2020. What a freaking year to grow a travel blog, am I right? This isn’t my usual travel guide or itinerary. For those, head to my latest posts. In this post, I’m going to casually talk about the ups, downs, learning-curves, and wins from my very first year of travel blogging “professionally.”
I couldn’t help put that in quotes because I am FAR from a professional blogger. What I mean by that is, this is the first year that I’ve approached my travel blog as a career path and as a lucrative business opportunity!
If you’ve closely followed by for a while now, then you already know that I started my travel blog back in 2015 when I lived in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Man, what I’d give to have “seriously” started back then). But it’s only been since the end of last year, around August 2019, that I decided to pursue the business of travel blogging for real.
So if you’re interested in starting your own blog, or are just curious as to how this year has gone for me, then read on!
My First Year of Travel Blogging in Review
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Long story short, it was sometime after turning down an opportunity to join Peace Corps Panama 2020-2022 that I officially decided to pursue travel blogging. For me, this was a fairly obvious and enlightening moment.
I had already grown my other blog to over 60,000/UMV and the second one to 30,000/month. So I already knew how to grow an affiliate blog and the ins-and-outs of blogging in general. Now I just needed to apply that to my personal adventures and experiences on my travel blog. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize that I could apply the same growth techniques and ignite a career out of travel blogging, but it did. I believe things happen in their own timing, though, so all is good!
But let’s back up just a wee bit…
In June 2019, we had already been living in Mexico for over a year and decided we wanted to buy a van and road trip across Canada. So we did. We bought a 1990 Roadtrek in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and drove for four days to reach my family’s home in Tennessee, USA. August rolled around quickly and so we packed up the van and took off. We traveled over 10,000 miles and saw Canada from east to west – from the craggy cliffs in remote Newfoundland & Labrador all the way to the city shores and forests of Vancouver, BC.
In blog time, I was just starting to dabble in Pinterest and I was writing and publishing articles like crazy to catch up on all the guides I had missed out on writing over the years I’ve been traveling and living abroad full-time. I have always had a HUGE backlog of article ideas and one-by-one I was checking them off while also blogging about our travels in Canada.
My First Blog Partnership
Funnily enough, one of the first “signs” I had that I was on the “right track” with my blog is when I landed my first brand partnership with an outdoor adventure tour company called Red Rock Adventure (that I actually first read about in Nat Geo) located in the tiny village of St. Martins, New Brunswick (one of our first stops on our van road trip).
It was right around the time of my birthday in August. The collab included 2x tours on the Bay of Fundy – one kayaking trip to see the sea caves and one to see the famous Fundy coastline by Zodiac boat (plus free homemade scones and drinks in their adorable coffee shop Shipwreck Cafe). In exchange, I wrote 1x long review post and included them in a round-up guide for things to do in the town, including images for blog + social and a backlink. Fairly typical stuff.
The overall value of the collab was around $300-400. Seeing as, at the time, I only had 1K on my blog, and only 60K monthly visits on Pinterest (which in hindsight, was nothing huge at the time, especially since I ended up growing to over 600K a few months later!), I felt pretty good about it. Actually, I felt freaking good about it! And all I did to land it was walk inside and just ask! That was the first time I said, “Hey! I’m a travel blogger – let’s work together!” Now that my blog is 10x or more the size, it excites me to see what’s possible moving forward.
Lesson: That was one of the first lessons of blogging. Numbers don’t matter as much as VALUE. Since then, I’ve always been aiming to provide as much value as I can. The second lesson I learned from that is I DID and DO have what it takes to do this.
Time for a Blog Makeover
It still wasn’t until a couple of months of slow blogging later, in November-December, that I reinvented my old travel blog. I changed the domain name and rebranded myself to Bucketlist Bri and paid $250 to hire a theme developer to help me put my website design and structure together.
At the time, Paul and I were freezing in Canada, working from 7 AM to around 7 PM every day in a Starbucks somewhere. That is, at least until we landed a 2-week pet sitting gig in Vancouver and had a temporary home-base with a warm bed and hot shower to enjoy.
Those weeks flew by. It was a time for hustling, writing articles, and building the foundation of my blog!
After that, Paul and I split for 2 weeks to spend Christmas with our families (USA + France). We rejoined for 1 last day in Vancouver to store the van, and the next morning, on Jan 1st, 2020, we moved back to Mexico for the second time.
Lesson: Design doesn’t matter as much as content. Don’t waste your money or time worrying about aesthetics. Let that come later. Your content is what should shine most. Oh, and simplicity is key when creating a blog.
