Welcome to our interview with Alexandra Baackes, the blogger behind Alex in Wanderland and founder of Wander Women Retreats! Each month we’re highlighting different female travelers who have really made the world their oyster. Rachel always had a fearless way of traveling, and we want to celebrate other women who share her same spirit.
Ask any female travel blogger today who first introduced her to this world, one of the few names you’re almost guaranteed to hear is Alex in Wanderland. Alex started her blog way back in 2011 to begin documenting what she calls her great escape from a conventional lifestyle. Fast forward to nearly a decade later, and she’s gone from a brand new graduate with a one-way ticket abroad to running her very popular Wander Women retreats and writing deeply personal posts to her thousands of loyal readers.
A Guidebook Aficionado
If there was any indication that Alex was born to not only travel but help others travel, it was her curious guidebook addiction from a young age.
Sure, her family traveled a bit. She remembers plenty of pilgrimages to Florida and Illinois for extended family. Not to mention annual summer vacations in Martha’s Vineyard. She even had two special trips abroad: one a multi-generational trip to Spain to visit a cousin studying abroad and a family getaway to Belize.
However, how many kids do you know choose to take out guidebooks from the library? This is exactly what Alex did, and she even took it a step further. Not only did she pour over these guidebooks, she would, in her own words, “…plan the most elaborate trips to countries that I had absolutely zero immediate plans to go to. I’m pretty sure I had detailed plans for a trip to Brazil in high school – a trip I didn’t take until more than ten years later!”
She can even remember finding her very first travel blog, a sited called Thirteen Months. “[It was] about a recently married couple taking thirteen months to do a round-the-world trip –[I was] totally gobsmacked. I remember showing it to my mom and us looking through the pages, marveling at their adventures. Thirteen months to travel?! I was so eager to see the world. I wish I could go back and tell myself girl, you’ve got years of adventure ahead of you.”
Her First Adventure
Alex finally got to put her years of trip planning practice to use when she embarked on a backpacking trip at nineteen to Thailand, Cambodia, and, to her parents’ horror, Malaysia, a spontaneous decision made after meeting a dive instructor on her travels.
“I landed in Bangkok airport in the middle of the night without the address of where I was going, no way to use my phone internationally, and a growing suspicion that I was indeed still in need of adult supervision. The next morning, despite having read all the warnings, I encountered countless scammers and wondered if maybe they were right, the Grand Palace really was closed that day? (Hint: it was not. The Grand Palace is never closed.) I essentially had zero concept of what was going on at any time and walked around like one big heart-eyed emoji, totally smitten with the world.”
And if you really want to get a taste of what travel was like in 2009, it’s this description of how she figured out what to do and where to go next: “After much debate I brought my Blackberry on the trip, but had no computer and would instead head to internet cafes to send emails, update my blog, and plan my onward travels. I had a heavily highlighted Lonely Planet and pretty much used that and the advice of fellow travelers to get around.”
Alex still remembers that first trip with fondness. “I’m jealous when I meet people just taking off on their first big trip. I wish I could go back and capture that feeling, because while travel is always incredible, that first big solo adventure is just intoxicating.”
The Great Escape
Of course, it’s no surprise that this first adventure would be far from her last. Once she finished getting her arts degree, she was off only a month later to see more of the world. She returned to Thailand, specifically Koh Tao, an island she called home for most of the last decade and still calls her back each year.
To fund her travels, she worked all sorts of odd jobs from underwater videography, bartending, flyering, design work, babysitting, and more. “If there was a job I was marginally qualified for, I was up for the adventure!” It was during her time in Thailand that she also met Rachel for the first time at TBEX Asia in Bangkok and their friendship began.
Much of 2011 through 2018 passed in a busy, Wanderland-worthy blur as Alex began to explore the world she’d spent her childhood planning to see. Whether it was “bouncing around the banana pancake trail in Southeast Asia” or backpacking through Latin and Central America, she always came home to Koh Tao where she had a tight knit community and, eventually, a pup named Prada.
All the while she journaled her adventures on her blog, growing a legion of dedicated readers invested in the trips and personal tales of someone who truly seemed to be living the dream. She was even able to invite some of them into her world in 2018 when she launched her very first Wander Women retreat on Koh Tao. It would be a week-long trip that involved scuba diving, yoga, and sisterhood, three things that arguably have as much a place in her heart as travel these days. The retreat wound being so successful, she decided to make it a yearly offering.
