Koh Samui has been discontinued, but alas, I still want to go. Who knows, we might even tack on a few days in Bangkok in-between!

Penang(source 1, 2, and 3)

In March, I currently have no plans to leave Koh Tao. Gasp! Now that you all convinced me to get PRK surgery I am considering blocking off a week to go to Bangkok and do it then, but I also might also put it off until the fall. Back on Koh Tao, there’s going to be a big new festival that I’m pretty excited about (if you haven’t sensed a theme for the year yet, you will soon!)

In April, I’ll pop over to Koh Samui for a few days to meet a friend and possibly attend Paradise Island Festival. Otherwise I’ll be on Koh Tao enjoying Songkran, Easter, and my last long stretch of stillness for a while.

In May, I have a one last little trip in the works before catching my flight to the US for the summer. It’s all in pencil now but it involves a river cruise, showing Ian around one of my favorite Thai cities, and (duh) more Bangkok. Fingers crossed it all works out!

Ayutthaya(source 1, 2, and 3)

May-August // USA

I’ve fallen into a pattern of spending more and more time back in the US every year, however I have to be frank — our current political climate makes me want to spend less time there than ever before. I’m not being defiant or trying to make a statement. It’s just that my heart literally sinks out of my chest every time I think about home, and unless that starts to fade I don’t know how many consecutive months I can walk around with that heaviness. I’ve never felt more disconnected from the place that made me. I’m adrift. Here’s hoping some peace and clarity find me in this department in 2017.

That said, I have three confirmed weddings and one other up in the air, one confirmed festival and a few others on the back burner (wink wink, fellow playa fans!), and lots of family and friends I love dearly and need to catch up with, regardless of what else is happening around us. Here’s a peek:

In May, I’m flying to Florida for the wedding of one of one of my closest high school crew in Sarasota. I’ll also be visiting my girl Angie in Jacksonville, heading to Orlando for a bachelorette weekend I’m planning at Universal Orlando, and hanging with my two favorite aunts in Tampa. I’m obsessed with Florida and would be thrilled if time allowed for me to dip over to Miami to see my cousin Eric, do some diving, or maybe even take that road trip down to Key West I’ve been dreaming of… but allegedly there are only thirty days in this particular month, so we will have to see how flexible the time space continuum ends up being.

Florida(source 1, 2, and 3)

In June, I’m going back to Bonnaroo. Even better? I’m bringing my mom and her boyfriend Miller! The two of them hit it off big time with blogger bestie Kristin this past summer, and we all vowed this would be our year for fulfilling Miller’s dream of making it to ‘Roo. A festival as a family affair? I can’t wait to try it.

In July, I’m going to Maine! This is actually the only new state and/or country I currently have on the docket for the year, which is kind of crazy pants. Another one of my dearest friends from high school is getting hitched in Harpswell, and I’m pining to turn it into an excuse for a full-blown road trip. At an absolute minimum I want to spend a few days in Portland and check out Kennebunkport — and if the calendar shakes out enough days for me, I’ll venture north to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, too!

Maine(source 1, 2, and 3)

In August, I’ll head to Chicago for my cousin Kirsten’s wedding (congratulations to the beautiful bride-to-be!).

Aside from those anchors, the summer is still fuzzy. Here are some maybes: I might be sticking around post-Bonnaroo for a bachelorette party in Nashville. I will most likely be in Martha’s Vineyard the first week of July for family time — and I’m also considering popping over to Nantucket for the Nantucket Yoga Festival! I may have another family wedding in Illinois before the year is out.

And then there’s Nevada. I may return to the playa — Burning Man is still very much on my radar. I may put into action the Nevada road trip I’ve had percolating for the last year or two (I need to see Britney’s revamped show, visit the Seven Magic Mountains art installation and camp in Valley of Fire National Park, stat) so if those came together it would be pretty perfect.

Nevada(source 1, 2, and 3)

Also, some big changes are heading my way and while I’m not ready to discuss them publicly just yet, I might be popping down to Central America for a bit over the summer to let them percolate in private first. More details coming your way soon.

