Everyone experiences the world in a different way, but food has got to be something everyone at least thinks about when traveling. In this episode, the Foodie Flashpacker – Nathan Aguilera shares his journey to taste the world. We chat about our favourite cuisines, how dishes and ingredients vary across continents and tips to go about finding local haunts. Nathan also speaks about what got him started traveling and what it takes to run a food and travel blog.
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Nathan Augilera. I’m the creator of Foodie Flashpacker, a food-focused travel blog. I’ve been solo traveling now for just over seven, originally from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Currently, I’m in Medina, Mexico, and soon I’ll be relocating to Puerto Vallarta,Mexico. I’ve been to five continents, in about 65 or so countries.
How do you find the best food spots when traveling?
I never use TripAdvisor. One of my favorite ways is to do a walking food tour. Straightaway, when I get to a new city, I explore on foot and get a feeling of its layout. The guides are excellent information sources. At the end of all these tours, I start drilling them for information about where they live near because I don’t want to know the most touristy place in town. I don’t want to know the most famous. I don’t want to know the most expensive. I want to know where they go with their friends for beers after work. At 5 pm, when work finishes, where do they go? Or what are their favorite Sunday brunch places? Besides just talking to random locals, sitting at the bar chatting to a bartender, or speaking to the person sitting next to you, do a walking food tour and drill your guide because they are a source of information and wealth of knowledge.
What is your favorite cuisine?
My favorite cuisine, I’d say I have three, my top three Italian, Vietnamese and Mexican. I don’t know much about Vietnamese food as I do Italian and Mexican food, but I know that I love Vietnam. The food is insane. The food is so next level, half the time, I don’t even know the name of the dish that I’m eating, but it’s fantastic. But my favorite thing about Italian and Mexican cuisines is that what we Americans think of as Mexican food is more Tex Mex. The more time that I’ve spent in Mexico, the more I’ve realized that the food is very different. It’s not all enchiladas, burritos, nachos that we think of in the United States, especially the part of Mexico where I’m living. Same thing with Italy. In the States, we think of Italian food as spaghetti, lasagna, chicken alfredo, or stuff like that. When I went to Italy, I learned that in parts of Italy eat more polenta than they are pasta. Two summers ago, I was in Italy at the base of the Swiss Alps, and the food there didn’t look much like anything else that I was used to eating. I would love to do a deep dive into Italy. I’ve been fortunate to visit probably half the states of Mexico. Since I’ve been here, I would love to do a deep dive into Italian food and learn all about how it varies and how it’s different from place to place, region to region. When people asked me if I could only eat one kind of food for the rest of my life, what would it be? I always cheat and say Asian because that covers Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian; it covers so many different cuisines.
Mexico is a bit funny because we have some very spicy sauces here. But the spices that I’m used to in Thailand or Vietnam are a different kind of heat. Mexico is still very spicy; habanero sauces can get very spicy. But not like an authentic Thai dish, which will just kind of blow your face off. Then there are even local chilis that you don’t find in the rest of Mexico and aren’t as widely used as they are here. I love spicy food.
When choosing your travel destinations, do you base it on cuisines or locations?
A little bit of both, a lot for me has to do with seasons; I try to avoid the winter. In the winters, I go somewhere warm. Lately, I’ve spent winters in Mexico. Before that, I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia or different parts of Asia. In the summers, I always go to Europe, pre-Covid. I didn’t make it last summer; we’re hoping to go this summer. So firstly, it’s based on the season. I try to always be in warm weather destinations. Often, it’s to do with food, both Japan and South Korea; I’m sure there’s a lot of exciting things to see and do once I get there. I want to go for the food. Once we have the tickets and the flights and everything else, I’ll start figuring out what we should see and what we should do there. So when choosing my destination, seasonal comes first and secondly food.
Do you tend to travel during peak seasons?
When I go to Europe, definitely Western Europe, I’ll try and go for the shoulder season. The majority of the time I spend in Eastern Europe, so even peak season is not crazy with tourists. You can be in Bulgaria in the middle of peak season and won’t feel overrun with tourists. Whereas if you’re in Rome or Barcelona in the middle of peak season, you’re going to notice it. I went to Chique Terre in October, and I was hoping that it would be the shoulder season to avoid a lot of the tourism, and it was so overcrowded. We were packed on a train, and when the train doors opened, we had to push past each other to get off. Chique Terre itself is beautiful, but I did not have a great experience.
Can you describe your flashpacker travel style?
I thought flashpacker was a more well-known term than it was. Maybe that’s because I was in a travel bubble. When I started it, I realized how many people didn’t know what it is. Flashpacker is this kind of travel style somewhere between budget and luxury. I always tell people when they ask me what a flashpacker is, I don’t sleep in dorms, and I can’t afford the Four Seasons. It’s somewhere in between the two of those. It’s a lot of Airbnbs and mid-range hotels. Most of the time, I’m in a private Airbnb, I don’t share spaces, I need my own, I don’t want to room in someone’s house.
