Under our rubric of The Professionals, today we chat with the youngest Spaniard to have visited every UN country. Alvaro Rojas has turned toward making his travels a main source of income, with his Instagram being his livelihood in the past year or so. He tells us some of his secrets both travel-wise and in terms of monetising his passion. Yesterday, Alvaro also passed our full regional verification as well, getting his coveted NomadMania regions badge and so is now listed in the first section of our UN Masters List. Well done Alvaro!
Alvaro, tell us about your early life and how your interest in travel developed.
I was born and bred in Madrid, the eldest of two sons in a middle-class family. My parents, two civil servants, moved from Ávila to the capital in their late 20’s after spending a decade working and living all around Spain. They were completely self-made, and that independence and curiosity definitely trickled down to my brother and me. They hadn’t travelled abroad much themselves, in fact, asides from some European capitals in their honeymoon, they had put off foreign travels to take care of us. Most of that money went to our education, where they completely overstretched to send us to a private British school, so we could learn English easily as kids. Until my teen years, we mostly travelled domestically, all over the Iberian Peninsula. Andorra was my second country, and we dipped our toes in Portugal and France in a few road trips.
The idea of international travel only really became known to me when I went on a few summer exchanges to learn languages. I spent summers in the UK, Belgium (x2), France (x2) and Germany. Before leaving me with the host families, we toured those countries as a family. Those experiences allowed me to be fluent in French (German was a whole different story), but mostly opened me up to the world and the endless possibilities that it allowed. Slowly, my country count had gone up to 12. By then, I had no travel goals or aspirations, no idea on how to travel and no notion of what was out there, just a strong sense that it was something worth exploring. I always say my travel journey really started shortly after my 18th birthday. My friends and I had planned this huge trip for the summer, right after high school graduation. We would embark on a month long Eurail trip along 6-7 countries in the South and East. It turned out that none of them were really great students, so they had to study all summer long and postpone their graduation to September. This meant none could join the trip, and for a moment, that it had died before even starting. For a couple days I remember feeling very frustrated at this situation, as if it were beyond my control that I couldn’t be travelling like I wanted to. Suddenly, I shook off that feeling, and decided to go on a trip by myself! I picked Norway and Sweden instead, and 3 weeks instead of 4, but it was the most life-changing decision, and it shaped my mentality and passion for travelling for the years to come.
You completed 193 countries as the youngest Spaniard to do so. What did your family and friends think of your endeavour?
It was my wife that really pushed me to do it. It was early 2018 and we had been together for 5 years, married for one, or as I like to keep track of it, together since my 32nd country (Sri Lanka). I had visited slightly over 100 countries, and since early as she could remember, I spent all my free time at home googling flights, visas and logistics. We had literally almost run out of touristy countries, and the ones that remained weren’t that appealing to her. Professionally we were at different points in our careers, so she really encouraged me to take the leap and take a two-year sabbatical to finish them all. She loved me and knew it was my goal, but not necessarily hers. I really thank her for that selfless decision.
Most of the people around us, family and friends, weren’t surprised when I told them. They had known for years travel was all I wanted to do. What surprised them was that my wife was OK with me taking off and travelling 90 countries solo. This was the genuine most popular reaction I got from everyone that met me on the road those years. “What? You’re married?” “How is that even possible?” “How did she let you do it?”. I guess it’s not normal. I might actually be the youngest ever to finish whilst married? Who knows. But for us it was just a logical step forward, whilst keeping our future plans intact, trying to each of us pursue our goals. Obviously, that made my planning so much harder! I had to balance some time at home, with her, and then my trips. Being based in Madrid was great, close to almost everything, and with plenty of Embassies for my visa runs. My wife picked her holidays, and I tried to go a few weeks earlier, and stay a few weeks longer to cover that region. Obviously I would’ve loved to travel on end and maybe at a different pace, but as a married man, I did my best considering my circumstances. I’m really lucky to have her, and for being able to travel. When I finished in Cape Verde, on December 6th, 2019, everyone was very thrilled.
