The world’s safest cities

In these five cities, residents can rest easy walking home late at night and leaving their laptop unguarded. But they also know that safe doesn’t have to be boring.

Leaving your wallet or laptop unguarded in a cafe may not be recommended for most, but residents in the world’s safest cities could likely do it without a second thought.

For many, feeling safe can be key to feeling at home. So to understand what it might be like to live in a super safe place, we sought out residents living in some of the most stable and secure cities in the world, as ranked by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The list considered factors such as personal safety, infrastructure stability, health stability and digital security technology. Locals weighed in on the best neighbourhoods to live in, what exactly makes them feel at ease – and why safe doesn’t have to equal boring.

Along with Tokyo (named the world’s safest city), Osaka embodies the general peace of mind that can be felt throughout the country. “Japan in general is an incredibly safe country to live in,” said Daniel Lee, founder of the local English languageKansai Scene magazine, who moved from the United Kingdom 17 years ago. “So much so that locals are accustomed to leaving their personal belongings unattended on tables in coffee shops while they go and order. It’s unthinkable anywhere else.”

Osaka's cherry blossoms in full bloom (Credit: Credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty)

Osaka’s cherry blossoms in full bloom (Credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty)

Osaka is known for being business-focussed, which means that people work and commute late into the night. “Even at the latest hours, businessmen are on the train, and the main terminals are populated as much at night as by day,” said Yoshie Yamamoto, who moved from Kyoto 25 years ago and runs the oldest Noh theatre in the city. “There is absolutely no problem for a lady to be travelling alone late at night on the subways.”

The work-oriented culture can also lead to friendly conversation. “Osaka is a city of salesmen, and the locals love to talk,” Lee said. “You can enter any small watering hole and be treated like a long lost friend. You may not understand a word of what they say to you, but the good vibes will win you over.”

A rice planting ritual in Osaka (Credit: Credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty)

A rice planting ritual in Osaka (Credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty)

For a chance to mingle with the locals, Yamamoto recommends living in a downtown area such as Ikuno Ward or Abeno Ward, where Nagaya (traditional long houses) are still common. “These places are relatively cheap as they have been inhabited by the same locals [for years],” she said. “If you are able to make friends with your neighbours, you will experience the true Osaka character filled with affection, warmth and friendship.”

Those looking for a more nature-focused lifestyle can head to the “bed towns” surrounding the city, such as Minoh and Kita-Senri, which have easy train access to downtown Osaka, as well as the nearby cities of Kobe and Kyoto.

With fewer than one million residents, Amsterdam is still relatively small compared to other cities on the EIU’s list, giving it a leg up when it comes to providing a safe residential environment. The capital city also has a laidback vibe that puts people at ease.

A busker performs from his bicycle in Amsterdam (Credit: Credit: Mark Dadswell/Getty)

A busker performs from his bicycle in Amsterdam (Credit: Mark Dadswell/Getty)

“I feel incredibly safe,” said Toni Hinterstoisser, general manager at the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht, who moved from New York City three years ago. “The people’s free spirit makes them more relaxed about everyday things. Nobody gets agitated easily.” This is true even of the police, who Hinterstoisser says are very present and polite, but also straight to the point.

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum (Credit: Credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty)

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (Credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty)

While all of Amsterdam’s neighbourhoods are considered safe, districts in the south such as De Pijp and Oud-Zuid are more upscale. To the east and north, neighbourhoods like Noord are considered to be up-and-coming. Hinterstoisser lives in Oud West (Old West), which he likes for being only 2km west of the city centre and near Vondelpark, the city’s largest park.

A sunny afternoon in Amsterdam's Vondelpark (Credit: Credit: Remko De Waal/Getty)

A sunny afternoon in Vondelpark (Credit: Remko De Waal/Getty)

One word of caution: no matter where you choose to live, don’t expect a level house. “As Amsterdam is mostly built on water, the houses are not completely straight,” warned Hinterstoisser. “If you put a tennis ball on one end of my living room, it will roll all by itself quite swiftly to the other side.”

Despite being Australia’s largest city, Sydney’s neighbourhood-oriented culture keeps residents feeling safe. “Our community looks after each other,” said Richard Graham, a Sydney native and owner of local tour company My Detour. “If someone looks suspicious, we tell our neighbours, and word soon gets around who to watch out for.”

Making bubbles in Sydney's Circular Quay (Credit: Credit: David Hancock/Getty)

Making bubbles in Sydney’s Circular Quay (Credit: David Hancock/Getty)

The city recently adopted a plan to spend $15 million a yearimproving footpaths and pedestrian crossings to encourage walking, and Victoria Moxey, originally from Buenos Aires and founder of local visitor guide Urban Walkabout, believes this is helping to keep life safe.

“The streets are always filled with urban types sitting at coffee shops with friends, walking dogs or just exploring the city,” she said. “Sydney is a city where the more you walk the streets, the more you feel part of a community.”

Sydney's Running Festival on the Harbour Bridge (Credit: Credit: Greg Wood/Getty)

Sydney’s Running Festival on the Harbour Bridge (Credit: Greg Wood/Getty)

To make the most of this walking culture, expats often choose to live in Potts Point, 3km east of the city centre, where Art Deco apartment buildings and plentiful cafes give the neighbourhood a New York City vibe. Another favoured option is Surry Hills, 3km southeast of the centre, which has the best coffee spots and restaurants in town, drawing hipsters, design lovers and foodies.

For a true Australian beach lifestyle, residential-oriented Waverley or surfer-friendly Bronte are about 8km southeast of the city, while Rose Bay is an upscale harbourside option just 7km to the east.

This Southeast Asian city-state takes law enforcement seriously, resulting in a very secure environment. Rinita Vanjre Ravi, originally from Bangalore, and co-founder of dine-with-locals site BonAppetour, sees how much difference a well-funded police department can make. “In Singapore, the police force is well paid, which enables them to be concerned about the welfare of their people,” she said.

Singapore's Garden by the Bay (Credit: Credit: Roslan Rahman/Getty)

Singapore’s Garden by the Bay (Credit: Roslan Rahman/Getty)

It also ensure laws are enforced. Vanjre Ravi finds that Singapore locals are really honest. “You can leave your bag at the table at any restaurant and go to the cashier to order food with the peace of mind that your bag will still be there,” she said. “Residents know that there is a high chance of being caught and punished.”

A stable political environment and a no-tolerance policy for religious or racist jokes also contributes to a harmonic city vibe.