There’s a middle ground, and I like to think my demographic and the people I’m aiming at are the same type of traveler, maybe 30 somethings, late 20 somethings, they have a budget for travel. They’re not scared to go out and spend money on a nice meal, but they’re going to be as excited about a Michelin star restaurant as they would be a great street food stand or standing on the corner eating tacos from a seafood van. They aren’t scared to spend a little bit of money on having these experiences. I don’t mean the people who try to travel on $10 a day. It’s stylized; it’s not a Disney thing. I have some excellent friends that were all too old for budget travelers. They were trying to get by on $5 a day or less. They had huge adventures, and I even found myself listening to them tell these stories about hitchhiking and getting in these crazy situations, and I thought I want to do that, but then, in reality, I don’t.
Have you found that your productivity as a digital nomad is affected by where you stay?
I know that hostels and accommodation like that aren’t for me because, like you, that’s how I started traveling. I remember being in Lisbon, sleeping in a 16-bed dorm, thinking like this isn’t for me; I would instead go to the Balkans where the same amount of money for a 16-bed dorm gives me a friendly local hotel or a simple Airbnb. I would stay in a hostel, but I’d stay in a private room. Hostels are an easy way to meet new people. You can always find people to go on day trips with, grab a beer with, or go to a restaurant with, especially if you’re traveling alone. As I’m getting older, I could stay in a hostel if I had a room to myself and my own bathroom. I don’t want to share bathrooms.
Tell us a bit more about what you do for your travel blog?
I’m trying to find the best places to eat for my travel blog and the best dishes worldwide. So if you were to come to Medina, the food here is different from other Mexican food. You can find some of my favorite Yucatecan dishes on my website. Then also, my favorite restaurants, where you can try these dishes. I feature international places as well. I can tell you where to get the best pizza in Medina and things like this, but just worldwide helping people find what they should be eating and where they can find it. It’s a food-focused travel blog, so it’s a travel blog with a heavy focus on food.
How did you start your food blog? Did you start traveling and get inspired by all the food you came across?
I traveled for about two years, just backpacking, not working, or doing anything, just solo traveling. I loved it, it was great, and I had a fantastic time, but I was running out of money. I needed something that structured my time because it’s nice waking up and have nothing to do and nowhere to be. Still, after a while, I needed a bit of structure, so I thought I needed to start something. I consider drop-shipping; I considered many different things online. I wanted the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere in the world. I didn’t want to be tied down to one place, and I did not want to work for someone else. So, starting a blog sounded like the best idea at the time. I realized I needed a niche as travel blogging is too big. I decided on food because I’m such a food person. I was always the guy organizing which restaurant to go to with my friend groups. I’ve always been that guy in the group. Looking back, the food niche itself was not small enough. Food itself is still such a broad topic. Some of the people you see as having great success are vegan travelers worldwide, or celiac travelers around the world, or these ultra-niche things. I couldn’t even niche down further. Fortunately, I’ve been doing it for a little while, and I’m making food work for me. Some people might have a smaller audience; if you’re talking about celiac dishes around the world, you’re going to have a very engaged audience.
What are you looking for when choosing where to eat?
I try and cover a bit of everything; after all, I want anyone on any budget to open up my blog posts and find something for them. The people I’m interested in writing for would be just as excited for a street vendor as they would a Michelin star restaurant. It is not just fine dining, street food, everything in between, just something for everyone, a little bit of something for everyone. If you are a backpacker trying to get by on 20 bucks a day, I want someone to be able to open it up and find where they can have the best street food in whatever city. It is geared towards people on their honeymoon or anniversary who want to find that fine dining option to celebrate.
How was your journey in getting your food travel blog to the point where it is a sustainable income?
It was so slow. I think I did a lot of things wrong in the beginning. I tell people that I lost money in the first year. By the time I got hosting and design logos, and all the things to start, I had invested quite a bit of money. In the second year, I made some money, but it wasn’t great. I’ve been blogging now for five years, and it wasn’t until year three where I started thinking it could be a business, but the first year was awful to create a project and lose money the first year. Five years into it, things are going quite well, pre-Covid. I was going in the right direction and was quite happy. With Covid, of course, trying to make money off travel meant I lost 90% of my blogging income. So, it’s been like a slow crawl to get back to where it was, but it gave me the time to study some courses and work on my site. Things that were on my to-do list that never got done, I finally had the time to do these jobs. Things are starting to pick back up and in a better direction. The numbers are slowly going up. Hopefully, as everyone starts to get vaccinated and borders reopen and everyone starts to research travel again, numbers will go back to where they were.