September-December // And beyond…

Nine months down the line is simply too far to predict with too much accuracy where I’ll be. This time last year, I could have never guessed I’d spend these months in the United Kingdom, Hawaii and Jamaica (content coming soon!)

In the last month, as I started to feel the pressure of writing this post and having basically nothing on the horizon — a lot of the above has come together in the last thirty days! — I started to think more about really prioritizing my dream trips rather than just waiting and seeing what the universe throws at me or what’s convenient, as I have fallen into a habit of doing. In fact, I recently started working on actually putting pen to paper and writing a comprehensive travel bucket list, which I may turn into a blog post soon.

So in that spirit, here is a sampling of some of my dream trips that feel feasible for 2017, which I may work on slotting in somewhere from June onward, en route back to my winter basecamp of Thailand.

• Uruguay: I just really want to go here. I don’t know why. I feel like Uruguay is usually an afterthought tacked on to trips to Argentina or Brazil but I’m completely captivated by this little country. Maybe it’s my obsession with tiny nations, maybe it’s my love for their famously humble ex-president, maybe I just like beaches and wine and yoga. Bonus! This would be a new country for me. However, Uruguay’s beach cities and towns have a fairly tiny window of action in December-March, and since I’m in Asia through May this would have to be a December trip.

Uruguay(source 1, 2, and 3)

• Burma, Borneo and/or Brunei: It’s now been eight years since I first began traveling to Southeast Asia, and I regularly marvel that there is still so much I have yet to see. Including both the countries of Burma and Brunei (I still have Timor Leste still to visit as well, but I’m shelving that one for the moment) and the Malaysian state of Borneo. Eventually visiting every country in this region is important to me, and so I hope that either a trip to Burma or a joint trip to Borneo and Brunei is in order for late 2017.

• Jamaica:  I’ve had a Jamaica road trip on the noggin for a while now. My surprise trip here at the end of 2016 (more on that coming soon!) only made taking a big one feel more urgent. I want to rent a car, hit the open road, and explore the raw, soulful side of this island nation in a way that few get the opportunity to do. Unlike Uruguay, Jamaica is a place I’d be thrilled to travel in the low season, and so summer or fall might be the perfect fit.

Jamaica(source 1, 2, and 3)

• Mexico: There’s a glaring un-scratched swath on my scratch-off travel map, and it’s Mexico. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to wait and really do justice to, but I’m starting to think I just need to start somewhere and dive in there and get hooked so I can keep coming back over and over again. It’s hardly unchartered territory, but The Yucatan Peninsula is calling me pretty loudly. Whale sharks of Holbox… here I come! And yup, this would be another new country to add to the list.

3-devide-lines

I have a lot of other dream trips rambling around in my mind — CONTINENT OF AFRICA HI I WANT TO BE IN YOU — but these are the ones that I feel I could realistically tackle right now given my current energy levels and priorities and desires, though clearly, a lot can happen in a year. I think I kind of need a lower-key year in order to get my house in order — lol JK I don’t have a house but it’s a thing people say right? — and get really whipped up into a travel frenzy again for some wild adventures in the future.

When I first began this post I fretted that you all might think it a bit boring. Now that I’ve put it together, I couldn’t be more excited about the year ahead! Festivals, weddings, and so many favorite old places to fall even further in love with.

Love 2017

Okay so now that I’ve dished… what are your travel plans for 2017? Which of these trips are you most excited to virtually come along on?

Looking forward to talking all things travel in the comments!

One Last Sip of Sun: A Tour of Hua Hin Hills Vineyard

After three days in Hua Hin, Ian and I’s relaxation retreat was almost complete. We’d ticked almost every box: sun, sand, sea, and sleep. There was just one last unwinding agent to attend to: wine.