Have you changed as a person as a result of your travels?
I don’t think anyone can come out the same after something like this. It’s been literally 4 years of full-time travel, all over the World, throughout 13 years. So many experiences, good and bad, that continue shaping who you are. It’s also been in my 20’s, so it has inevitably shaped my views on Life. I became an optimist, less fearful, abandoned all materialism and became quite frugal. I value experiences over things, and sunrises over parties. It completely changed my priorities. At the beginning, I was only a broke college student, and if I wanted to travel somewhere in the summer I had to renounce everything the other kids did at our age. That’s how I got to Tibet at age 21, Croatia at 20, Istanbul at 19… I think Travel is the best school in Life. We need to be grateful for being able to travel and take care of the world for generations to come, so our kids can enjoy it too.
Some people say that the rush to do all countries is pointless and seeing them all fast at a young age is immature and doesn’t make you a real traveller. What is your take on this?
I think those people sound angry. If I learned one thing in my travels is that we need to respect others, especially if we don’t know them. We can’t judge others based on our own circumstances. We need to try and understand theirs. Travel is universal, it doesn’t belong to slow travellers or fast travellers. Having been to every country, I don’t consider I know more about travelling than someone that has spent the same amount of time in just 8 countries. We each have our way of doing it, and it’s all ok.
I don’t like the idea of picking fellow travellers apart. We should come together and celebrate our achievements, celebrate travel. In the end, we all share the same passion, even if the style is different. My style was definitely influenced by my personal life, I’m married and had a limited amount of time to accomplish my goal, and by my personality, I’m very active and can’t stay still in one place for long. The great thing about having been to every country so young is that now I know which are my favourites that I can keep going back to (probably all). What other people deem as pointless really does not concern me at all.
Would you like to share a few of your travel stories which really influenced you and some places which have really had an effect on you.
Pretty much every experience shaped me, but a few early on really stuck and helped mould the way I travel today. That first solo Eurail trip I mentioned earlier really opened my mind to a new window of opportunities that were out there, and got rid of those excuses I kept pulling: “no one to travel with”, “not enough money” “not enough days” “not the right time or season”… They are endless, and the sooner we crush them, the better. It will never be the perfect time, but if the alternative is staying home, sign me up. Since then, I never really missed an opportunity to travel. I never put it off, it was always a priority. Then, another inflexion point a few years down the line was Tibet. Before counting countries, I was a big hiking and peak climbing aficionado. I was fixated with Everest. I had seen it on movies and documentaries, and even though I couldn’t afford climbing it, I wanted to experience it first-hand. But I was a 20 year old kid, and didn’t even know where it was or how I could get there. Tibet seemed the coolest possible place I could visit at the time, the top of my list. In similar fashion to the previous episode, I just decided to go there. Started planning one September, and visited 10 months later, in July, for my 21st birthday. It may seem like a lot, but I was a kid, had no money and hadn’t had much travel planning experience. In the end, we flew to Delhi, travelled in India for 2 weeks on 70 euros, and then crossed to Nepal, where we tried to recover for 10 days from all the diseases we had due to our low budget. When we got better, we flew in to Lhasa, and visited Tibet for 15 days, completing the Friendship Highway. How we did it for 300 euros each (3 people) still baffles me. In total, that whole trip cost me 1200 euros, for 40 days. I came back broke, but with my heart full. Those Tibetan monasteries and witnessing Everest from its base camp for 3 clear days really shook me and unleashed what came after.
Maldives, swimming with the manta rays
Your Instagram profile is now your main source of income, so you are a professional in travel in that sense. How many hours a day do you work on this? What advice would you give to someone who would like to do the same?
Two years ago I took a sabbatical from my job at an Oil and Gas company to visit every country in the world. My Instagram had grown considerably so that it covered my travel costs and it seemed like the perfect timing to take a break in my corporate career and pursue other opportunities. Not only was it a chance to finally take the time off that I needed to explore some far-flung remote islands, warzone countries, and visa nightmare destinations, but also to delve deeper into my channel, @wanderreds, as well as other nomadic business opportunities I had been considering.
