2020: A Year in Review

Yes, I’m late publishing this post. It’s just that every time I sit here in front of my laptop, I don’t even know where to start. Because, what a year! I think it’s safe to say that this was not the year any of us imagined, a year that brought so much confusion, and anguish, and compromise, and really showed us never to take anything for granted.

My end of the year post is usually called “Best travel moments of…” but it doesn’t sound so appropriate now. Although I was grateful to be able to travel a fair bit even with everything going on, I wouldn’t say this was a regular year for me – far from it. So over this post I’ll reflect on the past 12 months, summarize where 2020 brought me, and I’ll list my personal and business achievements and failures. Plus, I’ll tell you what’s in the plans for 2021.

Brace yourself ’cause this is going to be a long and very personal post. Over 4500 words long to be precise. Writing these yearly review posts is a sort of therapy for me, that allows me to reflect on the year that went by. You want some fast data, you say? Here it is.

COUNTRIES VISITED IN 2020: 7
NEW COUNTRIES: 2 (Paraguay and Brazil)

BEST TRIP OF 2020: Road trip in Argentina
BEST CITY OF 2020:
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
BEST NATURAL DESTINATION:
Iguazu Falls (Argentina, Brazil)
BEST NATURAL EXPERIENCE:
Flying over the Mont-Blanc (France, Italy)
NEW FAVORITE DESTINATIONS: Alsace (France) and Amalfi Coast (Italy)

2020: THE TRAVEL YEAR THAT WAS

When the New Year rang in in Cordoba, Argentina, I wished for another year of traveling. I could already picture it. Road tripping Argentina, exploring undiscovered Paraguay, spending two months working on my tan on the beach in Brazil, and touring the coffee plantations in Colombia. It was going to be followed by summer in Europe and a trip to Georgia, and one last flight to Thailand where we were going to spend the winter.

I had it all planned out. And then COVID happened. But let’s go back one step, shall we?

Cordoba, Argentina

Fran and I had arrived to Argentina at the end of November. The plan was to visit his family who lives in Cordoba, Argentina’s second biggest city, and explore some of the country. It was my first time in South America and I was excited!

After spending a few days in Buenos Aires, we settled in Cordoba and spent all of December working crazy hours (crazy like 7 AM to 9 PM) at a coworking. It was rough, but I haven’t been that productive since then. We wanted to get as much work done as possible before traveling because when I explore all day the last thing I want to do when we get back to the hotel is working.

Working long hours in Cordoba, Argentina

We were also getting ready to launch a new business, a course for Spanish-speaking content creators, so we spent the best part of January filming the course (120 videos!) which let me tell you, was exhausting. Again 14 hours workdays but I was happy to do it as I was soo looking forward to the next months spent on the beach. Yeeeeaah… NO.

Road tripping Argentina

February arrived and it was finally time to start traveling. While we had first thought of visiting the region of Salta, in the northwest of Argentina, and the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, we decided it wasn’t the right time and instead opted for an off the beaten path destination. It turned out to be my favorite destination of 2020, proving once again that many times the best travel doesn’t come in the form of the most popular places.

We started the roadtrip in Mendoza, a region known around the world for its wine. It’s a stunning place, with wineries located just at the foot of the Andes. We spent a few days tasting wine and having some incredible meals (those steaks!). We went horseback riding in the Andes and spent a relaxing day at some natural hot springs.

Lunch with a view – Mendoza, Argentina

Our next stop were the UNESCO World Heritage parks of Talampaya and Ischigualasto and… wow. These parks are off-the-beaten path for foreigners but for Argentinians as well, which is pretty mind-boggling as they are so unique! The landscapes were nothing similar to what I had ever seen before.

Talampaya Park

Another place we visited which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience was Laguna Brava in La Rioja region, a lagoon deep in the Andes at over 4000 meters where you’ll find flamingos and a surreal silence.

Laguna Brava, La Rioja (Argentina)

Iguazu Falls

At the end of February we packed our bags and headed off for a few months of travel through South America. But we couldn’t leave Argentina without visiting Iguazu Falls, could we?

Iguazu Falls from the Brazilian side

Iguazu Falls, one of the natural seven wonders of the world, sit between Argentina and Brazil. We took a full day to visit the Argentinian side (you’ll need at least one day!), and a few weeks later we visited the Brazilian side.

