What it’s like to live in an island paradise for “digital nomads”

  • Mairead Finlay moved to the Portuguese island of Madeira to become part of a “digital nomad” village.
  • The project provides a free co-working space for most freelance creatives to attract talent to the island.
  • After two months, Finlay and his partner set up a company and look for a property there.

I’m a “digital nomad” who lived all over Europe for three years, but never once had I considered living on an island, let alone in a small village.

Today, I live in Europe’s first digital nomad village on the Portuguese island of Madeira, thanks to an initiative set up by the regional government and Startup Madeira to attract tech and creative talent to the island. The experience was so good that my partner and I are taking a step back from nomadic life to start a business here.

I became a nomad in 2018, fed up with the astronomically high cost of living in London and the predictable bad weather.

Nomads embrace a location-independent lifestyle and tend to work in industries that earn their money online. I’ve been a freelance writer since 2017. That makes me pretty typical: a recent study estimated that 83% of the world’s 35 million digital nomads work for themselves, and 51% are marketers, developers, designers, writers, or in e-commerce.

I spent between four and eight weeks in places like Brussels, Budapest and Porto on a trial basis for a longer stay, before moving to Lisbon in 2019 and obtaining Portuguese residency.

But COVID-19 made me realize that I no longer wanted to live in the city. I wanted more space and a smaller community. Lisbon closed again in January. The following month, the digital nomad village on the Portuguese tropical island of Madeira opened its doors.

inside cowork digital nomad village

Inside the village co-working space for digital nomads.

Mairead Finlay

Inside, 22 seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with free screens, computer stands and outlets. Disinfection stations and a temperature monitor are also installed. WiFi offers 500 Mbps download and 300 Mbps upload speeds.

Outside, you’re surrounded by bulging banana trees and shy lizards, punctuated by the sound of trickling water and spiky palms.

The beach, a handful of cafes, and restaurants are a two-minute walk away, where people gather for lunch or after-work drinks.

Organizers have promised a nomadic neighborhood with an enviable position by the sea in the village of Ponta do Sol, cradled by high cliffs dappled with bananas. It offered remote workers discounted rates on accommodations, tours, and car rentals, as well as office space, Wi-Fi, and free events.

nomadic village cowork garden

The garden of the coworking space.

Mairead Finlay

My partner, a Swedish marketing nomad, and I were convinced, so we came here at the end of February.

The only entry requirement is to commit to staying for one month. We registered via a Google form on the website. Shortly after, I received an email from the team offering help, links to hosting partners, and access to a Slack community.

Arranging accommodation was similar to using Airbnb, except the project offered discounts if you chose one of the local partners. I went with Flatio, which offered a 25% service discount to nomads with no deposit required.

A two-bed apartment, located 20 minutes from the coworking space and featuring a huge balcony, costs 720 euros ($868) per month including utilities. Our small studio in the center of Lisbon had cost 1,100 euros ($1,326) per month.

I arrived when the choice of accommodation was considerable. Now there are around 200 nomads in Ponta do Sol, which only has 8,000 people living there, so there are fewer accommodation options.

Workers further afield live in the two surrounding villages, which are only a 10-minute drive from the coworking space, or in Madeira’s capital, Funchal, a half-hour drive away.

Organizers continue to find ways to increase capacity in Ponta do Sol, including working with local hotels to offer discounted rates on longer stays.

There are approximately 1,000 remote workers in Madeira. We are mainly freelance creatives from Europe.

To access the coworking space, I fill out a registration form in the Slack channel. The hub is managed by project leaders who work on site and are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but 40 outdoor spaces are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Outside the co-working space.

Outside the coworking space.

Mairead Finlay

Before arriving, you must download the Madeira Safe app to complete a survey and upload your negative COVID-19 PCR results – a test must be taken 72 hours before boarding.

Alternatively, you can do the free PCR test at Madeira Airport. Choosing this option meant I had to self-quarantine until I received my result five hours later. On the island, there is an 11 p.m. curfew.

The project managers have organized activities that greatly facilitate meeting people. They include yoga with views of the Atlantic, dance parties, dolphin watching, paragliding or hiking through waterfalls, and weekly lectures on topics such as creating NFTs and preventing burnout.

Most of the nomads I have met here plan to stay longer than the few months they had planned. Some stay until the end of the summer. Some abandon the nomadic way of life and settle here.

flowers rooftop view ponta do sol

A view over the rooftops of Ponta do Sol.

Mairead Finlay

As everything is in English, it can be easy to get caught in a nomad-only bubble if you’re not careful.

Nomads can get involved in initiatives that give back to the island, such as the regular cleanup of the oceans, organized by a non-governmental organization. I recently joined a group in the capital that is turning the doors of abandoned or worn shops and restaurants into colorful art – part of a long-running project to rejuvenate parts of the capital’s old town.

The digital nomad village fueled my ambitions. I made contacts with other writers and my partner got a job thanks to the contacts he made here.

We have also made a long-term commitment to the island, setting up a company here to take advantage of Madeira’s 5% corporate tax rate. And the falling cost of living means we’ve even started saving to buy property.

The plan is to have a base here but to travel occasionally to visit new places and revisit others to see friends and family.

Our biggest concern was that we would end up spending a lot of time, energy and money coming all the way to hate it. But that was what we were hoping for: a return to nature with a close community.

The project is already expected to expand to five villages elsewhere in the Madeira archipelago by October. I think more villages like this will appear elsewhere.

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