So far, our explorations of Thailand’s unknown wine country had been a wild success. Two days in the Khao Yai district had revealed three beautiful vineyards — the boutique, female-helmed GranMonte Wines, local powerhouse PB Valley, and family-run, organic Alcidini. Now, in a totally different region of the country, we had one more chenin blanc to cheers to at Hua Hin Hills, the southernmost vineyard in Thailand.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

About 45 kilometers inland from coastal Hua Hin, the vineyard is picturesquely set among rolling jungle hills dotted with temples. We arrived just in time for the latter of two free tours offered per day, at 1pm and 4pm. The tour was short and sweet and conducted from the back of a bright red, branded, open-air jeep. Had this not been our fourth winery in a week I might have been a little bummed we didn’t stop once for photos, but as it was I’d had my annual fill of photographing grape vines.

There are other activities on offer to allow you to explore the vineyard a bit more thoroughly. Mountain bikes can be rented for 100B for thirty minutes, or 150B for an hour, and in retrospect would have been a lovely way to explore — yet we were too hungry pre-tasting, and too tipsy post. For the creatives at heart, bottle painting is on offer for 300B per set. Elephant riding is also available, but as romantic as it may seem to cross a vineyard atop Thailand’s national animal, I personally recommend you don’t for all the reasons detailed here.

One important detail to keep in mind is that Hua Hin Hills consists only of a vineyard, not a winery. The production facility, Siam Winery, is located in Samut Sakhon, about two and a quarter hours back towards Bangkok. Someday, I look forward to visiting the winery and taking one of their tours as well!

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Togther, Hua Hin Hills and Siam Winery produce Monsoon Valley Wines, one of the most common bottles spotted on shelves in Thailand. The company also produces Spy Wine Coolers, the best-selling “wine-based drink” in the country, a financial stepping stone that allows them to produce their prestige wines. The family behind the brand is no stranger to beverage-based success: the winery was founded by the late Chaleow Yoovidhya, cofounder of and recipe-creator for Red Bull.

In 1986, Yoovidhya’s oldest son Chalerm established the Siam Winery company, which today represents over 30% of the Thai wine market — and recently overtook PB Valley as the most prolific producer in the country. As of 2014, the company was producing 260,000 bottles per year, with over half being exported to Europe, the US, and beyond.

And so after much anticipation, we were off to taste a few in The Sala.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Inside The Sala, which serves breakfast as well as a daytime menu, our eyes widened at the offerings for both wine tastings and treats. The obscenely affordable Khao Yai region had spoiled us, and these prices seemed shocking in comparison. But we quickly decided to throw budgetary caution to the wind, accept that this was going to be far and away our most expensive winery visit, and just enjoy it.

In the end we spent 2,500B (about $70US!) at the restaurant and a further 1,750B ($50US) on wine to take home. Considering the tastings ranged from 100-200B per person at the previous sites we’d visited, it was a good thing we’d decided to laugh about the bill.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

We settled into a vineryard-side table and I selected the Sweet Wine Tasting for 240B, which included glasses of the Muscat and Chenin Blanc Late Harvest. Ian went big with the Grand Monsoon Valley Tasting for 1,050B, which included a Colombard, a Cuvée Blanc, a Chenin Blanc, a Shiraz, and a Cuvée Rouge. We passed on the Thai tapas pairings and instead ordered a cheese board, which was perfection. Unlike the wineries we’d visited in Khao Yai, which were European influenced in everything from their menus to their architecture, this one was all Thai.

There’s no mistaking it — these are Thai wines produced from Thai grapes to complement Thai food. The labels are emblazoned with the mythical naga, a Thai guardian figure, and the bottles are stamped with the Thai Buddhist year — currently, it’s 2560 — rather than the widely used Gregorian calendar in which we just rang in 2017. Funny enough, there is one quirk in this otherwise thorough exercise in Thai nationalism: a German winemaker, Kathrin Puff, who makes the magic happen at Monsoon Valley.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

After our final toast, I was ready for a little playtime among the vines.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

It had been the perfect afternoon — though it hadn’t quite started as planned. We had taken our resort’s free shuttle into Hua Hin to catch the official vineyard shuttle from their Hua Hin Hills Bistro & Wine Cellar downtown. (If you can’t make it all the way out to the vineyard, this is a chic little spot to taste and buy Hua Hin Hills wines right in town!)