If you consider all the hours involved, it’s like a normal job, sometimes I even put in more than 40 hours a week. Between shooting the content, editing and post-production, processing the stories, the actual posting, replying to every comment and email I receive from my audience, reaching out to brands and sponsors… There’s always work to be done. A great advantage is that it’s mostly flexible, every day is different, and you get to decide everything. It’s extremely creative and I especially enjoy the storytelling side of things.
I can see how people idolize those who travel for a living (photographers, bloggers, vloggers, and even the much-hated term “influencers”), but there is also a lot of misinformation. Like any entrepreneur, you face a lot of cash flow uncertainty, your exposure depends on algorithms you don’t control and due to a lot of intrusion by many fake “influencers”, the whole sector is always under suspicion of being a fraud. I firmly believe social media marketing works, but we’ve had to work extra hard to gain our reputation and trust. I also think it’s important to say that many have irresponsibly advertised a luxurious lifestyle, which doesn’t correlate with the actual money they make. Most of these hotel deals are barters, which are, undoubtedly great experiences, but don’t include monetary compensation. You may see people traveling the world in 5-star hotels, but it’s not bringing any money in. People see that lifestyle and assume they must be rich, and this inspires them to do the same and quit their careers or stable jobs. That’s why in my coaching sessions I try to be very cautious when someone comes with these ideas. I try to offer my point of view, that yes, it might be easy to travel for free, but making a living is a very different thing. I guess it all depends on what people want in their life, and their circumstances, but everyone should be very well informed before making rash decisions based on an idea of perfection they’ve seen on social media.
If someone wanted to be a travel influencer I’d recommend them not to. If they want it that badly, they’ll incur the bad practices I earlier described. You shouldn’t create a blog or a travel Instagram because you want to make money from travelling. You should do it for the right reasons because you have a passion for travel, for telling stories, for photography and want to share it with the world. It should be more of a selfless decision. You need to look for ways to create value for other travellers. Find what you are good at, what makes you stand out, and focus on your niche. There are not enough voices out there, you just need to add some value. Bad selfies and pictures of your meals with tacky travel quotes isn’t adding value to anybody. Try to tell a story, through your images, your captions. If you are a single mom that travels on long weekend jaunts, that could be a great idea! Many others will relate to that. Give them insight, tell them how. When I started, I engaged in long travel conversations with my followers on Direct Messages and emails. I even offered to set up itineraries for them, for free! I did it because it was fun, it was my passion. I had a 9 to 5 job, and that kept me closer to travelling every day. I googled every flight connection out there in my free time, I worked hard on the stories I told and how I told them. Probably more so when I was starting than now! I took it as seriously when I had 100 followers than I do today. That’s also a key to making it work. There has to be a clear brand, a strategy in terms of what content you create and how you come across. Once that audience has been built, sponsors will follow. Don’t rush it. It’s not necessarily about size, but having an engaged community of people that trust what you have to say. It’s incredibly rewarding to help inspire people to achieve their goals.
You now have 160 thousand followers on Instagram. How did you manage that? Do you see yourself as a role-model? What message do you try to send through your Instagram page?
I’m lucky enough that what started as the perfect blend of my two passions: travel and photography, took off so well and created such a tight knit community of engaged travel minded people in. It has definitely inspired me to go to places where I wouldn’t normally have, just to document it for my audience, or even pushing me to finish on the hardest moments of this journey. On my Instagram page, @wanderreds, I tend to show a positive outlook on the World, namely lesser known destinations, so that people can see that the World is a lot safer than the media makes it out to be. Seeing their reactions, inspiring them to travel more and changing their perceptions on certain destinations has definitely been one of my proudest life achievements. Growing an audience is ultimately about being natural and real. Engaging back with them in an honest way, and offering value to them, in the form of travel tips, inspiration or entertainment.
And do you have any plans of launching your own webpage or not, and why?
