When I published my 2013 review, 12 months ago, I was entering 2014 feeling both excited and apprehensive about the year ahead. I was working a temp job (following my redundancy from a 7-year position I’d previously held with DVLA) that was due to finish at the end of January, and I didn’t have any further work lined up for February or March.
However on the flip side I was flying out to Lima on the 1st of April (with my boyfriend Stu) to begin an open-ended (subject to finances) trip around South America. We’d been planning this trip since I received my official notice of redundancy back in June, so as far as I was concerned it couldn’t come soon enough. South America had been on my bucket list for a very long time.
I’d also recently moved my blog (and the few articles I had written for it) to a self-hosted one on WordPress.org, and spent countless hours personalising the theme I’d purchased from Woo Themes. So my main focus of 2014 – aside from realising a longstanding travel dream – was to work on building a better blog.
The problem was that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing (and even after a year I still have a helluva lot to learn). I didn’t know the first thing about web design or management, I had no marketing experience, I knew nothing about plugins, widgets or SEO, and concepts such as branding and growing readership were a completely new (and somewhat mind-boggling) ball game for me.
So when I noticed that one of my favourite travel bloggers was running a 12-week course that was designed to teach me all of this, I jumped at the chance to enrol. Travel Blogging 101 offered me an easy-to-follow, comprehensive guide to getting my fledgling travel blog off the ground, and helped me to network, engage with and learn from other travel bloggers. It was exactly what I needed.
So here it is: my year, month by month…
I rang in the new year in the grounds of Stanley Kubrick‘s estate in Oxfordshire, a statement which suggests exclusivity and extravagance. The reality was actually much less so (drinking cheap vodka and imitation Red Bull in a converted stables building with a bunch of people I’d only just met, and then picking my way through a mass of bodies in various states of consciousness in an attempt to secure a bed at around 4am) but it was still a fun and novel way start to 2014.
I also enrolled on Amanda Williams’ Travel Blogging 101 course, and completed the first three of twelve lessons by the end of the month. As one of my initial assignments I moved away from my usual long-form narrative style of writing, and published my first photo essay. Bearing in mind that up to this point it was taking me 2-3 weeks to write a post, The Summer Palace in Beijing: A Tranquil Spot Amidst the Chaos (which was just shy of 1000 words in length) took me just 3 days.
Being part of a new (albeit small; our TB101 Facebook group had 21 members) travel blogging community gave me a wonderful sense of belonging and opened up some great networking opportunities. Having somewhere to share knowledge, ideas and inspiration was also hugely beneficial to me.
Determined to be as best prepared for our upcoming trip to South America as possible, I also took the opportunity to enrol both Stu and I on a 12-week Spanish course at our local language school. Prior to the course Stu’s knowledge of the Spanish language was limited to ordering a beer in a local restaurant. Although I was a little more proficient (I’d attained a Spanish IGCSE qualification the previous June), I desperately needed some oral communication practice.
The final score in January was getting my temporary contract extended until 31 March – the day before the departure of our flight to Lima.
Blog posts written in January:
An email landed in my inbox, entitled ‘Valentine’s Day Share the Love Campaign’. I almost dismissed it as spam. The fact that I didn’t meant that a week later I was publishing my first sponsored post, in exchange for a $150 voucher for Amazon.com. At time I didn’t realise that not only was this voucher not valid for use on the UK site, but it also couldn’t be used to order on Amazon.com for delivery to a UK address.
Consequently I basically wrote a sponsored post for free, but let’s not dwell on that shall we?
Blog posts written in February:
According to scientists the winter of 2013/2014 was allegedly the best time to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis (more commonly known as the Northern Lights), in 50 years. Seeing the Northern Lights was an experience that had been on my travel bucket list for some time, so – despite the fact that I’d hoped to fit a skiing/snowboarding trip in before we flew out to Lima in April – this was a chance in a million that I simply couldn’t pass up.
The weather let us down on the first two nights we spent in Iceland, but on our final night we were rewarded with the display we’d hoped for.
I also loved Iceland’s vibrant, quirky capital, Reykjavik, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t as expensive as I’d previously perceived it to be.
Blog posts written in March:
Wow, where do I start? We landed in Lima at around 5am on 2 April, and spent a few days exploring Peru’s capital before catching an internal flight up to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest and also the largest city in the world that is inaccessible by road. Iquitos reminded me in so many ways of South-east Asian cities, and I liked that.
We visited Belén, a floating shantytown that is home to one of the most interesting markets in the whole of Peru, and got up close and personal to a myriad of plants, flowers, insects and animals of the Amazon during our 3-day jungle tour with Heliconia.
We then found ourselves in Tarapoto, the closest populated area that we could fly to from Iquitos in order to re-connect with Peru’s road network. From there we made our way towards the coast via Moyobamba (where we each planted our own Cupuaçu trees), Chachapoyas (where we visited the ruined citadel of Kuélap), Leymebamba (where we were shut in a room with 210 mummified remains), and Cajamarca (where we enjoyed the best Sudado de Trucha in the whole of Peru). We also gave our nerves a bit of a gruelling test when we took Peru’s Most Spectacular and Frightening Bus Ride through the mountains and cloud forests of the Northern Highlands.
