Two Dusty Travelers: How to Travel Ethically

First off—the standard travel stuff. Where are you from originally? Where do you live now? Where are you going next?

I (Emily) am originally from Seattle. Aaron was born in Australia but moved to Seattle as a child, and that's where we met (many years later)! Seattle is still home base for us. Our next trip is a big road trip through National Parks in the Western US this summer - including our first visit to Yellowstone!

How long have you been promoting ethical travel? What was your first foray into traveling and working abroad? 

We've been blogging for about two years, but have been promoting ethical travel since long before we officially had a blog. We've always been passionate about traveling in ways that help, not harm, the places we visit.

My first foray into traveling and working abroad was as a college student hoping to "save the world". I spent a summer volunteering in Kenya, which led to my decision to go to nursing school so that I would have a skill that would allow me to travel and do humanitarian work. Shortly after that, Aaron and I moved to Tanzania together to volunteer for 6 months.

In the decade since then, I've participated in many medical missions and learned so much about how damaging "voluntourism" can be if it's not done responsibly. One of the main reasons I wanted to start our blog was to speak honestly and openly about volunteering abroad.

Road tripping around the US in our rooftop tent instead of flying to reduce our carbon footprint

Road tripping around the US in our rooftop tent instead of flying to reduce our carbon footprint

What do you think are the most common mistakes or misperceptions people have when it comes to volunteering in other countries? 
The most common misconception about volunteering abroad is that good intentions are enough. I have no doubt that people who volunteer in orphanages or spend a week working at a medical clinic have their hearts in the right place. Unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from causing serious harm.

Most people are surprised to hear that many children in orphanages in developing countries aren't actually orphans. The increasing popularity of orphanage volunteering has basically made children a commodity - meaning that foreigners have created a demand for orphans and they're willing to pay big bucks to spend a week snuggling babies, so local communities will find a way to fill that demand.

In many cases poor families are encouraged to hand their children over to orphanages, where they're told they'll get an education. Instead they're raised by a revolving door of strangers, which can cause lifelong psychological damage. (This is why we don't have orphanages in the U.S.—studies show it's a terrible way to raise children.) The best solution for these kids would be to invest in programs that help lift their parents out of poverty, but that would cut foreign volunteers (and their money) out of the picture so instead these kids end up in orphanages to entertain tourists.

Medical missions also have hidden problems: Who follows up with patients after volunteers leave? Why are we spending money to fly foreigners in to treat patients instead of training local staff? Is it ethical to allow medical and nursing students to treat patients in developing countries when they aren't licensed to do so at home?

It's the responsibility of the volunteer to do a LOT of research and ask the hard questions before they ever step onto a plane. Just meaning well isn't enough. (Here are some questions we recommend asking yourself and any organization you're thinking of working with.)

What are some resources/organizations you recommend so people can be sure they're actually helping/supporting communities they visit?

We put together a massive ethical travel resource to help answer that question! There are tons of resources to learn more about responsible volunteering, cruelty-free animal tourism, how to travel sustainably, you name it! There are endless resources out there to help you no matter what aspect of ethical travel you're interested in.

For those who want to learn more about volunteering overseas, I highly suggest reading Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. In fact, I don't think anyone should volunteer unless they've read this book first!

On safari in Tanzania, where we volunteered for 6 months

On safari in Tanzania, where we volunteered for 6 months

What would you say are 3 ways someone thinking of traveling/volunteering abroad can prepare and "do it right"?

- Think critically about the long-term effects of your actions. After you go home from your volunteer trip, what happens to the people you helped? Who continues the work? Is someone trained to repair that water pump or solar panel you installed, or will the community be dependent on foreign intervention permanently? Does bringing American high schoolers to build houses really help, or does it take paying jobs away from locals who need them? The answers aren't always easy, but if you're truly volunteering to make a difference (and not to get a cool selfie and a line on your resume) you'll want to do it right.

- Spend your tourist money in the local community. It can be easy to travel without every really setting foot in the local community. If you stay at an international hotel chain, eat at expat-owned restaurants, and take tours with big foreign-based companies, then very little of your money is actually staying in the country you're visiting. Tourist dollars can make a huge difference to a community, so spend them wisely. Seek out locally owned places to stay, eat, and play. The bonus is that you'll probably have a way more interesting and meaningful experience, and see things that most tourists will miss!

