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Cairns Travel Itinerary: How to Spend 2 to 7 Incredible Days in Cairns

Cairns Travel Itinerary: How to Spend 2 to 7 Incredible Days in Cairns

Planning your Cairns travel itinerary? You might feel under pressure.

The North Queensland city has easy access to the Great Barrier Reef and the largest rainforest in Australia. Therefore, visiting Cairns is a life-long dream for many people.

However, your Cairns itinerary doesn’t have to be over-complicated. With some thorough travel planning, you can get rid of any pre-travel anxiety.

I stayed in Cairns for three weeks to work out exactly what is worth your time. First, I’ll walk you through the highlights and the best places to stay for your Cairns travel itinerary, before giving you some ideas for 2, 3, 4, 5 or 7 days in Cairns.

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. If you decide to click through and make a qualifying purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you – thanks for your support.


Best time to visit Cairns: June to October

How long to stay: 3 – 7 days

Best Great Barrier Reef tour: Divers Den

Is Cairns Worth Visiting?

If anywhere is worthy of your bucket list, it’s Cairns. It is the main departure point for snorkelling or scuba diving tours on the Great Barrier Reef, which is the largest coral reef system in the world. It features 900 islands and 2,900 individual reefs.

If you’re wondering which creatures you might spot, the reef is home to giant clams, Maori wrasse, clownfish, turtles and 35 different ray species.

Many divers (or wannabes) visit Cairns to earn their PADI Open Water certification or improve their diving skills on a liveaboard boat for up to 10 days.

Cairns is also the gateway to Australia’s largest rainforest, the Daintree Rainforest. At least 180 million years old and forest, the Daintree Rainforest has incredible beaches and historic locations such as Cape Tribulation, where Captain Cook was run aground on the reef in June 1770.

There are cassowaries, crocodiles, tropical birds and endemic plant species.

Cape Tribulation near Cairns on a sunny day.

Cape Tribulation

Visiting Cairns is one of the best ways to learn about Aboriginal culture and history in North Queensland. It’s also a magnificent base for outdoor activities including hiking, whitewater rafting and canyoning.

The surrounding rainforest and highlands are packed with waterfalls, swimming holes, mountains and rivers.

To summarise, Cairns is worth visiting for:

  • Diving and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Visiting the largest rainforest in Australia, the Daintree Rainforest.
  • Outdoor activities such as hiking, whitewater rafting and canyoning.
  • Learning about Aboriginal culture and history.
  • Day trips to local islands.
  • Delicious tropical fruit and coffee.
  • Visiting historic destinations such as Cape Tribulation.

A Short History of Cairns

For at least 40,000 years, the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji Australian Aboriginal population lived peacefully in Cairns.

Captain Cook explored the area in 1770, during which time he was temporarily run aground on the reef at Cape Tribulation in the Daintree Rainforest.

Aerial view of the Outer Great Barrier Reef next to Cape Tribulation backed by the rainforest.

Cairns was colonised by the British between 1770 and the early 1870s, with 1876 being a key date when Sir William Wellington ‘founded’ Cairns after the discovery of gold in the River Hodgkinson drew more colonisers to the area.

After it was discovered that the nearby Atherton Tablelands were rich in sugar cane and fruit, a railway was built between Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands between 1887 and 1916.

After World War II, Cairns grew in popularity as a tourist destination, mainly due to its advantageous position for visiting the Great Barrier Reef.

How Many Days Do You Need in Cairns?

The best amount of time to spend in Cairns as a tourist is 3 to 7 days.

You can easily visit the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest in 2 to 3 days.

However, 5 to 7 days in Cairns grants you more time for day trips to nearby islands such as Fitzroy Island, taking the popular Kuranda Scenic Railway to Kuranda and Barron Falls, exploring the CBD and visiting local beaches and waterfalls.

Just note that, firstly, there is no beach in Cairns CBD. Furthermore, the beaches near to Cairns are not suitable for swimming because there are crocodiles and dangerous jellyfish (stingers).