A street sale in Singapore (Credit: Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty)

A street sale in Singapore (Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty)

Still, living in such a populous area comes with its own set of challenges. Managing the daily commute is key when finding a place to live in Singapore, and locals advise living as close to work as possible. Vanjre Ravi recommends Tiong Bahru as a central hipster neighbourhood with specialty shops and trendy restaurants, though those in a higher income bracket can look at the Duxton Hill apartments near Outram Park, 2km west of downtown, notable for its restored colonial buildings and international cuisine.

The Mid-Autumn festival in Singapore (Credit: Credit: Roslan Rahman/Getty)

The Mid-Autumn festival in Singapore (Credit: Roslan Rahman/Getty)

Being located so far north comes with its advantages, like never-ending summer days. Stockholm’s natural light in summer, paired with a well-lit city centre in darker times of the year, contributes to a feeling of safe public spaces. “Having two small boys, safety is increasingly important to me, and Stockholm is simply brilliant for children,” said Kat T, originally from London, who writes the blog An English Mamma in Stockholm. “There are playgrounds in parks away from the traffic and many leafy, green areas right in the centre of town.”

Cyclists in downtown Stockholm (Credit: Credit: Olivier Morin/Getty)

Cyclists in downtown Stockholm (Credit: Olivier Morin/Getty)

Though it doesn’t have the non-stop buzz of London, Kat finds that Stockholm’s slower pace can sometimes be a blessing. Despite its small size, the city also feels “dynamic and sophisticated”, she said. “Swedes are early adopters of things new, especially technology, and are frequently trendsetters.”

A Color Run in Stockholm (Credit: Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty)

A Color Run in Stockholm (Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty)

Most people live in apartments close to the Central Business District, but those looking for better value should head 2km west to Kungsholmen, while a funkier vibe (evidenced in vintage shops and avant-garde galleries) can be found in Södermalm 3km to the south. The waterfront areas have also been recently redeveloped, with Hammarby Sjöstad being among the most popular for its walkable boulevards and eco-conscious design.

Teahouses that few foreigners see

The forgotten mountain (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

The forgotten mountain

Ask people to name the three highest mountains in the world, and few get past Mount Everest and K2. At 8,586m, Mt Kanchenjunga is only about 300m lower than Everest, but for all intents and purposes, the world’s third-highest peak has been forgotten.

Lying on the border between eastern Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim, Kanchenjunga is worshipped as a tutelary spirit by the Sikkimese. The mountain was first successfully tackled by British climbers in 1955, but they, like all who came after them, stopped just short of the summit out of respect for the locals’ belief that the mountaintop is sacred. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

World-class trekking (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

World-class trekking

Kanchenjunga, a name that originates from Tibetan, means the “five treasures of snow” and corresponds to the massif’s five distinct peaks.

Like many mountains in Nepal, Kanchenjunga offers world-class trekking. But unlike some of the country’s more popular routes, which can become overrun in the prime autumn and spring hiking seasons, the trails to and around Kanchenjunga’s two basecamps remain delightfully free of foreign visitors – likely due to the difficulty and expense of reaching the area. Kanchenjunga is well off the established tourist trail and reaching a trailhead requires several days of road travel or a costly flight. In addition, trekkers must have proper permits and be accompanied by a recognized guide company, generally arranged in Kathmandu. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Two ways up (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Two ways up

Trekkers can choose one of two routes: to the south or north basecamp. The trek to the 5,140m-high north basecamp is longer, but offers more time in the high mountains. It’s also possible, over the course of roughly 25 days, to link the two routes via a couple of high passes. I trekked to the 4,730m-high south basecamp, starting in the small market town of Taplejung, which is located a two-day drive from Kathmandu. It took me nine days to reach basecamp, and another five for the hike back.

For the first four days, the trail coursed through small villages, patches of tropical forest and terraced fields like the one pictured here. Crops vary depending on the altitude, with rice grown at lower levels and barley higher up. The big cash crop in the region is cardamom. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse trekking (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse trekking

Most people travel with porters and camping gear, but you can also stay in teahouses. In popular trekking areas such as Annapurna, Everest and Langtang, teahouses cater almost exclusively to foreign trekkers and are increasingly sophisticated, sometimes even offering hot showers and wi-fi. In the Kanchenjunga region, however, the teahouses are used mainly by local shepherds, traders and porters, and are simply villagers’ homes with a room or two for rent. Conditions can be basic – you’ll get a bed and a shared toilet – but staying in them allows visitors the chance to get to know locals in a way that’s rarely possible on more popular routes. The man pictured here owned this home and teahouse in the village of Phumphe. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse style (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Teahouse style

Teahouse decor has its own distinctive style. Newspaper is commonly used as wallpaper, and homes are further adorned with posters of fantasy American homes, fast cars or, as in the case of this teahouse in the village of Mamanke, images of Indian and Nepalese film and pop stars. The woman pictured here is a neighbour who stopped by for a chat and a cup of tea. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sweets and shops (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sweets and shops

While still difficult to reach, this remote region is becoming increasingly accessible. As such, many villages have at least one tiny shop selling a few basic provisions, including biscuits and sweets. The shopkeeper pictured here resides in Phumphe. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Yeti footprints (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Yeti footprints

In Yamphudin, the final village en route to the south basecamp, the man pictured told me that he and his son once walked over a high mountain pass that leads to Sikkim. On the way home, they spent a night in a remote shepherd’s hut on the edge of the tree line. When they went outside the next morning, they discovered giant footprints in the snow circling the hut and disappearing into the forest. He and the boy were too scared to follow the tracks, he said, as both believed they were the prints of a yeti. Many villagers, in fact, believe that yetis exist in the region. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

A misty forest (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

A misty forest

Beyond Yamphudin, the trail entered pine forests where rhododendrons blistered with red, pink and white flowers. Almost every tree was covered in Spanish moss, which hung from the branches like an old man’s beard. A dense, cloudy mist filled the air at all times, obscuring the mountain vistas and lending a silent, spooky feel to the forests. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

A bridge to the mountains (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

A bridge to the mountains

The trail then climbed sharply for a couple of hours, crossed a 2,540m pass and descended through tangled pine and rhododendron forests where red pandas and pheasants reside. We came to a modern suspension bridge spanning a river. These kinds of bridges have appeared only in the past couple of years. Prior to that, shepherds crossed the rivers on flimsy log bridges. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Symbols of the high Himalaya (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Symbols of the high Himalaya

In the summer (June to August), shepherds live with their yaks – symbols of the high Himalaya – in high pastures located up to and above 5,000m. As autumn approaches, the shepherds and their animals slowly descend from the mountains, seeking milder weather.