The round trip shuttle leaves twice a day for 300B per person, first at 10:30am and returning at 2:00pm and next at 3:00pm and returning at 6:00pm. However, we made the critical mistake of not booking ahead, and arrived to find that the shuttle had filled and left before our arrival. It’s worth noting I’d scoured the website and seen nothing about reservations… but I still should have known better.

Luckily, an ex-employee-turned-taxi-driver was loitering around the bar and heard our tale of woe and offered to take us for 1,000B (about $35) round trip. Considering we were going to spend 600B on the shuttle, it wasn’t a bad deal for a forty-five minutes each way in a private SUV — and he even called the winery for us to let them know we were coming and to hold the tour! Lesson learned. If you plan to take the vineyard’s shuttle, call ahead to book.

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

Hua Hin Hills Winery Vineyards

So yes, our trip to Hua Hin Hills was a bit pricier and more chaotic than our previous Thailand winery trips. But it was a completely unique experience, and possibly the most scenic — and when it came to The Sala, architecturally impressive — of them all, and so we treasured every last drop.

Cheers, Thailand, for another delicious tasting!

Uma Bela Caminhada: Hiking on Ilha Grande

Ilha Grande stole my heart — and it also gave it a workout. Cardio and adventure fans alike will flip for the hiking opportunities on this untamed Brazilian island.

With sixteen marked trails of varying length and difficulty, we were spoiled for choice when it came to which corner of Ilha Grande to wander. As we were hoping to cool our budgets and enjoy some solitude, we eliminated the trickier routes for which guides were recommended and stuck to the classics. We spent our three short days hitting three of the island’s most popular routes, and left daydreaming about our return to tackle a few more.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Abraão to Mangues/Pouso: Trail T10

Leaving directly from the far East side of Vila Abraão, and connecting directly to Trail T11, together Trail T10 and T11 make up one of the most popular hikes on Ilha Grande. And we were perfectly positioned to tackle it: our hostel, Che Legarto, let out directly onto the path.

A helpful sign at the start of T10 alerted us we were in for a 5.6-6 kilometer, 2.5-3 hour trek to reach the twin beaches of Mangues and Pouso.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

We set off a bit later than we’d hoped, around noon, but were still surprised to have the trail more or less to ourselves as we headed away from Abraão village. We’d dutifully let the receptionist at our hostel know where we were going before setting off, and were shocked when we checked to make sure we’d be able to buy more water along the way — and were told we couldn’t. So like good little responsible hikers we brought everything we’d need for the entire hike and then some, practically drowning ourselves along the way in an attempt to lighten our loads.

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking on Ilha GrandeWeb photo by Heather Holt Photography

Just over an hour into our trek we hit our first beach, Praia de Palmas. We quickly realized our receptionist had never done this hike when we saw enterprising locals all along the beach had hung out hand-painted signs advertising water, coconuts and other treats for the thirsty hiker for sale. It was the kind of beach we ordinarily might linger on, especially when we discovered it all but abandoned. Yet we had loftier stretches of sand in mind.

Hiking on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

And so onward we forged.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Exactly another hour later (after a few lengthy photo stops), we hit Praia Mangues, and cheered as we soaked up yet another postcard-perfect beach. After a quick scramble over the rock separating Mangues from neighboring Praia Pouso, we paused to confirm with local boat captains about the return trip to Vila Abraão. Unfortunately for us slow starters, the last boat was at 4pm — but if you’re headed to these parts, check for yourself, since it seems to vary based on the sunset.

By the time we got moving again to tackle the T11 portion of the trail, about two hours and twenty minutes had passed — and that included plenty of time for photo shoots and dawdling.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Mangues/Pouso to Lopes Mendes: Trail T11

From the end of Trail T10, we picked up Trail T11. Boat tours advertising transport to Lopes Mendes are actually a bit of a sham — in reality the boats cannot reach that side of the island due to waves, and the boat will actually leave you at Praia Pouso. So regardless of how you get to Praia Pouso, you’re getting to and from Lopes Mendes on your own two feet.

