When I was in my early twenties, I made up my mind that I wanted to build a portable skillset where I could escape the long rainy winters in my home of Vancouver, British Columbia. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I have been able to escape the northern winter and spend a lot of time working abroad in sunnier places.
During my time as a digital nomad, I’ve done a lot of research to find the ideal places to spend the winter where there is rich culture, natural beauty, reliable high-speed Internet, a low cost of living and a thriving community of English-speaking digital nomads. I’m also not a big drinker or partier, so I like to avoid the superficial party scenes and go to places where I can meet interesting expats and get work done.
It always amazes me how so many people think travel and living abroad is expensive. That’s simply not true. If you stay long-term and rent a villa (or try housesitting) you can live for a fraction of what you would pay to live in a European or American city. Additionally, when you’re working remotely in a tropical paradise you can make a clean break from debt-fueled consumerism and the corporate rat race.
If you’re thinking of pulling the trigger and going to live abroad temporarily as a digital nomad — or permanently as an expat — then you’ll want to consider some of these exotic tropical islands and beach towns.
Tropical Paradises for Digital Nomads
Along with the description, this is how I break down this guide to beach towns and tropical islands:
Budget: This is a rough estimation of what you would spend if you are there long-term renting a guesthouse and not going on lots of expensive adventure tours.
Internet: The Internet isn’t nearly as fast or reliable in any of these places as it is in a large European or American city but it’s do-able with a little patience.
Weather: Nearly all of these places are tropical or subtropical so the weather is always warm but life tends to be much easier in the dry season.
Even if you don’t have an online business or remote freelancing gigs to live off of while abroad, I think it’s also a great idea to educate yourself and learn new skills in a more relaxed place where you can focus and keep your expenses low.
1. Koh Phangan, Thailand
I had the good fortune to live in the fishing village of Srithanu on the island of Koh Phangan for a couple winters. Known worldwide for the Full Moon Parties in the resort town of Haad Rin, the western half of Koh Phangan is a major center in the world for learning about Tantra, meditation and yoga.
Koh Phangan is a popular spot for the practice of yoga and meditation. There are a number of yoga shalas in and around the town of Srithanu. Half the island is protected in Than Sadet National Park, which is the legacy of forest monks who fought to protect the island’s unique ecology.
Koh Phangan is a really incredible place and the island is full of perfect white sand beaches like Haad Yao, Mae Haad and legendary Bottle Beach that is renowned for its peace and quiet around Thailand. You will have no problem here meeting all kinds of interesting digital nomads, spiritual seekers and long-term expats.
Budget: $800-$1200 a month
Wi-Fi: Fast 3G and inexpensive Internet if you rent a house.
Coworking Space: BeacHub
Best Time of Year: November to April.
2. The Oaxacan Coast, Mexico
Mazunte, Zipolite and Puerto Escondido are the three coolest beach towns I’ve found in Mexico. The Oaxacan Coast (pronounced wa-hah-kah) has a peaceful tropical ambiance, largely because it’s relatively off-the-beaten-track location far from high-traffic international destinations like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. The nearby ecotourism hotspot Huatulco has a big airport but nothing like the other major resorts in Mexico.
I like to think of Mazunte as the esoteric spirituality capital of Mexico. This place is full of mysteries and good omens. Around the town, you will find many yoga and meditation retreats. If the modern corporate world screwed you up, this is a good place to start healing. I really like Hridaya Yoga academy and the extraordinary El Alquimista resort named after Paulo Coelho’s excellent coming-of-age book The Alchemist.
I lived one winter in Puerto Escondido and I’ve returned numerous times. It is a great launching pad for exploring the endless beaches of the Oaxacan Coast, the wildlife sanctuaries and the dense jungles in the towering interior mountains. As a bonus, Puerto is also home to the “Mexican Pipeline”, the most legendary surf spot in Central America.
Budget: $900-$1500 a month
Wi-Fi: Some places have great wi-fi. Best to rent a house.
Coworking Space: Needs a coworking space.
