This week we would like to introduce Nikki Vargas of The Pin the Map Project. Nikki is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in New York City with a career in advertising; most recently her work has been published on FOOD & WINE and The Hostel Life. Nikki frequently shares travel stories, destination inspiration and planning tips on her blog, The Pin The Map Project, which she started to inspire readers to see the world and to share how to travel now and plan for that big trip in the future.
1. What inspires you to travel, and how would you define the word ‘traveler’?
What inspires me to travel is a desire to see the world, explore new cultures and step outside of my comfort zone to experience a new place. One of my favorite quotes is: “life begins where your comfort zone ends,” which is true! It’s when we break routine and make ourselves open to new experiences that we really grow. Traveling has such a way of putting things into perspective; it reminds us about what we value in life, connects us with other people and makes us appreciate the things back home we can sometimes take for granted.
I often hear about the “tourist vs. traveler” debate but in the end there is no wrong way to travel. To me, a traveler is someone who submerges themselves in a culture and steps outside their comfort zone when they visit a new place—whether that means visiting local haunts, opting for an apartment rental vs. a hotel or simply getting to know the locals. I think tourists can sometimes bring their comfort zones with them and often I see tourists who don’t stray too far from the resorts or tours they sign up for.
2. For those who don’t yet know you, can you explain your travel style?
When I travel I like to try and strike a balance between sightseeing and living like a local wherever I am staying. I also don’t like over planning a trip when I travel; I’ll come armed with my guide books and ideas of what I want to do but will avoid planning out the days or creating an itinerary since half the fun of travel are the adventures and moments you don’t plan for!
3. How do you afford your travels?
There is a big discrepancy between what people assume it costs to travel and how much traveling actually costs. What I’ve found is that affording travel comes down to being savvy during every step of the planning process—from what time of year you go, the websites you use to find flights and your preferences in where to stay. Whether you choose an early red eye flight or opt for a hostel or apartment rental vs. a hotel, there is such a level of customization when it comes to travel that it’s up to the traveler to decide where they can stand to trim dollars.
Saving and trip planning is still something I am working on and a topic I cover frequently on my blog, The Pin The Map Project, especially as I save for my 6 month tour of Asia. At the end of the day, affording traveling is both about being savvy in planning and putting your daily purchases into perspective (like that cab fare could be a full meal in Vietnam!)
4. Where was your first international trip and how old were you?
Since I was born in Colombia, technically my first international trip would have been the United States.
It’s such a toss up between Cartagena, the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest, Barcelona or a small town on the French coast called Étretat. Although I love so many of the places I’ve visited, Étretat (on France’s Normandy coast) was just so unexpected and breathtaking with its sea swept cliffs, charming town and delicious food that it definitely is one of my favorites. My least favorite destination? I honestly (and thankfully) don’t think if I’ve had one so far.
6. If you had to settle down in one location forever, where would you choose and why?
It’s hard to say since I still have much of the world left to explore but if I had to choose from where I’ve been I would settle down in Barcelona. My first visit to Barcelona was everything I hoped it would be; the city proved to be as playful, beautiful and whimsical as Gaudi’s work. I hope one day to settle down in Europe; and Barcelona—with its delicious food and happy ambiance—would be a great option!
7. Have you ever had high hopes for a destination, tour, etc., only to be disappointed in the end? Or any travel mishaps?
Thankfully, I haven’t been disappointed by any destinations that come to mind!
8. What’s the funniest or weirdest cultural idiosyncrasy you’ve either witnessed or experienced?
I was born in Colombia but moved to the states when I was very young and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen through my mother. With the situation in Colombia growing increasingly dangerous my parents eventually let my dual citizenship go and I didn’t return to Colombia for many years. Flash forward to my mid-twenties and landing in Cartagena, with friends in tow, for my first time back in the country since I was a child!
With a big smile plastered on my face, I proudly strolled up to customs with my U.S. passport eager to start exploring Cartagena. The person at customs was friendly and welcomed me in English until he flipped open my U.S. Passport and saw that my nationality was listed as Colombian. In an instant his whole demeanor changed and he started asking me rapid fire questions (in Spanish!) about my Colombian documents, why I wasn’t a Colombian citizen and even went so far as to call over an armed guard to hover over the conversation. The two customs agents seemed almost insulted that I had apparently given up my Colombian citizenship; eventually they let me through customs but not before stamping my passport with a note saying I would not be allowed back in the country until I received my Colombian passport and cedula (a national ID card). Colombians are said to be very proud people, which was apparent in the reactions of my fellow Colombians finding out I had let my citizenship slip. Of course I fell in love with Colombia and am now a proud citizen of both countries.
9. What keepsake do you have to get at all your destinations?
Lately, I have started to buy a bracelet from each destination I visit; the bracelets are usually homemade string or beaded bracelets picked up on a street corner or on a beach blanket from some exotic locale. I love the idea of wearing my travel keepsakes on my wrist and how each bracelet tells a story and has a special memory attached to it.
10. How about the one thing you cannot travel without?
It’s a tough call between my journal and my camera because both are such essential tools for documenting my travels, remembering the details of my trip and eventually sharing those experiences with friends, family and my blog.
11. Why did you begin blogging? And how did you come up with your blog name?
Two things happened that really kick started my blog and inspired its name: the first was the purchase of a travel book. I was on the hunt for a good book that would speak to being in your twenties and finding the time and money to travel, I had kept reading about bloggers and travelers who somehow managed to break free of routine and backpack the world and was looking for a relatable story to help me do the same. I finally found a book about a 20 something girl who traveled for a year and thought to myself, “this is it! THIS is the book I’ve been waiting for!” I started reading the book only to be disappointed when the first chapter, aptly titled HOW I SAVED $20,000 IN SIX MONTHS, started with the girl admitting she had already $10,000 in savings from family, etc. How was this relatable? I realized that although there is a wealth of information about where to travel, not many address the nuances of planning and saving for a trip. I started The Pin The Map Project because I wanted to create a place that not only inspired traveling but also spoke to the realities of saving and planning for a long-term trip around the world without sacrificing enjoyment in the present.
The name, The Pin The Map Project, came to mind when my mom gifted me with a beautiful pushpin map emblazoned with the quote: “To travel is to live” from Hans Christian Anderson. My fiancé and I eagerly starting pinning the places we’ve been or would be visiting soon and stepped back to look at our world map; although we had put up a fair amount of pins we became acutely aware of how much there was still left to see! The Pin The Map Project was born from a desire to see the world and make a plan to travel long-term before I turn 30. My fiancé and I are now planning to leave New York in 2016 and are saving for a multi-month tour of Asia that will include Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.
12. What’s next?
I am flying to Panama next week! My friends and I will be exploring Bocas del Toro for a few days before taking an adventurous, cross-country bus ride to Panama City to spend a couple days. After Panama, my next big trip will be Indonesia in September for my honeymoon!
Backpack or suitcase? Backpack
Window or aisle? Window
Solo or group? Group
Tapas or sushi? Tapas
Beach or mountains? Beach
Be sure to follow along with Nikki as she drops pins around the world: