Lows of 1 Year as Digital Nomads in South America

Digital Nomadism.

The holy grail.

The freedom to go where we want, when we want and stay as long as we want.

We recently wrote about about the highlights of a year travelling in South America and, on the whole, our lives are as awesome as we make out.

But there is a dark side.

Trying to earn enough money to live off, balancing the workload and the exploration, finding suitable places to stay (“A Desk! A Desk! My Kingdom for a Desk!”) and decent WiFi connections have been some of the many challenges we’ve faced.

And so, around the time of our one year Nomadiversary (thanks John H Watson for the term!), we would like to share some of our low points from the last year.

Some of these are specific to South America and some are more general problems that digital nomads or long term travellers could face anywhere.

Things We Didn’t Like About South America

The Food

Buñuelo, Colombia

Buñuelo, Colombia - More fried dough & cheese

If we could tally the subjects of all the conversations that we’ve had over the past year, “Food” would be number one by a South American mile (which is longer than a regular mile, see “buses” below).

We are vegetarians and food has been a constant struggle for us: generally, there is always something we can eat but it is often very bland and unexciting. Few local dishes are veggie friendly and when we find some they aren’t healthy (think fried dough and cheese).

As a result, we are often driven to gringo restaurants for vegetarian options, which cost a lot more than local eateries and we hate missing out on an important part of the culture.

There have been a few food highlights though including Argentine ice-cream (the best outside of Italy), Colombian fruit, wonderful vegetarian restaurants in Buenos Aires and Lima and shopping in local vegetable markets. Our life is much easier when we have our own kitchen which is why we loved renting apartments in Buenos Aires, Salta and Medellin.

The Cold

It got really cold in Salta, but at least our apartment was nice

Much of South America is at a very high altitude. This means cold. In most places it is sunny and warm enough during the day, but the temperatures dramatically drop at night. Heating is rare and if your hostel shower isn’t steaming hot it’s not a fun experience. We don’t regret visiting places like the Bolivian highlands and Peruvian Andes but we were definitely ready for the heat of Central America.

Of course it’s not cold everywhere. Brazil, the Amazon region of Bolivia, the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Buenos Aires in the summer are all steaming hot. But travelling in South America you can’t avoid the cold so pack some woolly undies!

Lack of Beaches

Ilha Grande, Brazil

Ilha Grande, Brazil

We’re not expecting a lot of sympathy for this one, but in a year we only visited the beach once – Ilha Grande in Brazil. There are other options of course but none seemed that appealing and it didn’t work out with our itinerary.

Before you get too upset on our behalf, however, you should know that this post is coming to you from the Carribean cost in Panama where we are in the process of rectifying past mistakes.

Buses

Bus in Paraguay

Bus in Paraguay

There is no train network in South America so the bus is your only option and distances are huge. We can’t sleep on overnight buses and generally find bus travel exhausting. An exception is Argentina which has amazing buses with seats that turn into beds, personal TV screens and champagne served after dinner, and there are also some comfortable luxury buses in Peru.

In Bolivia we experienced bus hell, as there is very little tarmac so journeys are bumpy, windy and cramped.

Some Places Are Expensive

Bolivia was the only place were we could easily stick to our budget. Brazil was crazy expensive and Argentina and Colombia are not cheap either. We found we spent much less when we rented an apartment for a month or two and cooked most of our meals. Of course, ‘expensive’ is relative – we were comparing to the Indian Subcontinent and SE Asia. See here for what we spent in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and in Bolivia and Peru.

Challenges of Digital Nomad Life

Many of these are problems that all long term travellers face and some are more specific to those working and travelling.

Balancing Work and Travel

This is our Achilles’ heel: How do we find time to enjoy the places we are visiting while getting work done as well as dealing with all the practical travel issues (finding places to stay and eat, figuring out transport, planning our route)?

As it turns out, not very well. We tend to either work too much or not at all.

We were impressed with the Globetrotter Girls‘ work ethic when we met up with them last week in Panama. They get up early and work before a day of travel or sightseeing, then work late in the evening too.

We really need to work on getting into a routine like that.

The Search for Accommodation

Working on a bed as a digital nomad

We’re renaming this blog. No longer will it be the Never Ending Voyage, it will henceforth be known as the Never Ending Search for Decent, Affordable Accommodation.

Snappy.

Finding a decent, affordable place to stay is something we have to worry about far too often. Our standards are higher now as we have discovered that working on a hard bed with one flat pillow in a musty room with no natural light is just not fun.

I know, right? Who’d have thought.

Looking for an apartment for a longer stay can be just as bad. We got lucky using tips from friends to find places in Argentina but in Peru we really struggled, so gave up and went to Colombia, where we ended up paying far more than we wanted to.

