“A lot of people say they didn’t think it was possible that a normal person like me could travel the world.”
“But I did.”
During the week, Alvaro is like any other typical worker. He commutes to his office, sits in meetings, answers emails, and makes phone calls. But when the clock strikes 5 on Friday afternoon, his phone goes off, his laptop gets shut, and he’s en route to the airport. Alvaro wants to disprove the notion that you have to drop everything in order to travel the world — he’s on a mission to visit every country while maintaining a 9-5 job. 84 countries later, we caught up with him to talk about his journey.
What inspired you to embark on a mission to visit every country in the world while still working a 9-5?
I obviously enjoy traveling, but I also enjoy my job, my career. Right now, most travel influencers are moving toward quitting their jobs, packing their bags, and traveling the world. They’re constantly on the go. They perpetuate the idea of wanderlust with the implication that travel cannot be done by normal people with typical jobs and that you just need to break up with everything in order to go. A balanced life is important— I have my friends, my family, my job, my day-to-day life. But then I also travel as much as I can because it’s what I love most; it’s my passion.
Obviously it takes a good amount of preparation to travel the world. So how do you balance your job with your preparations?
This year I’ll be traveling for 80 days. Since I work in finance, I have peaks of high-intensity work, especially in the beginning of each month when we need to complete the financial closings and reportings. This is time-consuming, so I get compensated with extra holidays. By the end of the month, I don’t have as much work, so when I’m planning my travels, I always know when I can take time off.
I work in Europe where we have five weeks of paid holiday vacation. It’s also easier for us to travel internationally. Europe is similar in size to the United States, so I can go to Slovenia or to the Balkans or Norway, and it’s similar to an average American going to Colorado or San Francisco.
It’s also important to remember that there are many cheap international flights from Europe. You can easily connect from Madrid to South America, northern Africa, or Dubai. We’re right in the middle of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, so I can easily get anywhere for a 10-day trip or for a week off.
Given that you have these advantages because you’re in Europe, what do you say to your American readership about how they can learn to travel with a 9-5?
I have a younger following — a lot of students or people in their 20s or 30s. Most of them haven’t studied abroad, but they’re interested in traveling. I encourage them to take a year off or do a semester abroad. For Americans, it’s easy to work abroad — so why not do that? Why not work in Europe? Why not live in Europe? You’re well trained, you have a college education, you speak English — you’re at an advantage. Go see what living in another country is like.
Even if they’re just on a normal vacation or if they’re at home on the weekends, a lot of people struggle to keep their minds off work. How do you stay focused on the experiences you’re having and keep your mind off the 9-5 waiting for you back home?
I have a position of responsibility in my company but, when I travel, I forget about emails, I make sure everything’s closed, I put in extra effort to make sure everything is tied up. When I’m gone I do not check my phone or do anything work-related. I focus on what I am doing each day. One day I’m traveling with my backpack, and another day I’m at my desk.
The key to having a balanced life with travel and an everyday job is not being dependent on that one boss, that specific job. You’re passionate about your career, but don’t feel a slave to the job you have. You should be at work because you like it, not because you’re forced to. It’s like a relationship, in a way. You choose every day to be at that job. If you don’t like it, find a new one.
For a lot of these trips, you don’t have a lot of time — often only a weekend, so what are you doing to make sure you’re actually having meaningful experiences in each country and not just stopping by to check it off the list?
Travel is really subjective. Personally, I don’t like slow travel. I have a lot of friends who take six or eight months off and only visit three countries. That’s a great experience, but it’s not for me. In most places I spend only a day or two, waking up early, ready to take advantage of every moment. Some people just enjoy being there, having a beer, sitting in the square and sipping coffee after lunch — that’s great if you just want to see that one place. But I usually like to rent my own car and move around.
If you have three days in a place, you get to try the food, you get to meet the locals, you get to see the nicest cities, the nicest views, enjoy some kind of activities or a show — I think that’s a pretty good experience. Of course a month would be even better, but I make the most of my experiences in a short time.
You recently traveled to North Korea, which is an opportunity not many travelers get. What was that experience like? What was the most surprising thing you saw there?
You expect it to be really grey. You picture a harsh dictatorship, but they just live in a totally different world — it’s still a Communist country like no other. They don’t have smartphones. They don’t have internet. They don’t know what social media is. And most are perfectly fine with that, because they have been educated and brought up differently. I believe they think we’re superficial and narcissistic, that we are not getting what life is about. Life, for them, is about simple things: working, contributing to society, community, family, and their leaders. They don’t understand freedom the same way we do. They don’t value it the way we do. For them, having a house, being supported by the state, and having order is freedom. When you visit, you unexpectedly get the sense that the people are happy. Of course, all this is applicable to citizens in Pyongyang, the capital, where we spent most of our time. These people are selected to live there and are considered the elite of their society. Therefore, I’m sure these aspects are very different for some rural areas where, unfortunately, we are not allowed to visit.
I’m sure you get this all the time, but what is your favorite place you’ve visited so far?
My favorite country is not a country. My favorite trip was to Tibet, which has an uneasy relationship with China. It is Chinese territory, but it has its own culture. You can only go with a certain agency — and you just go and tour around the country, trek to Everest Base Camp, see temples 5,000 or 6,000 meters up. You experience what lack of oxygen is like, and not just while you’re climbing, but also during normal, day-to-day, city living — you wake up at night and can barely breathe. All the monasteries smell the same way — they have this buttery kind of scent mixed in with incense. There’s a really dim light, and all the monks are sitting down and humming — you’ve probably seen it in a lot of movies, but you get to experience Buddhism in a way that you cannot see anywhere else. That place, that time — it was very impressive.
What country or location are you most looking forward to visiting?
The next trip I have planned is to Namibia and Botswana. We’re renting a four-wheel-drive and we’ll be driving around deserts and the Namibian national parks for three weeks. In Namibia, there are so many waterholes and the roads are so spread out, so you can see lions and cheetahs from your own car. We’ll have two tents, so we can watch the sunset, look at the stars, and then wake up for the sunrise and drive around the desert. We’ll make our way to Botswana, where there is a huge delta called Okavango — one of the biggest in the world. We’ll finish the trip in Victoria Falls, which is one of the largest waterfalls on the planet.
What’s the most important advice you would give to someone who wants to travel but feels too trapped by their job?
Just travel. There’s always going to be a reason why it’s not a good time. Money is always going to be an issue, always. Time, too. You’re never going to have enough time to do that trip you want to do. If you want to go to Argentina, but you only have 12 days, it’s better to do that than stay home. Just go. Even if it’s your dream, and you think it merits three weeks — doesn’t matter. It’s always better to go than to stay at home and miss your chance at traveling. Make travel a priority if it’s important to you.
And try to plan ahead. Talk with your boss and ask, “When is the best season to take my time off?” Open communication with your boss and your company is great. Once you have a time frame, you can start making decisions about where you want to go. Budget and figure out what trips you can take. A lot of people say they didn’t think it was possible that a normal person like me could travel the world. But I did. I bought the ticket and went. I traveled, I had a great time, and I’m really going to enjoy my life from now on because I’m not making any excuses.
Alvaro takes on every country in the world while still working 9-5. Working a busy schedule as CFO in Europe and Africa, he makes his passion for travel a priority and is close to visiting 100 countries before he’s 30! You can follow him on Instagram @wanderreds.
Do you travel the world with a 9–5? Share your tips for work–life balance in the comments below.