I’m definitely biased, I won’t lie. Guatemala has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Growing up there I might not have appreciated it as I could have. My American husband visited more places in Guatemala in the two years that he lived there than I did in twenty-three. So now, after traveling for a while and living far away, I want to make the most of my trip whenever I go back.
I planned a trip to Petén, in the north side of the country and the heart of the Mayan world. I’m not kidding. In just this region there are more than fifty Mayan archaeological sites and they keep discovering more and more.
I started planning where most of my trips have started: on Airbnb. I was lucky to find a beautiful house which is part of the upscale Hotel Bolontiku. Since we were planning our trip for the Holy Week, I knew I’d better act fast. In Guatemala both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are national holidays, plus it’s the time when the temperatures get to the highest, right before the rainy season starts, so a lot of people go out on vacation. I started looking in late December and booked in January for the trip in late March.
Second, after having plane tickets to Guatemala City ($398.49 from SFO), we needed to figure out how to travel to Petén. There are not many options, sadly, and infrastructure is still one of the country’s biggest challenges. None of the bus lines were running on Good Friday, which was the day we wanted to come back to the city, and we were not sure we wanted to drive for eleven hours. We finally bought plane tickets on TAG airlines.
After a weekend outside of Guatemala City, where my family lives, and hanging out in Antigua, (that awesome Unesco Heritage colonial town surrounded by three volcanoes), we started our real vacation in Petén.
TAG delivered. We flew on an 18 seater Embraer 110 for about an hour. The plane was safe, a little loud, but totally fine.
The Airbnb was glorious. The house was huge, with rain showers, fully equipped kitchen and air conditioning. We had access to all the amenities at the hotel, a pool, kayaks, a shuttle boat back and forth to the Island of Flores, as well as drinks waiting for us every time we got back. If we had stayed there, we would have had a great time, no doubt, but we did not make it all the way here to not do some exploring in the middle of the jungle.
First was Tikal, the most famous Mayan site in Guatemala. I had only been as a toddler, so even if it’s more touristic, I wanted to see it.
I had no idea how big the park was, with trails through the jungle that lead to half uncovered structures, with spider monkeys following you from the tree limbs above until you finally reach the main square where the pyramids stand tall.
On Thursday, however, we visited a lesser known park: Yaxhá. After 12 kilometers over a crazy unpaved road, you finally arrive. The park is smaller than Tikal, but I found it more mysterious and with a lot more to learn from. It’s a big city with main roads that lead to the acropolis, aqueducts, ball game courts and the big ceremonial pyramids. There are many structures which have been left underground because of a lack of government funding to preserve them once uncovered. The ones that have been dug up, however, are marvelous. We did the sunset tour and went up the main pyramid of the eastern acropolis. From up you’re surprised by the immensity of the jungle, spreading as far as your eye can see. The howler monkeys howling, or actually, growling, all around us and to the west, a view of lake Yaxhá took our breath away.
There is so much history and so much to learn and explore from the ancient Maya civilization and I went back with a lot of questions and a sense of curiosity to learn more about my ancestors who built these impressive and complex city states.
Four days relaxing with mojitos in hand, eating out in the island and exploring the sites and jungle are not enough. This was the first time I took a real vacation in a while and I’m already planning the next one.
We lived the dream: a year of living in Europe, a different country almost every month.
My boyfriend Michael and I work in tech: he is a web developer and geospatial data scientist, and I am a user experience designer and web developer. This is what allows us to live anywhere we can get an internet connection.
We like to think that we are living the zeitgeist of the 21st century tech era: we don’t go to the office, the office goes with us. And it came with us to Europe.
But another thing defining this era is the sharing economy, which is what made this trip much easier, since we did not have to find hotels or hostels. With Airbnb we just rented a room in some cities and whole apartments in others. Like their slogan, we did Belong Anywhere.
So in July 2015, we took just one bag each to Madrid, Spain and thus started our year in Europe, and our year of living like the locals through Airbnb.
Madrid was our first stop in beautiful Spain and we stayed there for two weeks. Being Guatemalan, and Michael speaking fluent Spanish, we didn’t encounter language barriers (sometimes accent barriers, to be honest).
Our Airbnb there was Alejandro’s stylish flat. The place was great and our private room was nicely decorated and comfortable.
