Meet the digital nomads swapping office life for lockdown paradise

Getty Images / Kieran Walsh

The Maya ruins of Tulum have sat atop the cliffs of the Yucatán coastline for centuries. Cocooned within a walled city, fringed by warm Caribbean waters, swooning palm trees and powdered sands, it’s an idyllic setting which has witnessed the wax and wane of ancient civilizations, colonial invaders and latter-day soul searchers.
But now, there’s a new tribe in town. Tulum is home to a growing legion of digital nomads: remote workers who base themselves in exotic destinations across the world. They’re typically millennials who can quickly uproot, travel light and pursue creative industries which don’t necessarily have rigid nine-to-five hours or demanding bosses. With stop-offs usually lasting months, it’s a slow form of tourism combined with a flexible working life. When you don’t have an office, you might as well do your work from the beach.

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Communities are cropping up around the globe – from Canggu in the east to Medellin in the west. But with Bali a hotspot for dropshipping businesses and Colombian borders closed due to coronavirus, many are heading to Mexico. “There’s a big digital nomad community in Tulum – it draws in the hippy and creative types,” explains Rebecca Males of Outsite, a coworking space with locations around the world. “One of our guests was a video editor. She’d do tarot card readings with a photographer, business person and me as we sipped our morning coffee and checked emails.”
While the dropshippers of Canggu and Chiang Mai in Thailand are profiteers, the digital nomads of Tulum are more like backpackers with MacBook Pros – spirit seekers with an entrepreneurial streak. Among them is Colorado native Shenna Jean. A vision advisor, she teaches visualisation techniques to startups and corporate teams. “I was between leases, I needed a break and it was cheaper rent,” she says, explaining her reasons for making the move. “And because Tulum is an energy vortex: a place of high spirituality. I do a lot of facilitation through Zoom calls and get them [clients] comfortable, lie down and lead them through guided visualisations – like meditation except you focus on where you want to go.”
Tulum may only be a two-hour drive south from Cancún, but it’s a million miles from its hedonistic cousin. At a leisurely, holiday pace, Jean spent her month in the town fine-tuning her business, alongside daily beach yoga and a visit to one of the region’s many cenotes: a series of underground caves and turquoise groundwaters. She describes Tulum as her “Eat Pray Love” work trip. And she’s far from alone.
Stop by the trendy beachside cafes or the taquerias on the main drag and – Wi-Fi permitting – you’re bound to see westerners hunched over laptops, pandemic be damned. “I think more travelled to Tulum because of coronavirus,” says Jean, who arrived in July. “I met plenty who worked in digital marketing and social media, and many who were trying out remote working for the first time – their companies didn’t know they were out there.”

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Despite the US Department of State advising against travelling, and the land border being shut, Mexico is one the few territories still open to American passport holders – so long as you arrive by air. Given that Covid-19 is rife throughout the US, there is a danger that digital nomads will import the disease. Jean acknowledges the risk. She says that although masks aren’t required, she always wore hers in public spaces. “Tulum is heavily reliant on tourism. I think they were happy having restaurants back open and serving people again.”
Rebecca Cannon, the video editor turned tarot card reader, argues digital nomads are a positive for areas like Tulum. “If you stay somewhere for weeks, you’re going to get out of the main strip and into the community – that’s where you’re putting money into local pockets.” She clarifies her current role. “Technically, I’m kind of still a video editor. In November I had one thing I was cutting in Tulum. I did that for a week, I guess. But I’m a death doula: a spiritual advocate for the dying. I use a lot of tools for that, including card readings, plant medicine and cacao ceremonies. It’s why I was massively drawn to Tulum.”
Key ingredients in creating the ideal digital nomad community include a blissful setting, cheap costs, lax visa rules, beneficial time zones (which is why you tend to find more British nomads in Portugal) and, most crucially of all, solid Wi-Fi. It forms the perfect mix for working retreats like Loop, WiFiTribe and Hacker Paradise, where you can check your inbox in far-flung destinations like Vietnam, Oman and Kenya.
Tulum is pretty much a beach upon jungle and it lacks the infrastructure of Latin American metropolises and digital hubs like Mexico City or Medellin. It’s had a reputation for intermittent Wi-Fi, which has hampered its development. But across the Yucatán Peninsula, coworking spaces and hostels with reliable Wi-Fi are being built all the time.

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That’s why Males estimates that Tulum’s nomad community is in the hundreds – and growing. With an estimated local population of under 25,000, that’s a sizeable chunk. Outsite’s 16 rooms will be booked months in advance of the January to March high season; a local WhatsApp group connects guests with one another. As more and more remote workers arrive, there is a danger that the local culture will be eroded, and Tulum will become a homogenised coworking district. “We’re very conscious of how we work with local communities,” says Males, who is originally from Derbyshire in England. “The whole world looking like a Shoreditch or Brooklyn neighbourhood is a genuine concern.”
Some Mexican politicians and environmental activists have complained about Tulum’s rapid development and rung its death knell. However, much of the ire has been directed towards the impact of holidaymakers and the jet-set lifestyle, rather than digital nomads. Males argues that “slow tourists” tend to be more aware of their environmental impact, travel more slowly and spend more in the local economy.
And the digital nomad boom seen in Tulum is likely to occur on a mass scale. Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University, cites figures which show that US firms have increased their share of full-time remote workers to 40 per cent – a twenty-fold increase on pre-pandemic figures. In other words, millions and millions of people can now meet deadlines from anywhere on the planet. “Many will take the opportunity to become digital nomads,” Bloom says. “Add this to the fact that the pandemic is not going to end until we have a widespread vaccine, and you have the perfect recipe for nomadism.”
And it might not just be young millennials who take advantage of an office-free future. “With many schools cancelled as well as childcare centres, I can see even families being tempted to go nomadic,” Bloom says. “In fact, if I didn’t have children who wanted to stay local I’d be tempted to do the same. There’s no doubt digital nomadism is exploding in popularity.”
It’s not just remote workers who have cottoned on to digital nomadism. At the start of August, Estonia became the first nation to launch a specific visa for digital nomads, while the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Bermuda are both offering year-long stays for remote workers in order to boost economies hammered by Covid-19. It looks like Tulum’s nomad scene is a sign of things to come. “Digital nomadism is 100 per cent the future,” Males says. “It allows people to work a healthier, more well-rounded lifestyle. It’s a type of traveller that will only grow.”
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