Dependence on WiFi

Some of the most interesting places to visit are off the beaten track and don’t have telephones, let alone working WiFi. Our internet addiction is worse than Simon’s crack habit, but in our defence we need the internet to work so it’s difficult for us to go to those places.

We do try sometimes, though – for four out of our six weeks in Bolivia we didn’t have internet. We had a great time but we didn’t make much money that month so this isn’t something we can afford to do often.

We Are Harder to Impress

The more places we visit the harder we are to impress. We can’t help but compare new places to those that have come before and they don’t always live up. This is really sad but we’re not sure what we can do about it.

Getting older sucks – we want our youthful enthusiasm back!

Money Worries

We do have savings but at some point they’ll run out and we don’t want to have to return to ‘real’ jobs. We haven’t quite reached the stage where our income covers our expenses every month and we worry about making the Line In web design business sustainable.

It’s ridiculous really as we are in a good financial position now but we grew up in a culture that teaches you to covet security and Fear The Future, so we can’t help it, but we are trying to dismantle this unfounded worry.

Mishaps

People who haven’t travelled long term often ask us if we have faced any major problems on the road. They mostly want to hear stories about robberies at gunpoint, bus crashes or serious illnesses and are almost disappointed when we just shrug and say that we’ve been lucky and have only experienced a few very minor incidents. To be honest, this is the case for the vast majority of travellers we meet – travel is not as dangerous as many people think – and often the stories you do hear are from friends of friends (Chinese Whispers, anyone?).

Almost Mugging in Rio de Janeiro

A year later, the story of our mugging in Rio has become a dramatic tale of courage and danger but, truthfully, we didn’t actually lose anything and it really wasn’t that scary.

Stuck in Huaraz

Probably our biggest travel mishap so far was missing our flight to Colombia (which cost us over $100 in fees, dammit!) as we were stuck in Huaraz due to protests and roadblocks. We managed to escape in time to make our rescheduled flight – Simon recounts the tale here.

Reality Check

So, that’s the truth of our lifestyle: hopping from one major disaster to the next while barely making enough money to eat, we continue our voyage around the world.

We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Are you planning a trip in 2017? See our Gear and Resources page for our favourite tools to help you plan the perfect trip. 

Have you experienced any of these 'challenges' while travelling or are we a pair of pansies who wuss out at the slightest difficulty? Leave a comment and let us know!

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45 thoughts on Lows of 1 Year as Digital Nomads in South America

  1. Congratulations on your 1 year! I totally hear you on all of these points . . . especially the search for good affordable accommodation and Wifi. On more than one occasion, we have hunkered down in a particular city even though the city itself wasn’t that awesome just because we loved the hostel we stayed in. Balancing the work/life thing – that’s a trick, isn’t it? Eventually, I hope we’ll get better at it, too, but right now, we do the same thing as Globetrotter Girls – we wake up, go see sights, come back at 3:00, work, go to dinner, and work. It makes for VERY long days and a somewhat exhausting schedule altogether.

    I totally feel you on the vegetarian thing too — one of the main reasons we didn’t go to South and Central America on our RTW was because I couldn’t fathom eating fried cheese and rice every single day for months on end. We’ve decided to hit those countries on shorter trips later. Not to worry, though: vegetarian food is super easy to find in Africa (especially because meat is so expensive so most locals live off vegetables) and Asia (because of the Buddhist and Hindu cultures). When you head in that direction, you’ll have a much easier time.

    • That’s exactly what we are doing at the moment! We don’t like Bocas that much but we’ve been here over a week as we love our hostel!

      We are always exhausted after a full days sightseeing/activities so find it hard to get work done afterwards. We probably need to stop being lazy though!

      I’m glad to hear Africa is OK for vegetarians – I always assumed it’d be awful. We are looking forward to heading back to Asia – India was so good for food! From the Globetrotter Girls it seems that northern parts of Central America is better too – there is actually veggie friendly street food. So we are looking forward to that.

  2. “It’s ridiculous really as we are in a good financial position now but we grew up in a culture that teaches you to covet security and Fear The Future, so we can’t help it, but we are trying to dismantle this unfounded worry.”

    Good for you, and let us know how that dismantling goes! Can’t wait till my partner reads this part – he needs to know he’s not the only one who worries about such things when considering a nomadic lifestyle.

    • I think it’s natural for everyone to worry about it, but the important thing is not to let it stop you doing what you want to do.

  3. Great post guys and happy nomadiversary. I appreciate your honesty, its nice to get a reality check every once in a while. I tend to get caught up in the enthusiasm and overlook these things.

