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Digital Nomad or Economic Refugee?

An entire itinerant society is rising who work on laptops and travel the world.

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BOGOTA, Colombia- Digital nomads can recognize each other on sight. This is not to say that there is a secret hand shake, a uniform, a badge, a club card, an insignia or any sort of physical identifier. No, digital nomads can recognize each other because they are the only people still hanging out in the hotel by mid-afternoon: generally staring into our laptops with an intensity that is not usually applied towards Facebooking mom.

Digital nomads have virtual free run of the globe — being able to work and earn a living continuously wherever there is an internet connection. But most of us are economic refugees as well: we gravitate to the cheaper realms of the world to live better off of our digital earnings, and our haunts have now girdled the waistline of the globe.


Wade in his natural habitat – working in Stykisholmer, Iceland

“So you are working?” a Spanish guy named Lolo asked me as I sat in the upstairs common room of the Hotel Internacional in Bogota.

Caught. Red. Handed.

“Yeah, I run a website. What are you working on?”

From being called out I knew this guy was in the profession as well. Although he worked from his room and I had not seen him do anything other than smoke cigarettes around the hotel in his underwear it was clear that he was one of the tribe. There was just something in his easy swagger about the hotel, and his lack of drive to go out and “do his day” or see the sites, that told me that this hotel was not only a temporary crash pad, but his home and office as well.

Lolo — which is a nickname for Manuel — told me that he spent three years unemployed in Spain. For two years the government supported him, for the third he bummed it. He said that he couldn’t find work. Then, through some personal connections, Lolo was offered a part time job with a gambling website.

“It doesn’t pay enough for me to live in Spain,” he admitted, “but it is enough to live here in Latin America.”

Still in his boxers at mid day, he lit up another cigarette.

“I can go anywhere there is internet, just so it is not in Europe,” he said with a laugh.

This last line was of essence: an internet or computer based professional can work remotely from cheap foreign countries in the tropics for drastically less money than they would need to live in their own, relatively expensive country. Lolo said that he works around four hours a day. All he needs to do is to be able to hop on the internet when directed and he can work from anywhere in the world. It makes do difference if he is in Barcelona, Nicaragua, or Lagos, if he can get online he can work a regular job and make a regular living.

A Spaniard in Spain would have more difficulty competing with Lolo in Colombia, as the pay is not enough to comfortably support a fruitful life in Europe. Hiring digital nomads from a company’s home country who work remotely from a cheaper country is proving to be an ace in the hole for many web and tech based companies: they can get the same work for less. The employer wins because they can pay their remotely working employees a lower wage than they could someone working domestically, and the employee has the liberty to work from anywhere in the world with internet and live like a king.

The global spread of the internet has allowed tech workers of expensive countries to jump the economic divide to cheaper countries and make themselves far more affordable to companies looking to diminish the weight of their payroll, and, in the process, raise their own standard of living.

But there is a flip side to the digital nomad phenomenon: the workers who do these jobs are true economic refugees. To ply their trades gainfully they must take refuge in cheaper climes where they can obtain a living standard that would not be afforded to them in their USA, Europe, Japan, Australia, or another highly developed, expensive, “first world” homeland. Remotely employed tech employees of the first world fringe now form sizable “refugee” communities in places like San Cristobal de las Casas, Goa, Chaing Mai, Medellin — all jumping this way and that way around the globe with the latest word of where they can live better for less money. This move is already well under way, the cat is out of the bag, as digital nomads like Lolo can attest:

Why struggle making ends meet in Europe when you can live like a king in Colombia?

Standard of living is a two sided endeavor: to raise it you can either make more money or spend less money. In the current state of the developed world, making more money is becoming an ever more difficult pursuit — it is far easier to jump ship to a cheaper part of the globe for the same effect.


In order for me to continue living off of VagabondJourney.com I must live incredibly cheaply in cheap countries. I make less than what Lolo or many other “employed” digital nomads make, but the mission is the same: we both gravitate to countries where the living is cheaper in order to live better. I make between $20 and $50 a day, and I live well . . . just so I stay in the the tropical or cheaper regions of the world.