I enjoyed the Argentinian side more, you can get much closer to the falls (like, bring a raincoat kind of close), but for taking pictures the Brazilian side is probably better. Set aside at least two days and visit from both sides, it’s worth it.

This is also the area where Brazil and Argentina border with Paraguay, which was our next destination.

Exploring Paraguay

If you look through pretty much every single one of South America itineraries, they leave Paraguay out. And not because Paraguay is unsafe, but because it’s deemed unworthy of tourists’ time. Very few tourists venture here every year, and while I can’t deny that its neighboring countries have much more to offer, those who do discover an off-the-beaten-path country with strong traditions and a sense of hospitality that’s unparalleled in the region.

Exploring Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital city

A shout out to Maria Vivian and her family that welcomed us into their house in Ciudad del Este for a few days, and to Leti who drove us around and through the Argentina-Paraguay border and later on through the Paraguay-Brazil border. Real legends!

We spent around two weeks in Paraguay. We started from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s second city located at the border with Argentina and Brazil. Ciudad del Este is known for its crazy shopping malls, but we also visited a few other attractions in the area.

We then went to Encarnacion where we experienced carnival and a big party (fun fact: carnival is a BIG deal all over South America!), and finished in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital.

I absolutely need to write about the logistics of traveling around Paraguay and what there is to visit. There is very little information online!

Crossing into Brazil and Rio de Janeiro

One more day exploring Iguazu Falls again, but this time from the Brazilian side, and it was time to start our Brazilian trip from its most iconic city: Rio de Janeiro.

The best view at Mirante Dona Marta in Rio de Janeiro

I loved Rio de Janeiro!! We spent a week there and did all sort of things. We went up to the Cristo, took the cable car to the top of the Sugarloaf Mountain, spent time in Ipanema and Copacabana; explored the nightlife, visited the space where they made the incredible Carnival floats, and learnt more about Rocinha, Brazil’s biggest favela, with a resident.

I loved visiting Rocinha, Brazil’s biggest favela, with a resident – it’s not nearly as dangerous as you might think!

From here, the plan to was start going up the coast exploring many beach towns and enjoy the beautiful beaches in Brazil. Then we would get to Salvador de Bahia, and continue exploring the northern side of the country. We woulkd finish our two months trip in the Amazon. It was going to be such a cool trip; I had spent month planning our Brazil itinerary and we were going to be working with a bunch of hotels and tourism boards.

However, as soon as we arrived to Buzios, a beach town a three hours bus ride from Rio de Janeiro, we started growing increasingly concerned. Italy (and my family and friends) was going into lockdown, and other countries were quickly following. We were afraid that if we kept traveling, we might end up stuck somewhere, maybe in some small beach town with limited healthcare, for who knows how long, so with a sad heart we decided to do the responsible thing and postpone our trip.

Quarantine in Brasilia

We decided to find a place in Brasilia for a little bit to lay low, and we thought that the administrative capital of the country would come with good standards of living and better hospitals just in case. It wasn’t the case. How can i say it nicely?

I can’t. Our Airbnb in Brasilia seemed really cute in photos but in reality it SUCKED. We had cockroaches and mold, there was construction at all times (sometimes starting at 7 AM) and very rude neighbors. All of this was made worse by the fact that even if there was never an actual lockdown in Brazil, it felt extremely risky to go out and about Brazil was doing really bad with COVID cases and hospitals were full, so so we decided to stay in voluntary self isolation.

We got a partial refund from Airbnb but we could not find anything decent (and not overpriced) really. We didn’t really want to have to take a plane in the middle of the pandemic but after two months in these conditions our mental health was suffering so we…

Moving to Sao Paulo

… moved to Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is the New York City of Brazil. Although not as touristy as other places like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo is a cosmopolitan and humongous city. In normal times, I would have explored its hundreds of cool restaurants and hip cafes; in COVID times we mostly stayed cooped up in our beautiful apartment (a great Airbnb find!) except for the occasional coffee run to a nearby Japanese venture that sold fancy coffees through a window.

Sao Paulo is gigantic!

