Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part Two
There’s no getting around it: writing a blog is work. It takes time. It takes discipline. It takes waiting around for a brilliant insight to hit you or an inspiring thought (a very rare event) and slogging ahead anyway when your muse is silent. However, the effort is well worth it when we hit the ‘publish’ button and add another page to our personal time capsule. Because, by far, our favorite thing about blogging is the comments part where we get to interact with old friends and new readers, trade ideas, exchange experiences and share some of the things we’ve learned as full-time travelers, expats and now, residents in our adopted country of Portugal.
Occasionally, we have an outline that we follow for a post but often, we just kind of watch and see how our post evolves in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way as this post did. In fact, it got away from us, growing into an unwieldy tome, which is why we broke it up into parts. In case you missed reading Part One, you can find the link HERE. And now, on with the countdown and our version of Twenty Questions.
LIFE AS TRAVELERS
13) What are some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel?
The Ups. For most of the three-plus years we were nomadic, we were slow travelers and spent an average of one to three months in each country. This allowed us to immerse ourselves into a destination, get familiar with how to navigate our way around a village or city and find out where the ATMs, markets and restaurants were located. Traveling slow also allowed us to settle into the not-so-exciting business of living our lives with the familiar routines of cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying bills, correspondence and researching future places to visit. Actually living in a place, however short the time, also gave us a chance to explore and discover the landmarks and landscape at our leisure: sightseeing at its best. We chatted up the locals as best we could in our fractured Spanglish and exchanged a lot of smiles, nods and the occasional shrug. Whenever possible, we tapped into the local expat community to ask questions and meet people, many of whom we keep in touch with still. Our favorite thing about traveling full-time was the feeling of being more in the here and now, and slowing down to appreciate the unique quality of each countries’ similarities and differences. And always, there was the anticipation of our next destination.
Tip – We traveled like the locals too, using the low-cost and well-developed bus systems of Mexico and Central America to slow travel from destination to destination. In countries where we were more concerned about possible violence or danger like El Salvador and Honduras, we checked with local travel agencies about shuttles and would hire recommended taxi drivers to act as our personal guides. Many times we used public boats and ferries to take us to more remote places like Placencia in Belize, Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. Once we reached South America where the distances are much greater, we used local airlines which are less expensive than their international counterparts.
The Downs. To be truthful, there were very few things that got us down for the first two-plus years. Maybe we were in the ‘honeymoon phase’ but the sheer freedom of structuring our days (or not) as we wanted to, was exhilarating. We loved unfolding our big wall maps of Mexico, Central and South America (something we were always glad to make room for in our limited suitcase space) and figuring out how to zig or zag our way to our next destination. Gradually though, the idea of packing and repacking, living out of a suitcase, schlepping it from bus to taxi and back, just got plain old. Deciding what clothing to pack was easy in the one-season tropical climates of Mexico, Central and South America and some of the island countries. However, once we decided to shift our travels to Europe, the clothing needs doubled for a two-season climate and our suitcases got a lot heavier. Visa restrictions, especially the Schengen Visa (click HERE for more info) made traveling more complicated. Living in too-small rooms and making-do with just the basics in an AirBnB apartment (every traveler has experienced a dull knife or two) gradually became less enchanting. We felt a growing isolation in places where we met few people and patching together our health care needs also seemed to get incrementally harder. The glow of nomadic life gradually dimmed in year three and we knew it was time to set up a base and use it as a place to launch future travels.
LIFE AS EXPATRIATES AND LIVING IN PORTUGAL
12) Why Portugal?
Honestly, we’d always pictured ourselves living somewhere in a beach community in Mexico or somewhere in Central America. As we traveled, we’d say, “Sure this is a nice place to visit but … could we picture ourselves living here? ” We kept a list of places that might work (interestingly, none of these were on a beach) but gradually we realized that the draw of many of the towns and cities we’d visited was more about the people we’d met than the actual places. And, the more we traveled, the more we recognized our preference for places with historical landmarks and histories that went back centuries. We wanted to be close to old world culture and museums as well as country landscapes including beaches and seas that we could look at for hours. We wanted to be close also, to markets and grocery stores carrying a selection of good foods and inexpensive restaurants that offered a variety of choices. In a nutshell, we wanted our version of paradise: a place where the cost of living was affordable, a mild climate and close proximity to many destinations for future travels. We knew within a week of our first visit to Portugal that it had everything we were looking for – plus that indefinable feeling of coming ‘home’. In fact, Portugal is rated Number 1 on Forbes’s 2017 Best Places To Retire Abroad and Number 3 on the 2017 Global Peace Index (right behind Iceland and New Zealand), ahead of Canada at Number 8 and a light year away from the US standing at a dismal Number 114.