The good news? At 2-2.4 kilometers, it’s just a 30 minute to one hour roundtrip trail. While the trail gets quite steep, it’s shockingly short — we made it from start to finish one way in twelve minutes. And while we were decked out in trainers from the bigger bulk of the hike, we saw plenty of people returning in flip flops.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

At this point, I’d really just been enjoying the journey and not worrying too much about the destination. But as we laid eyes on Lopes Mendes beach for the first time, I think my jaw may have actually dropped, cartoon-character-style.

Hiking on Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes beach is often hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil — and we could easily understand why. But even on this beautiful sunny day after a long stretch of rain, we really didn’t have to look to hard to find a wide space to spread out our cangas on.

Unlike the other beaches we’d passed on our journey, this one had no permanent structures, yet there were plenty of locals with coolers hawking cold drinks and even snacks sandwiches, and we settled in to enjoy the last stretch of the day’s sun.

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

In total, it took us 2.5 hours to hike the full 7.2 kilometer route to Lopes Mendes beach, plus a little bonus 1.2 kilometers to hike back to Praia Pouso for the boat ride to Abraão — which was a bargain and a blessing at 15R (or $4USD). Much as I loved getting there, I don’t think I’d have been up for the full trek back!

Our only regret? Bringing so much water — we could have packed half — and not leaving first thing in the morning. Lopes Mendes truly is stunning, and you’ll want to spend literally every second you can there.

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Lopes Mendes Beach Ilha Grande

Circuito de Abraão: T1

On our last full day on Ilha Grande, we decided to tackle one last trail, the unassuming Circuito de Abraaão. This easy stroll covers 1.8 kilometers and takes about an hour to an hour and a half, according to the trail marker at the kick off. You could do this one in flip flops, as we ourselves did.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

This trail starts on the far East side of Abraão, the opposite end from T10. Just walk as far as the road goes from town, and keep going. You’ll run into it eventually — but not before stopping to ooh and aah over beautiful views of the bay.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

What I really loved about this little loop were the near constant distractions of little stops along the way. We tackled the trail clockwise, and so our first stop was a viewpoint over Praia Preta. Not bad, eh?

Next was an aqueduct viewpoint that we couldn’t quite see the aqueduct from, followed by an unspectacular waterfall. But all were lovely distractions from the physical exertion, which are always welcome in my book.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Next up, the aqueduct! Now, this was cool. At eleven meters high, the twenty-six arches stretched so far deep across the jungle we couldn’t see either end, and felt like we’d stumbled upon a mysterious clue from the series Lost.

Constructed in 1893 using stones and whale oil, the aqueduct still carries to Abraão village to this day.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Eventually, we wound back to the coast and arrived on the beautiful shore of Praia de Galego. Here, we stopped for a well deserved beach break.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

When we’d had our fill of sun, we wandered next door to the Lazareto Ruins, a reminder of Ilha Grande’s seedy past. This now abandoned building has had many lives. Originally a farmhouse, in 1884 the structure was redesigned as a Brazilian Ellis Island, a quarantine stopover for European immigrants by order of the Emperor of Brazil in the midst of a devastating cholera epidemic.

Closed in 1913, Lazareto was given new life as a penal colony from 1940 to 1954, and finally abandoned for good again in 1963.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

After lingering just a tad too long in the damp old ruins, I cheered when we reached Praia Preta. Here, we shared the beach with a few local pups, a fisherman who proudly showed us his catch, and other travelers vying for the last bits of beach at high tide.

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha GrandePhoto by Heather Holt Photography

Hiking The Circuito de Abraao on Ilha Grande

The the label “adventure paradise” is thrown around pretty loosely these days, I feel confident bestowing the title on this beautiful island. Equal parts beautiful and accessible, I can’t think of a better hiking destination I’ve visited recently — and we only brushed the surface! If you’re looking for an independent adventure in Brazil, look no further.

