We all know I daydream of life as a professional travel blogger, but I decided to go to grad school and now I’ve got those pesky student loans to pay off. That said, I’m sure many of you are wondering how you can even support yourself as a travel blogger if you’re not spending all your free time freelance writing. I was curious too, so when it came time to write a feature story for my Master’s journalism course, I decided to interview my friend and resident Man of Wonders, Raphael.
The Man of Wonders
Leaving behind the “Mexican Dream” for life as a professional travel blogger
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Picture a travel writer. What comes to mind? Maybe it’s a glamorous career of sipping fruity cocktails on the beach, cranking out a few articles on a first class flight. Or maybe travel writers are adventurers, who live for years in remote areas of the world, scribbling in their dusty notebooks as they effortlessly craft a best-selling novel.
Raphael Alexander Zoren lounges on his bed in a dingy hostel room, staring intently at his laptop. He’s in a different hostel every time we chat. Currently, he’s visiting Transylvania; a place his mother back in Mexico didn’t believe was real. I don’t really blame her. With the amount of jokes her son tells, it’s hard to know what’s real with him.
He’s staying in the hostel bartering lodging in exchange for a mention in his next blog post. He hasn’t paid for accommodation in ages. Could he stay in five-star hotels? Sure. But Raphael chooses not to unless it’s a hotel with a unique story behind it. “My readers are the kind of people who stay in a hostel 28 days out of the month, and then splurge on a luxury hotel if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience”.
Raphael runs a popular travel blog with more than fifty thousand page views per month. His blog, Journey Wonders, is a chronicle of his travels and life abroad, full of tips and advice for fellow travelers. Born in a developing country, Raphael is particularly sensitive to sustainable tourism, emphasizing local establishments over larger tourist chains.
A native Spanish speaker, Raphael’s popularity stems not from his impeccable English writing skills, but from his blunt, larger-than-life personality. The self-proclaimed “Man of Wonders”, Raphael isn’t afraid to talk about controversial topics like first world privilege and volunteerism, and he never shies away from a good “selfie”. His personality is infused in everything he writes. Whether it’s Game of Thrones references in his posts about Croatia, or his article “10 Reasons Why You Should Date a Mexican Man”, you’ll never be bored with Raphael.
The Mysterious Man of Wonders
Raphael refuses to tell me his real name. The name “Raphael Alexander Zoren” is a stage name he gave himself once he started working as a professional travel blogger. He eventually admits that his birth name is Rafael, but when pressed on his full name, he exclaims “It’s not safe to put your real name online if you’re Mexican and handsome!” He’s not sure if Alexander is his middle or last name. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Raphael Alexander Zoren is his brand. It’s his new identity.
In his post “From Conformity to Empowerment: The Story of My Life”, Raphael writes,
Before I started my journey to the lands beyond my home, I was a very ordinary person… I was willing to conform, to never question authority, to finish my studies, work, get married, buy a car, get a house, raise children, die old and never do something remarkable to be remembered for. In this grave lies Raphael, an unremarkable man. He loved, he lived, he died. End of story.
Rafael, the young Mexican student, is dead. But Raphael Alexander Zoren has risen from the ashes.
The Failed Mexican Dream
We’ve all heard of the “American Dream”, but now every country seems to have a dream of its own. The “American Dream” has given birth to the “Mexican Dream”, “Chinese Dream”, “Indian Dream” and so forth. We’re all promised that with hard work and effort, anything is possible. We’re told studying hard and attending university will lead to a good job. We’re supposed to be better off than our parents and grandparents.
But what happens when the dream is a lie? What happens when you go to college and there is no job accompanying your diploma? This is the issue that many young people face today. From America and Mexico, to China and the UK, millennials have realized the dream is a myth.
“If everyone has a college education, who will be a taxi driver? Who will work construction or manual jobs? Parents go into huge amounts of debt to send their kids to college to give them a better life. But with so many college graduates competing for the same jobs, there aren’t enough opportunities for everyone. There are jobs, just not the ones college graduates want. People think, ‘the system has failed me. Why don’t I have the job my university promised me?’”-Raphael Alexander Zoren
While Raphael’s freelance salary of roughly $2,000 a month may not seem like much, it’s miles from his peers back in Mexico. As a twenty-five-year-old travel blogger, Raphael makes as much money as regional manager of a multinational brand with 10 or more years of experience in Mexico. A recent college graduate in his home city makes roughly $800 USD monthly, working 40 hours a week. Raphael only works ten hours a month.