Did you approach your blog differently during Covid? Have you had to change your content?
No, I considered it, and I did a little bit with recipes. I quickly realized everyone was stuck at home cooking. Suddenly, recipe blogging took off, but I quickly realized I was in over my head. My kitchen in the house that I’m in now is tiny. I needed a bigger kitchen and a setup with cameras and lighting to get the photos. I needed to move houses to do recipe blogging or rent a small studio that was a shared multi-use space. I was over my head.
It’s a different game compared to regular blogging. Lots of recipe blogging is very targeted towards Americans, and my access to some of the same products was limited. Then partnerships that I would have wanted, which could have been lucrative, I would have had to arrange to ship to Mexico, and it became a whole thing. I was in talks with a couple of different companies. They don’t want to ship internationally, or you can’t send something that will spoil or need to be refrigerated, types of ingredients for international recipes. Now I just work on my site and work on my to-do list of technical things and wait for things to go back to how they were.
Do you enjoy cooking and recreating the foods that you have tasted?
Yeah, definitely. I’m inspired when I’m cooking different flavor profiles worldwide. I have rarely recreated a dish because it’s complicated to do that when you’re in a country without access to the ingredients that made that dish so delicious in the other country. But I will try and do some variation or modified local version of something that I’ve had in the past.
One year I was in Sri Lanka, and I tried to make a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner; it was hard to find things when you can’t read the language. You’re trying to identify foods by how they look on the outside of the package. I tried to make a traditional dressing, but they don’t use much sage in Sri Lanka. So you have to do it as close as you can get it and try and make it work.
Do price, ambiance, and experience matter more than the food?
For me, food is the most important thing. Last night, we were in a charming restaurant, and we walked in, and we were all impressed with how pretty it was. The service was excellent. But we left saying we’ll never come back because the food wasn’t good. I’ve been served many times in Southeast Asia, some fantastic food while sitting on a plastic stool, and a little plastic table by a rude server. But I will go back whenever the food is good; I will sit on my little plastic chair, and he can be as rude to me as he wants. While the food is good, I’ll keep turning up. The restaurant can be stunning. The service can be beautiful, but if you bring me a bad plate of food, I never need to go back.
How do you stay fit with your love for food?
I have just lost almost 40 pounds, about 17 kilos. I’ve still got a bit to go, but it’s been easy to do. If you already need to lose weight, which I already needed to do, don’t start a food blog; it made things that much worse. When you go to a country, they tell you that something is the best thing in this country. You have to try it. It’s never anything good for you; it’s never a salad. It’s always something delicious but usually pretty awful for you. Have you been to Portugal? Their sandwiches have three kinds of meat and cheese and french fries, and it’s so delicious. But the whole time you’re eating it, you can feel yourself getting bigger. So I’ve had to start working out. During Covid, I found myself with a lot more time to dedicate to health and wellness. I just came from CrossFit right before we hopped on this interview. I alternate between yoga and CrossFit; we have a personal trainer that comes to the house we work with, and then my gym membership for weight training. By doing all of these things, I’m not losing weight; I want to. It takes all of that to stabilize my weight. The amount of training I’m doing, I should be very thin or very fit.
Tell us a bit about yourself before you started traveling?
Before I started traveling, I was back home in Oklahoma City. I worked as a legal assistant at a law firm. I did some volunteer charity work in Kenya; I met all these people who had been traveling for six months at a time or one year at a time. I had never even heard of this. I never even knew this was an option or possibility. For me, you traveled for two weeks at a time. Then I became obsessed with the idea of long-term traveling. I came home, and I started reading every blog to find how to make it possible. I was considering teaching English. Did I want to be a scuba dive instructor? How could I travel and make money simultaneously? I think this was ten years ago, so this was before people talked about digital nomadism and things like that. So blogging was one of the options that I had considered.
I leaned towards teaching English, moving to South Korea, and becoming an English teacher. If the blogging ever collapsed, I still wouldn’t hate that idea because South Korea is one of the places I’m most wanting to visit; I really would like to dive into their food scene, and teaching English seems to be quite well paid. But right now, at this point in my life, I don’t ever want to work for anyone else again unless it was my last option. But that was me like in Oklahoma City, working at a law firm, plotting how to get out, live this dream, work, travel, see the world, meet people, try all the foods, see all the places. I led the administrative executives; I managed a small team. I have to say; I didn’t hate the job. But I did university very late; I didn’t graduate until I was 32 or 33. I was trying to save money for this trip; I had three jobs at one time. Trying to save money for the journey and full-time school burned me out, so I can’t say the job itself burned me out. It was actually a nice place to work. I had some friendly co-workers that I’m still in contact with—trying to do all of those things at once definitely burnt me out.
What was your savings goal before starting to travel?
