Evening in Cartagena

Around mid-2014, they started taking the Internet by storm; and two years, later they’ve succeeded in spreading across the globe, quietly revolutionizing the worlds of both work and travel as they go: digital nomads.

 

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A coworking space in Berlin, Germany, a popular digital nomad hub. Photo by Karine via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

They’ve actually already been skulking around the web and the world for a decade or more, hidden through most of the 2000s in geek-friendly shadows of the Internet where what were then mostly programmers and web developers became the first front of “vagabond hackers.”

Since the dark days of dial-up, these location-independent professionals have begun venturing out into the world en masse, expanding their ranks to include everything from creative professionals to day traders. They first began congregating years ago in Southeast Asian coffee shops and coworking spaces, and by 2016 they’ve spread to form a loose professional network that covers the remainder of the cheap and well-connected world.

And now, to increasingly greater notoriety in the digital nomad community, they’ve established yet another up-and-coming outpost in the developing world, this time in Medellín, Colombia.

How Medellín is Luring Location-Independent Professionals to the Other Side of the World

For most of the foreign faces who make up Medellín’s digital nomad community, this South American city is quite literally on the opposite face of the planet.

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The Hotel Nutibara overlooking Medellín’s historic center. Photo by Jakob Gibbons.

Latin America as a region doesn’t seem like the logical first choice for most digital nomads: Wifi connectivity often ranges from erratic to useless, and you’re much more likely to have a knife pointed at you in Rio or Panama City than you are in Bangkok or Siem Reap.

Yet the nomads keep pouring into Medellín.

One factor tugging location-independent professionals toward Colombia’s second city is the annual average temperature of 72 F (22 C) that has earned it the nickname of La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera, the City of Eternal Spring. Another pull is without question the unrivaled warmth and friendliness of paisas, as the people of Medellín are known in Colombia, toward the foreign visitors with whom they share their city.

For many, these things are enough to get them in the door, but sunny days and smiling local faces do not a digital nomad hotspot make. Medellín’s more than just a pretty face.

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A bright, sunny day over Medellín’s Estadio neighborhood. Photo by Jakob Gibbons.

From world murder capital in 1991 to world innovation capital in 2012, Medellín has followed the example of neighboring Bogotá, transforming into a center of social urbanism that promotes the wellbeing of all its citizens and, as a pleasant side effect, draws in the tourism dollars.

Medellín today is home to cafes and coworkings to rival any digital nomad hub. Epicentro and Atom House are staple coworking spaces in the expat-dense Poblado neighborhood on the south side of town, the traditional heart of the Medellín’s digital nomad community, where expats rent out fully furnished flats on Airbnb for anywhere from $400 to $1400, to twice that for those with the disposable income and the taste for it.

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Views of the city from the posh Poblado neighborhood. Photo by Serge via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

World-class coffee from the hours-away Eje Cafetero region is finally creeping its way into shops and cafes in Medellín after having been reserved primarily for export until recent years. But if you want a cup of the really good stuff, you’ll need to cough up a whopping 3,000-4,000 Colombian pesos, or a US dollar and some change.

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Locally-grown and roasted coffee at Cafe Ondas. Photo courtesy of Cafe Ondas.

 

You could splurge and drop $3-4 dollars on a two-course lunch with a glass of fresh-squeezed juice from an everyday neighborhood restaurant like Miiroku

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A typical plate of food at a restaurant like Miiroku, in La Floresta. Along with the soup and juice that came with it, this cost $11,000 COP, or just under $4 dollars. Photo by Jakob Gibbons.

…or, for the nomad suspended between sporadic paychecks, $25 will buy you enough groceries to weather a brief nuclear winter.

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$80,000 COP (or about $25 US dollars) worth of groceries from the supermarket in Laureles (including a kilo or two of meat hidden behind the bell peppers). Photo by Jakob Gibbons.

 

The easiest answer to why so many web developers and content writers and graphic designers are choosing to live in Medellín and trade their labor for dollars and euros online is twofold: The cost of living in Medellín still hasn’t caught up to the rapid increases in quality of life, and, perhaps just as importantly, the exchange rate for those earning in US dollars or euros has never been better.

Kit Glover, originally from Australia, arrived just in time in the quiet but cozy Floresta neighborhood on the west side of Medellín. More nomad than digital, Kit had backpacked through the Middle East and Mexico by the time all the rave reviews from other travelers caught up to him and sent him off towards Medellín in late 2014.

Just as he’d hoped to, Kit managed to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of starting up a small business as an expat in Colombia, leasing the three-story space where he opened Café Ondas.

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The rooftop terrace at Ondas. Photo by Jakob Gibbons.

 

When Kit turned the second floor of Ondas into Ondas Coworking last year, he says he just gave it the standard social media share and kept his expectations low. But just a few days after officially opening his shared workspace for digital nomads, two enthusiastic faces showed up hoping to make use of it. Both still spend most of their digital working hours at Ondas.

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One of the rooms in Onda’s coworking space. All the murals were created by local artists in Medellín. Photo by Jakob Gibbons.

 

Shaun Taberer, English copywriter and content marketing specialist, is one of the two who showed up at Ondas that day. Shaun, who today is the face of Digital Nomads Medellín and the instigator behind most of the community’s meetups and workshops, was just another backpacker with a laptop before arriving in Medellín.

Shaun’s been in Medellín for about two years now, and he literally wrote the guide to the place for digital nomads. “You go to Lima, Quito, wherever, and there are expats and digital nomads there, but the community in Medellín is so concentrated and active,” he says, explaining what led him to put down his backpack and plug in for a while.

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Shaun and Herman, two well-known faces in Medellín’s nomad community, working away in Ondas. Photo courtesy of Cafe Ondas.

 

Still others are coming to Medellín just to see why so many are coming to Medellín, like Tomas Gurvičius, a Lithuanian student studying International Development at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Tomas, a sort of meta-nomad himself, is traveling and researching how digital nomad communities impact their host cities, in an effort to flesh out our understanding of “lifestyle mobilities and North-to-South migration,” he says, referring to patterns of migration from the wealthy “Global North” to the poorer and less developed “Global South.”

He says he came to Medellín, of course, for the great weather and low-cost life like everyone else, but that the biggest thing that drew him was the utility of learning the Spanish language, pointing out that it “isn’t really that practical” to learn the local languages in some other nomad hotspots. “I knew I wanted to be in South America, and Medellín seemed like the perfect base.”

Even Medellín’s Nomads (Mostly) Move On 

By definition, nomads are always moving.

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A cruise departing from the harbor in Cartagena, where many digital nomads will be departing from Colombia to embark on their next journey this summer. Photo by Peter Barker via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

In May, many of Medellín’s nomads will say hasta luego to the mini-lives they built in Colombia as they set off on the Nomad Cruise, a week-long “workation” and networking event that will carry its passengers from Cartagena to Lisbon. There, some will put down shallow roots in that city’s own bustling nomad community, and others will plane, train, or automobile on to their next planned destination or the next place that has that something special.

Herman Ritzema was the second coworker who showed up at Ondas when it opened its doors to Medellín’s digital nomads. A Dutch web developer and nomad turned semi-nomad since meeting his paisa wife-to-be while backpacking in Peru five years ago, Herman will be joining the cruise, but his plans will bring him back to Medellín with his wife and one-year-old son, who will be accompanying him on the trip.

“It’s my home base now,” he says, using the typically nomadic terminology to refer to what others might just call “home,” echoing the sentiment of the growing number of nomads who are putting down slightly more solid roots in the City of Eternal Spring.