Raphael never had much money growing up. A smart, hardworking kid, he was able to get a scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in Mexico. Surrounded by the children of Mexico’s wealthy elite, Raphael worked hard to fit in. He took out student loans to buy trendy clothes, shoes and watches. It was a disguise. A façade. “You fall into a trap”, Raphael explained. “Because even though you have everything you need to be happy, you’re still not happy.”
In 2010, Raphael was one of a few students selected for exchange in Montreal, Canada. It was the first time he had ever left Mexico. In Canada, Raphael became less materialistic, and learned to stop caring what others thought of him, “I am what I am, and you can either love it or hate it. I don’t care”. He carried that mentality back with him to Mexico. While some embraced his newfound self, others saw his own achievements as a reflection on why they weren’t happy. He told me, “People believe that if you do something outside the norm, it’s because you believe you’re different on purpose, just trying to make them look bad, and sometimes people are not accepting of that.”
Raphael was finishing his last year in Mexico, when he learned of a unique opportunity. With one extra year of schooling in France, he could graduate with both a Bachelors and Master’s Degree. Of course, he took the opportunity. In Mexico, a master’s degree at twenty-three was unheard of. At first, Raphael spent his time in France drinking and partying. “In the beginning it was fun to party all the time”, he explained. “But after a while I became bored, so I started saving my money to travel. Rather than buying the 25 euro bottle of wine in a nightclub, I’d buy the 2 euro bottle at the supermarket and save the rest for travel”. In that year, he traveled to twenty countries in Europe. Raphael realized you didn’t have to be rich to travel; you just needed to be smart and economical. It was a mind-blowing realization.
When Raphael returned to Mexico, he began to tell people about the ease of travel abroad, except no one seemed to be interested. People didn’t believe what he had to say. Raphael compares this lack of acceptance and understanding to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave. In this analogy, there are two people in a cave. The only contact they have with the outside world is through the shadows they see on the wall. One day, one of the men ventures outside. When he returns, he tells elaborate stories of what lies beyond the walls.
Raphael then turns and asks me, “If you were the other person, what would you do?”
“I would step outside and have a look for myself”, I responded hesitatingly.
“Exactly!”, he exclaimed. “People need to step outside the cave to truly understand for themselves. Some people, like you, will venture outside the cave, while others are comfortable in the world they know. But either way, there’s no way to truly understand until you see for yourself.”
If one thing’s for certain, Raphael had ventured outside the cave, and there was no going back.
Starting a Life of Travel
A year later, Raphael moved to Argentina for an impressive marketing job at an advertising firm. Rather than the traditional 9-5 model, Raphael worked from about eight in the morning to eight at night. While he had a lot of money, he still wasn’t happy. “We have this mentality of working hard and doing what you are supposed to.” He explained, “Just keep working hard, working hard, make a lot of money, have kids, have grandchildren, buy houses, buy cars, buy status and power. All of this is supposed to make you happy.”
Raphael wasn’t happy. He was working non-stop for what purpose? For Raphael it was never about money. He wanted personal success and a feeling of achievement, something that no suit-and-tie job could ever give him.
What did Raphael do? He quit.
That year Raphael began his adventure around the world, and he never went back.
The Journey of Wonders
At first Raphael supported himself though his savings from the marketing job. When he began his trip through Asia with his mother in tow, many of his friends back home said, “I wish I could do that!” Raphael tried to convince them it was possible, to no avail. “I think they’re afraid to believe.” He explained, “Because the moment they believe that travel is affordable, they no longer have an excuse. Then each time they don’t travel, they will blame themselves, like ‘why am I not traveling if I actually can do it?’” In short, they were afraid to leave the cave; because once they left the comfort of home, things would have to change. There would be no excuses anymore.
Raphael started his blog in 2013 as he embarked on his trip to Asia. At first, blogging was about the enjoyment of writing. He never expected to make money. Instead he wrote out of passion. “I started the blog because I wanted to show people that if you commit to it, anything is possible”, he told me one evening.