I definitely want to create one, even if it’s just a place where people can read a bit more about my travels. It hasn’t been a priority, being so busy these last two years with trip planning, travelling and keeping up with my Instagram. I always say that travelling to every country is a full time job. Although I managed to get to 105 countries whilst keeping a 9 to 5, I would never have imagined finishing unless I had taken a sabbatical. All those visa applications, remote islands and warzone countries that offer a tight window to visit… logistics are hard work and require a lot of time and flexibility. If you add all my photo-taking, editing, posting and engaging back with my followers, which can easily be up to 6h a day, it’s hard to squeeze the time to launch a website. But now that I’m done, I’ll definitely get to it soon!
Cape Coast, Ghana
Do you feel that when travel becomes your work, that this leads to losing authenticity in terms of content or not?
I think that it depends on your partnerships. If you are a travel influencer and accept a paid promotion for a cooking robot, or any random gizmo, then obviously the value evaporates quickly. But there could be endorsements that could offer great insight for your community. If you do good due diligence, vet the product or service and can honestly vouch for it, why not showcase it? I tend to follow a simple rule. Would I use this myself? Would I pay to use it? I would only work with brands that have products or services I believe in. One thing is clear, we all need to make a living, so promotion and advertising are inevitable eventually. I think authenticity isn’t lost if these are honest and subtle. I like to objectively give the pros and cons of what I’m promoting. But obviously there are always people that don’t understand it. They expect an infinite flow of great content, from all over the World, without having to pay or watch any adds. Cameras and gear cost money, flights, hotels, visas, traveling is not cheap and creating content is an added cost. They don’t need to buy what you are occasionally promoting, but simply a like and comment go a long way in terms of supporting what you do.
In terms of authenticity, I do think that working only with a tourism board on press trips affects it. You are shepherded all day with a fixed schedule and a set of activities, so you can’t really roam freely or explore on your own. I always found those trips troubling. If you only travel on paid trips, then it’s not so honest or raw. That’s why I’ve never been on one. I have full control of the destinations I visit. Thankfully, as I was going to every country, this proved very easy, until now at least. Generally, I’d rather pay for my own trip, decide how and where I go and find the money in other partnerships. I wouldn’t go on a barter trip, just to get a free trip to a random destination, but again, it all depends, some press trips give you more freedom in terms of where you can go, what you can show and say… If opinions are honest and true, authenticity doesn’t have to be affected.
Travel has now come to a standstill. Is your business affected as well? What are your expectations?
I definitely have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. In early March, when it was declared a pandemic and cases started ramping up in my home country of Spain, I was travelling in India. I quickly understood I needed to cancel my plans and go home before I got locked out. India seemed relaxed at the time, and a great place to wait it out, but I realized at the speed everything was scaling up, they might face the same situation other countries in Europe were already anticipating. It’s obviously been an unprecedented situation, but my experience planning trips to every country gave me a gut feeling that it was going to be a game-changer for everyone.
In terms of projects, I had three very promising ones in April that we obviously put on hold. Presenting a documentary, a speaking gig at a major corporate travel Summit and a campaign in one of my bucket-list destinations. Hopefully, they are only suspended, and will be resumed, but who knows at this stage when or how will we be able to travel. Even if some countries open up, they might stay closed for most Europeans and Americans. Restrictions surely will ensue for this year so let’s see how it all plays out!
On the bright side, these months I was focusing on finishing my book that will be launching early this summer, so I’ve managed to stay busy doing this lockdown.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
The correct answer here is always Time Travel. With it, you can have all other superpowers. I’m also a history buff, so would really love to see past civilisations and what’s to come in the future. Teleporting would come close second. If you ask me before a 36h travel day back home, I might even put it first.
And finally, if you could invite any four people to dinner – from any period in history – who would you invite and why?
Hahaha, I love these questions. I play this same game all the time when I’m travelling with friends. I would probably go with great World Explorers like Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Marco Polo and Alexander the Great. Would love to hear their stories, dreams and thoughts.