We ended the month by enjoying a little relaxation time and good food in the beach resort of Máncora, close to the Ecuadorian border.
Blog posts written in April:
From Máncora we headed down the coast via Trujillo and its colourful, colonial buildings, the ancient ruins of the adobe city of Chan Chan, and Huanchaco (known for its ceviche, surf and traditional reed fishing boats).
When we left Huanchaco we headed back inland to Huaraz. Smack bang in the middle of the Cordilleras, Huaraz is a hiker’s paradise and is surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. We got our first taste of what it feels like to hike at altitude, marvelled at the magical – almost surreal – colour of Laguna 69, touched a glacier, and were witness to the colourful festivities in celebration of el Señor de la Soledad.
Leaving Huaraz, we really got off the beaten path as we followed the backroads to Cusco via Tarma, Huancayo, Huancavelica and Ayacucho, where we had a spontaneous paragliding experience and got spooked out at the eerie ruins of the ancient Wari civilisation.
Blog posts written in May:
June started on a high. I achieved one of my all time ambitions to hike the Inca Trail, and we were lucky enough to have a fantastic group and an amazing guide, which led to some brilliant camaraderie between us and some great friendships (our post Inca Trail night out at KM-0 in San Blas, Cusco, was one of the best nights out I had throughout my trip). I also loved having the best part of a week to explore the imperial city of Cusco with its charming colonial buildings, cobbled streets, inviting cafes, and quirky boutique shops and galleries.
After Cusco, I discovered another of what would turn out to be one of my favourite places in Cusco – the quaint village of Ollantaytambo, with its imposing Inca ruins and curious maze of narrow cobblestone streets.
From Ollantaytambo, we stopped off in Pisac (its botanical gardens are home to over 100 different species of cacti), before returning to Cusco, flying to Lima, and making our way back down the coast via Paracas and the desert oasis of Huacachina.
From Huacachina, we made the long journey to Arequipa, another city I loved. We spent a wonderful few days hiking the Colca Canyon independently (where we made friends with a loyal hound who didn’t leave our side for two whole days), and then returned to Arequipa in time to celebrate my birthday at the end of June. Delicious food, live music and multiple mojitos were involved. As birthdays go, it was a pretty good one.
Blog posts written in June:
Having sorted out what could have been a rather more serious problem with our visas, we left Arequipa and headed to Puno where we took a day trip to the island of Taquile and did a bit of shopping before crossing the border into Bolivia (my 35th country!)
On the Bolivian side of lake Titicaca we visited the Isla de Sol where we had a bit of a major mishap and missed the only boat down to the southern tip of the island (which is where our ride back to Copacabana left from). As a result we had to pay an extortionate amount (which actually only equated to £22; Bolivia is cheap!) to charter our own private boat to make the journey.
I was surprised to enjoy the sprawling metropolis of La Paz more than I expected to, and I managed to survive mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road in some pretty poor weather conditions. I also conquered one of my fears and ziplined (headfirst) for 1500 metres high above the Yungas valley.
After La Paz we spent a few days in Potosí, the highest city of its size in the world, where we signed up for a tour of one of the local (working) mines. From Potosí we headed further south to Tupiza from where we began our amazing 4-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni.
The only issue that put a bit of a dampener on our trip was the road blockades in Uyuni, which meant that we missed the Cementerio de Trenes and had to part with a large sum of money to get out of the city via the ‘unofficial’ route.
We finally landed in Sucre on schedule. Being on schedule doesn’t normally matter a huge amount when you’re travelling but unfortunately Stu had been called back to work in the UK to finish a project rather sooner than he’d anticipated.
This change in circumstances caused no end of friction between us. Stu wanted me to fly home with him; I wanted to stay in South America alone for another few months. We agreed on a compromise (I think he won out on the level of compromise): I would stick to my original plan to stay in Sucre for 3 weeks in order to take Spanish lessons, and then I would make my way home.
So I said my goodbyes, gutted that our South American trip had to come to an end after seeing just 2 countries, and looked forward to 3 weeks of me time in Sucre. After all, for those of you who know me, you’ll know how much I love solo travel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great having someone close to share all the amazing experiences with (and also to split the accommodation costs with!) but I do miss the freedom of being able build my own itinerary without having to consider anyone else.
Blog posts written in July:
August was a month of change. I was taking 3 hours of Spanish lessons every morning with South America Spanish School, which meant that I had to get myself back into a daily routine.
Learning was intense, and rather overwhelming to begin with, but when I look back at how much progress I made during just over 2 weeks of classes, I can see that the hard work and commitment did actually pay off.
For me Sucre was the perfect city to have chosen to base myself in. It is widely recognised as one of the safest cities in Bolivia, was large enough for there to be plenty to keep me occupied during the afternoons but small enough to not feel intimidating, and best of all – visually it’s beautiful.