- Use social media carefully. Ask yourself: Would you want a photo like this posted of yourself, or your child, for the world to see? Volunteers often share photos while traveling that they would never take at home (like pictures of children you don't know, or photos of patients in a hospital). Also, be intentional about the story you're telling with your photos and captions. Is it something positive about the place and the people you're visiting, or are you reinforcing tired old stereotypes about poverty and helplessness? Assume that the locals you're with will see the photos you post - would you want a visitor to talk about your hometown that way? You may very well be the only reference point that your friends and family have for the country you're visiting, so use that power for good.

What countries would you say could benefit the most from tourism and volunteering abroad?

I think any country can benefit from tourism if it's done the right way! That said, I'm a big believer in visiting off-the-beaten-path places. That takes the pressure off of super popular places (like Santorini or Venice) which are suffering from over-tourism. Plus, cities and countries that are less visited can benefit so much more from tourist income. We've had fantastic experiences in places that aren't popular tourist destinations, whether it's a rarely-visited country like El Salvador, or a remote location like a safari in Tuli, Botswana.

Visiting El Salvador after Trump called it a "shithole" and we wanted to give it some positive pres

Visiting El Salvador after Trump called it a "shithole" and we wanted to give it some positive pres

How do you see travel evolving in the coming years?

I hope that travel evolves to become more thoughtful and meaningful, rather than just checking countries and experiences off a bucket list. I'd like to see travelers recognize how much power their choices have (where they stay, who they spend their money with, how they interact with locals, etc) and use that power to affect positive change. If travelers make it clear to the tourism industry that we want responsible, sustainable options that benefit local communities, then those options will become more popular and accessible!

Traveling in Mexico? Join our Mexico Digital Nomads group here!

Semana Santa in Sayulita: What You Should Know

Have you ever been “on holiday” during another country’s BIG holiday?

That’s exactly what happened to the UU team in Sayulita, Mexico last weekend. You see, Semana Santa was upon us, and that translates to one thing and one thing only: party.

Semana Santa, aka Spring Break, aka the week before/during/after Easter is a BIG deal here in Mexico, especially on the coast. It sounds sweet and saintly, but be warned—every beach town in this country goes nuts.

Usually a semi-tranquil place (okay, the Sayulita secret’s been out for a while now—tons of tourists come here), as of last week this little town switched into full-blown Mexican party mode. Here’s a bit about our experience and what you should know if you somehow wind up here during one of the biggest party weeks around.

The beaches were packed

The beaches were packed

Where did all these people come from?

It seems that every Mexican family has flocked to the beach for long, beer-filled days filled with similar sentiments: splashing in the waves, kicking off spur-of-the-moment fútbol matches, doting around abuelos (grandparents) fanning themselves under umbrellas, and general family fun time with no end in sight. With hordes of people walking into town from the bus stop, traffic becomes nightmarish and there’s not much in the way of car parking or even places to park your sunburnt self.

The beaches are packed with extended families, couples, kids, and folks from every corner of Mexico. The bustling main beach of Sayulita gets packed to the point there’s nowhere to sit, while the northern part of Sayulita (usually more chill) also gets busy.

If you keep walking north, however, you can still find some basic refuge—particularly at the “hidden” beach between Sayulita and San Pancho. The waves are a bit intimidating there, but the allure of a deserted beach all to yourself makes it worth the trek.

Beach sunset

Beach sunset

Local Strain

Despite the perception that business is booming, it seems a lot of beach vendors and even restaurants/bars shut down during Semana Santa. Why? Most families bring their own supplies for BBQ, beer, etc. The kioskos (general stores), on the other hand, are buzzing—the staff often has to exert crowd control.

There are also those ever-persistent rumors about Sayulita’s water quality. More specifically, there’s a rumor that sewage drains directly into the water where thousands of people are splish-splashing around on the daily.

Supposedly that’s not true anymore—at least none we can see (or smell), but according to some locals there’s simply not enough bathrooms to go around for the influx of people. In some cases, even water is hard to find. Those stacks of beer at the entrance of kioskos make up for it, though.

Staying Safe

Without a doubt, an influx of people comes with an influx of, well, not so great people. Transients come and go as quickly as the waves, and despite the easy comfort of this place, you do need to stay aware of yourself and your surroundings with slightly more vigilance during Semana Santa. We heard a few horror stories about this time of year, so taking extra precaution is recommended.

A few tips:

  • Don’t leave valuables lying around unguarded: ask neighbors to watch your things if you’re going for a swim, or have someone stay on shore to watch

  • Watch your drinks / NEVER accept drinks from strangers

  • Lock your doors and leave lights on so it looks like someone’s home

  • Don’t get wasted to the point you can’t make it back to where you’re staying

  • Don’t hang out in front of kioskos late at night. Stay in well-lit places

  • Don’t reveal too much about your routine/where you’re staying to anyone

  • Keep your credit cards/passport safely locked away

Are you a digital nomad in Mexico? Join our Facebook group!

As always - the food was delicious!

As always - the food was delicious!

Self-care for the Win: Tricks for Health on the Road

Self-care on the Road: Tips and Tricks

It’s easy to imagine #digitalnomadlife in the typical fluffy form: mojito in hand, new faces, new places and a constant state of adventure from the comfort of your laptop. While life on the road certainly lives up to its reputation at times (wink), let’s be real—it can get exhausting. Whether you’re traveling on a shoestring or working 40-50 hours, too much of anything is, well… too much.

We rounded up some tips and tricks from nomads near and far to stay sane while you’re staying somewhere far from home.


Before you’re off to put another stamp in the passport, there are some things to add to the list. While you might not be able to control that hostel dorm mate who’s decided to wrestle a plastic baggie at 6 a.m., you can arm yourself against unwanted noise, light and general discomfort.

Remember to bring:


-Melatonin tablets/sleep tablets


-Noise-canceling headphones


-Soft sweatpants

-Your favorite lipbalm

These items might seem small, but they can make the biggest difference when you’re needing some comfort—or simply sleep.

Schedule Time

Whether it’s first thing in the morning, an entire day of sightseeing or just some time reading in bed, scheduling your self-care in advance helps you prioritize its importance.

Since travel often includes the hiccups of missing a bus, a delayed flight or the classic case of bureaucratic red tape, carving out time in your schedule to relax and reflect is crucial. If you want to handle all the bumps of the road in smooth style, having the time to take it all in makes everything easier.

Unplug and Unwind

Phones. Laptops. Cameras. Kindles. It seems like everything is on a screen these days— and it’s scientifically proven that screen lights have a habit of keeping us awake and anxious.

Unplugging from it all is an easy, natural-feeling way to refresh. Go on, bask in the glory of some time on the beach with just a good book and the sound of a guitar (the waves too). Find ways to occupy yourself without the easy flick of a thumb or typing on a keyboard—it will help you reset and power off.

Make Time to Reflect

Sure, you’re gallivanting the world, doing all the things and meeting all the folks—just make sure you take some time to pause and turn inwards. Bring a notebook. Write stuff down. Pause. You’ll thank yourself later.

And speaking of thanking yourself, why not take some time to reflect on where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going—both inward and outward? Even making a list of failures and wins can help get the hurricane of thoughts in your head a bit more organized!

Another proven way to pause is meditation. There are even apps to help you get out of your head and into that quiet space—even if it’s just a few minutes.

Meditation apps:

Insight timer - Free guided meditations + timer (

Calm - Meditation techniques for sleep/stress (

Stop Breathe Think - Mindfulness guided meditations (

Headspace - Classic guided meditation app (

Physical health

It’s easy to get caught working one way or another (we’re definitely guilty of that), staying up too late sending e-mails… you get the idea. Since most digital nomads are traveling AND working, challenging themselves with an itinerary while trying to keep track of their work schedules, finding balance mentally and physically is crucial.

We rounded up a few gym apps in our last blog post, but here they are again as well as some health/wellness apps

Zeamo - International gym passes (

GymPass - International gym passes (

Global Fitness Pass - International gym passes (

Sweat - app built with female trainers (

MapMyFitness - app for tracking fitness (

Skimble - workout app/trainer (

My Water - Tracks + reminds you to drink water throughout the day (

HealthyOut - Healthy Restaurant Nutrition Guide (

Food Intolerances - handy app for or peeps with intolerances/sensitivities (

Self-care for the Win

In short, self-care is essential to staying healthy both on the road and at home. So go ahead, give yourself a self-hug—you deserve it!

Digital Nomad Life: Tips and Resources to Get Started

Digital Nomad Life: Tips and Resources to Get Started

So, you’re ready to become a digital nomad—congrats! No matter where you are in life, it’s exciting stuff—the flexible hours, ability to work wherever, opportunity to travel—we definitely get it.

Despite the persistent image of a DN working off their laptop from some idyllic location (usually in a swimsuit), digital nomad life still has its challenges like any other venture, especially when you’re starting out. There’s the grind to establish yourself. The uncertainties. Beyond everything, there’s logistics.

Lucky for you (and us!) there are TONS of resources out there to take some weight off your shoulders and work off your plate, plus the DN community is incredibly supportive. Everyone started somewhere—everyone. We rounded up some of the best tips and resources from around the globe to get you started as a digital nomad.

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