If you want to take a beach holiday, travel south to the Whitsundays, Gold Coast or Byron Bay. You can check out my backpacking Whitsundays guide for tips on how visit the Whitsundays on a budget.

Where to Stay in Cairns

Travellers Oasis (£££)

I stayed here!

Cairns Travel Itinerary: Things to Do and See

Before I provide a Cairns itinerary for 2, 3 4, 5 or 7 days, I am first going to discuss all of the best things to do on your Cairns trip.

This is important so that you can take note of what you definitely want to do and what you don’t mind missing out on.

1. Snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier Reef

If there is one essential activity on your Cairns travel itinerary, it has to be snorkelling or scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

As the largest coral reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef features sea life such as stingrays, turtles, clownfish, giant clams and much more.

During my one-day trip to the reef, I spotted a baby and mother stingray, clownfish, clams, a giant grouper and handfuls of turtles.

View from the Divers Den AquaQuest boat in Cairns.

There are several ways to visit the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns.

1) Take a Day Tour

From Cairns, it takes between 30 minutes and two hours to reach the Great Barrier Reef by boat. Many people don’t realise that the reef is approximately 40 kilometres away from Cairns Marina.

To visit the reef, you need to put aside at least one full day. Most day trips leave at 8 am and return to Cairns at 4:30 pm. Lunch is usually served on the boat.

For my day on the reef, I took the Divers Den snorkelling and scuba tour. This particular tour was recommended to me by a friend who is a professional scuba diver.

The tour provides the option to go snorkelling (AUD 255 per person) or scuba diving (AUD 335 per person).

We spent around an hour and a half sailing to the reef on the Aqua Quest boat. For the journey, I popped a couple of travel sickness pills and took up the prime position in the far right corner of the back deck.

People snorkel and dive on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, a popular Cairns itinerary spot.
Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns.
Snorkellers and divers on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns.

View from the Divers Den boat

I chose the snorkelling option. In the two visits combined, I spotted handfuls of turtles, a baby and mother stingray (pointed out by one of the staff in the water), clams, starfish and many more sea creatures. The buffet lunch was also delicious.

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2) Take an overnight tour

If you are not limited for time, you can spend one night on the reef. Divers Den, the same company I used, runs an overnight Great Barrier Reef tour tour which includes 2 – 5 dives or snorkel sessions.

Spending two nights on the Great Barrier Reef means that you can avoid crowded sites and experience the sunset and sunrise on the reef.

The boat consists of twin cabins with an ensuite. However, it’s also suitable for solo travellers, as the company will pair you with another solo traveller.

3) Get your Open Water PADI certification

It’s hard to think of a better place to get your Open Water PADI certification than on the Great Barrier Reef.

From Cairns, you can enrol on a four-day PADI Open Water course for 939 AUD per person. Watch out, because this one will book up very quickly.

If you are visiting Asia in the same trip, you will find cheaper PADI courses in destinations such as Bali, Thailand or Malaysia. You won’t get to brag about getting your certification on the Barrier Reef, though.

4. Enjoy a week on a liveaboard

For a longer diving trip, there are live-aboard trips from Cairns. I met someone who had saved up for a liveaboard trip from Cairns to the Whitsundays lasting 10 days, which to be honest, sounds incredible.

2. Take a day trip to the Daintree Rainforest

The Daintree Rainforest is the second-biggest attraction near Cairns. As Australia’s oldest rainforest, it is over 125 million years old.

Within the 125,000 sq.m. area, there are many endemic plants and animals (only found in the Daintree), as well as crocodiles and cassowaries.

In a one-day trip to the Daintree Rainforest from Cairns, you can learn about the Aboriginal culture in tropical north Queensland, visit Cape Tribulation and walk through the rainforest.

Renting a car gives you more freedom to do what you like. However, you can also take a tour. I took this Daintree and Mossman Gorge tour, which visits Mossman Gorge, Cape Tribulation, Mount Alexandra Lookout, the Marrdja Boardwalk and the Daintree Ice Cream Company. There’s also an optional crocodile cruise, which I opted out of.

If you plan to drive, you need to drive two and a half hours north following the Captain Cook Highway, and then cross the Daintree River.

There are caravan and camping parks or hotels for overnight stays, as it can be a long day of driving. There is also one hostel, PK’s Jungle Village.

Daintree Ecolodge is one of the most popular hotels in the rainforest.

Mossman Gorge

A wooden bridge at Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest.

Mossman Gorge is one of the best areas of the Daintree Rainforest to explore. It is home to the Mossman Gorge Cultural Centre, an Aboriginal experience which runs Dreamtime walks led by a member of the Kuku Yalanji people.

A fire burns in the rainforest, part of an aboriginal tour in Cairns.

Part of an Aboriginal experience

There are also several trails at Mossman Gorge, ranging from 270 metres to 2.4 kilometres in length.

Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest in Cairns

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation is perhaps one of the most famous destinations in the Daintree Rainforest. It’s famous as being the place where Captain Cook ran aground on the reef in June 1770.

There are two walks around Cabe Tribulation, the Dubuji Boardwalk (1.8km) and the Madja Boardwalk (1.2 kilometres).

On my tour, we took the Dubuji Boardwalk through the rainforest and mangroves. Some clever plants latched onto a tourist’s umbrella and were not keen to give it back easily.

This is a great trail for looking at the plants (some are incredibly poisonous, so there’s no touching). It ends at Cape Tribulation.

Cape Tribulation on a rainy day from Cairns.

Wildlife watching in the Daintree Rainforest

You’re in Australia’s largest rainforest, so wildlife watching is naturally one of the best things to do. Most tours offer an optional crocodile cruise on the Daintree River.

If you’re lucky to spot a crocodile, they are often up to five metres in length.

How to see crocs: Opt in for a crocodile cruise on your day tour or get yourself a Daintree crocodile cruise hop-on pass if you are self-driving.

Southern cassowary are another popular sighting in the Daintree Rainforest. They are endemic to New Guinea, the Aru Islands and northeast Australia.

The southern Cassowary pictured in the Daintree Rainforest near Cairns.

Cassowary birds hide from humans until they feel threatened, so they are hard to spot, but never say never.

How to see the southern cassowary: You’re most likely to spot one on the main road to Cape Tribulation or at Jindalba Boardwalk and Emmagen Creek. They are sometimes seen in the Mossman Gorge area.

Other popular wildlife in the Daintree Rainforest include the musky-rat kangaroo, the buff-breasted paradise kingfisher and the ringtail possum.


Travellers Autobarn is popular for campervan and RV rentals in North Queensland. However, they are often out of vehicles. I prefer to use Discover Cars to search and compare different car rental options.

Daintree Ice Cream Company

View of the farmlands and mountain from the Daintree Ice Cream Company.

The Daintree Ice Cream Company is usually the last stop on a day tour of the Daintree Rainforest. The ice cream is made using seasonal fruit grown on the farm, with flavours like soursop, mango, espresso, wattleseed, passionfruit and coconut populating the menu.

List of flavours and prices at the Daintree Ice Cream Company.

If you are visiting by car, you might want to make time for a free self-guided tour of the 22-acre orchard, which features a variety of tropical fruits.

The company was founded in 1993 and uses organic farming methods. It is off-grid, running only on solar and generator power, so well worth supporting.

Jindalba Boardwalk

The Jindalba Boardwalk is an easy, well-signposted 30-minute walk in the Daintree Rainforest.

As I mentioned before, it’s one of the most likely areas for spotting the southern cassowary. If you’re not lucky enough, you still get to experience being surrounded by beautiful tropical plants, insects and birds.

The name Jindalba was given to the area by the Yuku Yalanji people. It means ‘foot of the mountain’.

Despite being in a lowland rainforest area, there are still good views. For a longer walk, try the Jindalba Circuit, which is a longer three-kilometre walk through denser sections of the rainforest.

Mount Alexandra Lookout

View over the Daintree Rainforest from the Mount Alexandra Lookout.

The Mount Alexandra Lookout is worth a brief stop, as it’s only five kilometres north of the Daintree River crossing. When I visited the lookout, the view was partially obscured by the foliage. However, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Daintree River and the Outer Great Barrier Reef.

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3. Explore Cairns CBD

Graffiti art on a wall in Cairns CBD depicting an RV ran.
People swimming in Cairns Lagoon on the Cairns esplanade.

There are lots of things to do in Cairns CBD, whether it’s day or night. You could begin by visiting the Cairns Night Market, which sells trinkets, souvenirs and street food.

It’s right next to the Cairns Esplanade, where you can walk to Cairns Marina to get the best views of the city (especially at night) or take a dip in Cairns Lagoon, a free swimming pool complex with sand.

Cairns Botanic Gardens is great if you’d like a dose of wildlife without leaving the city. They run a night walk ($68 AUD) where you can spot green tree frogs, striped possums and other nocturnal animals

Fresh vegetables on stands at Rusty's Market, one of the best things to do on a Cairns itinerary.

One of my favourite activities in Cairns is visiting Rusty’s Markets, where I picked up a huge tray of mangoes for just 5 AUD.

The Prawn Star restaurant in Cairns Marina, strung with fairy lights.

For foodies, the Prawn Star boats are one of the most unique dining experiences you can include in your Cairns travel itinerary. They serve seafood onboard.

Hemingway’s Brewery in Cairns Wharf stocks North Queensland beers. Meanwhile, for coffee, Caffiend is one of the most popular brunch spots in Cairns and sources its food locally.

4. Kuranda Scenic Railway or Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

The Kuranda Scenic Railway passing over a bridge between Cairns and Karunda, a popular Cairns itinerary item.

Kuranda is a small village 330 metres above sea level, surrounded by gorgeous walking trails, gorges and waterfalls such as Barron Falls. However, getting there is the real attractions.

From Cairns, you can take a two-hour journey on the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns Station.

The train, which is over 125 years old, travels through the rainforest and past views of the Barron Gorge National Park.

It also stops at Barron Falls Station, where you can walk to visit over 15 tunnels and 37 bridges around the Barron Gorge.

Barron Falls near Cairns featuring rushing water and a large boulder.

For the return journey, you can take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which is just outside of the city.

To avoid the steep taxi fares, you can save money by booking a Kuranda day trip which includes pick-up and drop-off from your Cairns hotel, as well as a one-way ticket for the railway and a one-way ticket for the Skyrail.

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5. Take a scenic flight over the Great Barrier Reef

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns.

One of the best views of the Barrier Reef is from the sky. Taking a reef scenic flight is also a great way to see the reef if you can’t swim or you get seasick easily.

You can also take a combined snorkelling and scenic flight tour to get the best of both worlds.

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6. Take a snorkelling trip to Fitzroy Island

Fitzroy Island might not be the first thing you see on a Cairns travel itinerary but don’t underestimate this island.

Fitzroy Island is only 45 minutes from Cairns by boat. As it’s on the Great Barrier Reef, it has epic snorkelling, sea kayaking and paddleboarding.

The island is a declared national park covered in 97% rainforest. There is one trail to a lighthouse which is situated 269 metres above sea level.

It has also has one resort, the Fitzroy Island Resort, which is located between the rainforest and the beachfront. There are two restaurants on the island.

If you want to take a day trip from Cairns, there is the option of a full-day Fitzroy Island tour which includes seven hours on the island with a tour guide.

Otherwise, take the Fitzroy Island round-trip transfer where you can spend the day at your own pace.

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7. Visit Palm Cove

Aerial view of two people near palm trees on Palm Cove near Cairns.
Palm trees towering over golden sand on Palm Cove in Queensland.

Palm Cove is a Cairns suburb known for having the best beach day in Cairns. If you want a day to relax on your Cairns travel itinerary, this is a great option.

The sunny suburb’s sandy beach is lined with huge palm trees, hence the name.

