Living Off Grid in Central Portugal

Never in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine that our family would live in a caravan, without mains running water or electricity but here we are, living off grid in Central Portugal!

When we first came to Portugal housesitting in 2015 we were surprised to find one of our neighbours, a family of five, were living in a yurt in the middle of the woods. They had solar panels for their electricity, a bore hole for their water and a wood burner for their heat. They lived and slept in a yurt, had a compost toilet and shower outside. We arrived in November and that winter it rained. It rained a lot. The huge 4 bedroomed house that we were housesitting in was absolutely freezing all winter and we often thought of our neighbours in their yurt, stuck in their small space whilst the torrential rain lashed down all around them, creating a fast-flowing river and quagmire outside their door. Even then we realised, that whilst they may have had a little cabin fever all co-habiting in their small space and definitely dreaded going to the loo in during the days of downpour, they were much, much warmer than we were in our ‘house’.

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Looking back on those early days we struggled to comprehend what would make people, especially families with young children, go to such lengths to essentially ‘drop out’. In retrospect it’s an easy thing to answer, they had found what they were looking for, what we were also seeking out, an escape. An outdoor lifestyle without consumerism, without labels, without the many stresses of so called modern life. An escape from the rat race in the hope of finding a much simpler life.

A simpler life…? It’s a phrase with a double edged meaning, because ultimately it’s a much harder life living without ‘conveniences’. It’s very easy to be able to call a take-away or pop a ready meal in your microwave if you’re starving and don’t have the energy to cook. It’s laughably simple to have a dishwasher, washing machine, microwave and huge fridge freezer at your fingertips. Let us not forget about how very simplistic running water and a flushing toilet are. ‘Plumbing’ is not just a modern convenience, it’s an essential, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s only when you try doing something different that you realise no, it’s not essential. Yes, there is another way of doing things.

Topsy Turvy Tribe Caravan Living Off Grid in Central Portugal, Penamacor, Castelo Branco, Central Portugal

Most of you will be thinking…uh…why? Why on earth would you want to live without a plumbed in toilet and shower? The exact same reaction we had two years ago. All we can say is, don’t knock it until you try it. We are honestly happier as a family now than we have ever been. Our children do not miss out on a thing. If anything they far happier living an outdoor lifestyle and being together as a family. Our boys have the benefit of knowing that water is precious, that food must be planted and harvested and taken care of, that animals must be fed but provide eggs and meat. They are so much more in touch with nature and the outdoors living here. They are more aware and not bombarded by the consumerist nightmare that the UK has become. Our youngest boy, Mayhem recently turned 3, we asked him what he wanted for his birthday, he told us that what he really wanted was ‘a chocolate egg and big cake!’ I am certain that if we still lived in the UK his birthday list would have been much more detailed, with a whole list of popular toys at the top.

Mayhem's Third Birthday, Happy with a Chocolate Cake!.jpg

Here in Portugal the boys spend most of their day outside playing, discovering the world first hand. They very rarely have any screen time, and might be treated to a game on our phone (singular, yes we have only one phone between us), or an downloaded episode of a cartoon on the laptop. Most days the boys are doing what children should do. Chaos attends an amazing Alternative International School, one of the main reasons we moved to this area. Mayhem plays, Lego is his favourite but he equally enjoys digging in the dirt. The boys have never been dirtier and never been happier. Chaos loves his school and Mayhem loves being outside playing, feeding the pigs and chickens, digging in the dirt and spotting ants nests. Neither boy quibbles about having a compost toilet, about the lack of running water, about having to have a strip down wash in the awning before they are allowed in the caravan at bedtime, or about living in a caravan. In fact, they genuinely love it (living in the caravan that is, not having to wash!)

We are lucky enough to be able to stay on a friend’s land. We are far away enough from their quinta as to not impose but close enough to feel a great sense of community. We collect water from the local font, where the mountain water is pure and really, really tasty (in a good way). Even people who are on the mains collect water here because it’s really lovely water, untreated and from a natural spring. We wash our clothes by hand, yes with two dirt-encrusted boys it is a little time consuming and boring, but it’s also great for the boys to realise the work that goes into everyday living.