While Ilha Grande feels idyllically safe, we still took some base-level security precautions — this is Brazil, which as guidebooks, other travelers, and our mothers warned us frequently, has a bit of a reputation for crime. Though we took the calculated risk of hiking with our cameras (after backing up all our memory cards), we carried very small amounts of cash and always told our guesthouse reception where we were going. While T1 and T11 were well-trafficed trails, T10 was quite desolate. Some trails should only be tackled with a guide — ask around if you’re considering others.

Hiking on Ilha Grande Brazil

Happy hiking! Next stop… Rio de Janiero!

Traveling Like The Thais Do: A Weekend In Hua Hin

Happy 2017, my friends! It turned out 2016 was my year of vacationing like the Thais do. After seven years of visiting their country, why not take a cue from those that know it best, after all? I’ve always found it fascinating to note the differences between destinations loved by domestic travelers, and those favored by their international counterparts… to explore them myself? Even better.

I earned my first nod of local approval by planning two separate trips to Khao Yai, both to the National Park and to the wine region in the countryside. Next, I set my sights on Hua Hin, site of the royal family’s seaside retreat and arguably the country’s most popular beach resort among its own people.

I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about.

Hua Hin Weekend

Hua Hin Weekend

Hua Hin Weekend

Coming from our birthday bash weekend in Bangkok, Hua Hin was a simple — though lengthy — train ride away. After a fabulous stay at the Amari Watergate in the big city, Ian and I broke off from the group to check out the brand’s sister resort, Amari Hua Hin.

We made the mistake of not buying our tickets ahead of time and got stuck in third class, which was a bit rough for a four to five hour ride. Yet all thoughts of hard wooden seats and sweaty cars were forgotten when the sun started to dip and the Thai countryside lit up with late afternoon glow.

Hua Hin by Train

Hua Hin by Train

Hua Hin by Train

And it was all worth it the moment the train pulled into Hua Hin’s historic station. Frankly, we weren’t planning on doing much sightseeing over the next three nights — we were traveled out and mostly just looking for some alone time! — and so we were quite pleased to check off at least one local sight.

The iconic train station was once the royal waiting room during Rama VI’s reign, and now serves as both a gateway to the popular getaway, as well as a prime example of local architecture.

Hua Hin Train Station

Hua Hin Train Station

Hua Hin Train Station

A short tuk tuk ride later, we’d arrived at the Amari Hua Hin. Located just ten minutes south of the heart of town, the Amari is just close enough to take advantage of local dining and nightlife and just far enough away to feel like you’re out of the hustle and bustle.

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

From the moment we started check-in, we could tell this hotel was going to be distinctly different from the Amari Watergate in Bangkok. While that property had been fabulously located and spoiled for amenities, this one was swoon-level chic, with thoughtful design details and bright pops of color tucked into every corner. This was my kind of place.

I was in hotel heaven.

Amari Hua Hin

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

We stayed in a standard room, and since we arrived to our room after dark and the housekeeping left something to be desired — really our only complaint about the Amari brand — I never really got to photograph our room in it’s just-checked-in glory.

However, we did get the chance to peek at one of the hotel’s four suites and had to pretty much wipe the drool off our faces as we did so — if you’re headed this way and have the means to do so, spring for one of these babies (standard rooms start at around $100, while suites go for about $200).

Amari Hua Hin

Amari Hua Hin Suite

Amari Hua Hin Suite

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

Amari Hua Hin Suite

So what was on the itinerary if sightseeing was out of the question? With the exception of our trip to the area’s winery, which I’ll cover in a separate post, it was all about pool, beach, spa… and watching movies in bed. Sometimes even adventure-loving travel bloggers just want a vacation.

The next day we kicked things off at the hotel pool, where we nibbled on snacks from the Aqua Pool bar and marveled at having the place nearly entirely to ourselves even when the hotel was almost at full capacity. Thai people cherish light skin the same way Americans worship tans, meaning you’ll rarely struggle to find an empty seat if you hit the pool mid-day at a Thai beach resort.