Well, I didn’t have a set exact amount in my head, but I wanted to go on a six-month trip. This was back when I was reading how to travel on $50 a day. I needed around $10,000, but I always knew I wanted to travel for one year. So, I knew I needed more than this. But my plan went awful because the money that I was going to have to travel the world would come from selling my car, which I’d recently paid off. The week that I was putting my car for sale, the engine light came on, and I had to spend 1000s of dollars to fix it, but the mechanic screwed me over, and I had to send it to another mechanic. I ended up selling the car for about half of what it was worth, about $6000. So, with that and my savings, is why I was sleeping in 16-bed dorms at the beginning. I had planned to leave with a lot more money. Around the two-year mark was when I started the blog because I knew that I wanted to make money to keep traveling.
I told everyone I was leaving for six months, but I felt like I was just getting started when the six months approached. I was such a newbie traveler, and I felt like I was beginning to know what I was doing. Now, I’m not making all these dumb mistakes. So, I announced on Facebook that I was staying six more months. Then every six months, I just kept saying six more months, six more months. Finally, when it got to the two-year point, I announced I didn’t have any plans to come home; this is what I’m doing.
I love traveling and being my own boss, and working for myself. Anytime I’ve thought about going back home to the United States, I always think, what would I do there? What would my job be? It would have to be an always-changing job, where you’re not at a desk from nine to five. I would have to be moving about and interacting with many different people. Different every day. I would need freedom and flexibility, and the opportunity to meet new people.
In terms of you’re traveling life, what’s next?
I’m moving to Puerto Vallarta, the opposite side of Mexico, where I am now. I’ve been here a long time, and I have a good group of friends here; I have a solid base. But I’ve been here a long time, and I’m missing travel. I’m ready for a change of scenery. I’ve recruited some of my friends; there are about five or six of us, we’re all moving to Puerto Vallarta. From there, I’ll spend two months in Puerto Vallarta while I wait to see if the borders reopen and see if I can get a vaccination to get into Europe this summer, hopefully. I typically spend about half the year in Europe, so hopefully, that’ll work out so that I can get in there this summer. If it works out, we have a trip to Italy in June. My sister’s birthday is in July; we have a trip to Jamaica planned. Other than that, it’ll probably just be a lot of time in the Eastern Europe Balkans area. In October, we had a group tour in Bali; it will be nice to be back in Asia. I’ll probably stick around there for a good chunk of the year, probably through the new year. With my Mexican passport, there’s an opportunity to live in Spain for two years and then receive an EU passport. If that’s a viable option, then at some point, I’ll be moving to Spain and starting my two-year residency to receive my EU passport. So, there are many plans that we’re optimistic about. But of course, there are too many variables outside of my control. I’m waiting to see what happens. I know I am moving to Puerto Vallarta with friends of mine and hanging out by the beach. There we will wait and see what the world’s going to do.
What’s your advice to anyone who wants to quit their job and go on an adventure?
One, save up a lot of money; there are so many things that come up on the road, and there are so many variables and things you’re going to want to see and do. Leave with as much money as possible. If you’re wanting to travel the world, and work simultaneously, have stable clients before you leave. Don’t get on the road and then start looking for clients; at least have two or three that provide you minimum income that helps you afford your rent and food every month, have savings.
What are blogging tips to avoid making the same mistakes you have and maybe speeding up the process?
Niche down, figure out your niche; you need a super niche. Come up with your niche and treat it like a business initially; I didn’t. Have a plan, have goals, look at where you need to be in three-six months, where should you be in one year? How will you get there with your type of blogging? Blogging is not like an online daily journal type. The big thing for me was learning SEO, trying to learn SEO, or making some advancements towards learning SEO because I don’t know anyone who can say they know SEO. I remember being at a blogging conference; everyone was talking about SEO. I had no idea what they’re talking about; this is why my blogs made no money. Focus on the basics, figure out your niche, and go in with a business plan. As soon as your blog starts making some money, start outsourcing the things you hate doing. Not even the things that you hate doing, the things that you’re not good at doing. Some of my opponents spend hours and hours on their site doing technical or coding stuff. I would instead get these things done and over with by paying someone else to do these things. Hire them out; you’re going to get an ROI on it.
Are you going to explore other mediums of content?
Video is something I know that I should be doing. At some point, I need to, but it’s a whole other beast and lots to learn. I’m at the point where I’m considering hiring a full-time blog manager to take some of these tasks off my hands. Maybe then I can look at doing things like learning videos. Some of my friends are highly successful YouTubers, so I know that it’s possible; it’s just the shooting and editing. YouTube has its own SEO and algorithms; it seems complicated and difficult. If I had more time on my hands, someone to take some of these menial tasks off my hands, I could focus on the next thing. I could be making more money doing it, and I need to get on it.