While you shouldn’t dare to swim outside of the nets due to there being dangerous stingers in the water, there is plenty of space to sunbathe, ride a bicycle, kayak or visit one of the spas.

Sometimes the beach is closed when crocodiles are spotted nearby, so it’s best to stay vigilant in or near the water.

Palm Cove has many popular hotels, as the area is popular with people who want to relax while visiting Cairns. Alamanda Palm Cove is one of the best-known hotels.

For something more budget-friendly, try Sarayi Boutique Hotel.

7. Visit Port Douglas

View over palm trees towards Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, with mountains in the background.

Further north, you will find Port Douglas. Now, Port Douglas is popular as the next destination after Cairns. However, it can still be done as a day trip.

It’s an hour’s drive from Cairns. If you don’t have a car, shuttle buses will cost around 50 AUD per person per direction.

Port Douglas is actually closer to the Daintree Rainforest than Cairns, meaning that visiting destinations like Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge is cheaper and easier.

The snorkelling and scuba tours from Port Douglas are also generally cheaper and less crowded.

Four Mile Beach is one of the most famous spots in Port Douglas. Trinity Bay Lookout provides the best view of the beach, which is (drum roll…) four miles long.

The curved beach is backed by hills clad in rainforest.

8. Go tandem skydiving

If you have adventure running in your blood, you can go tandem skydiving in Cairns.

A Cairns tandem skydive starts at about 15,000 feet and freefalls over the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.

On my east coast trip, I met many people who had saved up for a Cairns skydive. Before you get strapped in, though, it’s worth noting that the Mission Beach tandem skydive is also incredibly popular.

Many say it’s even more scenic than the skydive in Cairns, and you get to land on the beach…

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9. Atherton Tablelands

If you want to see some of the lushest tropical scenery around Cairns, visiting the Atherton Tablelands (the Tablelands) is a good start.

Located in the highlands, the Tablelands are incredibly fertile. It is made up of rainforest, wetlands and savanna. Kangaroo, wallabies, platypus and other species live in the Tablelands.

The Atherton Tablelands have a famous 17-kilometre circular driving route which stops at waterfalls such as Millaa Millaa Falls. Josephine Falls has a gorgeous natural rock slide.

This popular Atherton Tablelands wilderness tour spends 11 hours in the Tablelands landscape visiting waterfalls.

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10. Go white-water rafting on the Tully River

If you want as many adventures as possible on your Cairns travel itinerary, you can start by going whitewater rafting on the Tully River. The river has Grade 3 and 4 rapids.

Of course, you don’t need to arrange any of this yourself. The Tully River rafting tour by Cairns Adventure Group is a day trip which includes four hours on the water.

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Petsitting: How I travel Australia (almost) for free …

I stayed in Cairns for four weeks over the Christmas and New Year period and saved money by looking after two dogs and a cat.

I use TrustedHousesitters and recommend this platform for those who have experience caring for animals and who prefer to travel slowly.

A cat sits on a porch in Cairns, surrounded by tropical plants.

Cairns Travel Itineraries for 2 – 7 Days

Now it’s time to talk about your Cairns travel itinerary. The following itineraries are straightforward, as they are very malleable.

Feel free to replace one with another, or take inspiration from the ideas above.

By now, you have probably figured out which activities you want to do and which ones are a ‘maybe’.

2-Day Cairns Itinerary

If you only have time for 2 days in Cairns, you should begin by writing down your priorities.

For most people, that is snorkelling or scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef and visiting either the Daintree Rainforest or Kuranda via the scenic railway and Skyrail.

  • Day 1: The Great Barrier Reef. If you don’t want to snorkel, you can take a reef scenic flight.
  • Day 2: The Daintree Rainforest or Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway passing over a bridge in the forest between Cairns and Karunda.

While you won’t have much time to explore Cairns CBD, you can easily see the city at night.

If you’re quick, you can squeeze in a sunset swim in Cairns Lagoon before visiting the Cairns Night Market and eating out at Prawn Star.