A gas bottle provides fuel for our stove and caravan’s grill and oven. The caravan’s fridge also runs on gas, it’s small and compact but keeps the essentials cool and fresh. We can boil up warm up water on the stove for washing pots and ourselves but we mainly use hot water from the solar shower. It does mean you that you have to wait to get a hot shower as the water is heated by the sun, but by midday the water is so hot that you end up having to add cold. We built a lovely outside compost toilet and shower room with the most amazing views of the cork oak forest that shelters our caravan and the stunning mountain of Monsanto in the distance.

The caravan itself is powered by a solar panel which ensures that the leisure battery is topped-up daily. Whereas we don’t have oodles of power, we have enough to power a laptop and phone and the lights in the caravan. More importantly we don’t have a massive bill for our electricity each month. We are careful with what power we have, use it wisely, don’t use it too much and don’t have to pay anyone for it. A huge difference to the extortionate energy bills you pay out in the UK.

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We are enjoying life in the caravan but have been having a little ‘holiday’ and are currently living in a house! We are housesitting for the lovely Parent Tribe, looking after their off-grid quinta, land, gorgeous Siberian Husky and playful kitten whilst they are on holiday back in the UK.

Living in Central Portugal is like living in the middle of nowhere, especially the area in which we live, as it is the least populated area in the whole of Portugal, with an increasingly ageing population. There are lots of estrangeiros (foreigners) in this area. The land is cheap, especially compared to the UK. There are so many families, couples and individuals moving here to buy a piece of land, renovate a ruin and live off the land. We need to save if we want some land but the difficult thing here is actually making money as there are no jobs. In the UK we earned a lot of money teaching but we had to work very long hours to pay the bills and have a good lifestyle. Here in Portugal we have very little money but we are together as a family and can devote our time to the boys. Money does not always make you richer, watching our boys grow is priceless.

If you want to earn money in Portugal you have to make it happen and there are lots of people here doing just that with many permaculture projects, yoga farms, retreats and holiday accommodation. Online jobs are really popular too. We are now teaching online and branching out into providing virtual assistant services to try and make a living.

The cost of living in Portugal is cheap. You can rent a three bed house for €200 per month, bills are reasonable and food is either comparable or cheaper than the UK. It seems even cheaper here though because in the UK you are constantly tempted into buy more than you need. with all of the BOGOF and Whoops offers, too good to be true… Here in Portugal, with two growing seasons, you also have the option to grow your own food and try to become self sustainable. There are some wonderful initiatives for sharing knowledge, labour and produce. You can join co-operatives and groups to learn how to work the land, help you farm, plant and harvest.

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The wonderful sense of community, for us, is another great thing about this area. We had the unfortunate luck to breakdown the other day. The gearbox completely ceased up and we were stuck in 3rd gear. Whilst waiting for the breakdown five people stopped their cars to see if we needed help. Five! We weren’t on a very busy road, there wasn’t that many cars passing, so that means that the majority of passersby stopped. We were offered lifts, tows, drinks; Mayhem was even treated to a chocolate milk. When the tow truck arrived to take the car to the mechanic we were told not to bother with a taxi and three separate people offered us lifts home. Three! Wow. We were humbled and grateful for such an outpouring of such amazing community spirit. Would this have happened in the UK? Would so many people have stopped to offer assistance? Is there such a wonderful sense of community? We thought not…

The ex-pat community is alive an well, with a big smattering of English and tonnes of different nationalities. The Portuguese community is also amazingly welcoming and generous. The language is difficult, very difficult. After learning conversational Spanish during our travels, it seems like a relatively easy language in comparison to the almost Russian or Slavic sounding Portuguese. Even if you can read the language, it’s another thing to pronounce it. But try we must, even when you are told that your ‘Portuguese accent sucks’, you have to keep on persevering! The Portuguese people that we have met have been welcoming, kind and happy that we and other estrangeiros are bringing children and life to this ageing community.

Even though we have only been back here in Portugal for a few months, we feel as though we belong. The boys are so happy, being able to spend so much time outside agrees with them. We may not enjoy living in the caravan when it gets wetter and colder, (it’s still 25º plus each day even in October), but time will tell. At the moment we are so very happy with our little caravan, the collective community and lifestyle. We are loving living on and hopefully off the land and basking in the luxury of this ‘simple life’. Aaah, bliss!

Walking with the Husky Dog, Penamacor, Portugal