A month ago, my boyfriend and I sold everything and moved down to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
First of all, I recognize that this is a privileged position to be in. I am not rich by any means. However, I am from one of the wealthiest countries in the world, which means that my dollar does stretch far when I’m frugal.
My partner and I decided to take advantage of that while we’re relatively young and travel the world while working online full-time. We had traveled the United States extensively. So post-vaccination we figured, “Hey, why not? Now’s the time, right?”
I don’t regret my decision by any means. In fact, I would say it’s been one of the best decisions of my life. However, no matter what Instagram or TikTok might show you — living as a digital nomad doesn’t always come up roses.
For the sake of some good, old-fashioned schadenfreude, here are all of the things that have gone horribly wrong during my first month traveling the world full-time.
Learn through my pain, people.
We Hated Our First Apartment
We decided to “play it safe” and rent an Airbnb for a month in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Our thinking was that we could negotiate a longer stay if we loved it, and if we didn’t, well…you can handle anything for a month, right?
We now have a rule: We don’t book any place for longer than two weeks. If we decide we like the area after that, we will negotiate with the host or find a local to rent from.
Airbnb itself would have been great for a vacation. However, we overlooked a few important details when it comes actually to live in a place.
The Bed Was Atrocious
Mexican beds are, apparently, hard as a rock—at least cheap ones. Our mattress felt like we were lying directly on a box-spring (were we??), and it became impossible for the two of us to get any sleep.
Lack of sleep, of course, led to other problems. Unfortunately, I have back problems from 2 surgeries I had when I was a firefighter. A good bed is something I can’t neglect.
The Noise Level Was Ridiculous
Personally, I like the hustle and bustle of city sounds. I grew up in a city, and when I travel, I find the new smells, sights, and sounds of a place to be half the charm.
Living day to day, however, it turns out that I need a bit more peace. My partner records videos and has one-on-one sessions with clients. A quiet atmosphere is essential for him to work, and for my mental health.
No one told me, or I didn’t research hard enough: it is widespread for traditional Mexican homes in this area to have windows open to the air with no option to close them. Sometimes, they don’t have screens or even glass at all.
This makes a lot of sense if the weather is nice enough year-round and you don’t have air conditioning. A cross breeze is lovely!
Unfortunately, it also means that if you live on a busy street as we did, you will hear every truck, screaming party-goer, and barking dog as if they were standing next to you. The jazz music from the nearby tamale stand even became too much. One memorable night our neighbors had a party until 2 am, and we were up with them to hear the whole thing.
Again, fine for a vacation — but when you have a client meeting at 8 am, it is a huge downer.
Lessons learned: If you can help it, don’t book long-term trips(2+ weeks) in a spot without seeing it first, especially if you have reasons to be picky about things like bed comfort or noise. Scout the location of your long-term stay to see if the street noise will be acceptable to you day-to-day. Places that make good vacation spots, like right downtown or near a popular restaurant, don’t always make the best long-term living situations.
We Were Awkward As Eff During Interactions with Locals
I actually expected this one, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the toll it took on me.
Part of the reason we moved to Puerto Vallarta is that we assumed many people would speak English, but we would have the opportunity to improve our Spanish. Mexico and Puerto Vallarta, in particular, is a popular American and Canadian vacation spot.
We wanted the best of both worlds, selfishly.
Our first apartment was nowhere near a tourist location, which is great for many reasons. However, it also meant that no one really spoke English. Fine — we’re guests in another country, after all.
However, I soon realized that I avoided leaving the house because I could only say basic things. I found myself able to read more Spanish than I expected, but people would speak to me and I would freeze.
Most of my interactions were broken Spanglish and a lot of pointing to things. Google Translate quickly became my best friend.
We Couldn’t Figure Out How to Do Our Laundry
As a result of our awkwardness, we actually avoided doing our laundry for weeks because we seriously could not figure out how to do it.
The lavandaria near our first apartment didn’t have an attendant who spoke English. We knew how to say lavar and ropa in Spanish, and that was about it.
Eventually, we paid $11US ($200MX) for a drop-off service because we couldn’t figure out the machines. We were definitely overcharged for this service, as I know now from using different lavandaria’s in the area. The average cost is closer to $4US ($80MX).
Así es la vida. Such is life.