I started out this year extremely productive and energized. We just left Vancouver, Canada, where we left our van life travels behind, and moved back to the warm shores of the Riviera Nayarit on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
My First Paid Partnerships & Hotel Collabs
My blog at the time was just starting to pick up organic traffic from Google and Pinterest. I felt really confident about growing this year, and as a result, decided to reach out to the hotels in San Pancho for possible partnerships.
All my offers were accepted and included 1-2 free nights in the hotel with some activities included, plus I was compensated for my time by 5/6 of the hotels I worked with.
On top of the hotel partnerships, I was networking with other travel bloggers for future trips together while receiving offers from brands to promote their products on my blog and Instagram. I can honestly say I didn’t have a strategy in place, nor a specific goal in mind. I was just exploring my options, and working with my local community and giving back was a way for me to express that.
Lesson: It was a busy time for Bucketlist Bri and I was just starting to realize the power of my voice on my blog. It’s not just about having this platform but the value I was offering, through my writing and through my photography. It felt natural to blog and share unique experiences and stories (like it always has). Even just starting out, I could see how much potential my blog had. It served as a great reminder to stop underestimating myself, my experiences, and the gifts I have to share.
Realizing What My Blog Values Were Really About
Seeing my teeny-tiny success made me want more. What else could I do?
I was ready for it all and was just speeding toward more growth and more opportunity. So one day I reached out to one of Mexico’s state tourism boards and got an interview with the director.
But wait! Not all that glitters is gold! The meeting ended up being a BIG disappointment. I ended up learning a very valuable lesson that has stuck with me ever since.
The day of my meeting came and I was fairly anxious and excited. But within minutes of speaking to the director, not only was I not taken seriously for not having over 500K Instagram followers (haha that’s for real), but I quickly realized that the partnership I was chasing after wasn’t at all in alignment with my blog values of slow and mindful travel or supporting local communities.
Turns out, this tourism board and the people in charge of it, just wanted mega influencers to come to promote their ritzy hotels. He literally said to me, “That’s it. That’s all we care about.“
I was floored because this kind of thinking and behavior is what allowed some of the small towns on the coast to become overrun with tourists, resulting in sewage problems that led to mass sickness and health issues, poor management of business and organizations, and overall just drowned out what the real culture, real people, and real experiences that made that part of Mexico so alluring in the first place.
A slower and more meaningful type of travel, one in which the local people, community, and environment all benefit, was essentially cast aside in order to welcome (and encourage) only high-paying tourists who stay in chain hotels.
Lesson: So the partnership never worked out and at first, I was pretty bummed because getting sponsored by a tourism board so early in my blogging career would’ve been huge for me. But I’m SO glad it didn’t work out. If it had, I would’ve been compromising on my blog values. I always, always, want to stay true to my words and intentions here on Bucketlist Bri.
You can guess what I’m about to say here, haha. We were in Mexico when the novel coronavirus halted the world, so that’s where we stayed until we maxed out our 6-month tourist visas and ended up leaving the country sometime in June.
Those months, Bucketlist Bri, like many other travel blogs, took a hard hit. I watched as my organic growth dwindled down back to numbers I hadn’t seen in a few months. It was pretty depressing and de-motivating.
I slowed down my writing and completely abandoned the idea of doing any partnerships. I didn’t want to promote travel, so I ended up holding off on publishing a few pillar travel guides.
Like millions around the world, we spent our days inside. The beach was closed off. We ordered pizza for delivery every Friday night for 8 weeks in a row. We climbed up on our roof each evening after work to see the sunset dip down over the Pacific ocean. And our trip back to Vancouver in May to pick up van life and travel with Paul’s family was canceled.
But in many ways, we were extremely fortunate. We still had each other and we counted our blessings triple-fold that we didn’t have to separate. (Having done long-distance before, we were extra thankful to not have to go through that during a pandemic).
So when the time came to leave Mexico, we booked flights to the USA to stay (and quarantine) with my family over the summer. Our van, to this day, is stuck in Canada. Just waiting for us to return.
It had been around 7-8 years since I had spent so much time at home with family. So although it halted our travel plans, I was super grateful to spend this time with my mom and sister. I usually only get to see them 1-2x a year, so having a few weeks of down-time together was nice. Both Paul and I also had to renew our passports and it seemed like doing it in the US was our only option.
In the meantime, Bucketlist Bri stabilized. A few of my articles picked up in searches and brought me consistent traffic each month. If anything, it gave me hope.
Lesson: Never give up. While many bloggers abandoned ship, I knew one day that travel would resume, even if locally. So I kept writing and started publishing articles again. And sure enough, my traffic soon outperformed its previous stats.
Our Southwest USA Road Trip
It was mid-August when we decided to celebrate my 27th birthday with a 2-week road trip in the Southwest USA. Getting outside hiking and enjoying nature was deeply-needed, so we just went for it. I also had just bought a new lens, my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens, and a new body, the a7II, and I was excited to break it in on this trip. (It was seriously time for an upgrade from my a6000 and kit lens!).