    Amy and I are vegans so we’re wondering how we will cope in a lot of the places we’re heading to. I’m glad we’re not the only ones struggling! We’re going to try to take cooking classes everywhere to help us try and integrate local flavors and cuisine into our apartment made meals so that we don’t lose out on that huge part of a culture.

    You’re doing well overall though and I think you’ll settle into a schedule to help balance out your work/fun hours. Hang in there!

    • We met some vegans who had switched to being vegetarians as they were so sick of just eating rice! It all depends on your ability to put up with boring food (boiled veg & rice is common) and if you stick to touristy places. On the plus side the fruit is great! If you have your own apartment you’ll be fine – a range of vegetables, lentils and dried beans are easy to find and there are even health food shops in some cities. The cooking classes sound like a great idea. We enjoyed one in Bolivia although the papas rellenas we made weren’t vegan friendly.

  4. Ahhh! I am so sorry you didn’t get to see Ecuador!

    It’s cheap and more veggie aware and the Internet is better if you buy one of those mobile things.

    But ultimately I agree Panama may be a better fit, in fact most of Central America has pretty great wifi and is super cheap.

  5. Wow. The number one thing you didn’t like was the food in SA? I am really surprised. I have vegan/vegetarian friends who loved being in SA and of course, you get tired of rice, but there are alot of options out there. Here in Cusco there are lots of vegetarian restaurants. Even with chinese food you can get veggie friendly stuff. Saying that few local dishes are veggie friendly is misleading to some other veggie travelers who might think the food really sucks here, which it doesn’t. South America has diverse and delicious food options. I am not vegetarian but I rarely ever eat meat here-there are so many veggie options!
    As far as beaches, the whole coast of Peru is a beach! Where were you guys? I live in Cusco and I took a bus 15 hours to the beach and I didn’t break the bank, even on the luxury bus.
    I am trying to understand why you chose SA when you must have known it’s cold in most places(and right now this is summer season, mind you), the buses suck, the internet is dodgy at best, and yea, Colombia is ‘expensive’ in relation to SE Asia. There are a ton of blogs that lay out the most expensive SA countries, and Peru, Ecuador, & Bolivia are among some of the cheapest. Brazil-why did you go if you knew it would be expensive?
    Don’t get me wrong, this is SA. and travel here requires patience, time, and a strong stomach. As do most places. I know its your place to vent and thats what you are doing, but in general when one doesn’t like things then-they get out of dodge, right? I mean why stay so long if it seems like for the most part you didn’t like it?
    I like following your travels and am not trying to be mean, just wondering.

    • We were just trying to be honest about the things we didn’t like so much about South America. None of these were major issues and of course we wouldn’t have spent a year there if we didn’t love it. Didn’t you see our highlights post for all the things we did love?

      Of course we knew it would be cold and Brazil would be expensive but we wanted to experience these areas so went anyway. It was worth it, but we just wanted to let others know of potential downsides of travel on the continent. It’s subjective based on our experience and preferences but this is a personal blog.

      I did say that there are beaches in South America but it didn’t work out with our itinerary. Due to work issues we had to fly from Lima – Colombia so missed the northern Peru and Ecuador coastline, where there are beaches. Still, it took us 9 months to get to Lima so that’s still a long time without beaches. Again, it’s not a major thing but just something to consider when planning a trip.

      Regarding food – if you know some vegetarian friendly local dishes then please share them with us, as we didn’t do a good job of finding them. Chinese food isn’t a local option. Cusco has some wonderful eating options and we wrote about them, but it’s one of the most touristy places in South America and is not representative. We attended a local event in the Peruvian Andes and all we could eat was plain potatoes – we found this pretty typical outside of touristy places.

      • I think because both Mica and I are foodies (she’s a former chef) that we were surprised by the food comment.

        Yes on the surface it looks tough in Peru, especially, if you don’t eat meat, but actually in Cusco I traveled with a vegetarian and we found a lot of local food once we started talking to locals a bit more. But agreed it takes a lot of effort and you won’t find it in the tourist core.

        I’m sure people say the same about Ecuador but after spending some time there I was surprised at how many meatless dishes there were.

        It’s actually funny that I’m one of the few who doesn’t really seek out vegetarian options yet I keep meeting vegetarians on the road so inevitably I learn about them!

        P.S. Chinese (chifa) is local, the community moved here a long time ago and were embraced for their love of rice, many of the dishes are in fact a reflection of Chinese Peruvian heritage 🙂

        • I know that Peru is considered to have great food but it does seem very fish focused. As I said to Mica I would honestly like suggestions if you have found local vegetarian dishes. Everything we found was potato based.