Lesson learned: Make a concentrated effort to learn the local languages, and until then, be very comfortable with being uncomfortable and wrong-footed. Expect to pay the tourist tax on occasion — that’s just part of life.
I Got Hilariously, Terribly Sick
So fun fact: ceviche is big in Puerto Vallarta. Every time I’ve had it at an establishment — food stand or sit-down restaurant — I’ve had a great experience.
My partner found fresh fish at a local market and decided to make ceviche at home. He looked up a recipe and was careful, or so we thought.
Cue me at 5 a.m., inexplicably awake vomiting my brains out into the toilet. My boyfriend was sick for a total of 24 hours. I was sick for seven entire days.
For days I was too weak to stand, and I barely knew where I was at one point. Luckily after I could keep food down, I could rehydrate on my own without visiting an emergency room.
This brings me to another point: I didn’t actually know where the closest emergency room was. English speaking doctor? No idea. This was a huge no-no on my part.
Lesson learned: Don’t attempt to make your own ceviche — leave that to the professionals. Always know where the nearest hospital or doctor's office is. Keep some anti-nausea medication on hand and a spare Pedialyte in the fridge for emergencies.
We Suddenly Found Ourselves without Our Favorite Activity
My partner and I met while working at a ski lodge. We are very active people, overall, and that is very important to us.
We obviously realized we wouldn’t be skiing in Mexico. However, our favorite date activity is hiking. In America, it was common for us to take weekend trips to the mountains, sometimes to hike 14 miles a day.
We quickly realized that we didn’t know enough Spanish to take long trips like this in Mexico. We had no clue where the nearest hikes were or if they were even safe.
Aside from hiring a guide, we weren’t sure how to incorporate our favorite activity into our daily life again. This took a huge toll on the mental health of both of us.
Spoiler alert: we did end up just hiring a guide and being shown popular areas. Once we were comfortable taking public transportation to places, we started incorporating our favorite sport back into our lives.
We also made an effort to try new things. Being near the beach for the first time in either of our lives opened up new activities like sea kayaking and surfing. My partner now takes a daily jog on the playa near our apartment.
Lesson learned: Be open to new ways of exercising. Research in advance if areas are outdoor-friendly. Be prepared to hire a guide to teach you the ins and outs of the area!
We Kept Mistaking the Food for Something it Wasn’t
In the past month, I cannot tell you how often I bought food, thinking it was one thing, and it turned out to be something completely different.
We do most of our food shopping at local stores. We are trying hard to learn the local culture and language, so we attempt to forgo American “luxuries” (like peanut butter) and live as the locals do. Obviously, we cave on occasion.
However — often hilariously and to our benefit — we haven’t figured the food thing out completely. Just last week, I bought a can of dark black cherries thinking they were olives. The cherries were delicious, but not quite what I was going for.
However, I am also a vegetarian. After purchasing and devouring half a bottle of smokey, spicy salsa de Morita, I realized that this particular brand of salsa contained chicken broth.
Oops! Wasn’t expecting that one.
For me, this was not the end of the world. The salsa didn’t make me sick, as I would have expected. I was disappointed, but it happens — and yes, the salsa was delicious. However, for someone with an allergy, this easily could have been a trip to the hospital.
Lesson learned: Be flexible and learn to laugh off mistakes. If you have a food allergy or a strict diet, you better learn how to identify all forms of your allergy in the local language.
Learning From My Newbie Mistakes
Exploring this area of Mexico has been a great joy. Although I’ve been traveling within my own country full time for years, I’ve made quite a few “newbie traveler” mistakes.
Here are my lessons learned:
- Learn to be flexible and forgive yourself for your mistakes
- If you have a strict diet, you need to learn to identify what you cannot have in your host language
- Be prepared to pay the tourist tax if you don’t learn the language
- Take language lessons — it’s courteous and will only help you!
- If you can help it, don’t book long-term trips in a spot without seeing it first. Test the bed.
- Be open to new ways of working out! Don’t be afraid to hire a guide.
- Leave the fancy cooking to the professionals, or take a lesson.
- Always come prepared for medical emergencies.
After a month of living in another country where I don’t speak the language well, I can tell you that every day is truly an adventure. It can take developing a thick skin to handle the overwhelm sometimes.
I wouldn’t change it for the world. However, I do wish someone had told me about the window situation or the chicken broth in the salsa.
Oh well! Así es la vida.
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