I may take occasional vagabonding jaunts into expensive countries, but I do not want to live as I did in Iceland — eating bad food, dumpster diving, not able to afford much of anything — all year round. Instead, I spend much of the year in Latin America, the Balkans, the Middle East, Southeast Asia not only because I find these places interesting, because I love traveling, or because I need to move regularly to keep up my profession, but because I can live better in these places. I can drink a beer when I want to in Mexico, I can go to restaurants and fill my gut daily, I can live in great hotels with hot water, cable TV, a kitchen, oftentimes 24 hour WIFI,  with a maid thrown into the deal. I feel good being able to buy my daughter an ice cream without thinking about the cost, I feel free knowing that I can go out and splurge a little on entertainment or recreation and not have to go hungry the next day.

There is a basic philosophy to living as a digital nomad: quality of life comes first, everything else second.

I look out the window of the cafe I am writing this in, before me is a colonial cobblestone plaza with four hundred year old buildings with terracotta roofs all around it — I take a sip of my cappuccino, the sun is shinning, I am in a t-shirt, there are mountains beyond. What am I going to do today? Work till noon, then go hiking, maybe drink a beer in the plaza, watch a movie, read, eat good meals, talk to a few people I haven’t met before, go somewhere I’ve never been, maybe learn something new. Maybe my family and I will spend $30 all together.

I am living up the digital nomad/ economic refugee life for as long as it lasts.


Digital nomads are often either the grunts tech workers looking to increase the gap between income and expense, creative toilers whose labors of love do not bless them with enough cash to live in their home country, freelance writers, internet based consultants, digital entrepreneurs, or modern adventurers, hermits, self professed explorers who take on the digital trade to make up the bean money to continue traveling the world.

I fit into many of the above categories, as do many others in the profession.

But there is also a grim side to this profession: digital nomads are perhaps among the first wave of typically young workers leaving their highly developed homes for economic reasons. We are the advance guard of a movement that could soon grow to include professionals of all types. There is a growing pattern here, a new living strategy at work:

You get an education in the USA/ Europe then move to developing countries to live better from your trade.

It will soon become general knowledge that many native English speakers with a university degree from the USA can make far more money and spend drastically less teaching their language abroad than they ever could plying their university taught trade in the USA. I am a professional archaeologist, I have a degree in global studies, but my profession tops out at $14 an hour in the USA. I can teach English in China for over $20 an hour, live in a $100 per month (or comped) apartment, and eat well for under $150. Teaching English abroad was once a hack profession — something travelers did just to make up some cash — but now it is an outright career path, and thousands have built a solid life off of it. And teaching English is just one of a few professional trade outside of the digital world that is calling to young graduates of the first world fringe — it is my impression that in the future there will be many more.

More are more people from the wealthy countries of the 20th century are going abroad to the less developed, cheaper parts of the world not only for the excitement of travel but also to increase their income/ expense ratio and, perhaps ironically, to up their standard of living. This is a pattern that will continue growing into the future as the economies of the US, Europe, and Japan decline and those of the developing world grow. Migration to the tropics may soon be the rally cry of youth in the coming generation. As general laborers continue to migrate north to the USA and Europe, the young professionals of these countries migrate south. The advance guards of both parties have gone out, saw, and continue to report back to their respective masses: life is better out here, join us.


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Filed under: Articles, Blogging, Colombia, Digital Nomad, South America, Traveling Webmaster, Work

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • T-roy August 28, 2011, 2:50 pm

    Great post man and well said! It’s what a lot of people are doing now these days and it’s paying off for some real well. When you coming to Medellin amigo? Been here a month so far, so let me know!

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 29, 2011, 12:04 pm

      Not sure, man, taking the north road now up from Bogota. Will probably get to Medellin on the way back down though — unless going to Venezuela. There seems to be a good pocket of travelers there now — for sure, Medellin is calling. How long do you think you’re staying? We need to meet up somewhere!

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  • Steph | DiscoveringIce.com September 22, 2012, 1:59 pm

    Great article! I agree it is definitely the future and the way things will go. Enjoying and experiencing life all around the world while still maintaining a career and income. I know the future generations will look back and ask their grandparents ‘Why did you have to go to the same place everyday, all your life to be able to work?!’

    It’s just a pity that this lifestyle involves sacrificing seeing and being close to family and friends back home.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard September 22, 2012, 8:39 pm

      Yes, we are the first wave of a movement of location independent migrants. I’m happy that there may soon be a lot of other children growing up the same way my daughter is.

      Link Reply
  • FutureExpat February 20, 2013, 1:20 pm

    I’d like to point out that not all digital nomads are young or recent grads. I’m about to turn 60, and I moved from Florida to a small town in Panama last year. . .

    Link Reply
  • Trevor Warman November 11, 2020, 12:39 pm

    10 bucks a day and i’d be laughing

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