          Although you found vegetarian options on your travels I don’t think it is the same as being a vegetarian and having to search out food you can eat everywhere you go. It’s just our opinion but we found the food disappointing and have met plenty of other vegetarians in South America who agree.

  6. Congrats on your one year nomadversary! That is really awesome and inspiring. Affordable accommodations with WIFI is a problem for us too. Even when you research and know to expect a low, that doesn’t make it any easier. Lows aren’t always surprises. Sometimes you know they are coming, often times they aren’t as bad as you expect, and sometimes they are. Thank you for a post that is honest and personal.

    • Thanks Sheryl. It is so difficult to know exactly what to expect when travelling. I was so worried about the cold in Bolivia but apart from the salt flats tour it wasn’t so bad after all (Sucre was gorgeous). I’m so glad I didn’t let it stop us going as it turned out to be our favourite country.

  7. Hello Erin and Simon

    I really loved this post. Good on for you for being brave enough to point out the lowlights. Travelling is an amazing experience, but as with everything in life, there are ups and there are downs, and we wouldn’t appreciate the ups if there weren’t downs, hey?!

    As Louis Walsh would say, it’s your opinion, and what are our blogs but our opinions? I think your honesty should be applauded.

    Love it! See you guys in a few months x

  8. Shame you missed out on Ecuador! Cheaper than Colombia, nice places to visit, and we found the food quite acceptable…

    Food was an issue for us too, as we don’t eat meat, and to make matters more complicated I’m allergic to garlic = a real challenge… We travelled with our camper, so a good bed, a desk to work on, and cooking some favorite vegetarian meals wasn’t an issue.
    The challenges are different: manage electricity needs, find a secure place to stay overnight, buy familiar food in small towns, disappointing choice of vegetables at many local markets, secure parking during sight seeing, dealing with sub-standard mechanics, and of course WiFi (or reliable internet cafés without noisy gaming computers and viruses on their network) –
    but then: travel is not supposed to be easy!

    If it’s easy then you’re part of a fully catered for tourist group!!

    • I well imagine having a camper has its own pros and cons. Very true – travel is never easy and that’s what makes us grow.

  9. Just don’t be a slave to your blog = that’s plain stupid! Some of the most stunning scenery can be found where there’s no trace of civilisation. That’s even true in the densely populated USA!

    Would I want to miss a nice place because it won’t have WiFi, if I know I’ll have this one chance in my life to visit it? No!

    • We aren’t being slaves to our blog. We have a web design business to run and without internet we can’t run it and therefore won’t earn money. If we don’t have money we can’t continue to travel! It is very different travelling permanently as digital nomads to travelling for a limited period of time living off savings. We have to make sacrifices and can’t spend all our time away from wifi even if we wanted to.

  10. Looking forward to meeting you and providing you with a very comfortable queen sized bed + all the free WiFi you might need and lots of vegetarian food. I’ve got 4 other travel bloggers staying with me too.
    I look forward to reading about Panama as we may head there in November.

  11. We just got done traveling for a year and a half. Although we had a ball, we experienced most everything you did (well, except for the vegetarian part–in fact we traveled through our stomaches and gained weight which we are now working on losing). I had to laugh when I read the part of not being impressed….we totally experienced that. We found ourselves torn because we didn’t want to see ‘another temple’ but we also didn’t want to miss a cool experience. We have been home for a few months and I think I would love to see ‘another temple’ right about now!! I have to say, being home is great–we have many fond memories, see life through different lenses and appreciate our loved ones. Good luck on your adventure.

    • I’m glad you are enjoying being back. We tried going back to the UK after our first trip and it wasn’t for us. That said we are looking forward to a one month visit this summer, and I think it’ll help us appreciate everything a bit more.

  12. As travellers we sometimes make the mistake of over emphasizing the greatness of travel and glossing over the day to day routine. There is both a glamourours and unglamourous side to travel. One of the things I miss is establishing strong support community. yes we have friends but sometimes just letting my hair loose with a friend over coffee would be great!

    Also got mugged in Rio – they got away with my mom-in-laws chains. And Rio was expensive, but the per kilo restaurants were great and they did have vegetarian and gluten free options. But Peru was a different story altogether!

    • That’s waht we were trying to do with this post – show that everything isn’t perfect all the time. People planning long term travel need to be prepared for some lows.

      The por kilo restaurants in Brazil are pretty good for vegetarians. Sorry to hear about your mugging.

  13. I hate Granada, but have been here almost 2 weeks working. The hostel is super cheap, quite, and clean. WiFi is good at a cafe down the street, and street food is cheap.