More often than not, these animals are actually a much stronger cross-breed of yaks and cows; pure-bred yaks are quite rare in Nepal. Locals often make cheese from the animals’ milk, and yak meat is eaten in much of Nepal. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sleeping outdoors (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

Sleeping outdoors

This photo was taken at dawn at Ramche, the highest night stop on the trek at 4,580m. The tents froze over during the night, but by midday, hikers could wear T-shirts. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

The end of the road (Credit: Credit: Stuart Butler)

The end of the road

The trekking route to the south basecamp ends at Oktang, where a mixed Buddhist/Hindu shrine (pictured) overlooks both the basecamp and the upper part of the Yalung Glacier. Continuing any farther requires mountaineering experience and equipment. Unless you’re prepared to reach the high passes to get to the north basecamp route, you have little option but to spin around and retrace your steps back to where you started.

For me, that moment made for mixed emotions. The thought of enjoying a hot shower, donning clean clothes and checking emails filled me with anticipation, but I was sad to leave behind this incredible world of frozen glaciers, misty forests and villagers who open their homes and speak with passion about yetis. (Credit: Stuart Butler)

Rare access to an Australian wonder

A live-aboard boat affords travellers a much closer look at the country’s psychedelically beautiful Great Barrier Reef – without any of the day-tripper crowds.

Standing on the sun deck of the Spirit of Freedom, a live-aboard tour boat on the Great Barrier Reef, I noticed something was missing: land. The shoreline had disappeared overnight and now there was just sky and sea – nothing else – for 220km in every direction.

Also missing were the crowds, a nearly unavoidable part of the more popular day trips that launch from Cairns, the gateway city to Australia’s most popular natural attraction. Every day, tour boats bring hundreds of holidaymakers to the mega-pontoons stationed on the reef, offering a Disney-fied experience of the world’s largest living structure.

I chose instead to board a live-aboard boat and tour the Coral Sea over a number of days and nights. It’s a holiday that evades the day-trip crowds, allows for more than a day’s diving on the reef and affords travellers a much closer look at the pulsating, psychedelic-looking, 2,300km-long ecosystem that scientists predict could be overrun by seaweed by 2050.

After a three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns, and an hour-long flight to Lizard Island (so named by Captain Cook for its suitably large population of monitor lizards), I motored out to my new home for the next four days, joining 26 other passengers and 10 crew on the decks of the 37m-long Spirit of Freedom.

Lizard Island, home to a large population of monitor lizards (Credit: Ethan Teas)

A large population of monitor lizards earned Lizard Island its name. (Ethan Teas)

Once we settled in, the small cabins didn’t matter. Days were spent on the deck, with passengers draped over every available surface, napping or holding up a book to shade their eyes. The boat’s close confines meant making friends was inevitable.

Three Chinese students, a German veterinarian, an elderly Kenyan free diver – our group came from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.

Of course, the one thing that most of us had in common was a love for diving and a desire to see the Great Barrier Reef like no day-tripper ever would. We got below the surface nearly five times a day.

Rarely did we dive in the same place twice. More often, each excursion explored a new section of the reef’s coral-covered walls, which dropped off into to unexplored shadows, the sea floor resting 2,000m below.

There was always something new and exciting to see – blue spotted ribbontail rays, clownfish nestled amid the noodle-like tentacles of their anemone, mind-bogglingly big manta rays and bursts of colour and light from schools of iridescent fish suddenly changing direction. Four dwarf minke whales appeared during a dive on our second-to-last day and lingered for two hours, passing improbably close to those of us who were suspended in stillness, staring.

Schooling trevally (Credit: Spirit of Freedom)

Schooling trevally at the Great Barrier Reef. (Spirit of Freedom)

With the right currents, divers could drift along the wall, passively enjoying the changing scenery while surrounded on three sides by the unbroken blue of open ocean. Closer to the surface, sunlit pinnacles of coral pierced the gently sloping beds of sand.

Eventually, when our eyes just couldn’t take anymore beauty – and our tanks ran low on air – we would kick towards the light and climb back aboard the only dry surface for miles. After a shamelessly lazy hour on the sun deck, I was always ready to do everything all over again.

Spirit of Freedom and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer four-day live-aboard trips to the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea year round. They also have the permits needed to bring divers close to dwarf minke whales – the whales migrate to the area between June and July to mate and calve in the warmer reef waters.

Cyclone season lasts from November to May. The wet season is from December to February but can offer up great visibility and calm waters because of low winds and warmer water temperatures.

Peak season is during the dry months of June to October. June to August is the winter season with cooler air and water temperatures (bring a jumper for brisk nights).

Footage of a death-defying ride

adventure, Danny Macaskill, Scotland, Cuillin Range, extreme sports, mountain biking

Danny Macaskill takes on Scotland’s Cuillin Range – with a twist. He tackles the 13km-long range on two wheels.

Don’t look down.

These were probably the words running through extreme cyclist Danny Macaskill’s head when he biked the Isle of Skye’s notorious Cuillin Range. The above video – streamed more than 12 million times since its debut on 2 October – showcases the professional athlete’s death-defying ride along the jagged mountain ridge.

It’s a feat that – for obvious reasons – not many people attempt. Scotland’s Cuillin Range is a dramatic and challenging ascent for most mountain climbers, let alone an adventurer navigating on two wheels. The 13km-long range is home to some 20 peaks, with the highest point reaching an intimidating 992m. The few winding trails that pepper the range are slippery and narrow. And as winter nears, some trails require the use of ice-axes and crampons – not to mention a hefty dose of courage.

But these challenging conditions did nothing to deter Macaskill, who hails from Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Perhaps the most famous stunt rider on the internet, Macaskill is good at what he does. His 12 years of practise are evident at the two-minute mark as he navigates the Cuillin’s steep, rocky ridges in a deceptively casual fashion. Then at 4:51, he vaults off the edge of a cliff and nails the landing. Watching as Macaskill hurdles, jumps and finishes the film with a trick flip, you just might feel as though the rider and the bike are one.

We don’t recommend that you follow exactly in Macaskill’s bike tracks, but well-qualified mountaineers can hike the Cuillin Range. Because of the mental and physical exertion required, climbing the ridge alone is suggested as a two-day trip, with one day used as a training day.

‘I was hoping he wasn’t a lunatic’

Deep in the wilds of Jordan’s desert, the generosity of a stranger offered a curious group of backpackers the adventure of a lifetime.

A bright pink 4×4 came barrelling across the desert, dust spiralling into the sky. As it skidded to a halt in front of me, I could feel the eyes of my friends boring into the back of my skull. We were about to head into the wilds of Jordan with a stranger I’d met on Couchsurfing.

“Come and stay with me, bring your friends,” Ghassab had written, offering to put us up in a rock-cut cave his family had owned for centuries. “It will be one of the best adventures of your life.” As our Bedouin host stepped out of the car and strolled towards us with a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips, I was merely hoping that he wasn’t a lunatic.

