Featured Explorer: Nikki Vargas | Airheart

Featured Explorer: Nikki Vargas

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March is Women’s History Month, and talking with travel journalist and author Nikki Vargas was the perfect opportunity to reflect on the many ways that travel can make a difference in our own lives while positively impacting the communities and the women who live there. 

Through Nikki’s journalism career, she has covered travel for publications like The Huffington Post, FOOD & WINE, VICE, and more. In addition to being an Editor at Fodor’s Travel, she is the Founding Editor of Unearth Women, an online travel magazine. Unearth Women shares the stories of women as they travel and highlights women-owned businesses, tours, and travel companies in cities around the world. 

Nikki is also a co-author for the new book Wanderess, a resource written for traveling women. The book, which was released in early 2022, provides travelers with recommendations for places to stay and eat based on travel styles, tips written specifically for women from knowledgeable creators in the travel space, and much more.

We talked with Nikki about her current projects, her favorite travel memories and how they have shaped her life, and advice for starting a career in travel writing. This feature is filled with actionable tips on how you can plan your own travels to positively impact women year-round. 

Can you talk to us about Unearth Women: how it came to be, and the stories that you share through the platform? 

Unearth Women is a women's travel publication I founded back in 2018 alongside a team of women, including Wanderess co-author Elise Fitzsimmons and women's travel expert Kelly Lewis. Initially, Unearth Women started as a print publication that we were able to scale from a self-sold magazine to an internationally-sold magazine in bookstores across the country and globe. After a handful of issues, we pivoted to a digital-only publication where we continue to focus on telling women's stories and showing travelers how best to support women worldwide. 

Feminist City Guides are included on the Unearth Women website and are featured as an activity for readers of your new book, Wanderess, to put together before traveling. What is a Feminist City Guide, and what is the process of creating one? 

I truly believe that as travelers, we are uniquely positioned to impact a destination positively, which also means supporting local women. Our daily choices—from where we choose to eat to where we choose to shop—can either line the pockets of corporations or support female and BIPOC entrepreneurs. On Unearth Women, our feminist city guides aim to help travelers by pointing them in the direction of women and BIPOC owned businesses in cities around the globe. Our new book, Wanderess, carries the torch lit by Unearth Women and shows travelers how to build their very own feminist city guide while also sharing essential travel tips curated by leading women in the industry. 

How did you collaborate with other travelers and decide on what information to include in the book? 

Right off the bat, our publisher at Clarkson Potter (an imprint of Penguin Random House) and our team knew that we wanted Wandress to not be a destination-focused book. There are already a myriad of travel guide books—like Lonely Planet and Fodor's Travel—that cover destination-focused content and do a stellar job of it. Instead, we wanted Wanderess to be an evergreen resource for travelers looking for tips on everything from saving on airfare, to traveling safely, and traveling as a woman of color, a new mom, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Wanderess is truly an exhaustive resource and, because I can only offer one experience, I knew it was crucial to include varying perspectives from contributors like Oneika Raymond, Brooke Saward, Dani Heinrich, Annika Ziehen, and Esme Benjamin, who can confidently speak to other traveling styles. 

In the book, you mention that your style of travel is focused on volunteer tourism where you are able to help animals. Where did your interest in this style of travel come from? 

I have always been an avid animal lover, which typically manifests as volunteering at animal sanctuaries and shelters wherever I travel. I share this passion with my partner, Jeff, and together we've volunteered to walk stray dogs in Mexico, volunteered with rescued elephants in Thailand, visited cat shelters in Italy, and adopted a puppy from a locally-run Belize shelter. Because I had this recent experience of adopting a dog abroad, I knew I wanted to include a section in Wanderess that addresses ethical animal experiences and even adopting a fur baby abroad. As I said, Wanderess is an exhaustive travel book! 

Unearth Women and Wanderess place an emphasis on supporting local communities and the women who are part of them. What do you believe are some of the top ways that all travelers can do this when on a trip?

Being mindful of how you spend your money is one of the most impactful ways to support local communities. Choosing to shop, stay, and eat at locally-owned businesses helps stimulate the local economy and support female and BIPOC entrepreneurs in the area. Also, because social media holds such a power to inspire people's next destination, it is crucial to leverage your social media platforms wisely. Be wary of spreading false information and perpetuating cultural and racial stereotypes; instead use your platform to shine a light on locals doing cool things and women-owned businesses you love. 

What are some of your favorite memories from your travels? 

Travel really has shaped my adult life in profound ways. For every major decision or life transition, there is a trip that helped me gain perspective or gave me the strength to move forward. But, when asked about my favorite destination I always reply: Colombia. I am undeniably biased given that I was born in Bogota—but I truly believe my home country is fantastic and should be on everyone's bucket list. 

What have you learned about yourself through travel? 

In New York, when I'm chained to my laptop and beholden to my never-ending to-do list, I can sometimes forget how spontaneous and fun I can be. Especially during the pandemic, when I've largely been donning sweatpants and staying at home, like everyone else! The thing is, every time I travel it's like a dormant part of my personality ignites. Without the stress, to-dos, and work back home—I suddenly feel free, sexy, and adventurous. In a way, I learn to love myself again each time I travel.

What advice would you give to others who may want to become a travel writer? 

It may sound simple, but truly you just have to start writing. If you haven't been published yet, begin with a travel blog so you can start to develop your writing and have a website that showcases your work. Once you've amassed a few travel blog articles that you feel proud of, begin pitching editors (using your published blogs as writing examples). It will take a few tries, but you'll eventually land your first byline. I recommend reaching out to publications, like Fodor's Travel or Unearth Women, that give first-time writers a chance. Once you've gotten your first bonafide byline, you can leverage that to land future freelance writing assignments and even press trips. Or, if you prefer to become an on-staff editor or writer, you can use your travel blog and bylines to begin to apply for full-time travel writing jobs. In the end, it takes time, patience, and perseverance to become a travel writer. 

What is next for you? 

I actually have a very big project coming up that I would LOVE to talk about but, unfortunately, am unable to reveal at this time. I know, what a tease! I should be announcing it soon, so follow me on Instagram at @niknakvargas where I'll be sharing my projects, writing, Wanderess updates, and travels.

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