But living in other countries soon makes you realize that air conditioner is not available everywhere, and being July in central Spain, we had some of the hottest nights, with only one small fan to freshen the room a little.
The paradise island of Mallorca was our second stop. My aunt had lived there for several years and I had visited when I graduated high school. I honestly had no idea I would come back one day, but once in Spain, it seemed like the perfect destination.
Here we stayed with Aina in the capital city of Palma de Mallorca and from there we made weekend trips all around the island.
This apartment had air conditioning only in the living room, so in the end we slept there the whole month. We had more roommates here and a nice dog called Brot who would sometimes hide and surprise us in the middle of the night.
Barcelona was our final stop in Spain, and we stayed with Hermann, a nice Colombian guy who got us tickets to a Barça game.
His apartment was nice and cool. Literally. Air flowed around the apartment, and even with young teenage roommates, we had a very pleasant stay.
Lesson learned from living on Airbnbs in Spain: Don’t think AC is everywhere. It’s not. And me as a Guatemalan, when they talk about summer in the northern hemisphere, they mean Summer. I knew the word, but had not learned the true meaning of it.
The small apartment had everything we needed, a kitchen and a small table, a wardrobe, a nice shower and a very comfortable bed.
It is ideally located at the foot of Marjan Hill, with a supermarket, laundromat and restaurants only a few steps away. We could walk on the beautiful ancient streets and reach the Adriatic Sea, walk into Diocletian’s Palace and enjoy getting lost in the many different little streets.
Maybe we could’ve found a cheaper place, Croatia is very cheap in general, but we were charmed with it from the moment we saw the listing.
Ah, London. Where to begin?
Everyone asked us why we were going to one of the most expensive cities in the world when we could go anywhere. I guess I always fancied myself living in beautiful London. I had already visited back in 2012, but I was craving for a true Londoner experience, and I might have gotten it.
Careful what you wish for, cause you just my get it: many Londoners pay exorbitant amounts of money for an apartment, and if you go for cheaper, you end up kilometers away from the center and you have to commute for hours.
We rented a room in Grove Park, which is zone 4 of London and the Underground does not reach there so you have to take the train. But that was the least of our problems.
The family owned a big house, but it was far from spacious, with two other roommates and a family of three, with a toddler, living under the same roof, with only one bathroom and kitchen. On the last two weeks of our stay they started remodeling the house, which made it impossible to be at. We got our money back, but we ended with a bitter taste.
London was not ruined entirely for us, we did enjoy being there and still dream of living there. But we might come back when we’re better prepared.
Lesson learned: If we’d stayed in the center, paying more money, we would not have to spend on transport, we could’ve walked everywhere. Also, don’t trust previous reviews, ask more questions and fight for your rights. Airbnb is a service, so people are offering their rooms as a service, not a favor.
Gibraltar, southern Spain and Portugal
We didn’t leave the United Kingdom after London, trying to not spend our precious Schengen visa days.
We found a perfect place in Gibraltar, which the Gibraltar Royal Police kindly helped us find after our plane got delayed and our taxi left us in a completely wrong address at 3 a.m. in the morning. We lived in the tip of Europe for two weeks before Michael’s parents came over to Almería, in Spain, and we started a roadtrip.
We drove from Almería to Madrid to catch a plane to Transylvania, where we planned to stay for the whole winter. Our plans didn’t work out, and we were unable to find a short-term rental that worked for us. The Airbnbs were more expensive than what we knew the prices in Romania to be and that led to us to start looking for other alternatives.
We did stay at Feri’s apartment for one night, before we flew to Italy, and he was kind enough to accept our request on the same day. We hoped he had been available for at least a month, because it was great.
So we arrived in Milan to Lucia’s clean apartment for two weeks. She was a nice, but strict host, and our roommate made sure we followed the rules, like the time I didn’t immediately clean the pan after cooking and with a broken English got reprimanded. Maybe it was just that Italians are more expressive, and she was not actually upset.
From there we visited the city, saw Da Vinci’s Last Supper and visited Lake Como for my 25th birthday.
We found a whole apartment in charming town of Füssen, close to the legendary Neuschwanstein castle, with Leanne and Nicholas. He is a local and she is Australian, and they were super nice to us.