11) How do you get a Resident Visa in Portugal?
We wrote about how to get a 4-month resident visa HERE for US citizens with some explanations and links. To give you a recap: you need to apply in person or by mail to a Portuguese Consulate (information can be found HERE) or the Embassy in Washington, D.C. Information listing the various types of visas and how to apply, including a list of supporting documents needed is available HERE. Once your initial 4-month visa is approved and you arrive in Portugal, you’ll have time to settle in before you’ll need to renew it at the SEF (Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers or, in plain English, the Immigration Office) and submit a few more documents. Our post detailing our first experience at the SEF can be found HERE. This visa renewal is good for one year. The next renewal will result in a two-year resident visa which is what we have now.
Tip 1– If it sounds complicated, we’re not going to argue. However, think about the bureaucracy in the US for a moment (or any ‘First’ world country for that matter) and you’ll realize how many years it took to assemble your paper life. The ‘Great Document Roundup’ as we called it may seem daunting but only because you’re amassing all the required documents at once. Just take a deep breath, muster your patience and break things down into steps.
Tip 2 – In our various posts, we talk about hiring a lawyer to help us through the visa process. In hindsight, this expensive assistance really isn’t necessary although a little handholding is always nice. (However, we’d rather hold our own hands at this point and save some money.) You can do everything yourself for the first step of the visa process when you’re gathering your documents to submit to the Portuguese consulate. Once in Portugal, there are a few times when you might need a lawyer but this is a pricey way to go. A much less costly alternative can be found in the form of a Portuguese resident who can act as your fiscal representative in obtaining a couple of documents. Check with a local expat group when you arrive for recommendations.
10) What is your Cost of Living?
This is the question that always interested us when we’d read about the lifestyle of other expats in various countries because, while it wasn’t our main reason for expatriating, it still played a major part in why Portugal appealed to us. We’ve kept track of our monthly expenses since September 2012, at first because we were curious as to how the countries we were traveling in would compare in terms of expenses, and as a way to monitor our own spending. We have an up-and-coming post where we’ll itemize our expenses but we have a quick and dirty estimate of our monthly costs for the last three months which includes rent, utilities, food, car maintenance and gas, health insurance, household goods and miscellaneous costs. Excluded are travel and medical expenses. Our monthly average is about USD $2500 – $2800 per month. We probably eat out two to four times a month and our rent is about $900. We’re mindful about how we spend our money but we like our comforts and splurge occasionally too.
Tip – Keep in mind that we live in the Algarve Region of Portugal which, along with the city of Lisbon, is the most expensive area of Portugal. Your money will go farther if you opt to live in other areas.
9) How do you find a rental apartment in Portugal?
There’s no such thing as multiple listing here in Portugal and finding a rental can be a slog, especially in the popular Algarve where you’ll find yourself working with multiple property managers. Rents are all over the board with the area around Lagos one of the spendiest for a long-term rental. Anywhere between €600 – €1200 is reasonable for a 1-2 bedroom/1-2 bath apartment. To start your own research, check out the Facebook page called Long Term Rentals Algarve for listings or type Rentals in the Algarve region of Portugal into your browser for listings and property managers.
Tip – We tell people who are thinking about visiting the Algarve area and Lagos in particular to avoid the high season months June through August and maybe even the shoulder season months, May and September, when rents are at their highest and tourists crowd the streets. AirBnB has listings for short-term rentals anywhere you want to visit and nothing beats the boots-on-the ground approach to finding a year-round rental you like.
8) What about buying a house or condo?
We don’t know about the rest of the Algarve, but a common sight in Lagos are the cranes silhouetted against the sky and apartments and condos in various stages of building. Signs saying ‘For Sale’ or ‘A venda’ can be seen wherever you look. It’s a hot market and the asking prices are still climbing way past anything we’d want to spend. Having divested ourselves of our property back in the US, we much prefer the freedom of renting versus tying ourselves down anywhere. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be upside. At the very least, wait until you’ve been here awhile and have had a chance to explore the variety of regions and the country to find what suits you best. We happen to like the more rural, laid-back feel and climate of the Algarve but friends of ours prefer the central and northern coasts around Lisbon and Porto where there’s more of a cosmopolitan vibe.
Once again, this is a l-o-n-g post and many of you may be saying, ‘Enough already!’ Our fervent wish is to leave you hanging on the edge of your seats and wanting more (dare we hope?) rather than tuning out. Part Three of Twenty Questions will conclude with our last seven frequently asked questions and start out with the lowdown on all things medical.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash