Lows of 1 Year as Digital Nomads in South America

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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.

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45 Comments (2 pingbacks)

  1. 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!

    Reply

  2. 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 :)

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  3. 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!

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  4. 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!

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  5. 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!

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  6. 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.

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  7. 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.

    Reply

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