Best Time of Year: November to April
3. Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Sitting at 1,562 m (5,125 ft) high in the highlands of western Guatemala, Lago de Atitlan is a little piece of paradise. Despite not being a tropical island or an oceanside beach town, this place is worth mentioning because it’s uniquely amazing. Surrounded by 3 massive volcanos, traditional Mayan villages, yoga retreats and coffee plantations means there is a lot to explore and discover.
I lived for a month one winter at Las Piramides in the mellow village of San Marcos de la Laguna. At this incredible spiritual retreat, you get to live in your own glass-tipped pyramid in the jungle. They offer excellent programs in yoga and meditation that start with each full moon and run for the entire lunar month. The spectacular main pyramid where classes are held is along the beautiful shore of the lake.
Across the lake from San Marcos is the notorious village of San Pedro de la Laguna where young backpackers and burn-out expat hippies go to escape reality for awhile. You will find fascinating Mayan villages and yoga retreats that dot the shores of the lake. This area of Guatemala has a perfect year-round temperate that hovers around 25 degrees Celsius during the day.
Budget: $800-$1200 a month.
Wi-Fi: Panajechel can be good but is spotty in the villages.
Coworking Space: Impact Hub (in nearby Antigua).
Best Time of Year: Good weather year round.
4. Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
The first time I ever spent a winter abroad was in the village of Mal Pais, which sits beside the slightly larger “town” of Santa Teresa. I met some fellow Vancouverites while partying in the touristy town of Montezuma who told me about this legendary surfing mecca down a dirt road to the west.
The Santa Teresa and Mal Pais area is filled with excellent surf camps, yoga studios and lots of great Israeli food if the Costa Rican rice and beans start to get to you. At night, the stars in this part of Costa Rica are some of the most crystal clear in the entire world. You can observe them at the excellent treehouse-style beachfront bar and lounge that sits on the lagoon in Mal Pais, and doubles as a Capoeira studio in the day.
The dream digital nomad lifestyle here is to surf the morning high tide, work through the heat of the day in your air-conditioned villa, then surf the evening high tide. If you want a little more hustle and bustle, a few hours north is surfer’s paradise Tamarindo and on the Caribbean coast there is Puerto Viejo for digital nomads who love to surf and listen to lots of reggae.
Budget: $1000-$1600 a month
Wi-Fi: Decent but nothing amazing.
Coworking Space: SkyLoft
Best Time of Year: November to March
5. Bali, Indonesia
This Vedic island has one of the most distinctive cultures in the world. It’s incredibly popular with digital nomads, backpackers and expats. If you are interested in meditation, yoga and exploring new possibilities, this is the place to live your fairy tale. There are ancient temples everywhere, beaches and surf that stretches for miles, mist-draped mountaintops and breathtaking rice terraces.
Bali is like Hawaii minus the high price tag and the strip malls but major tourist spots like Kuta and Seminyak are regularly over-run by marauding bands of drunken tourists in high season. With a little exploration, you will find all kinds of hidden gems that are unlike anywhere else such as Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Candi Dasa and Sanur (or take a boat to the less developed paradise Lombok).
The cultural center of the Island (and the expat scene) is the town of Ubud in the interior mountains. If you like spiritual hippies and yogis, you will find your tribe here. If you want to surf (or safely watch the pros doing it) you will want to check out the southern Bukit Peninsula that has legendary breaks like Dreamland, Uluwatu and Padang Padang.
Budget: $800-$1400 a month
Internet: Can be quite expensive, not super fast.
Coworking Space: Dojo
Best Time of Year: April to October
6. Goa, India
Goa is a state in India with some of the best beaches in the world. India is a place that you either love or hate, there is no in-between. Stepping off an international flight in a big Indian city is probably the most intense “culture shock” you will experience anywhere in the world. But if you spend enough time exploring India, you learn to love its ancient culture and the unique charm of the birthplace of so many of the world’s greatest religions.