A Pause to the Dream
Of course, not everyone can live the dream all the time, and sometimes life hands us the bitterest of lemons. It all began in 2018 when she returned home to Albany and slowly realized something wasn’t quite right with her mom. Only a few weeks later, her mom was being airlifted off of Martha’s Vineyard, and they were in the hospital with the devastating diagnosis of aggressive terminal brain cancer.
Suddenly this short trip home became an indefinite move back to Albany, a city she’d said goodbye to a lifetime ago. She went from eternal summer to northern New York winter and instead of jetting off to new destinations each month, she found herself at home caring for the woman who once cared for her.
The next year was spent learning just how overwhelming caretaking is, both emotionally and physically, while also beginning to put the pieces of her life back together. She tried her best to turn her bitter lemons into lemonade as she planned for trips around Albany and the Northeast with the same process she once spent planning exotic vacations. In her day to day, she found solace in her nearby aerial arts studio, discovering yet another passion that would find its way into her retreats.
2019 would continue to throw as many punches as it could between Rachel’s passing, Prada’s death the very weekend after Rachel’s memorial, a break-up with her longterm boyfriend, and losing another friend just as the year was coming to a close. Perhaps the biggest gut punch, though, was the death of her mother right when she returned from running back to back retreats in Egypt.
Wander Women Retreats
Throughout it all, the one thing that has gotten her through was falling in love with a business venture she didn’t realize could very well become her life’s work. Even when she felt like her blog was at a standstill, she was still able to plan and hold a number of retreats since that very first one on Koh Tao.
“Wander Women Retreats kind of snuck up on me. I thought I’d experiment with running a retreat… I wasn’t even sure if I’d enjoy it, let alone if it would be a viable venture! Turns out, it’s my calling and nothing has inspired me more.”
Since that first retreat in Koh Tao, she’s held retreats in Martha’s Vineyard, St. Pete, Florida, Dahab, Egypt, and Cabarete, Dominican Republic. She’s currently in Thailand for her annual Koh Tao retreat, and this year will take members to Israel, Key Largo, back to Dahab, Lebanon and more. Each of the retreats combines the passions she’s fostered over the years as they all include some mixture of scuba diving, yoga, aerial arts, sustainability, and, of course, travel.
With the kind of attention and heart Alex has always poured into her blog, she’s poured into her retreats, which she hopes are incredible experiences that foster lifetime friendships. Not only can you see it in the way she begins to plan for a new location, tackling every last logistical detail, but if you ever manage to join one of them, you can feel it in the instant camaraderie and pure fun her members have.
These days, it feels like she’s reached the end of the very long, dark tunnel and is enjoying her thirties with the same wandering excitement of her twenties. Only now, it’s the Middle East that’s calling her name as Jordan, the UAE, Oman, and Qatar are next in her queue of adventures.
Quick Takes with Alex
On her travel inspiration…
Rachel and I shared a deep, almost spiritual love for the song “Wide Open Spaces” by the Dixie Chicks. There have been times I’ve felt intimidated by a trip or unsure of my path, and it sounds silly but throwing my headphones on and listening to those lyrics somehow reminds me I’m exactly where I need to be, heading off on exactly the adventure the universe has planned for me.
On places that feel like home…
I’ve always had a thing for islands. Koh Tao, of course, is my home away from home and wherever I go and whatever I do, when I’m not on those eight square miles, I have a Koh Tao shaped hole in my heart. I absolutely love running my annual retreat here.
Stateside, Martha’s Vineyard is a place that I will always feel deeply connected to. My mom bought a house there several years ago that she and her partner lovingly renovated into a home for our family, and which has become even more sacred to me since she passed away this year. It’s a place I feel close to her, and I look forward to a lifetime of memories there.
On where she’d return in a heartbeat…
I think I’d return more to a time. Losing my mom this year has made our trips together my most cherished memories. I’m so, so grateful for them. We took an incredible trip to Greece and Turkey for my graduation and years later she, my sister and I went to Iceland. Later still the three of us went to Belize with my cousin. I’d give anything to go back to those moments and treasure them even more, knowing how fleeting they were.
On something from home she always craves…
Back in my hometown of Albany I still drive the 2004 Honda Pilot that I learned to drive on. Anyone who has been in that car will laugh when I say I think of it fondly, often! I don’t miss much about the suburbs but sometimes simply getting from point a to point b can be such a nightmare on the road, I can’t help but think how easy it is to throw everything in my huge tank of a car and just hit the road! I don’t give a rip about fancy cars but I’m extremely nostalgic. I will be heartsick when it finally goes to SUV heaven.
On a travel product she swears by…
Packing cubes! I live in chaos and these are the one thing that keeps my suitcase (ugh, I’m a grown up now) from being as disorganized as my mind.
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