Barreling across the desert in style (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Barreling across the desert in style (Credit: Will Jehring)

Ghassab was striking. His waist-length dreadlocks bounced in the sun. Colourful beads and amulets – gifts from previous Couchsurfers – hung from his chest. As he smiled, a flash of white spread across his tanned face.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“I want to see your goats,” I said.

It was the right answer.

There’s more to Jordan’s desert than Petra
We shook hands and piled into the back seat. With a worrying crunch of the gearbox, we took off, speeding across the desert. We jolted along a potholed road through the small town of Wadi Musa, which clings to the outside of Nabataea, one of Jordan’s most striking national parks and home to the ancient city of Petra. We passed a lone camel and its rider. Tantalising ruins and carved facades called to us but we did not stop; Ghassab drove deeper into the desert.

He chatted as we bumped along, telling us about his family, goats, two wildcat kittens he had rescued from the merciless sun, and his great love for Bob Marley. Ghassab was a Rastafarian Bedouin, perhaps the only one in the world.

'Come and stay with me, bring your friends,' Ghassab had written (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

‘Come and stay with me, bring your friends,’ Ghassab had written (Credit: Will Jehring)

We crossed a dry riverbed, rambled past towering rock formations and followed an ever-fainter track as we chased the sun across the horizon. Without warning, Ghassab made a sharp turn and we left the trail altogether, driving at full speed towards a huge pinnacle of rock that scratched at the sky. He stopped the 4×4, and as the dust began to settle, silence swallowed us.

“I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave.”

I looked around. A small tent, battered and much repaired, lent against a bronzed boulder. An enclosure made from stacked stones and topped with a tarpaulin sat sizzling in the sun. I could hear the shuffling and faint bleating of Ghassab’s prized goats. The heat was unbearable.

A warm welcome inside an ancient cave
Ghassab strolled over from the other side of the vehicle. He seemed excited. “I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave,” he said while pointing. About 50m away was a large lump of rock about 8m high where we would be laying our heads for the night. I could make out stairs, a gaping entrance and a fire pit with something shiny, perhaps a pan, glistening in the sun.

Ghassab looked at us and then up at the dropping sun. “There is no time to lose, we must gather firewood,” he commanded. He handed over a sledgehammer and an iron spike, and my friends and I followed him into the mountains. We scrambled and climbed, inching past precarious drops and sliding down rocky gullies. There was little sign of vegetation, and I doubted anything could grow here among the spirals of red desert dust and mounds of jumbled boulders. “If you want to eat then we must find wood,” Ghassab reiterated in a harsher voice.

He leapt from rock to rock like a cat, and we struggled after him until we found a large log lying in the middle of a ravine, perhaps left there from a rare downpour. We pounded our iron spike into small holes cut with a penknife, and slowly but surely, split the wood and made bundles to carry back to the cave.

As we sat around our roaring fire – the flames casting shadows on the stone home – Ghassab told us how he’s lived in the desert outside Petra all of his life. He inherited the rock-cut cave from his family, all of who had moved to Wadi Musa, a government town built in 1978 to accommodate the cave dwellers who were later forced out when Petra began to attract more tourists. As Ghassab’s cave was just outside Petra, he’d been able to stay.

Feeding the fire before dinner (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Feeding the fire before dinner (Credit: Will Jehring)

This cave was a place unlike any other
Darkness fell slowly. The desert faded away as night spread across the sky like a pot of spilled ink. Stars began to appear like pinpricks of light beneath an uncertain curtain of black. Our fire burnt merrily, with the remains of half a leg of goat sizzling above it, the fat dripping into open flames. Ghassab crouched nearby, the fire illuminating his hunched shoulders, his skinny frame and the deep furrows etched into his brow. He glanced at me and smiled gently. It was time for sleep.

By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel.

I scrambled for my head torch and set out to prep my bed before I froze to death. The winds of the night raced towards me, leaving me uncomfortable and cold. I wrapped myself in a pair of scratchy blankets and laid a lumpy mattress on the undulating rocks.

Flames flicker in the desert darkness (Credit: Credit: Will Jehring)

Flames flicker in the desert darkness (Credit: Will Jehring)

This was a place unlike any other. Nearby, the ancient ruins of Petra stood hidden in the hills, and tens of thousands of stars glistened above. By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel. We’d spent the day with a Rastafarian Bedouin and I was now sleeping atop a rock-cut cave, looking up at the most stunning skies in the world.

How to travel when you’re not rich

“I wanted to prove to others and to myself that our life circumstances should never hinder us from going after our dreams.”

My “how I quit my job to travel” story is different. I’m from a developing country with a “powerless passport” — as a Philippine citizen I can only visit 60 countries visa-free — and I was brought up to believe that world travel is a luxury meant only for the privileged, the rich or the retired. Yet, in my early 20s, I’ve visited more than 15 countries in two years, all while building a profitable and stable online business that funds my lifestyle and enables me to work less than three hours a day.

It all started two years ago in a dingy cafe in Makati, Philippines. I was 21 years old, and was working for a big investment bank, earning very little money as a new graduate and with little to no time for socialising.. As I joined my friends at our usual table, three strangers asked us for directions to their hostel. We started chatting, and ended up talking for the rest of the night. They were full of travel stories, and I was captivated by the way their eyes lit up as they talked about their adventures. They had an excitement for life and a confident aura that I hadn’t previously encountered — they seemed to believe everything was possible.

Meeting those nomads inspired me to take my own leap of faith. That same year, I quit my job to travel the world.

My family and friends thought that I was out of my mind. I had little to no money – definitely not enough to travel through wealthy European countries or in the US – and I’d been brought up to believe that a corporate life was the only way to secure a future. I also knew that getting visas would be a challenge.

The odds looked bad. But that’s what pushed me. I wanted to prove to others and to myself that our life circumstances should never hinder us from going after our dreams.

Adalid poses in front of graffiti art in her home country, the Philippines (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Adalid poses in front of graffiti art in her home country, the Philippines (Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Plan and work smart
With meagre funds, I knew that I had to make smart decisions right from the start, so I spent two months preparing before handing in my resignation.

I made a point to not only do the things that I love, but also the things that I’m good at. I brushed up on my knowledge of graphic design, web development and online marketing. Passion can push us to do amazing things, but without the right skill set, it can prove futile.

Once I was confident about my knowledge, I successfully scoured for clients on freelancing platforms — and I didn’t stop there. I knew I needed a well-paying client that would employ me for an indefinite amount of time. I got testimonials from my previous corporate clients and talked to everyone I knew. Within weeks, a Swedish online branded merchandise company hired me as their marketing manager to promote their brand across the US, UK and Japan; ensure the quality of their product listings; and come up with new product ideas, among other tasks.