While Raphael’s friends back in Mexico may not have believed in his message, there were hundreds of others who did. The more Raphael wrote, the more his following grew. He started looking at other famous bloggers from developed countries making a living off their writing and thought, “If those guys can do it, why can’t I do the same?”
It was January 2014 when Raphael decided to turn his blog into a business, but it took him five months of work to establish it. At first he focused on growing his readership. He turned away from simple journal posts about his daily adventures, and started writing the thoughtful, introspective articles he’s known for today. He wrote guest posts on other blogs so people would know his name. He joined travel blogging Facebook groups. He did all of this while traveling the world and working as a freelance marketing consultant to pay the bills.
Read Next: How to Become a “Travel Blogger”
The Secret Life of a Professional Travel Blogger
The secret of the professional travel blogger, the thing that no one tells you, is that most travel bloggers are not making a livable income off their blogs. Professional travel bloggers are not paid for each post they write. They’re not making a living off of sidebar advertisements, and they’re not sponsored by Lonely Planet or REI to travel the world. Each travel blogger finds his or her own unique way to make a living. This is usually some magical combination of freelance writing, affiliate sales, sidebar advertisements, selling links and partnering with brands.
This can be a difficult way to make a living, and “blogger burnout” is all too common. Raphael, however, has somehow made the unstable life of a blogger work for him. Rather than working hard, Raphael works smart. He’s always looking for a new angle. He’s not a travel writer; he’s a travel entrepreneur.
Ten hours a month: that’s all he works. I didn’t believe it.
Right now I’m only working, when it comes to emailing and doing those types of services, maybe 10 hours a month. I don’t count the time I spend taking photos or writing stories, because for me it’s like a passion, and I would do it even if I didn’t get money. I only count the hours where I actually make the money. It’s not that much work. Ten hours a month… that’s what? Three hours a week.
What does Raphael do in those three hours a week? He networks, constantly. He emails and calls brands he would like to work with. He creates collaborations with companies, industries and small businesses.
For example, Raphael may take a destination post he wrote a year ago that still gets traffic from search engines. He’ll contact a tour company in that city and tell them, “I have this amazing article about your city. Would you like to be included in the article at the end as a recommendation to my readers? I get 30 views per day in that specific article. Some of my readers will click the link to your site; some of them will hire you. How much would you be willing to pay?” Raphael charges between 200 and 500 euros for this service. “And it only takes me five minutes to insert a link”, he added with a cheeky smile.
More recently, Raphael has been working directly brands doing paid product reviews and directly sponsored campaigns. “It’s all about creating value for both my readers and for the brands involved. If you focus only on one you might end up loosing the trust of the other. It’s important to create a balance and that’s what the Path of Wonders is all about” Raphael explained.
The most important element for Raphael is that he only chooses companies that will provide value to his readers. He never accepts anything for free that he wouldn’t pay for himself. This way his audience trusts him and his advice, and he’s never accused of “selling out” or misleading his followers. “If you stay in a very cool cave hotel in Cappadocia and you pay for it, you will still want to blog about it because it’s cool, and if you get it without paying money for it, you’ll still want to blog about it because it’s cool. It’s all about not doing things that are outside of what you normally do.” This is precisely the reason Raphael refuses soulless hotel chains and prefers boutique hotels and hostels. If he wouldn’t pay for it himself, he won’t take it for free.
The Man of Wonders
While many bloggers are unsure what the future holds for their fast-changing careers, Raphael takes the uncertainty in stride. Over the course of the next five years he hopes to create fifty to sixty small companies of no more than ten employees all over the world. He’ll use his experience traveling to create epic backpacker hostels. His knowledge of international prices and global demand will help him set up e-commerce. Raphael is already in the process of creating an online shop where people can buy Mexican art. The goal is to create a completely passive income business model so that he can retire by the age of thirty.
“I’ll fill you in on a little secret”, he told me, leaning close to the computer screen. “The biggest talent is to have the right eyes. Anything can be monetized if you find the right way to do it. You have to know how to detect value, add value and create value. The smartest thing I did was not to monetize my blog, but to monetize myself.”