The apartment, however, was perhaps my favorite from the whole trip: it was nicely decorated, well stocked and had a balcony with views of the Alps and the river Lech. When the snow came, it was the perfect place to cozy up and look at how everything outside turned so magical.
I have family in Füssen and in the nearby town of Seeg, which made it the perfect location to spend the winter. Plus, we hiked to Austria for Valentine’s Day.
The apartment was modern on a hip building with a supermarket and a metro station right in front. The best part was that the whole city was cheap, so rentals were also cheaper.
We commuted daily to a coworking space, and we really felt we hit the jackpot with this place. Except for the time we left the key hanging on the other side of the door.
Our last stop on our year-long European trip was Ireland, where we had what could’ve been an awful experience but turned out to be the most memorable part of our trip.
Remember London? We decided that in Dublin we were not going to make the same mistake and found a place in the center of the city. But you can never really trust the reviews, because the apartment was crowded, with girls living on the couch, dirty kitchen and bathroom and random people coming and going at night. After about three days there, we found hard drugs and immediately knew we had to leave.
Airbnb was great and truly worried about our safety. They refunded the money in full and we found a new place with Patrick.
His house was outside of the city center, but not too far and a bus took us every day quite comfortably. But the best part was how incredible he was as a host and how good we felt after the previous place. He told us so many stories and took us around on day trips to the countryside.
We took a plane back to the New World and our Airbnb year ended perfectly.
Our year of living on Airbnbs taught us that there are no secret formulas. Every listing is as different as their hosts. You will find good and not so good experiences. You will encounter hosts who don’t understand the contract, and others who will go overboard to make you feel comfortable.
When you’re booking a place, ask as many questions. We were going to be staying at each place for at least a month, so it was important for us to know what the internet speed was like, if there was a washing machine or a laundromat that we could use, how easy it was to walk places and if we needed public transport, what was the best way to get it. Don’t be afraid to ask, and expect the best. We did have amazing times in most of the places we lived at.
I started telling a little about our last stop of our trip on a previous post. I talked about Dublin and its charms and how we had to find a new Airbnb.
We ended up farther south of the city, in Greenhills. If you are coming to Ireland, please consider staying with Patrick. His house is lovely, with all the comforts you could want. But the highlight was the host himself. Patrick worked for many years in the tourist industry, so he knew the city and the countryside well. He was kind to take us on several trips and we got to see more of Ireland that way.
We soon noticed that the Irish are very talkative and extremely friendly. They do not hesitate to start a conversation with you and make you feel comfortable and friendly. We noticed that with a young couple we met at The Lumineers concert, with whom we had drinks afterwards; with an older lady waiting on the same bus stop as us, we could tell she was dying to talk to us and soon enough she started a friendly conversation. And of course, Patrick our host told us so many stories that filled our two weeks with laughter and great experiences. He took us to the local pub where we met with the community, who were all so nice, and sang Karaoke. It was such an incredible night, to truly be with Irish people and see how lovely they are.
But the trips to the countryside made our trip to Ireland truly memorable.
On the first weekend we went to Blessington and hiked by the lake for the whole day and came back to town to have one of the best pub foods we’ve had.
Next weekend, Patrick kindly took us around County Wicklow and through the beautiful Wicklow Mountains. The hikes and views are outstanding and there is so much to see. We made a stop to see the “Pint of Guiness”, a lake with the characteristic black water of the region, and a small beach making it seem like a pint of the traditional beer with the foam at the top. We also stopped at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and the German Cemetery, where many unidentified german soldiers from World War II have been buried.
The next day we went to Glendalough, a town with a Medieval monastic site and took a marvelous hike on the Glendalough National Park, through the woods and by the lakes.
On our way back we visited the Avoca Handweavers mill, a museum, factory and store that dates back to 1723, almost a hundred years older than my own country. They have on display and in use, the handweaving machines with which they make lambswood products.
Our last weekend in Ireland, we spent exploring Dún Laoghaire, outside of Dublin. It is very easy to get there by taking a train from Dublin and you can visit its most famous attraction: the James Joyce Tower where he wrote his world-renown novel, Ulysses. After that, we found a farmers market and rested under a tree, surrounded by families and people enjoying the weekend. We walked along the pier and soaked as much as we could of all the beauty Ireland has to offer.