Through this, I ensured a steady cash flow for the first year.

Practicing responsible elephant tourism in Chiang-Mai, Thailand (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Practicing responsible elephant tourism in Chiang-Mai, Thailand (Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Have a long-term plan
Worried about my Philippine passport, I started off by visiting visa-free destinations. Thailand and Hong Kong were my favourites, due to their dynamic culture and the complex flavours of their local dishes.

By the time I decided to visit Europe, I figured out how to more easily get a visa while travelling on a developing-world passport. I kept records of my recent earnings, savings and tax documents to prove financial solvency. And I used proof of my previous and future travels to establish that I wouldn’t be at risk to overstay in the country.

After 12 months, I launched my travel blog,, to share my adventures and to garner opportunities through partnerships with tourism boards and travel brands. In exchange for online exposure and promotions, I was invited to all-expense-paid trips or at times, given remuneration.

Next, I started work on a budding online business idea, Adalid Gear, selling outdoor and travel products online. Not a lot of travellers deal with physical products since handling inventory and shipping can be a pain while on the move. But I saw the chance to outsource those processes. I partnered with big providers like Amazon that could handle all processes, which lessened our workload and enabled the business to operate remotely. It’s been so profitable that we have expanded from the US to the UK, and plans to sell in Japan and Germany are underway. I’ve made enough money to rent an apartment in Belgium, and will use it as a home and office base as I keep travelling and expanding my business.

Standing in Antwerp's Central Station, one of Europe's most famous railway stations (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Standing in Antwerp’s Central Station, one of Europe’s most famous railway stations (Credit: Aileen Adalid)

How to make success happen
My advice to being successful is to simply follow three important principles:

First, take advantage of the online realm because there are tons of web opportunities that you can earn from. By freelancing online, I was able to compete with my global peers and avoid being paid developing-world prices for my skills. And by building my business online, I was able to expand rapidly in a short amount of time. There are many online platforms that optimize traditional processes like shipping and logistics; it makes sense to make full use of those.

Second, always think long term to create your own sense of security. Volunteering in return for free accommodation or food, although a common traveller approach, is not a sustainable way to travel. Think about how to own a remote business that will keep you going on the road for years. I’ve met travellers who run yoga classes and plan to set up their own school, or teach English and are developing it as a remote career.

Third, connect with experts – and always do proper research. I’ve made sure to proactively network with relevant entrepreneurs and travellers. When freelancing for the Swedish company, I talked not only with my manager, but also with the CEO himself. This gave me more knowledge about the industry – which led to the idea for my remote business. I’ve also made full use of online forums to chat with knowledgeable and experienced people in my field.

Today, I am no longer working for anyone else, and the way I see it, I have truly secured my future. I have built my own dream, no matter the odds!

Paragliding in Annecy, France, with views of the French Alps (Credit: Credit: Aileen Adalid)

Paragliding in Annecy, France, with views of the French Alps (Credit: Aileen Adalid)


A 77km hike that could inspire miracles

With Spain’s Camino de Santiago becoming a victim of its own success, Matthew Hirtes chose to walk this less-crowded, less-known version of the pilgrimage, 1,750km to the south.

Everyone’s heard of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the 100km-plus Way of St James route that leads pilgrims to Galicia’s cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the saint’s remains are believed to be buried. But it will probably come as some surprise to learn there’s another Camino 1,750km to the south, on the mid-Atlantic island of Gran Canaria.


Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

Gran Canaria holds the hidden Camino (Credit: Guido Haeger/Wikipedia)

This pilgrimage is so unknown that even people on the island couldn’t seem to give me any information. The details provided by the island’s official tourist board proved sketchy; a pair of French walkers hadn’t heard of the trail and a toothless local suggested I walk along the main road instead. Undeterred, I did my best to keep on track, determined to finish what I’d started.

The world-famous Camino de Santiago had been on my bucket list for many years. I’d heard that its length requires an endurance that separates the hikers from the schleppers, and I was eager to prove my strength after a lifetime of trekking. But then I discovered that only 1% of it takes place on a dirt track; the rest is made up of roads and motorways. I also didn’t want to become just another roadie, one of the around 300,000 hikers who complete the epic trek every year. I was looking for a less-crowded, more spiritual pilgrimage – which was how I found out about this second Camino de Santiago, where 99% of the route is on a dirt track and only a handful of people walk it each year.

Gran Canaria’s Camino de Santiago historically ran between the island’s two major churches dedicated to St James: one in the south-central village of Tunte and the other in the town of Gáldar in the northwest. In 2011, the trail was extended southwards to create a coast-to-coast walk through the lush interior of Gran Canaria.

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

One of the two major St. James churches is in the town of Gáldar (Credit: Cristian Bortes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The island was colonised by the Spanish in the 15th Century as the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile sought to expand the newly unified country. The conquerors built a church dedicated to St James (their country’s patron saint) in Gáldar – the first Jacobean place of worship constructed away from the Spanish mainland.

Legend has it that Galician sailors ran aground off the coast of Arguineguín in the island’s southwest in the 16th Century. With them, they carried an image of St James on their shoulders as a way of giving thanks for arriving safe and sound on land. They placed this polychrome sculpture in a hermitage they constructed in the Valle de La Plata, before it was moved to the village church of Tunte in 1850. A pilgrimage from one church to the other soon developed, following the seasonal goat herds’ route from north to south and back again. This pilgrimage was originally walked by islanders who were looking for a miracle, or by those who had pledged to do so after their prayers were answered.

Today’s extended Camino de Santiago’s route (a 76.9km, three-day, three-stage hike) starts at the Maspalomas Tourist Information Office, which confusingly is not in the holiday spot of Maspalomas but in the neighbouring resort of Playa del Inglés. There, on a gaudy parade of piercing studios and tattoo parlours, I spotted the first Camino-related sign. (Keep an eye out for Ruta Jacobea signs as well, as the Camino de Santiago’s also known as the Jacobean Route.)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

In Artenara, many locals still live in cave houses (Credit: Siepmann/Alamy)

More by chance than by design, given a general scarcity of signage, I ended up on the second route option of the hike’s first stage, heading through the Degollada de Garito, a sheer incline between ravines. I passed the eerie Arteara Necropolis, the burial ground of the Amazigh-descendingcanarii (Gran Canaria’s aboriginal people who occupied the island prior to the 15th-century Spanish conquest). My progress was largely a solitary one, save for a Jeep safari that created a whirlwind of dust. Dwarfed by the volcanic slopes that descended to the left and right of me, I felt humbled by the sheer force of nature.