I managed to score a flight home from Santa Cruz for a bargain price of £380, and my internal flight from Sucre to Santa Cruz only set me back an extra £30, so that softened the blow of coming home a little.
Blog posts written in August:
I was out of work for about 3-4 weeks before one of the employment agencies contacted me about a 6-week contract with a local government organisation. The pay was awful, but I needed to start earning money again, as – despite the fact that I returned home with a nice sum of money in the bank (due to cutting my trip short) – every week I was out of work I was eating away at that figure.
So, in no time at all I was back in a similar role to the one I was performing this time a year ago. I’d worked incredibly hard on my blog, publishing articles every week and regularly updating social media, that I’d hoped it to have grown more than it actually had.
So I finished September pleased that I was earning money again, and that I’d settled in with my new office family incredibly well, but feeling disheartened about Gallop Around The Globe and struggling to find enough hours in the day to put the work into it that it deserved.
Blog posts written in September:
I managed to secure a more long term temporary contract through the organisation for whom I was working. However this now meant that I was bound by the organisation’s terms and conditions which meant just 23 days annual leave per year. How was I going to grow my travel blog with that measly amount of time to travel with?
On the plus side, I got in touch with Emily Luxton at Backpack South America following a tweet she posted looking for writers with experience of travelling in South America. I needed the exposure so I jumped at the chance. I was featured in her Learning Spanish in Bolivia article, and then my own guest post, Hiking the Inca Trail: Tips, Information and Advice, was published at the end of the month.
Blog posts written in October:
I wrote a second guest post for Backpack South America, How to Get Off the Beaten Track in Peru. I also took part in a collaborative post entitled The Best Cities for Street Art – Chosen by Travel Bloggers.
I networked as much as I could, took part in Twitter chats, commented on bloggers’ posts, discovered the benefits of using hashtags on Instagram and ensured I was keeping a close eye and was active in the 3 major travel blogger groups on Facebook.
My determination to make a success of my travel blog was back with a vengeance.
Blog posts written in November:
I almost ended up applying to work with CopyPress. A fellow travel blogger in one of the Facebook groups had mentioned them as a good way to get into Freelancing, and I would have been quite happy to work for them ($0.15 per word for a 500 word article may only equate to $75 but that’s £48 – more than I earn in a whole day in my full-time job!), but having done a little background reading, it appeared that they insist that you publish a post on your own blog (which would include a link to the original) as well as the one you write for their clients.
Now, I don’t mind doing the odd sponsored post if it’s in line with the general theme and ethos of my own blog, but I want the choice of what I do and do not post on Gallop Around The Globe to stay with me. I want ultimate control of the content of my blog, and I felt that some of that would be taken away if I accepted work with CopyPress.
At the beginning of the month I also turned down an offer from Destsetters. They were offering a comped stay in a hotel within their network in exchange for a review of the hotel and sights/activities within the city. The problem was that they focus on luxury travel, and whilst staying in a 5-star hotel sounds perfect, reviewing a 5-star hotel on a travel blog that focusses on budget travel would be more than a little bit hypocritical.
I was starting to wonder whether I was being a fool. Work is work, right? But I desperately want to stay sincere to myself and to everything my blog stands for.
As the year came to a close, things started looking up. New accommodation booking website, Yonderbound (post to follow shortly) contacted me about partnering with them on their affiliate program. I’d recently signed up to become a beta tester for their site, part of which included building some ‘Yonderboxes’ (including travel tips and hotel recommendations for a particular destination or under a particular subject). I liked their site and they liked what I’d done with my Yonderboxes, so – in spite of the fact that a blogger normally needs 5000+ monthly unique visitors to join the affiliate program – they accepted me with stats much lower.
Now I know that as far as they’re concerned they won’t have to pay out as much commission to someone with a very limited following (and therefore reach), but it still feels good to be part of a program that includes bloggers such as Alex Baackes of Alex in Wanderland, Kristin Addis of Be My Travel Muse, Matthew Karsten of Expert Vagabond, Audrey Bergner of That Backpacker, Laurence Norah of Finding the Universe and Elizabeth Carlson of Young Adventuress.
Blog posts written in December:
When I think about where I am now in comparison to this time last year, it’s all to easy to focus on those things I haven’t achieved rather than all of those that I have.
Yes, I’ve only taken 2 trips (one of which I had to cut short) and visited just 3 new countries. But I’ve been on the road this year for the best part of 5 months, I’ve visited 42 new destinations (cities, towns, villages), I’ve seen the Northern Lights, hiked the Inca Trail, mountain biked down Death Road, posed for silly perspective shots on the biggest salt flat in the world, slept in the Amazon jungle, held a sloth, touched a glacier, and studied Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country.
It’s been a good year for travel.
Whilst the growth of my blog has been a lot slower than I’d hoped, and I’ve not yet made any money from it, I’ve still managed to write 50 new articles as well as 2 guest posts. That’s a new post every week – whilst working or travelling full-time and holding a relationship together (Stu is a little less than impressed by the fact that I spend every night on my laptop!).
That’s a pretty good achievement as far as I’m concerned 😉