While we were in Sao Paulo, it became clear that the situation was only getting worse in Brazil and that borders around the world weren’t going to open for a long time, so it was imperative that we found a long-term solution (aka a country to live in). We started researching in online forums, called embassies, emailed consulates and received a million contradictory answers.

Finally it started to become clear on Reddit t that the European Union was open for extra-EU citizens who were coming from the UK after having spent two weeks of quarantine there. And so the preparations began!

London and guess what… quarantine!

At the end of July, we finally boarded our flight out of Brazil. Due to the pandemic, prices for hotels in London had considerably gone down, and we found an incredible deal to spend our two weeks of quarantine in a Holiday Inn Express for something like £30 a night!! Even if it was in zone 5 (not that we cared since we were stuck inside!), you’ll know how this was unheard of if you’ve ever booked a hotel in London!

Those two weeks passed much faster than we imagined and then we spent another 4 days walking around London, which was so nice with so little tourists around! Both Fran and I have been in London a gazillion of times, so this time we mostly skipped the usual London itinerary for first timers. We usually visit London in the winter every year for a travel convention, but I must say that visiting London in the summer is so much nicer!

Enjoying freedom in London after the quarantine.

Since the laws weren’t clear, we had previously decided it was safer to cross into France by train, and from there get to Italy overland rather than going through more controls when taking a direct plane from the UK to Italy. The day finally came.

Nervous, with our passports in our hands, we approached the borders’ controls. The officers didn’t even scroll through the pages. They stamped our passports and off we were, finally back into the European Union. Paris, here we come!

Paris & Road tripping France

Ahh Paris! Paris is always magical, but to visit with almost no tourists around? A dream! Fran and I had both visited all the main spots in the past, but took advantage of the Paris PassLib’ pass to revisit the Louvre and Versailles, we strolled around Montmartre, took a cruise on the Seine, and I dragged Fran around to take a million photos of me with the Eiffel Tower.

Alsace, the second stop on our roadtrip, was a beautiful discovery. We loved every moment spent exploring Strasbourg, the biggest city in the region, Colmar (in the picture here down below – isn’t it magic?), and all the other small villages such as Riquewihr, Obernai, and Ribeauvillé. It truly felt like being inside a fairytale.

Colmar: a fairytale town

Our roadtrip then brought us to Chamonix in the French Alps, home to Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc.

I’m not going to lie, we were pretty disappointed with Chamonix. Everything felt overpriced and not very well maintained, and we were disappointed in seeing that no COVID-19 precautions were taken. I also had a very bad experience when an employee of Mont-Blanc Natural Resort yelled and literally pushed me, but that is a whole different story (the employee did get disciplined for that, or at least that’s what I was told).

However, we had one incredible experience while in Chamonix – we later found out the same experience can also be accessed from the Italian side, and I personally much prefer the towns on that side, so I would recommend staying on that side if you can.

The Aiguille du Midi cable car takes you up to 3,842 m, where you already have incredible views of Mont Blanc. But it doesn’t end here. From here you can take the Panoramic Mont Blanc Cable Car that brings you over glaciers to the other side of the mountain. A surreal, breathtaking experience that’s worth every single extra dollar paid.

This experience was magical!

Next, for a complete change of landscape we headed to South of France. It was Fran’s first time here and unfortunately we didn’t have time to complete my recommended whole South France itinerary that you can find here. However, we managed to visit Nice, Cannes, Eze, Saint Paul de Vence, and Monaco in just 4 days and it was the perfect introduction to the region.

Walking through the alleys of Saint Paul de Vence.

Italy

After leaving our beloved rental car, we took a night bus to Bologna, Italy, where my parents were waiting for us to go for a holiday to Isola d’Elba (Elba Island), an island off the coast of Tuscany that’s not very known outside of Italy, but it’s super nice.

Now, when you follow travel bloggers or influencers online and on Instagram, it might seem the just go from holiday to holiday – but that’s very far from the truth. When Fran and I travel, we spend a LOT of our time creating content, taking photos, writing down details to be inserted in blog posts. Many times it feels much more like a marathon than a holiday to be honest.

But in Isola d’Elba, we had our first, true holiday in years, we almost didn’t take any pictures at all, we just laid down on the beach, relaxed, read books, and ate way too much. It was blissful.

Dinner + beach + sunset= bliss!