Gran Canaria is celebrated for its light, but the sun goes down quickly. So, at 7 pm, I set up camp in an orchard close to the village of Fataga. The wind spookily whistled through the surrounding fruit trees, but I was comforted by the fact that I could see the odd car travelling along the nearby main road.

The next day, suitably refreshed, I was able to make up lost ground, reaching Tunte, where Gran Canaria’s original Camino de Santiago began, by mid-morning. Here, I paid my respects by stepping through the door of the church, which was constructed towards the end of the 17th Century over the former hermitage of San Bartolomé. Fittingly, an effigy of the saint, a missionary who brought Christianity to Armenia, still occupies the central part of the altarpiece. But I was more moved by the original statue of St James. Despite my not being particularly religious, I was awed by its presence.

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The village of Fataga is located in a valley (Credit: Michele Falzone/Alamy)

The next section of the route was the 18.8km ascent to the heart of the island. My wife had packed my rucksack for me, and even trying it on in our living room, I’d stumbled under the weight. The burden became heavier as the path became steeper, and it was frustrating to see the odd cyclist whizz past. But my shoulders lifted with my spirits as I came to a clearing at the edge of a pine forest.

Ahead, I could see the distinctive shape of the rock formation Roque Bentayga; the mountain Teide loomed above it on the neighbouring island of Tenerife. To the left, I could make out  El Fraile, a rock so called because its shape is reminiscent of a monk, and La Rana, which looks like a frog. Tired by a day’s hiking, the heart-stopping vista felt like a godsend. It was almost as if the monk was sharing a miracle with me.

The mountain air might have been sweet, but it was colder than the lower-altitude valley of Fataga. Given the island’s variety of climates and landscapes, I was beginning to understand why it’s known as the Miniature Continent. And so I spent a chilly night sleeping rough in the hamlet of Cruz de Tejeda, named after its totem-pole-esque stone cross that marks the island’s exact centre.

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The El Fraile rock is shaped like a monk (Credit: Lunamarina/YAY Media AS/Alamy)

The third stage from Cruz to Tejeda to Gáldar is the easiest, descending 1,548m through forest and farmland. But the hard part was the lack of signs to Gáldar. And so I found myself having to retrace my steps from Artenara, the island’s highest village where many locals still live in cave houses, to the Pinos de Gáldar, a viewpoint lauded for its waterfall of clouds. The wind makes the vapours look like they’re cascading from the pine trees down to the pastoral landscape below. Save for the odd car that stopped to admire the view, I peered down alone from this mirador (viewpoint) before returning to my monk-like solitude on the downward path.

Approaching Gáldar, the landscape changed from pines to agricultural land. I passed banana plantations before arriving in front of my destination, the Iglesia de Santiago de los Caballeros, situated in one of Gran Canaria’s prettiest squares.

Entering into the peace and quiet ­of the church, I spotted the font in which the Spanish baptized the early Canarian converts to Christianity, along with another figurine of Saint James astride his horse. My walk finally over, I sat down to rest and reflect on my pilgrimage.

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The mountain of Teide is on the neighbouring island of Tenerife (Credit: Kreder Katja/ Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

If I’d walked the original Camino de Santiago in Spain, I’d have reached my goal. There are only remains of the one body, after all. But my feet were already beginning to itch, and I wanted to be exploring more of the island’s great outdoors. My new bucket-list entry: to walk Gran Canaria’s Camino again – this time from north to south.

Where modern China began

Centuries of glory and prestige can be found among Nanjing’s modern skyscrapers – if you know where to look.

Beijing may be the capital of China today, but for many centuries the country was ruled from Nanjing, a historic city located on the shores of the Yangtze River. Now recognised as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, centuries of glory and prestige can still be found scattered among Nanjing’s modern skyscrapers – if you know where to look.

In China, the tortoise symbolises long life
My first stop was the southern foothills of Zhongshan, or Purple Mountain,16km east of the city centre. Here lay the mausoleum where the first Ming dynasty emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was buried along with his wife.

After defeating the Mongolians in 1368, Zhu named Nanjing the capital due to its large size and convenient trade location. Nanjing had already been the capital a number of times during China’s tumultuous history of kingdoms and dynasties, but it was Zhu who solidified the city’s status for the first 53 years of the Ming dynasty.

Stone warriors outside the Ming dynasty's mausoleum (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Stone warriors outside the Ming dynasty’s mausoleum (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

As was customary in those times, Zhu commissioned the impressive mausoleum with its many pavilions and palaces to reflect the prosperity and stability of his empire. It took more than 30 years to build, during which time Zhu himself died and was buried on site in 1398.

I visited in September, and the humidity was high as I climbed up the hillside path surrounded by luscious vegetation and overhanging trees. On both sides of the track, stone warriors stood guard next to life-size elephants, lions and horses carved out of large rocks.

The mausoleum consisted of a number of interconnected pavilions, gates and monuments decorated with carved pillars and gargoyles. The beautiful rooftops were painted in radiant reds, blues and golds, and the ceilings were fantastically decorated. One of the most eye-catching monuments was a carved stone stele, carried on the back of an enormous stone tortoise in the recently restored Sifangcheng Pavilion near the mausoleum’s entrance. In China, the tortoise symbolises a long life.

The onsite museum displayed beautifully crafted wooden combs, hairpins, knives and porcelain pots that had been found at the site. And while Zhu’s actual tomb has not yet been excavated, Chinese scientists believe there is a labyrinth of treasure-filled corridors below ground just waiting to be uncovered.

The Xiaoling mausoleum in the foothills of Zhongshan (Credit: Credit: traveler1116/iStock)

The Xiaoling mausoleum in the foothills of Zhongshan (Credit: traveler1116/iStock)

Nanjing’s claustrophobic labyrinth could confuse any intruder
Zhu’s other major legacy was the construction of a wall around Nanjing, designed to protect the empire’s capital. The mortar used was made from lime, tong paste and glutinous rice paste – a recipe that has proven to be very successful; after six centuries most of the bricks are still in place.

Just south of the city centre is Zhonghua gate, the largest of the wall’s original 13 gates and a huge defensive complex made up of courtyards and ramparts. At the foot of the wall, there were 13 caves that could hide about 3,000 soldiers if the city was under attack. They would quietly wait in the dark until the enemy had entered the first part of the complex. The gate would then be lowered and the adversaries would be trapped in the courtyards, where Nanjing’s soldiers would take them on.

A warrior sculpture stands atop the Zhonghua Gate (Credit: Credit: China Photos/Getty)

A warrior sculpture stands atop the Zhonghua Gate (Credit: China Photos/Getty)

The caves felt claustrophobic, so I quickly exited back into the light and climbed onto the wall. The top afforded a fantastic view over the wide battlements onto traditional Chinese rooftops nestled alongside messy construction sites and ugly modern apartment buildings – a testament to Nanjing’s rapid modernisation.