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Hua Hin Amari

Hua Hin Amari

When we tired of that pool, we hoped down to the Shoreline Beach Club. Just a short walk or a free thirty second shuttle ride away from the hotel, Shoreline allowed us to enjoy the ocean breezes and views and the luxury of a hotel pool that we didn’t have to sneak into all at once. I absolutely loved this gem and we spent plenty of time here, walking the beach at low tide, eating dinner under the stars and reading between the pool and ocean.

The beach in Hua Hin is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Thailand. The islands I’ve visited are sultry and tropical, full of piercing turquoise water, smooth as glass, and blinding white sand. Hua Hin is quaint and charming, with an endless shoreline, wild waves and a strong salty smell that reminds me of the beaches of my childhood. I was swooning.

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Hua Hin Amari Pool

Hua Hin Amari Pool

Amari Hua Hin Pool

Amari Hua Hin Pool

The next morning, we decided to tick off a few more of the hotel’s hotspots. I was very much in a fitness routine at this point (universe, help me get back to that place) and was delighted by how beautiful the onsite fitness center was. Not only that, but I had it completely to myself throughout both my cardio and a weight circuit.

Hua Hin Amari Gym

Hua Hin Amari Gym

The best way to reward yourself for a workout? Why, a trip to the spa of course!

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

After just one visit at the Amari Watergate in Bangkok I was already a Breeze Spa devotee, and so I couldn’t have been more thrilled to return, this time with Ian in tow, to the Amari Hua Hin version. The stylish and hip branding was comfortingly consistent, though this particular spa had a slightly more beachy feel appropriate to the setting.

We settled in for the Hua Hin Seaside Escape package, which was glorious and involved being exfoliated with crushed seashells.

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

In general, the spa is my happy place, and this day was no exception. I’m in love with the Breeze branding, products, and treatments — if they opened one in Koh Tao I’d be their most loyal customer!

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

Breeze Spa Hua Hin Amari

That afternoon, we retreated to the Coral Lounge for high tea. This gorgeous lobby bar won me over from the second I stepped through the door with its dramatic red coral chandeliers — luckily not for sale in any giftshop, or I would have really struggled to repack my suitcase — and its impeccable design details all around.

I don’t normally jump at the chance for proper tea service, but this one was pretty phenomenal. I’m getting hungry just thinking about those sliders and scones!

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Coral Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Our last day at the Amari was all about soaking up every last second of vacation vibes — that, and eating. We kicked things off as we had twice already with breakfast at Mosaic, the hotel’s included breakfast restaurant. With five different restaurant options onsite — plus room service — we never returned to Mosaic for any other meals, but we did love starting our days here.

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Mosaic Amari Hua Hin

Later that afternoon after packing up, we had a beautiful lunch at Reef Deli, where we’d also enjoyed dinner on our first night. My highlight was a dessert called Sweet Mango Caviar, made up of coconut and pandan cake served with vanilla ice cream and topped with mango “caviar.” Yum!

Throughout our stay, we were impressed with the prices at the hotel’s onsite restaurants. When we met briefly with the hotel’s manager, he explained that for Amari’s many Thai guests, eating at Hua Hin’s famous seafront seafood restaurants is one of the main attractions, and so they have to price themselves competitively to remain an attractive option.

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

Reef Deli and Wine Lounge Amari Hua Hin

I really savored this short getaway and understood more than ever why people don’t just go traveling but also take vacations. I live a life blessed by beach time, setting my own schedule and a lot of other things that most people associate with being on vacation. Yet the one thing I can’t just get on a whim is quality time with my favorite man! Ian and I live separately, work opposite hours (I work during the day and Ian manages a bar six nights a week), and both value quality time alone and with our friends. And so when we do get away like this, we really savor it. And I can’t imagine a more perfect place to do so than this particular beach town and this particular hotel.

Hua Hin really left an impression on me. Considering it’s prime location between Bangkok and Koh Tao, it’s kind of wild it took me so long to get there. But while this may have been a long overdue first trip, I feel almost certain it won’t be my last.

Stay tuned for a post about Hua Hin’s winery!

3-devide-lines

Many thanks to Amari Hua Hin for hosting us for two nights. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.