When you want to relax and get some work done then I recommend settling for awhile in Goa. It’s something of a global mecca for hedonists, expat hippies and psychedelic raver mysticism. There is an interesting mix of people and you will almost never have a dull moment in a place like this. At the same time, it gets tiresome after awhile seeing all the preachy spiritual hipsters competing with each other in the game of spiritual one-upmanship.
If you desire something a bit more mellow and authentic, the beach towns in the spectacular state of Kerala are worth exploring. I’ve heard good things about the beach town of Varkala, which has beautiful beaches and soaring cliffs. If you want to relax and really explore your inner world through meditation, I recommend spending some time in an ashram in Rishikesh or Dharamsala.
Budget: $500-$1000 a month
Internet: Pretty good overall.
Coworking Space: Bootstart
Best Time of Year: November to March
7. Taghazout, Morocco
Morocco is a surreal place. Shepherds ride around on camels, old men tame giant cobras in the markets and the whole place feels like a frontier at the edge of the world. It’s one of the most mysterious and magical places in the world and the Moroccan people are absolutely amazing with their kindness and hospitality. It’s also super cheap and the southern coast is a magnet for European surfers and expats looking for a simpler life without going too far from home.
Interestingly enough, Taghazout has a thriving community of startups living simply to decrease their burn rate. Some of my colleagues from Startup Chile ran their travel startup Maptia from there. You can rent an inexpensive villa on the beach for very little money and still have solid Internet connectivity.
Morocco is a short hop from Western Europe and you can fly very inexpensively using cheap airlines like Ryan Air to nearby tourism hotspots like Fez, Marrakesh and Agadir, which is the closest to Taghazout.
Budget: $500-$1000 a month
Internet: Remarkably fast (if you rent a villa)
Coworking Space: SunDesk
Best Time of Year: October to May
8. Rhodes, Greek Islands
If you ever wanted to live in a place surrounded by ancient history, then Rhodes is the place for you. This touristy island is best known for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The medieval old town in the small city of Rhodes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that will take your breath away.
The Island of Rhodes is one of the most popular beach destinations in Europe so the northern coast of the island is full of touristy resorts but the southern coast offers more peaceful beaches and a slower pace of life. While the Island isn’t very big in size, you will still regularly stumble across hidden beaches and fascinating archeological sites.
The climate isn’t completely tropical but it is pleasant year-round (though very hot in the summer) and the Island boasts over 300 days a year of bright sunshine. There are few places in the world that offer a better mix of history, beaches and inexpensive living while still being a quick flight away from major European cities.
Budget: $900-$1400 a month
Internet: Reliable (if you rent a villa)
Best Time of Year: May to October
9. Hoi An, Vietnam
In recent years Vietnam has been challenging Thailand’s status as the mecca for digital nomads. While many are flocking to cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the beachside town of Hoi An, which translates as “peaceful meeting place”, is very nice. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage and a well-preserved remnant of the town’s influence as a spice trading port from 15th to 19th century.
There is a growing community of digital nomads and expats here. You can easily rent or buy a motorbike to explore the beautiful surrounding beaches and mountains. The food here is spicy and generally inexpensive and amazing.
Budget: $500-$900 a month
Internet: Fast wi-fi generally
Coworking Space: Hub Hoi An
Best Time of Year: May to September
10. Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Translated as the “mouth of the bull” this archipelago of islands sits just south of the Costa Rican town of Puerto Viejo where the mighty rivers flow from the tall mountains in Northern Panama’s rugged interior cordillera. The laid back Caribbean atmosphere in the main town of Bocas Del Toro is seductive and not surprisingly, it has attracted its fair share of adventurous digital nomads and expats.
This is a great place to bear down and work hard with lots of time to play in the local surf, explore the nearby mountains, relax on the white sand beaches and dive the amazing coral reefs.
Budget: $600-$900 a month
Wi-Fi: Some places have great wi-fi. Most islands have no connectivity.
Best Time of Year: November to April
That’s my list! There are a lot of other great beach towns and tropical islands to explore but these particular locations are excellent choices for digital nomads and expats.
If you have any questions about digital nomad hotspots please feel free to join the conversation in the comments.