Where China’s Republican flag flies proudly
The capital moved to Beijing in 1421, for the remainder of the Ming Dynasty and almost the entire Qing dynasty (1644-1911), but returned to Nanjing in 1912, when the last empire fell and Republican Nationalist Sun Yat-sen took over. Today, the Republican flag still waves proudly behind the gates of Nanjing’s old presidential palace. It’s a symbol that’s not shown openly anywhere else in the now Communist country.

Fierce carvings outside the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum (Credit: Credit: Juan Luis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fierce carvings outside the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum (Credit: Juan Luis/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

When I visited, the government offices were still scattered with old typewriters and faded documents behind glass displays. I could imagine Sun Yat-sen wandering with his confidants in the elegant Chinese garden with its typical zigzag bridge and fishpond.

These were chaotic times after the Republic was founded. Beijing was shortly appointed the capital again, but Chiang Kai-shek, Sun’s successor, brought the title back to Nanjing in 1927. After all, this was where the glorious Ming dynasty had ruled for six centuries, laying the basis for modern China.

Nanjing's Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (Credit: Credit: Peter Dowley/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Nanjing’s Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (Credit: Peter Dowley/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

To emphasize the prestige of Nanjing, Chiang bequeathed amausoleum to Sun, who died in 1925. It’s only a 10-minute walk from Zhu’s, and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Allegedly the Kuomintang, the revolutionary movement Sun and Chiang were part of, spent 1.5 million yuan on the site – and it showed.

A seemingly endless numbers of steps took me to the top of the hill, where the sarcophagus with the stone image of Sun Yat-sen was almost as impressive as the view. Inside, the pavilion’s bright blue ceiling was decorated with a golden star – the colours of the Kuomintang. It was much more modern than Zhu’s mausoleum, which, over the centuries, seemed have become part of the mountain.

After walking my way through centuries of history, I felt as though I’d finally come full circle. This was where both the first and the last man to give Nanjing its capital status lay together in peace.

The stone image of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen (Credit: Credit: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty)

The stone image of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen (Credit: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty)

An exiled nation turned private Eden

While its former population fights to return home, the Chagos islands are experiencing a remarkable rebounding of wildlife on a reef that’s considered the most pristine in the world.

By the time the moray eel slithered toward me, my walk around Ile Takamaka was already wilder than expected. The eel had been chasing a fast-moving crab out of the water and up the beach when it spotted my toe. I quickly scrambled onto a tree trunk to escape and tried to hide my tender toe from view. Happily the eel settled for the crab, and I went back to contemplating my way forward: through the ocean over jagged coral, or back inland through dense jungle.

A friend and I had set out on a morning stroll to bird watch and check out a boat wreck at the far end of Ile Takamaka in the Indian Ocean’s Salomon Atoll. Along the way, we hoped to catch site of some of the feral roosters we heard crowing each morning of our nearly month-long stay. I have no idea how they’ve survived (and seemingly thrived) in the almost 50 years since the local human population was expelled from these islands.

Visitors to the Chagos Archipelago are rare (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Visitors to the Chagos Archipelago are rare (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Salomon Atoll is the kind of fabled stop that travellers sail halfway around the world to reach. It’s found south of the Maldives in the north eastern part of the Chagos Archipelago, a region of the British Indian Ocean Territory that encompasses seven atolls and more than 60 low-lying islands. Off most people’s radar, the best known island in Chagos is Diego Garcia, a US military base 100 nautical miles south of Ile Takamaka.

To visit Chagos, sailors (like us) need proof of medical evacuation and boat-wreck removal insurance, and then for £200, you get a 28-day yacht visitors permit. It’s not a long stay considering you’ve sailed thousands of nautical miles to get here, but it’s a better deal than the one the archipelago’s long-time former population got.

In the 1960s, Britain and the US made an unsavoury arrangement to depopulate Chagos in order to build the base at Diego Garcia. Over the next decade, the archipelago’s entire population, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Chagossians, were uprooted from their villages – where they had worked on coconut plantations since the 18th century – and moved many hundreds of kilometres away to either the Seychelles or Mauritius. There, the vulnerable population began their decades-long struggle to get home.

Snorkeling through the lush coral reef (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Snorkeling through the lush coral reef (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

It’s a strange thing to be permitted to use the nation of an exiled people as your private tropical playground. And as we made our way around Ile Takamaka, scrambling over trees and wading through the warm ocean, I was struck by the lushness of the place. In 2010, the UK government created a marine protected area that turned the waters surrounding the Chagos Archipelago into the world’s largest marine reserve. The reason for its creation was, in part, a cynical one, as the highly regulated “no-take zone” means that Chagossians can’t fish commercially and acts as yet another hurdle to keep them out.

But while the Chagossians continue to fight in international court rooms, Chagos itself is experiencing a remarkable rebounding of fish, shark and seabird populations on a reef that’s considered one of the most pristine in the world.

At one point during our walk, we waded through a blacktip reef shark nursery. In a shallow tide pool, newborn pups swam in lazy circles near my ankles, looking comically small next to my feet. Further on, we found a lagoon with a half dozen green turtles and were dazzled when huge schools of turquoise parrot fish darted in and out of the shadows. Where the jungle met the sea, there were dozens of seabird nests with endangered red-footed boobie babies, sooty terns and noddies perched haphazardly in the trees.

As the waves churned higher, we were forced inland. Unlike nearby Ile Boddam, which was the atoll’s main village site and holds the crumbling ruins of a church, a jail, a hospital and a graveyard where time has rubbed away most of the inscriptions, Takamaka was a lightly populated coconut plantation; it has no trails through its interior.

Even with sturdy shoes and a machete, it would have been hard to cut across island. But dressed in flip flops, we cautiously sidestepped thorny bushes and palm-sized spiders while keeping an eye out for the atoll’s belligerent coconut crab, which grow large enough to hunt and crush rats. At one point, we rested under a gorgeous old banyan tree and pondered the only open grove we’d seen on the island – imagining it had once been part of the workings of the island. Several times we found our way back to the beach, and in the distance, I could see our sailboats. But then the shore would recede into deep current-tossed waters and we’d plunge back into the jungle.

Relics of the abandoned island's past (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Relics of the abandoned island’s past (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

While Chagos thrives, the Chagossian people continue to struggle. In previous years, positive court judgements raised the possibility of resettlement – only to have the UK government counter with arguments about the expense and difficulty of sending the people back. However, after finally acknowledging the Chagossians had been treated wrongly, the UK now seems to be leaning in their favour.