At the end of our trip, with all the great things we saw without going too far from Dublin, I am only left with a crave to see more of this beautiful country, and maybe live there for a longer time.
If you’re traveling through Europe, you cannot miss going here. Everything from the people, the food and beer, and the landscapes will fill your heart and create very fond memories.
I knew from a very long time Ireland was calling me. I’d seen movies and the impressive countryside seemed too good to be true.
It was not. Ireland is truly one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to.
We arrived to Dublin on a rainy night and the double-decker AirLink bus took us to the center of town. O’Connell Street greeted us with its lights and busyness, but we were on a mission to get to the bar where we were going to meet our Airbnb host to truly enjoy it. Through the rain, we got to The Church, an actual church that was turned into a bar.
We’d learned from our experience in London to try to find an apartment in the center of town so we could walk everywhere and not spend money on transport. But after a year of living on Airbnbs, we concluded that there are no special formulas. Yes, we were living in the very center of Dublin, but we were also in a small apartment, crowded with people, and perhaps that was not giving us the true Irish experience we wanted to have.
Alas, it is nearly impossible to be certain the place you’ve booked will be as fantastic as the reviews make it seem. We were misguided by people assuring us the apartment was excellent, and we ended up in what might have been a crack house. Maybe it was not as bad, but after only three days we had to get out after we found drugs in the apartment. We took our bags, and ventured out into Dublin, not knowing where we would stay the night.
I mentioned we were after an Irish experience, and maybe it was the best thing that could have happened to us, to be forced to leave our apartment, because our new Airbnb host gave us exactly what we were looking for.
But Dublin was already enchanting us with its pubs and music. We went to Mary’s on one of the first nights and soon we joined the live band in singing to traditional Irish songs and American Country songs. It seemed that the Irish truly were what we they’d told us all along: very friendly.
Being Digital Nomads, we still had to work during the weekdays. I found that the Central Library near our first apartment could be a good place to come at work. The library was inside a mall and of course it was always packed. But if you managed to find a spot, it could be quite comfortable, with high internet speeds and quiet.
I knew the library was not ideal for working, especially not knowing if you could find a spot, so I decided to take it to the Digital Nomad community and soon enough I got some suggestions as to where I could work from. Some people recommended their favorite cafes, but they also recommended I tried a free coworking space made by the Bank of Ireland, which ended up being incredible. They opened up a place so startups and entrepreneurs can come work for free. But not only is it greatly decorated and comfortable, it’s in the tech neighborhood near the Airbnb, Facebook and Google headquarters.
Dublin is a very walkable city and even if they don’t have a metro system, the buses are mostly reliable and on time. I’m not going to lie and say the buses were always on time, because they were not, but 90% of our time they were great.
It is a multicultural city, but the Irish heritage and pride can be felt everywhere. Just seeing and hearing the Irish language everywhere was a nice experience. We were there on the 100 years of the independence, so it was nice to see and learn so much about the history of the country.
The Book of Kells exhibition on the Trinity College is worth visiting, and so is Stephen’s Green park. We attended a The Lumineers concert in the Victoria Theatre and enjoyed it greatly. Of course the pubs, with the amazing pub food and great beers, cannot be missed. But there are so many streets that it’s always rewarding to just take a different path every day.
Dublin started a little rough, but in the end it might have been one of the best cities, with so much culture and charm.
Fast and reliable internet connections. Walkability and great transport systems. Friendly people. Coworking Spaces. Great beer and food. History and art.
These are just some of the things that Prague has, but we discovered so much in this city.
We had no idea what to expect when we took a bus in Munich, after spending a month in Germany, and arrived in the Czech Republic. But the city was so many things we were not expecting.
As digital nomads, we couldn’t have asked for a better place, especially for how affordable it was and how easy it was to get around.
The history of the city is unbelievable. It has been part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia, and finally the Czech Republic. Kings, soldiers and saints have walked its streets, paving it with stories of valor and pain.
On our first weekend, we took a tip walking tour with Jana. I wish I could link you to the company she works for, but look for the blonde lady with the green umbrella that will tell you straight away that there is no such thing as a free tour. It was her straightforwardness that made us stick with her on what was a private and very enjoyable tour of the Old Town and New Town.
The architecture of this city will leave you in awe. Magnificent façades cover almost every building, giving you the feeling that you really are in the Old Europe. Look up at the balconies and terraces and dream of getting an apartment here.
