Bansko — The Digital Nomad Ski Resort

At the end of last summer, a flurry of articles about a new Coworking Space inspired a group of digital n omads to spend the winter season not in sunny Chiang Mai but halfway up a mountain in a small Bulgarian Ski Resort.

Food and accommodation were promised prices you’d usually find only in Asia, along with easy visas, low taxes and a thriving digital nomad community… the winter season is over now and the question is — did Bansko live up to the hype?

According to Chinese Medicine, time spent in the mountains increases your Jing, which is the candle, to the flame that is life force, or Chi. A season in Bansko will surely lengthen your candle.

Having spent the best part of 5 months here, I can honestly say, absolutely, yes! I would recommend Bansko to anyone who is looking for an economical way to spend a season skiing or snowboarding.

In fact — I’ll probably come back for the 2017/18 season, and I’d like to invite you to join me.

This was one of the warmer days at the start of the season in Bansko.

I’ve been a nomad since 2005, and I’ve always wanted to do a ski season. I thought seriously about Morzine and researched a few other places, but to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t bring myself to fork out for expensive rents in a cold ski resort when I could be living it up in sunny Chiang Mai or Bali for next to nothing.

So when Bansko came onto the scene, I jumped at the chance.

What’s Makes Bansko Ideal for Digital Nomads…

Well, the main thing is the prices. I rented a studio apartment about five minutes walk from the gondola station for 710EUR for the whole season. That’s less than I was paying in London for one month!

142 EUR/month studio apartment. Check the Bansko Digital Nomads Facebook group for a video tour.

I ended up staying in my apartment for five months, so that works out as 142EUR per month — very comparable to Chiang Mai, and you can’t ski in Chiang Mai.

Electricity is cheap here but you use a lot of it — my hot water and heating were electric, so my electricity bill varied between 50EUR and 100EUR per month depending on how cold it was. My apartment had been empty when I arrived so I literally had to have the heating on 24/7 for 3 days to defrost the walls. Even so, it’s a very reasonable price and I’ve had higher air-conditioning bills in Chiang Mai.

It wouldn’t make much sense to compare a city in Northern Thailand to a ski resort in the Balkans for anyone other than digital nomads — but just to drive home my point, at the cheaper end of town, near the co-working space, you can get a pizza for 2 EUR and many restaurants will feed you will for 3 to 5 EUR.

What’s the Mountain like?

This cat is the boss. He runs the mountain.

For a ski vacation, there are definitely better resorts to go to. For a shorter amount of time, worth heading somewhere with a bigger ski area and more reliable snow, even though they are 3x-4x the price of Bansko.

But if you’re a nomad, Bansko is ideal. On the days when conditions are less than ideal due to the weather, or big crowds, you can just take the day off from the mountain and do some work.

It’s a small ski area, but honestly, in the 42 days that I spent on the mountain, I didn’t really get bored. In fact I still haven’t really skied every inch of it. I’d had about 15 days skiing before I arrived, which apparently put me at ‘intermediate’ level — bear in mind people on a ski vacation go home after a week or two so my skiing improved massively. I also started to learn to snowboard. If your focus is on learning and improving your ski or snowboard skills, the size of the mountain doesn’t really matter so much.

The ski season starts around 17 Dec, and the whole season pass is 750 EUR, or 650 EUR if you can buy it before the end of November. There’s also a 20-day pass for about half that price. They have plenty of snow cannons so as long as it’s cold enough, plenty of the mountain is open at the start of the season, and almost all of it is open by 1 January.

I don’t recommend staying beyond mid-March, the snow starts to melt making the bottom half of the mountain much less fun — and the ski-out closes around that time. That said, the season officially closed on 17 April this year and there was a dump of snow on the final weekend which made it a fun finish.

What’s the town like?

Apres-ski is ok — there are plenty of bars and a few clubs in town, with something going on most nights in high season. I found that my focus was on skiing and work — with not much time or energy for drinking and partying more than once week on average.

The cheapest drinks we found are at the Karaoke bar for 5 EUR for 10 mixed shots of Rakia, Vodka, and White Rum. At the other end of the scale, a few bars have skilled mixologists serving cocktails at around 5 to 10 EUR.

There’s a selection of touristy activities — a reverse-bungee, dodgems, a bowling alley and even three escape games.

