The deskless dream in Madeira – the island designed for digital nomads
Can remote working abroad boost your happiness? To find out, we head to a digital nomad village in Madeira.
Gonçalo Hall has always been a nomad. “I went to seven schools and three different universities, and I was always curious about living somewhere new. When I travelled, it wasn’t like ‘oh, this is pretty.’ It was more like ‘how do people live here?’”
The Portuguese entrepreneur discovered digital nomadism about ten years ago and soon became one himself, setting up base in places such as Indonesia and Brazil.
Hall’s name has been synonymous with the digital nomad scene in Portugal ever since he started the nomad village movement in Madeira. After visiting the Portuguese island for a conference, the warm weather and fast internet convinced him that Madeira was the perfect place for his project.
His two-minute elevator pitch also convinced the regional secretary of economy, Rui Barreto, and soon enough the President himself gave his seal of approval. With the help of regional business incubator StartUp Madeira, the project kicked off in February 2021.
Madeira in the top ten
During the pandemic, many people learned to enjoy the freedom of working from home. Now that restrictions have relaxed, some are taking the location-independent workstyle to the next level: why not travel the world while you’re at it?
In January 2022, the Kayak travel search engine ranked Portugal as one of the best countries to work remotely.
“Portugal has a good climate, the people are welcoming, and we are six hours from the U.S., nine hours from Asia, and two hours from virtually anywhere in Europe. With our culture, four-euro wine, and delicious food, it’s no wonder people want to move here,” says Hall.
Initially Madeira ranked around 100th on the Nomad List of destinations rated by remote workers. Today, it is almost always in the top ten.
Seasonal living in a nomad village
Ponta do Sol was an obvious choice as the pilot destination for the nomad village. “It’s a picturesque village near the sea and mountains with many restaurants and cafés within walking distance. The sun shines pretty much year-round, which was a bonus since we launched in winter,” says Micaela Vieira, project manager at StartUp Madeira.
The team set up a co-working space, listed monthly accommodation deals, and convinced restaurant owners to introduce vegetarian dishes to welcome the new wave of visitors. Smooth arrangements are a bonus, but in the end, it’s the community that makes people want to stay.
“The remote lifestyle can be lonely. Always arriving in a new place and not knowing anyone is like restarting every time,” says Hall, who ensures that newcomers are extended a special warm welcome. Lunch turns into a hike. And the hike turns into a party.
“The minute your laptop closes, you are in the middle of nature, surrounded by sea, mountains, and community,” says Hall.
Some people enjoy Ponta do Sol so much that they keep returning again and again. Product manager Steven Menke from the Netherlands is spending his second winter in Madeira, where the sunny weather has helped him to combat seasonal affective disorder.
My happy place in the sun
Cristina Muntean also craved sunshine when she first came to Madeira. She is the face behind VORNICA, a women’s career consultancy with a mission to triple the number of women CEOs in Europe by 2030.
Adopting a remote-first model for her business gave Romanian-born Muntean the freedom to move wherever she wanted. After spending most of her life in Prague, Madeira is where she found her happy place.
“Here I found all the things that were missing in my life in Prague: sun, warmer weather, and also a community to connect with and bounce off ideas,” she says.
Menke and Muntean are just two of 15,000 people who have registered on the Digital Nomads Madeira website. Since its inception, the community has welcomed people from 136 countries, the top locations being the United States, the UK, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France, and Brazil.
Most nomads spend an average of one to three months in Madeira. Newcomers are invited to connect via Slack, which is where the local community manager rolls out the weekly event calendar, announcing anything from salsa classes to morning yoga and workout sessions.
Remote working boosts work-life balance
The affiliate nomad community in the island’s capital, Funchal, is run by Luís Calado and Marelin Gonçalves. Madeira-born Calado left the island when he was only two. After working in the tech field in Ireland for 12 years, he decided to return home when the pandemic hit.
“I returned because of family, but I realised this island has everything I need for a perfect life. I ‘blame’ remote work for opening my eyes to a better work-life balance,” he says.
A fitness buff, Calado first got involved with the digital nomad community by doing what he loves best: hosting burpee workouts. He and Gonçalves started exercising outdoors in December 2020. As the weeks went by, the group grew and finally caught the attention of Gonçalo Hall, a fellow CrossFit enthusiast — and so their collaboration began.
“I still remember our first session,” says Calado. “It was me, Marelin, her sister, my brother, and a friend. This year we average 40 people per workout. Even with our weekly community party on Fridays, we still have a few ‘nutters’ who join our Saturday morning workouts.”
Today Calado and Gonçalves run Madeira Friends, a non-profit that brings together digital nomads and Madeira locals through events such as networking hangouts, hackathons, pool parties, and charity initiatives.
Escaping the expat bubble
Another local involved in the community is Tiago Olim, who first left the island for university and ended up travelling Europe, South America, and Asia.
“Growing up in Madeira, the island seemed a bit narrow-minded. There wasn’t much of an international community, so I always dreamed of expanding my horizons,” says Olim.
When he returned ten years later, in 2021, everything had changed. “All my friends were married and having children, so I decided I needed to get out and connect with a new crowd. It was great seeing people doing yoga in the streets.”
Olim helped to set up the Remote East Coasters community in Machico. With his passion for hospitality, he also founded a company called Maracujá Experiences, which curates experiences such as workations and wellness trips for remote professionals.
Olim coaxes visitors out of the expat bubble by offering them a chance to truly immerse themselves in Portuguese culture. He is passionate about giving visibility to local artisans. For instance, he arranges winery visits followed by a chef-curated meal paired with that same wine later in the evening.
While Madeira is a place to which many digital nomads keep returning, others prefer to stay on the road — including Gonçalo Hall, now a father-to-be.
“I get itchy feet if I stay too long in one place. I think I’ll always be a nomad. Even with the baby, we plan to continue travelling around the world.”
Finnair flies to Madeira once a week.