    The good thing about this nomadic lifestyle is there are no time constraints!

    Sounds like you guys are heading North, and I’m heading South. Would love to meet for drinks somewhere along the way!

    • That’s the definite advantage – we can stay in places we don’t really like and not worry about ‘wasting time’.

      We are heading North. Should be heading to Nicaragua mid April so it’d be great to meet up if our paths cross.

  14. I understand the wifi and financial part, I kind of worry too, as sometimes I plan too much traveling and consider the funding too late..
    In SA there’s a lot of meat dishes, although I found many vegetarian options, not just in restaurants, I lived in a house in Brazil and I used to cook myself, I found so many weird veggies and a huge selection of fruit. I don’t know about other countries in SA though, I’ve only been briefly to Argentina and tasted their meat 🙂
    In China is pretty difficult to get completely vegetarian, a friend of mine struggles quite a lot. She eats fish, but the Chinese love the combination of pork and shrimps, or pork and pretty much everything else, so they stick meat everywhere!
    In India was quite easy, in Rajasthan they barely can kill chicken, so plenty of veggie dishes.
    Traveling is not easy, constant traveling is even tougher, and if you work at the same time, I totally understand it can become frustrating sometimes.
    You are doing a great job though, enjoying your writing!

    • Self catering is definitely the way to go in South America – we found the vegetable markets great. India is our favourite country and a wonderful place for vegetarian travel. It was so nice being able to eat street food and try many local dishes without worrying.

  15. We totally understand your frustrations with veggie food – although there seems to be more of it in Central America than in South America, in the end it is mostly the same: rice and beans in all variations 😉 Luckily we both eat eggs – we probably ate more eggs in the last 9 months than in our entire lives before combined!! Please let us know how you like the food in Central America! We also know the frustrations that come along with shaky wi-fi connections, or even non existing wi-fi. If you work and travel at the same time, you just depend on it at all times. We had hard times in Central America with that sometimes, but to be fair, also in the U.S.

    Another thing we can relate with is the ‘it’s harder to be impressed’ point. We felt the same way after a while, as even with many differences, the Central American countries are very similar in many aspects. Towards the end we lost a bit of our adventurousness by skipping waterfalls, volcanoes, etc… just because we’d seen so many already.

    We are happy to hear that we impressed (and hopefully inspired!) you with our work ethics 🙂 It took us a long time to find the right travel-work balance – I think you will get there too.

    Enjoy Central America – the heat, the beaches, and the many cheap places 🙂

    • Veggie food does seem a bit better in Central America, especially as you get further north. Currently we are just enjoying all the gringo delights in Puerto Viejo, we must admit!

      Glad we aren’t the only ones who have had these issues.

  16. I am a new reader — wow what a fantastic blog. I am wanting to break out and get into the digital nomad explore the world scene. Its a breath of fresh air to hear the not-so-good points about the backpack/laptop life too. And thanks for the financial transparency — that’s a huge help and inspiration. I have been to South America before and must agree on the Argentinian ice cream and the need to pack some wooly underroos for the summer = cold months. Its such a treat to travel in tandem. I have only travelled solo– gotta find someone else to travel with this next time around! I look forward to reading up on the past entries and of course look forward to your new adventures too. Glad to find you and your blog! Travel well!

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  18. Hello, just to say you lost an incredible beach in Costa Verde. I´m brazillian and my parents owned a house in Angra dos Reis… But I want to tell you that there are a very good and still desert beach between the city of Angra dos Reis and Paraty, called Sono (Sleep, in english). To get there you have to go by sea or crossing the woods by a small trail (45 to 90 minutes).

    Best!!

  19. I could have written this post myself. I did write something similar about my dislike of Central America, particularly the buses, but also have written about unexpected cold in South America (I also have similar photos in England and Eastern Europe), and places like Argentina that were so cheap in 2009-2010 and now are so expensive. We have also settled down for a bit in Bali mostly because I am tired of constantly searching for someplace to stay. It gets tedious after a while. As for Bali? I live on a tropical island and in the first 5 months we were here we went to the beach once. I know, whoa is me. I was recently asked while inside a Buddhist temple in Singapore whether I still get impressed with sights and the answer is no. It is a lot harder. Which is why I was not impressed with Petra, a place that has been on my list for such a long time. So, no, you are definitely not pansies. This is the life, and it is not always unicorns and rainbows. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Lack of beaches?! In Brazil??? You even check the map? With some rares exceptions as Caribeans, there’s really fewers beaches that can reach the basic level of brazilian beaches.. Even Greek beaches or places like Geiranger don’t reach that level.. Brazil is just the master of the master of the beaches

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