From July 2015 to July 2016, Caitlin and I lived, traveled, and worked in six different countries in South America.
Inspired by Tim Ferriss in the 4-Hour Work Week and Rolf Potts in Vagabonding, we usually moved from city to city in 8- to 10-week spurts. We were, in essence, living a true “digital nomad” lifestyle — our work was completely online. After a year of this lifestyle, we “settled down” again in our hometown of Orlando, Florida. Our travel days are certainly not over, but it will be a long time before we ever considered traveling for a year again.
For a person working a 9-to-5 job living as a digital nomad sounds outright magical.
Making money on your own terms. Freedom!
It certainly did seem magical to me back when I worked in Cubicle Land. But living as a digital nomad is not all great. There are a lot of pros — but there are some cons too!
Living the digital nomad life in South America was an incredible experience for Caitlin and me, but it isn’t for everyone.
Let’s start with the pros…
4 Pros of Life as a Digital Nomad
Pro #1: Adventure
You know that feeling you got when your parents drove away in the station wagon and it was just you on the college campus? Excited! Nervous! Full of possibilities and unknowns all at the same time? I call that adventure. Every time you arrive at a new place as a nomad, you get that same feeling.
Zip-lining, swimming in tropical waterfalls, eating lemon ants, hiking on a 3-mile-wide glacier, swinging on jungle vines across mountain gorges, whale watching, cruising to the end of the earth. Yeah. We did all that stuff and it was awesome.
Pro #2: Slow Travel
Living as a digital nomad, you don’t have to rush. You get to experience new cultures without hauling yourself from experience to experience in a flash. This allows you to experience things you didn’t plan for. Impromptu movie marathons with new life-long friends? Yes, please!
Be aware, however, that unlike a typical vacation, slow traveling doesn’t take away all your problems. You’ll have periods of feeling lonely, disconnected and confused about your decisions. But this allows you to grow — so try to embrace it.
Pro #3: Your Perceptions Change
Spending extended time in new places allows your perceptions to change about things, rather than just seeing it all superficially as you might if you were just a tourist.
One thing we saw everywhere in South America were dogs (perros – or perritos we like to call them). The Latin Americans love their canines and they are simply everywhere. In Ecuador, we walked past a particular “perra” everyday that became our friend (okay, she didn’t actually let us touch her, but we felt we had established a strong connection). Then something happened that astonished me. Caitlin wanted to get a dog when we got back to the US! After seeing thousands of dogs that give you unconditional love all the time, she decided we just had to have one. So, we are going to be dog parents with a pup of our own in a few months.
Pro #4: Meeting New People
One of the greatest benefits of long term travel is you get exposed to people you otherwise would miss in normal daily life. We met people who retired in their 30’s and 40’s and live on the cheap, tour guides who spend their working life taking people through the salt flats of Bolivia, ultra marathon runners who travel the world to run races, political doomsday runaways from the USA, and the list goes on. We formed some life-long friendships with other expats. It is easy to form quick and strong bonds in foreign lands with others from your home country.
2 Cons of Life as a Digital Nomad
Con #1: Growing a Business is Trickier
Living as a digital nomad isn’t always ideal for trying to grow a business.
Caitlin and I experienced Wi-Fi issues in every country we were except one (and the problems were not just about speed; there were other technical issues we either had to live with or figure out how to fix). Working on beds and small dinner tables in your AirBnB isn’t an optimal productive space either. I tried some co-working spaces, but of course you have to pay for them. And believe it or not, they had internet trouble too!
Con #2: Missing Social Fabric…
Traveling with your spouse or significant other can be a great shared adventure, but there are also times it can be taxing on the relationship. You are going to be spending of LOT of time together. Sure, in some places we had friends to see and hang out with, but other places we didn’t and it was mostly just us. Spending all your time with one person — even your best friend — can be an easy recipe for arguments that come from nowhere.
Forced Resilience: Pro or Con?
Living in other countries teaches you to be adaptable. You’re, erm, forced to be resilient, so to speak.
Every couple of months, you’re in a new place with a new currency, new house appliances, new electrical plugs, and new local dialects, so you get really good at thinking on your feet, being flexible, and learning quickly. On the other hand, it makes it crazy difficult to customize or automate your life. Where’s the grocery store? Where’s the laundry mat? Where can we get cash? You gotta figure these things out again and again in each new place.
If We Could Turn Back Time…
Yeah, we’d still do it.
The upsides clearly outweigh the downsides in our situation. I still highly recommend making this happen for yourself if you feel a strong pull to do so.
Don’t wait! You know the old plan of working till your 60’s and traveling the world in retirement? The problem with that plan is all the unknowns. Physically, it is much easier to travel when you’re younger than when you’re older. Caitlin and I did some things that would be physically very challenging for most people above 60.
Don’t forget medical issues too. What if you developed a medical issue in your 50’s making travel undesirable for you? I had a rather small but consistent health problem I dealt with during our whole trip. I can’t imagine dealing with anything much bigger.
Do It — Especially If You Hate Your Job
For those in a job you really dislike, ask yourself: If you work there 40 years, are you really going to want to travel later in life? Working on projects we don’t care about tends to blunt our gusto for life in general.
You don’t have to go for a year. A year is longer than you think it is. Just arranging a trip for 2 or 3 months can provide a similar experience, so long as you don’t pack every waking minute with tourist-like activities.
Realize that if you are trying to grow a business, living like this probably won’t make that easier… but rather harder. If, on the other hand, you’re more of a freelancer (just earning enough cash to buy you food and pay rent), then you’ll have no problem.
Pick places you foresee a great likelihood of connecting with others with whom you’ll have things in common. Cuenca, Ecuador, for example, is filled with expats and early retirees. Medellín, Colombia has a large community of digital nomads.
Above all have fun! Live in the moment and milk your travel experiences for all they’re worth.
Have you had long-term travel experiences? Got any stories or wisdom to share? Do you have questions about long-term travel? Leave me a comment below and let’s chat!