Those 2 weeks were amazing. It was the first time since March that we were exploring somewhere new. Having abandoned all exercise months prior, my body was also in great need of the challenge and opportunity for movement from hiking and exploring every day.
Blog-wise, during our 2 days in Zion National Park in Utah, I had the opportunity to partner with the Ponderosa Ranch Resort. It was my first collab since the pandemic began and, once again, it felt like a sign to keep going with the blog.
We spent two nights glamping under the stars, went horseback riding, and experienced a thrilling sunset jeep tour. The staff loved the content I produced in exchange which gave me a boost of confidence in my blogging journey. I know “reassurance” is futile, but it’s nice to know your work is appreciated!
Lesson: I am someone who mixes “work” with “play” too often. While I loved having the opportunity to stay at this adventure resort, it meant that I had to work while on “holiday.” I was able to push the bulk of the work back, and complete it all after the trip, but it definitely taught me to separate my work with Bucketlist Bri when I’m traveling for leisure and the joy of discovery (without having to create content about it).
Thanks to that road trip, I was able to pump out over a dozen new blog posts, some of which started to rank just a few days or a couple of weeks after publishing (to my giddy surprise!). I was finally creating new content and for it to be ranking so quickly was a HUGE eye-opener that I needed to focus on writing more. Much more!
Lesson: For me, striking a balance between growing a blog and growing on social platforms is tricky. But this trip made me realize how much more value I could give (and get) if I kept my blog as my centerpiece. Writing, is after all, what I love to do. So why not make it a priority?
September: Moving Back to Mexico (For the 3rd Time)
Just a few days after returning from our Southwest trip, Paul’s allotted 90 days in the USA came to an end. The only country we could flee to, to stay together and not be separated, was Mexico. It’s the easiest for us, familiar, and it’s also easy for Yoda (our travel kitty).
But this time we didn’t want to return to the west coast. Instead, we set our eyes on the Riviera Maya. Although we’ve traveled there twice before, this time would be to temporarily settle down there. So within a week’s time, we traded the mountains of Tennessee for the cenotes and Caribbean shores of Tulum.
We ended up living in Tulum as digital nomads for 3 months. In many ways, life returned to normal, except for wearing masks and social distancing. We could go to the beach again. We ate out at outdoor restaurants. We made new friends and discovered new activities like scuba diving (I even got my PADI Open Water Certification!).
But despite all the freedom to enjoy this tropical life, I became riddled with anxiety.
Everyone looking outwardly-in thought I was living in paradise, but for me, I felt trapped in my mind. Maybe stuck? Some days I couldn’t even explain it. But I’d panic anyway. In any case, it began to take its toll on me. I stopped posting as much while trying to just get through my freelance work each week.
Lesson: You can still suffer from lack of self-care even if you’re pursuing your dream life. There will still be dark days and days where you just can’t do anything. And you don’t have to feel guilty about that.
September and October in Tulum flew by, and come November I had finally hit my first 10K/month goal on the blog.
So, with a pandemic, it took me a year. I still wonder if I would’ve ever made it long before had life continued as normal. I guess we all wonder at the “alternate reality” of what could’ve been. But I’m really stoked to have reached 10K and I’m even more excited to see what’s possible for my blog in 2021!
When December arrived, we only had 2 weeks left in our apartment in Tulum. Unsure of where we were going next, we waited until the last moment to decide on a destination.
Within just a few days, we decided to leave the coast and move somewhere completely new, somewhere we hadn’t explored before. Moving always takes its toll on our work schedule, so the first two weeks of December I didn’t get THAT much work done and instead went diving and organized our departure.
But on Dec. 14th, we moved from the beach to the mountains. We’re now in a charming and colorful town called San Cristobal de las Casas, located in the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. (Keep your eyes peeled for future in-depth travel guides about San Cris and Chiapas!)
The new year 2021 has already started with lots of energy and I have several exciting new projects coming up, including a 30-day blogging challenge and the launch of my very own online blogging and coaching course!
More details will be released soon, but basically, this course is designed to help new or existing bloggers establish a solid foundation and understanding of growing a blog with SEO and article writing in 2021 and beyond. It will also include 8 weekly 1-on-1 coaching sessions with me!
I also have it in the works to start my own podcast or YouTube channel, but I’m currently undecided on which would be best for you (and me, hehe). If you have any preference for one or the other, do let me know!!
If you’ve read up until now, then you’re amazing!! I am so grateful for all your support over this last year. Cheers to many more lessons and blogging adventures in 2021! 🙂
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