Head to Smokey Mountain for epic nachos, burgers, ribs.

People complain about a few things in Bansko — the most relevant thing is really the food and service in restaurants. I found there are plenty of restaurants that serve good food, at good prices, with good service. There certainly are restaurants that are appallingly bad, but no-one’s forcing you to go back to them. There’s a good mix of traditional Bulgarian food and other styles like Smokehouse, Greek, and a few Italians.

The other complaint about the town itself is the amount of half-finished, derelict and empty buildings. It’s somewhat surprising, apparently there was a building boom in Bansko in the early 00’s, and when the bubble burst many buildings were left in various stages of completion.

The upside of this is that rents are low and purchase prices are rock-bottom. You can pick up apartments for a stunning 10k-20k EUR, and if you are looking to get residency in a favourable tax location you could do a lot worse than base yourself in Bansko.

The Gondola / Co-Working Divide

Co-Working Bansko Movie Night

Co-Working Bansko opened in December, and it was fun to be around to help them set up their offices at the start of the season. It’s now a well-equipped co-working space, with a fun and friendly vibe and reasonable prices. The wifi is fast and they have about 24 desks, a meeting room, Skype room, free coffee and comfy sofas. If you’re starting out as a nomad they have a nomad-in-residence programme offering free accommodation own exchange for social media promotion and other tasks.

When I was looking for accommodation in Bansko, I faced what seemed like a tough choice — the co-working space was a good 20-minute walk from the ski gondola. That might not sound like much, but bear in mind for most of the winter it’s cold (down to -10C) and sometimes slippery.

In the end though, it comes down to this — is your focus on the mountain, or working?

I chose to live near the ski gondola, and only infrequently made it down to the co-working space. In retrospect I should probably have purchased a desk and office chair, as I often found myself working on the sofa in my apartment.

The alternative would have been to live near the co-working space, which would mean taking a taxi or shuttle to the ski gondola every time I wanted to ski. Co-Working Bansko have an agreement with a nearby hotel that members can use their shuttle for 1.5 EUR, otherwise a taxi is maybe 5–7 EUR, if you can find one. You’d also need to take one back at the end of the day.

My apartment was less than 5 minutes walk to the ski gondola, even in clumsy ski boots and lugging a pair of skis.

The gondola end of town is the tourist end. Restaurants are 2–3 times the price of the old town end where the co-working space is. The old town is a a proper small town — hardware shops and mobile phone shops and a few clothes shops. Rents are cheaper and it’s busier in the summer.

The old town is a good choice if you want to focus on work, but before you commit I would recommend being clear about how often you want to go up the mountain and how you’re going to get to the gondola each day.

Honestly. This is where I worked every day.

For me, the gondola end of town suits my nomad lifestyle better. I find I get more work done at home, especially if I’ve got a desk, and I like to pick up my laptop and go and sit in the corner of a cafe or restaurant. Even at the tourist end of town, food is 1/2 the price of London restaurants so it’s affordable to maintain this.

I’d live nearer the co-working space if I knew I had a group of nomads to share a taxi up and down with to get to the mountain a few times a week.

The 2017/18 Ski Season

As the digital nomad scene matures, I suspect we’ll see more nomad spots spring up focused around a particular sporting activity.

Scenes that are already developing that I know of include Kite-surfing in Tarifa, Spain, surfing in Taghazout, Morocco, or Bali, diving in Koh Lanta or Koh Tao, or Yoga in Bali or Koh Phangan.

Bansko is certainly the cheapest nomad-friendly ski resort on the nomad radar, although if you are willing to spend 4x-5x as much you might consider Big White in Canada, or Morzine in France.

There are other contenders for digital nomad ski resorts — I’ve set up a ‘Digital Snowmads’ Facebook group to share ideas.

Co-Working at Starfish cafe and bar, at the gondola end of town.

The main thing that would make Bansko more appealing for me, is more nomads. At the gondola end of town we had about 12 digital nomads around for January and February. The co-working space population varied between 6 and about 30, depending on what events were on.

I know there are plenty of nomads considering a season in Bansko, so I expect there will be more for 2017/18 than this year, and the more the merrier really.

If you’re interested in a season in Bansko, join the “Bansko Digital Nomads” group and the “Co-Working Bansko” groups. They are great places to ask questions and a gathering place for anyone considering a season.

Hope to see you there!