The Jewish Quarter is well preserved and has one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world: the Spanish Synagogue. But the cemetery, the other synagogues, the Kafka statue and the shops around here are all worth a visit. If you don’t hear the story of the golem, ask some of the locals to tell you about it.
Of course, you cannot miss the grand theaters. The world famous and greatly produced operas, from wardrobe, set and orchestra, will give you a one of a kind experience.
But explore the touristic places once, and then get lost in the rest of the city. We were lucky to have a month and a half in the city, so we made the most of it.
On two separate weekends we traveled to nearby towns. First to Kutná Hora, home of very impressive cathedrals (and one chapel made out of human bones). On the other weekend we took the Student Agency bus to Český Krumlov, a small quaint town. It was a little bit too crowded with tourists, but the views and old houses are beautiful and worth a day trip.
You should definitely walk around and not be afraid of getting lost. You will find yourself in hidden parks like Havlíčkovy Sady, which has vineyards, cafés, tons of green area to run or walk and even an artificial grotto on top of a villa. Or maybe you will stumble into a film festival in the Anděl neighborhood.
We found the coolest coworking space in all of Prague: Locus Workspace. They have two spaces and we worked on the one in Vinohrady. With cool design, spacious tables, giant windows so we had abundant natural light, 40 up 40 down wifi, a booth to take calls and great people, our time in Prague has been one of the most productive.
Our Airbnb couldn’t have been more ideally located. We had a metro station just outside the apartment, but if we wanted, we could still walk to the center of town. But the best was how comfortable and modern our living space was: we had two rooms, a kitchen and diner. It came to feel like home.
The food is all you want when being on the go for so long: meaty, homey and cheap. The dark beer Kozel became an instant favorite, and the Moravian white wine was exquisite.
We were not expecting to find such good things in Prague. Honestly, we had not heard much about it, but now I just want to tell everyone traveling through Europe: GO TO PRAGUE.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about being in Europe for the past seven months is how easy it is to walk. There are trails, seemingly everywhere, and you can hike mountains, go past beautiful lakes, cross towns and keep walking. The many ancient trade routes made by the Celts and later by the Romans are still here for you to explore.
This Valentine’s Day weekend, with Michael, we walked from our apartment in Füssen, in southern Germany to Höffen, in Austria. It was not the largest of hikes, Höffen being four hours away walking (and about half an hour driving), but it was the perfect way to explore, be in nature and see new places.
On our way there, we followed the Via Claudia Augusta, a long Roman trail that goes all the way from Bavaria to the Adriatic Sea. It is funny to think romans were using these trails through the Alps. Most people bicycle along the Via, and there were parts we had to walk along the highway with cars rushing past us, in which we were confused and angered at how unsafe it was.
This happened on our way from Pinswang to Pflach, in Austria. Pinswang is a small farming town with outstanding views of the Säuling, one of the tallest mountains in the region. After walking along the highway for about ten minutes, we soon discovered a new path, that did not follow the Via Claudia, but went through the woods.
We were soon walking on the Lech Weg, which follows the river Lech for about 125km, and finally arrived to Pflach and then kept going to the bigger town Reutte.
Reutte is a town perfectly located for many things to do on a weekend. It is surrounded by the Alps, with the Ehrenberg ruins, the remnant of great kingdoms, and the world record longest Hanging Bridge, the Highline 179, very close.
We arrived at Reutte at 4 p.m., with about an hour of daylight left. After having a Weisswurst with a pretzel at a pub, we inquired at the Tourist Information Office about places we could still walk to. We wanted to reach the lake Plansee. In the end we decided to stay at a Pension and call it a day, we would continue exploring the next day.
We stayed at the Haus Lechner in Höffen, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with it. When you stay at a hotel in this region, you get the Aktiv Card which gives you amazing discounts and perks like free entrance to the bridge and museums at the ruins.
Our second day started with daybreak. We had a nice breakfast, watched the sun rise like fire from behind the snowy Alps and even caught some deer coming out of the forest behind the house.
The owner of the house was kind enough to drive us to the Highline 179 Bridge and we climbed the mountain up to the entrance, where the Ehrenberg Castle Ruins lay. The trail was frozen and it was quite a challenge to get to the top. But the floor at the ruins was also frozen or completely covered in snow, which made it impossible to see all of it. The views, however, are beautiful as you find yourself surrounded by towering snow covered mountains and the valleys with little towns are right under your feet.
The Bridge was quite the experience by itself. It does not move with the wind and it actually feels safe, with the thick cables that support it, but knowing that you are at 114.6 meters above the ground, taking steps in a man made construction that could fail, makes you lose your breath. However, I stopped in the middle to take in the view, reminding myself that I might not have this chance again, and that was what really took my breath. If you go, don’t be paralyzed by fear. Feel the power from being so high up and marvel at human engineering and the nature around you.
We crossed the bridge and then crossed it again once we decided we’d rather go down the way we came. By the time we got back, groups of tourists were arriving. We were lucky to have arrived at about 8 in the morning, a time in which we had the ruins and bridge all to ourselves.
The walk began once more, but this time we knew better to follow the Lech Weg and it was the best decision we could’ve made. We came back to Pflech and followed it through the moutains, going so deep into the forest where it was all silent, where all creatures seemed to have hidden from us, not used to seeing humans. It is not hard to understand how legends were created, since every inch of the forest seems so magical. The trail takes you up through mossy meadows, fallen trees, old ruins, hidden farms, creeks and finally to the grand Alpen See, in Germany, and towards the castles of Hochenshwangau and King Ludwig’s famous Neuschwanstein.
The border between Austria and Germany was my favorite discovery here. An old rock dated 1844, with a T on one side and a B on the other, which marked the division of the old county of Tyrol and Bavaria. (The first had become part of the Kingdom of Bavaria in 1805).
So we crossed, like many others had done for centuries and we arrived back home. Hiking has become one of our favorite pastimes, and when you slow travel, it is a great way of exploring the new countries and meeting its people.
After a holiday trip around southern Spain and Portugal with Michael’s family, we found an online website that changed our winter travel plans, and possibly the way we do Digital Nomading.
TrustedHouseSitters is a website that lets people find someone to look after their house and pets when they go out on holidays. But for people like us, the website is also excellent to list to housesit somebody’s house, get free rent and visit new places.
We found an awesome place in Switzerland, just outside of Lausanne. We had not planned to go to Switzerland at all, so it was a nice change of plans. Our original plan was to stay in Romania, try to find a short-term rental, and just work for all of the winter. After a couple of days in Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania, we realized how hard it is to find short-term rentals. Airbnb prices there are very high for what regular rent would cost in Romania. Cluj is a University City, so most apartments are for rent for whole semesters, nobody rents you a place for just one month. We met awesome people who were more than willing to help us. Romanians are very nice people, like the girl in one of the Real Estate agencies we visited who went out of her way to help us find a place. We didn’t find anything suitable in the end, so we had to act fast and find a new destination.
That’s when we found out about housesitting. We made a cool profile, with a video to introduce ourselves to people looking for trustworthy people to live in their houses. After only a day of sending out requests to different people, with the only requirement being fast internet connection, Antonio from Switzerland replied that he would love for us to look after their house.
So we left Romania, spent my 25th birthday week in Milan, Italy and then traveled by train to Lausanne. (If you’re looking to buy train tickets in Europe, I recommend using Loco2).
We looked after the house for a month and a half, and not only did we have a giant house with breathtaking views of the Swiss Alps, fields and forests to go on hikes to, and a full pantry, we also had to beautiful dogs, a Weimaraner and a Pointer, to keep us company.
Being a nomad can become tiring, not having a place to call home, but in Switzerland we took a break, made the house we were looking after our home and had time to work and focus on great projects we want to see grow in 2016. I finished writing my novel during this time!
The family was awesome, we made friends with them, and we were truly sad to leave the dogs we looked after and fell in love with. Our first house-sitting experienced opened a whole new possibility to make long term travel more enjoyable.
“I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me. Who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and for ever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity?” ― Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Who would not want to live in London? After only a few days we had discovered the magic the city holds. How many great stories have been written here? How many works of art have been inspired by this city?
I’m still trying to think what it is about this city that charms everybody, or charmed me from the first time I came, three years ago in 2012. Maybe it’s its history and culture or its peculiar buses and phone booths, or its winding streets and town houses.
In October of this year, it was glowing in golden and red as Autumn covered the Northern Hemisphere. We quickly discovered what would be our favorite thing about London: parks.
There are so many of them and they are giant. Beautiful acres of grass, trees, trails, ponds, birds, memorials, people exercising, people kissing under trees, people walking their dogs and feeding the geese and the friendly squirrels. Coming from the “Land of Eternal Spring”, I have never experienced Autumn. I’ve seen tons of Tumblr posts of beautiful colored trees, or heard stories and Ella Fitzgerald songs, but London in October is more beautiful than I imagined.
Our favorite park was Hampstead Heath, for it is a giant park made of natural trails, big spaces for pets to run free, forest, ponds and fresh air. You won’t find fountains or memorials here, but you will find some pretty majestic trees.
Our second favorite thing about London is the theater. We saw the musical, Wicked, and the play War Horse that was recommended to us. Wicked had some impressive moving sets, choreographies and live orchestra. I’m still trying to understand how some of the scenes were achieved, with tricks of light and props. War Horse was a heartwarming play about a horse during the Great War. But the amazing thing about the play is that there are no horse actors, but they were made like giant puppets. You can see the people inside of them, making their every move, but you soon forget that is not a real animal you’re seeing.
There are always many shows to see in London, and we wish we’d been able to see one every weekend.
As I mentioned on Part 1 of this post, Londoners are very kind people. We met awesome people working on Cooks Yard, a really cool and cozy coworking space in East London. Leo, the owner was great with us and we were so happy to find this place where we could rely on 24/7 desks, internet and coffee for a reasonable price. It is also located in a great place, with two stations at a walking distance, restaurants, cafes, markets, and a Tesco just across the street. We met some other cool Londoners (and others I will call interesting) and we became part of the city. We commuted every morning by train and Overground and came back late every night from London Bridge Station or Charing Cross. We had a routine, we learned the voice announcements like “Mind the gap, between the train and the platform” or “This is Whitechapel. Alight here for The Royal London Hospital”. (I personally had never even heard the word Alight).
It is pretty incredible to be in a city so big and have a well connected transport system. It was not hard at all to move from east to west or south. We were constantly surprised of finding new neighborhoods as we got off at new stations. London is so big and there’s so much to see!
We also found meetups with other coders. In a city so big you will find many people like you. We found people who work on the tech industry or are getting started on it. I read online about many meetups, workshops, job fairs, etc. all over the city. It is really cool to know you don’t have to travel too far to find people like you.
If you are a tourist, the touristy things will not disappoint. It’s a beautiful sight to see Big Ben proudly standing overlooking the Thames. But if you have the time to live like a Londoner, you will find something different to do every day. You will meet people from all over the world, you will hear many languages, you will eat many foods and walk many streets.
I can say it is a myth that the weather in London is awful. Whenever we told people we would be there in October they all wished us good luck with the rains. We got there with waterproof jackets ready and were surprised, and delighted, to find that it didn’t rain as much as they said it would. It probably rained three or four days over our stay and all the weekends had clear skies and sunshine, maybe getting a bit cloudy in the afternoons, but nothing too bad. We had some spectacular sunsets in the parks and enjoyed the cold air on our walks.
I now understand why everybody wants to live in London. It is packed and rental prices go through the roof, but it is an amazing city. It inspires you to be worthy of a city so grand. It makes you feel like you belong, like you live in a place were history is being written.
“My Dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus they’ve become a Londoner.” ― Ben Aaronovitch, Moon Over Soho
I was born in Guatemala City, also a capital, but I have never known city life as the one London offers.
We got to Gatwick airport in London from Split. Immigration line was not as long as the ones I’ve made in the United States. When it was my turn, I put on my best smile and handed my Central American passport that now collects several stamps. The regular interrogation began: “Why are you here? Where are you staying? For how long?” After this last question, to which I answered “One month” a more thorough interrogation began. I had never been asked by an immigration officer to make a multiplication in my head as he inquired on how much I made a month in pounds. Later I was told I could stay only for three months in all of Europe, when in fact I can stay for six in the United Kingdom and three in the Schengen Zone, which is most of the other European countries. I had never had an immigration officer raise their voice as they stamped an ugly stamp on my passport and scribbled something telling me that I could not overstay, otherwise I would get in trouble, and that I had exactly a month to leave. I only smiled and agreed. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I might not have the most desirable of the passports, but I am not trying to stay in the United Kingdom. There was no reason to be nervous, I had planned to leave after a month, anyways.
The stamp says six months.
Next was transport to central London. Oh we’d heard stories of London’s incredibly high prices. We’ve found an Airbnb outside of the center, in zone 4, that was cheaper than most. But what we didn’t consider was the fact that we would have to take trains and metros in order to get to places.
A “Season Pass” for a month that would take us from zone 4 to zone 1, and anywhere in between came out to £177.10each. We’d payed almost 10 times less for a monthly bus pass in Split, Croatia.
That taught us a lesson: It’s not always best to go for the cheapest option, it might come out to be more expensive. We chose the cheapest (decent looking) Airbnb option, but paying a bit more to be closer to the center woul’ve been cheaper in the end, because we would’ve not had to pay for train tickets.
As we approached London Bridge station, defeated after only a few hours, I started questioning why we’d decided to come to London.
I started seeing the famous landmarks, and even if I wanted to feel excited, I just felt confused. Maybe Ben Aaronovitch’s father was right. We had become Londoners, knowing of the struggles to just move from one place to another. We had already learned to move quickly, with bags on our shoulders, through the stations, like programmed machines.
But London is much more than expensive living, and we would soon discover that.
The day after we arrived England played Australia on the Rugby World Cup. We had never watched a rugby match, so we decided to hit the local pub, The Baring Hall Hotel. Well, I still have no idea of what was going on at the game, but the night was exciting (except for the fact that England was eliminated). We made friends with some locals, sang over rounds of beer and wine and went back with cheerful hearts. We had discovered Londoners are very nice people, and on the next weeks that would be confirmed. Anybody we asked for help on the train or trying to find an address was always nice and willing to help. London is a metropolis and you would expect Londoners to be cold and distant, but all the Londoners we met were warm and welcoming. Things were starting to get better.
The Dalmatian city of Split in Croatia became our basecamp for all of September. In a previous article I recounted our weekend trips on the Croatian coastline. Split is on the Adriatic coast and it’s the second largest city in the country. It is a top destination for tourists, but more and more digital nomads are discovering its many qualities.
There were several reasons why we chose Split out of all the other cities.
The first one was that being in Croatia, it was outside of the Schengen zone. With my Guatemalan passport and Michael’s American one, we can only stay for 90 days of 180 inside of the Schengen zone. In Croatia, we get an extra 90 days.
We picked Split specifically because being on the coast, we would be able to enjoy the last days of Summer. We had great weather, with only a couple of rainy days that came as a nice break from moving around all the time.
Accommodation, food and transport is relatively cheap for a top European city. We stayed on a lovely Airbnb, didn’t spend much on restaurants, but tried to cook as much as we could (though we could always cook more to save money, but this is another story) and this was made easier with the many supermarkets open until late hours at night.
Internet in general was reliable. We got unlimited data packages on T-Mobile for about US$12 and had no trouble with the network all over the city.
We got a monthly unlimited bus pass for about 300HRK (US$44) and this made our trips easier. We found a nice coworking space, Amosfera Coworking, which is not too far from the Old Town where we were staying. In here we were able to meet local people who were always helpful and friendly and meet other international digital nomads. The place is also located in a great area with many cafes, stores and markets in walking distance.
People, in general, are incredibly friendly and we were surprised to find that most people spoke English, which made everything much easier. People where always nice when we asked for directions and when we were trying to order food or get medicine at a pharmacy.
Split is perfectly located to make weekend and daily trips. From here we took boats to the islands and buses to nearby towns. We rented a car twice, with two friends from the coworking space, and we visited the Plitvice National Park and the city of Dubrovnik (while also going through Bosnia and Herzegovina and getting time to visit Montenegro).
The city itself has a lot to offer: The history with Diocletian’s Palace in the center, the Adriatic cousine (even with the tiny fried fish dish that make me nervous but locals seem to enjoy eating), the culture with concerts every night, movie festivals and theaters, and of course football with their beloved team Hajduk, that have an incredible and kind of crazy fandom.
Split is a perfect destination for working travelers like us. They say the weather is very nice year round, with winters being not extremely cold, so we are now considering coming here again soon, and perhaps staying longer.