We then spent a couple of weeks in Bologna, where I mostly spent time with family and friends. I’ve never written much about Bologna, my hometown, here on the blog, but I’ve started putting out content this past year. Bologna has become more popular over the last few years (it’s famous for its cuisine mostly!), but it’s still quite the hidden gem compared to cities like Florence and Rome that are overcrowded with tourists.

My hometown Bologna from above

Every year when we go back to Italy, we try and explore some new places. Other places we visited this summer were Turin and Verona. We found Turin to be a very livable city – Fran already said that’s a city he could live in for a few months. Verona is such a charming city as well, we really enjoyed walking around and celebrating my 31st birthday there.

Verona is such a charming city

I also went for 5 days to Naples and the Amalfi Coast with my friend Arianna, and oh my gosh! How did I let 30 years pass before getting here? The Amalfi Coast is stunning! We visited Positano, Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri and you can bet I’ll try and go back as soon as I can!

And then, it was time for our next chapter.

Finding Home in Tbilisi, Georgia

Thailand and Bali are open now to remote workers, as well as a few other countries, but back in August there were really few choices for international couples. Many bloggers had opted for Mexico, a country I absolutely adore, but that would bring us further away from Europe and Asia once again. So we opted for Georgia, a country in the Caucasus that was doing really well with Covid at the time. We had already spent 3 months in Georgia in summer 2019, and we knew what to expect.

The borders were officially closed for tourists but we qualified for a program designed specifically for remote workers and entrepreneurs, and that’s how we did it. If you want to know more about the Remotely from Georgia program we entered Georgia with, you can find a series of stories highlighted on my Instagram, or you can read this article I wrote on Medium.

Tbilisi, Georgia = currently home.

It’s now our 4th month in Tbilisi, the capital. The COVID situation has unfortunately gotten a lot worse since we arrived. We are theoretically able to go out, but there’s a curfew at night and unfortunately many people in the streets don’t respect the mask and social distancing rules, so we almost never go out except for groceries or essential purchases.

We rented an apartment that I’m really happy with, and we transformed the second bedroom into a full office / YouTube studio which was a lifesaver in this situation. At least we have a defined space work space and we can close the door at night – it really helps us find a better balance between work and personal life which is something we always struggle with.

Our apartment in Tbilisi.

BUSINESS ACHIEVEMENTS & FAILURES

When I set my business goals for 2020 at the end of 2019, I was super motivated. My blog was on fire, visits kept growing month after month, and I had just reached 100,000 page views a month, which had been one of my goals for a long time. My goals were pretty ambitious but reachable… but I hadn’t accounted for a worldwide pandemic. To be fair, who had?!?

When the world realized the situation was serious (or at least a part of it – it’s clear that there are still millions of people worldwide who don’t get it 10 months later – insert disappointed face emoji here), my visits literally halved overnight. And then halved again.

Seemingly overnight, I went from being the proud owner of a successful business to the still-proud owner of a business in a an industry falling to pieces. And well, it really, REALLY sucked.

When you’ve spent the last 7 years building something out of nothing, and you’ve given it tears and sweat and uncountable hours of your time, and you’ve silenced the voices of all of those who told you it was a bad idea and that I should look for a regular job, it feels like defeat.

But it’s not, I know it’s not. Even though my traffic and income are both still less than half what it used to be, I have hope. Hope for the new vaccine, hope that people will start traveling again, hope that we are resilient and we’ll get to the other side of this dark chapter of our history.

I have picked up a freelance job for a few hours a week, but I was lucky to be able to keep working almost full-time to this blog, so that when travel DOES come back, I’ll be set for success.

I was able to do this thanks to my partner. In fact, the same time that the travel industry collapsed, the financial industry boomed. Suddenly everyone was online trying to figure out what to do with their money and how to invest it when the markets collapsed. And that is what Fran’s YouTube channel is mostly about, so while my blog became irrelevant, his channel exploded this past year.

Discovering that affiliate marketing conversions in the financial industry are a whooole other game was quite a nice surprise! I’m so grateful that in a year that was difficult financially for many people, we did more than fine. I know what it means to be worried about money (and the lack of it), and I’m really grateful that that wasn’t something I had to be worried about on top of everything else.

Behind the scenes of our course.

During the past year Fran and I also launched another business together. Based on the years of trial and error that led us to run a successful blog and a successful YouTube channel, we created a super comprehensive course for Spanish-speaking people who want to succeed in the content creation game. It took us months of work to plan it and two full weeks of 14-hours work days to film it all, but it paid off.

We launched it in the spring and it’s all still in its infant stage, but we already have a bunch of talented students that we’re really proud of. We created a community with people from 8 different Spanish-speaking countries; many of the students already started their channels or blog, and a couple of people already went full-time thanks to their content! I can’t wait to see how all of this pans out in 2021.

PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENTS & FAILURES

This was a really tough here on a personal level. I have pretty much dedicated the best part of the last decade to find a way to live the semi-nomadic lifestyle I want. I value freedom over almost anything else, and this year felt anything but free. This year I ended up spending 6 month in self-isolation, which is pretty crazy if you think about it. 6 months without going out, without seeing anyone but Fran, no social interactions. It’s honestly wearing me down.

However, the whole situation brought Fran and I closer together. I mean, I guess you must reeeally like someone if you manage to spend 6 months in lockdown together without killing each other! I am really grateful to have him by my side.

Couple selfie in 2020 style

This year also made me realize how much I crave social interaction and a sense of community. I am an introvert and usually I really don’t mind spending time at home, but this year was a little too much even for me!

I’m really looking forward to getting back to a regular life where I can see friends, and organize dinners, and participate in the events with the expat community here in Tbilisi. I’m also looking forward to showing the city to a couple of my Italian friends as soon as the borders open.

WHAT’S IN STORE FOR 2021?

Ah! I wish I could tell you I have some exciting plans, but I don’t. With everything going on, it would be pretty irresponsible to make some concrete plans at this moment. The situation and regulations keep changing, borders open and borders close, and although I’ve been tempted more than once to snag some of those incredible travel deals, it’s just too soon.

Unless something major happens, we will be based in Tbilisi, Georgia, until October 2021. We signed a one year contract that it’s something major for a nomadic couple like us! However, I’m hoping to be able to travel as soon as possible. Currently we are pretty much stuck here until Georgia’s borders reopen. There are many countries where we could go already, but our entry permit is a one-entry permit, meaning that if we leave the country we won’t be able to get back in. It looks like Georgia might reopen its borders in February or March, and I’ll be ready!

Until then, we will be visiting a few places here in Georgia. We already have a couple of staycations lined up here in Tbilisi, and a trip to Kazbegi in the mountains reserved. There are quite a few places in Georgia that I want to explore, so the spring looks like a good time to do that.

One thing that 2020 left me craving for is adventure. I crave that feeling of being totally out of my comfort zone. I love traveling throughout Europe and the US, don’t get me wrong, but I find myself so much more excited when I’m traveling somewhere that doesn’t look like home.

The other day Fran and I sat down and thought about all the destinations we would love to visit this year while being based in Tbilisi, and most of them are in the Middle East and Central Asia, two regions we haven’t explored before but that are pretty easily accessible from here. I would also love to explore somewhere in Africa, but not sure that will be doable this year.

Petra, Jordan

We are thinking about Dubai, Oman and Jordan in the Middle East, while for Central Asia everything except for Turkmenistan (much harder to get a visa for and super expensive) is fair game.

Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan

Maybe the blue mosques of Uzbekistan, or the Pamir Highway of Tajikistan, who knows? I’m hoping I can start making some more concrete plans soon.

When our rental contract in Tbilisi is over, we hope to be able to get back to Asia and spend the winter in Thailand again, which was where we were planning to be at this time.

My beloved Thailand! How I miss it!

Will all this happen? Maybe, maybe not. If I learned something in 2020 is that making plans and attaching myself to dreams at this point is pretty dangerous. I’m trying to keep my mind open and go with the flow. Something that’s very difficult for a planner like me to do, but there really is no choice.

And that’s a wrap! If you got till here, you must really like me 😀 so than you for being a part of my journey. I wouldn’t be where I am without you.
Wishing you joy and health for 2021.


Founder of Every Steph - Green & Glamourous Travel and Lifestyle blog, Stefania Guglielmi is a blogger from Italy with a serious addiction to coffee and hats. Steph believes a little glamour and a whole lot of responsible travel goes a long way.

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