How does a digital nomad make friends?
April 15, 2019 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I have the opportunity to work remotely from South America. I'm afraid that I'll try the digital nomad life and end up just spending all of my time alone in a hotel room. How can I plan ahead to find community in a foreign place?

I have a job that allows me to work from anywhere. I've always wanted to do that! I'd like to work for a few months from a big city in, let's say, Peru. What can I do in advance to find a spot, build community, and have fun?

(currently in the U.S. and I speak very little Spanish)
posted by jander03 to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Most larger cities have expat groups, which are almost always English-centric and to be found on Facebook. Look at the city you're planning on being in and search for "expats in [city]" on Facebook, you'll probably find a group with hundreds or thousands of members.

Most of communities will have at least one or two people who survive by hosting and organizing events for that community. Go out, play in a pub quiz, see a stand up show, take an improv class. Even if the people there aren't to your liking, they can put you on to other english speakers in the area.
posted by jedrek at 12:55 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

First off, don't live in a hotel room. Stay at an airbnb or shared housing type of space.

Take spanish lessons and volunteer with them.

In most cities they have expat meetups. I'm sure loneliness is a thing, but short term expat-ism is the easiest to way make quick friends of any method outside freshman year dorms.
posted by sandmanwv at 12:56 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Also look for co-working spaces as well as local meetup groups.
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 1:03 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

There are worse things than being lonely. You can go to museums lonely, go eat dinner on your own lonely, go for walks lonely. In ten years what you'll remember isn't being lonely, but what you did and what you saw despite being lonely.

Definitely do stay at an Airbnb if Airbnb is legal wherever you end up. You'll at least have to go out for groceries, which is good for you. Having said that, I once read that the average happy person has 20 social interactions a day, and they can be as small as saying hello. The postal worker counts, the person at the shop counts, the woman behind the bar counts. I mind that number when I travel solo and it's a good goal to have. It will also help you practice your Spanish, which you should start now!
posted by DarlingBri at 1:17 PM on April 15 [15 favorites]

Do you speak Spanish? You could take lessons part-time from a school that offers home-stay as well. For example, friends loved living in Cusco. I have found people in South America to be very friendly, regardless of any language barriers. In Chile, I really liked Santiago but found Valparaíso to be more walkable and cozy. Buenos Aires is huge but amazing! Find a neighborhood you like and you're off to a good start: frequent a favorite bar, chitchat with shopkeepers, etc. Living with roommates is also a guarantee for company if not necessarily close friends. I'm moving to Buenos Aires in a few months from the US so, if you happen to be there, too, let's hang out! I've visited twice but haven't lived there yet so can say more later.
posted by smorgasbord at 1:29 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]

Check out, which is a great free info resource.

If you join ($100 USD) there's a Slack where you can ask about who else is nomadding in a given location. Peru is a pretty popular spot, as are Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico.

Expat forums are good resources too.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:50 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

From my small experience the opposite will be the problem, folks are very friendly and will be great friends. Do start just listening to Spanish channels and do any language classes/apps but day to day chatting should happen naturally.
posted by sammyo at 1:58 PM on April 15

My digital nomad friend swears by coworking for making new friends, and also for creating work-life balance by otherwise you often find yourself working at all hours.
posted by mochapickle at 2:40 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

I do this too! I usually housesit/petsit in exchange for free housing (memail me if you want details) instead of Airbnb, but that also makes me feel like part of a neighborhood. Coworking spaces are a good company pays for WeWork, so I've occasionally used a WeWork in another city because a certain number of days are included with their account. But I actually prefer working part of the day from a cafe when possible. Whenever I go to events in the evening by myself I end up meeting people in line, etc.
posted by pinochiette at 2:54 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

I did fieldwork in Central America that was conducive to holing-up-in-my-room on days when I wasn't out gathering data. A thing that made it worse was feeling like I didn't have stuff in common with other English-speakers in the area (mostly young, straight, heavy-drinking backpackers on college vacation). Another thing that made it worse was feeling like the most visible and most accessible (conservative Pentecostal and Catholic) parts of local culture weren't going to be hospitable to me if I opened up at all.

A thing I wish I'd done is seek out expats and locals who I did have stuff in common with — which in my case would have meant older folks, queers, intellectuals, people with leftist politics who still had an active stake in the town I was working in. There were plenty of people like that around, visitors and locals both. Like, this was a country with an impressive leftist intellectual tradition, lots of artists, lots of indigenous activists, a growing gay scene. I just... didn't know off-hand how to find them the way I would have in a North American city, and didn't prioritize seeking them out.