3-Day Cairns Itinerary

With three days in Cairns, you have an extra day for activities.

You could tick off Cairns’ top three most popular activities:

  • Day 1: Great Barrier Reef.
  • Day 2: Daintree Rainforest
  • Day 3: Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, including a visit to Barron Gorge.

If you prefer to visit just one or two of the above, you could swap out days two and/or three for a beach day in Palm Cove or Port Douglas.

A more active day could involve a tandem skydive, whitewater river rafting on the Tully River or a visit to the Atherton Tablelands.

4-Day Cairns Itinerary

Four days in Cairns enables you to take things at a slower pace.

You could use the above three-day Cairns travel itinerary and take the extra day to relax and potter around Cairns CBD. After three days of activities, you likely want to relax.

Another relaxing activity is a day of snorkelling and sunbathing on Fitzroy Island.

  • Day 1: Great Barrier Reef
  • Day 2: Daintree Rainforest day trip.
  • Day 3: Relaxation: Explore the CBD or take a trip to Fitzroy Island, Palm Cove or Port Douglas.
  • Day 4: Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, including a visit to Barron Gorge.

5-Day Cairns Itinerary

With five days in Cairns, you have plenty of time to explore the area surrounding Cairns. This itinerary fits in plenty and leaves a day in the middle for relaxation.

  • Day 1: Great Barrier Reef.
  • Day 2: Daintree Rainforest day trip.
  • Day 3: Relaxation: Cairns CBD, Fitzroy Island, Palm Cove or Port Douglas.
  • Day 4: Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
  • Day 5: Atherton Tablelands.

7-Day Cairns Itinerary

If you are planning to spend 7 days in Cairns, you have plenty of time for rest and play.

You could even play with the idea of staying overnight at the Daintree Ecolodge or Alamanda Palm Cove.

  • Day 1: Great Barrier Reef.
  • Day 2: Daintree Rainforest.
  • Day 3: Fitzroy Island: snorkel and relax on the beach.
  • Day 4: Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
  • Day 5: Palm Cove: Take a beach or spa day in the Cairns suburbs.
  • Day 6: Atherton Tablelands.
  • Day 7: Skydive, scenic flight or Cairns CBD.

Looking for more things to do on the east coast of Australia?

The Whitsundays are another bucket-list destination. If you want to learn how to do it on a budget, visit my backpacking Whitsundays guide.


How many days do you need to see Cairns?

To see the city CBD, you only need one day in Cairns. However, a tour of the Great Barrier Reef takes one full day. Visiting the Daintree Rainforest and the area surrounding Cairns can take one to three days. Therefore, to see Cairns and its surrounding attractions, you need at least 3 – 7 days.

Is 5 days in Cairns enough?

Five days in Cairns is enough to take a one-day tour of the Great Barrier Reef and visit other nearby attractions such as the Daintree Rainforest, the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Atherton Tablelands. Aim to spend at least 3 to 7 days in Cairns.

Is 3 nights in Cairns enough?

Three nights in Cairns will give you enough time to take a one-day tour of the Great Barrier Reef and a day trip to the Daintree Rainforest, the largest rainforest in Australia. However, 3 nights might not give you much time to explore the CBD or visit other attractions such as the Kuranda Scenic Railway or Skyrail.

Can you do Cairns without a car?

Visiting Cairns without a car is easy unless you want to visit off-the-beaten-track waterfalls or self-drive to the surrounding areas. There are tours available for the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest and Fitzroy Island. There are shuttle services to Palm Cove and Port Douglas. Tours also visit the Atherton Tablelands and other locations in the area surrounding Cairns.


Katie Treharne

Escape Artist Katie owner riding a yellow quad bike over former lava fields on Mount Mayon in the Philippines.

I’m Katie, the owner of Escape Artist Katie. I have been travel writing since 2018, including writing for luxury travel magazines and publications such as Wanderlust.

As well as being a digital nomad who works and lives abroad permanently, I’m a big advocate for offbeat travel and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

I hope you found my article useful – find out more about me here or keep up with my travels on Instagram.