In the months to come, the US, UK and international courts will finally decide the fate of the displaced population, including their possible resettlement over several years. With this British Indian Ocean Territory relocation proposal, the world’s largest uninhabited archipelago would not only get its population back – it would also get some very lucky tourists. Coconut plantations are no longer viable, and eco-tourism is one of the only industries that can meet the criteria set by the marine protected area.

Sailors come thousands of nautical miles for a look inside the fabled paradise (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Sailors come thousands of nautical miles for a look inside the fabled paradise (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

A few hours after we started our hike around tiny Takamaka, we finally emerged from the jungle close to our boats. Later, when watching sharks swim in the clear blue water under our hull while manta rays and dolphins surfaced nearby, I was struck by the realization that Chagos is as pristine a tropical paradise as it gets. But it’s also a fragile place that’s slowly being engulfed by rising seas, and has a prospective population who’d have to make a huge, collective back-to-the-land transition just to survive. It’s a place that’s unspoiled – but not uncomplicated.

A one-way trip lasted seven years

As many of her friends settled down, Sabrina Iovino opted out of the rat race and began a life of full-time travel.

Surrounded by young, good-looking backpackers in Bangkok, Thailand, I made up my mind: once I got back home to Germany, I was going to quit my job and travel the world.

It was 2007, and I had taken a short trip to the humid nation to take a break from the rat race in Berlin. Almost everyone I met told me the same story: “I’m travelling around the world for a year, and you?” I was embarrassed to say I would go back home in a couple of weeks to my boring nine-to-five life as a graphic designer for a start-up company. My friends were getting married, buying cars and houses and looking down at me, wondering why I didn’t want to pursue the same goals. But rather than chasing material possessions, I craved freedom and adventure – and my new travelling friends seemed so happy and free. Suddenly I knew I had to change my life.

Rather than chasing material possessions, I craved freedom and adventure.

When I returned from South East Asia, I started to save as much money as I could. I worked more than ever and lived as frugally as possible. I rented out my room to tourists, cancelled all unnecessary insurance, ate at home and completely gave up shopping – instead, I sold most of my clothes and designer furniture. A year later I had saved up 20,000 euros and was ready to take the leap, so I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong.

A vertigo-inducing view, found while couch-surfing in Hong Kong (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

A vertigo-inducing view, found while couch-surfing in Hong Kong (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Quitting my job = pure happiness
A day later I told my boss that I’d quit my job. I will never forget how I felt that day – it was pure happiness, knowing I wouldn’t have to work for a long time and I could instead just enjoy travelling. It was 2008, and the beginning of a new life – although I didn’t know it at the time.

I had enough money to travel for at least one or two years. In the beginning it was purely a holiday, and I knew I would have to return at some point. I travelled the first six months across South East Asia, then I headed to Japan and Australia before crossing the Pacific to Chile. From there I took a bus all the way up to Mexico. It was an insane trip – South and Central America were such colourful countries and Latin people are some of the most fun and friendly people on this planet. Afterwards I flew to New York and from there I returned back to Germany, after 14 months of travel. It was January 2010 and terribly cold.

Working in an office from nine to five seemed like a huge waste of time.

I got my old job back and started working again at the same company that I had left in 2008. It was then that I realised those 14 months away were not a holiday, they were what my life was supposed to be. My whole perspective had changed, and working in an office from nine to five seemed like a huge waste of time. I had better things to do with my time – like travelling.

Standing still at one of the world’s busiest crossings (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Standing still at one of the world’s busiest crossings (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

My return back to normal life didn’t last long. After exactly three months I quit again and was back on a plane, travelling to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece,  India and Japan. I have been travelling full-time ever since.

Nowadays, people always ask me how I am able to travel so much and if I will ever come home. Apart from a few short visits, I have never really returned to Berlin. But once I knew I wanted to travel full-time, eventually I would have to make money from it. I had no idea how I could do that, but I decided to figure it out on the way.

Making friends with turtles in the Philippines (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Making friends with turtles in the Philippines (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

A life of travel isn’t cheap
In 2012 I started writing down my travel experiences, and eventually set up a blog,, to share my stories and photos with the world. My first blog post was called10 reasons why you should travel to the Philippines – a piece I wrote with all my heart. The post got picked up by the Philippine media and was shared thousands of times. Filipinos are very active on social media and they really helped me kick-start my blog by sharing my articles.

A month later I wrote a post showing my readers how they can live and travel full-time. The article was very popular, and from that point on my blog traffic went up, after one year my blog reached half a million page views and I was earning enough from it to travel full-time.

I did start the with the intention of making money with the blog, but I had no clue how. But I read as much as I could and studied other travel blogs, learning as I went. I learned how to optimise my site to get a better ranking for my blog posts, and that longer articles rank much higher than short ones. I try to provide value with every single post: I don’t write just for fun, I want my readers to learn something new with every article of mine.

The symmetric steps of Chand Baori, in Rajasthan, India (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

The symmetric steps of Chand Baori, in Rajasthan, India (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

One year after I started blogging, my life completely changed. Suddenly tourism boards were inviting me to explore their countries, luxury hotels were offering me free rooms in exchange for reviews, and airlines offered to sponsor flight tickets in exchange for some online exposure.

Today, I live completely off my blog. I make money through advertising and affiliate sales (where I recommend products, like the travel gear I use or the hotels I stay in). I also found some generous sponsors in the travel industry who are helping me to keep this lifestyle by featuring their branding on the site. I can’t ever imagine living my old life again – going to an office and working for someone else just seems a huge waste of time.

Soaking up the views in Cape Town, South Africa (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Soaking up the views in Cape Town, South Africa (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

The number of countries you visit isn’t as important as the experiences you have
So far, I have visited between 50 and 60 countries. I actually stopped counting after 50. It doesn’t matter, the number is not really important, the experiences are. India was probably the craziest place I’ve visited and the first country I really experienced culture shock – the sheer amount of people is hard to bear. India is another world, like a trip into a completely different time.

You won’t achieve freedom by making more money. You will find freedom by working less and spending less.

The funny thing is, after seven years of travelling, I sometimes miss having a home – I hate to pack my bags and move on to a new location. I now travel at a slower pace than I used to – I love staying longer at places and digging into the local culture. My goal is to have home bases in several countries and being able to work from anywhere in the world.

It took me years to understand that I don’t have to do what everybody else is doing and that nothing is impossible as long as you have passion. I have chosen to remove myself from an ordinary life and live like a nomad. The best things in life aren’t things you can buy – you won’t achieve freedom by making more money. You will find freedom by working less and spending less. I’m not saying you should stop working, but you should work on something that you truly love. Never, never, never give up on your dream.

Working hard from a hammock in Indonesia (Credit: Credit: Sabrina Iovino)

Working hard from a hammock in Indonesia (Credit: Sabrina Iovino)