So I guess that's my advice. Prioritize figuring out how to find people who are like you in whatever ways are important. You don't need to spend more time with those people than you feel like spending. But at least learn who they are and where they are, rather than getting stuck in your room because you aren't even aware of any good alternatives.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:55 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]

I loathe the term digital nomad but the Gentleman Friend and I are drifting around from country to country, staying in a place for a few weeks or months at a time. Obviously because there are two of us we have the loneliness problem solved to a large extent, but it can still feel isolating. Our way of approaching long term travel may not be yours - we are fine with the more casual interactions that DarlingBri refers to rather than forming actual friendships, for example. All that said, here are a few thoughts.

1. Definitely get a proper flat or an Airbnb. Make sure you know what your criteria are for a comfortable space, as a lot of Airbnbs especially are set up for short term visitors and don't prioritise, eg, a comfortable sofa. A homestay is not a bad idea, and often has what are basically homestays with families, but pretending to be hotels.

2. Very carefully investigate neighbourhoods. Look for something walkable and try to find at least a couple of cafes, restaurants, markets, public squares, etc an easy distance away. If you can't make up your mind, don't book a longer stay until you arrive in town and can get a feel for different areas. As a general rule, we have found smaller towns more intimate and pleasant to sink into than cities so definitely consider that.

3. Once you get there, build a routine. Go to the same place for breakfast every morning, drop by the same vegetable stall, that sort of thing. People will recognise you and you'll start feeling like you have a place, even if it's not as an integral part of the city. Don't hesitate to use whatever you know of the local language and try to build it up..

4. Find out what is happening in the city or town and show up. This may be a religious service, a concert, a sport match, a gallery show, whatever.

5. Some cities are magnets for 'digital nomads' and long-term expats. These tend to have, for example, small galleries, cafes and bed and breakfasts run by people who fell in love with the place and the culture, often married a local, and never left (I've found lots of these around SE Asia, and I imagine it's the same in certain places in South America, for example Medellin). Visit those places, chat to the owners and staff, offer to help out at their events and don't take it badly if you're turned down.

6. Set a minimum duration of time that you have to spend outside your flat daily. I tend to sink into work and not leave for days on end, so I understand that part of your fear. Whether it's mandatory going out for breakfast, or a sunset walk or a post-dinner visit to a community square, make sure you get out every single day no matter how busy you are.

7. Learn to watch, enjoy and perhaps even play football (soccer). Especially if you are male.

8. (If you are prone to this) stop religiously following the political news from your home country especially if it's the US. Really. Start reading or watching the country's news, get on the local reddit boards, follow any podcasts or radio shows that interest you about the place you are going to. If they exist in the place you're going to, look at the free newspapers.

9. Remember, you are not trapped where you are. Even if you've paid the rent in advance, chances are it's still not going to bankrupt you to go away for a weekend or even leave early if you're just not enjoying settling into a place.
posted by tavegyl at 3:39 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Try to find stuff to do with native people, and not just ex-pat groups. If you can play a sport, this is a great thing to do without needing much language ability. A Mexican guy I worked with in Japan was immediately adopted into a big social group at our office when he joined the baseball team. If you have time to moonlight, you could also do English tutoring for people. There was a cafe near me in Japan where foreigners were the 'draw' for people who wanted to come practice their English. Even just having a restaurant or cafe you're a regular at can be comforting.

The biggest thing is to talk to people. Try your best, no matter your skill level. You don't get better unless you speak. Talk to people and be open to opportunities.
posted by Caravantea at 6:03 PM on April 15

The Nomad List is a great resource for connecting to others like you.

Also, from personal experience and that of friends: you can escape a place but you can't escape yourself. There are places that are more friendly and places that are less friendly and there is always an adjustment period but overall you will end up having about the same social and romantic life as before. If you are an extrovert, you will make lots of friends and quickly. If you are conventionally attractive, you will have lots of dates. And the other way around.
posted by rada at 6:08 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Ingress or similar AR games attract groups of people and can provide a good way to connect and get familiar with a new city.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 6:50 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Look around Meetup, Facebook, etc. If it's a good sized city, it will very likely have language exchange or volunteering opportunities. When I moved to Taipei, my first friends were from a Nanowrimo group and I found more via Instagram and local queer meetups.

Specific strategies: If you use online dating apps, put "Just moved here, where do people usually make friends?" in your profile or use it as your starter message and people will tell you. I've also used dating apps and bumblebff to make friends, but queer women tend to be more open to that kind of thing.

If you don't mind social media, start Tweeting/Instagramming/blogging about living in X city and follow others who do the same. If you become mutuals then DM them and ask to hang. Reddit is also an option if your city has a strong subreddit.
posted by storytam at 11:07 PM on April 15

When I lived abroad I had good luck making friends through outdoor activities I was already involved in. See if there are shared activities you can join up with others for, even if they're not necessarily "team" activities (i.e. hiking, rock climbing, etc.).
posted by craven_morhead at 10:17 AM on April 16

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