Life in the tropics, realities, advantages and disadvantages of tropical life and what’s it actually like to live, garden, or homestead in the tropics.
Many dream of tropical beaches and enveloping heat and for a 2 week holiday it can be wonderful. But what about long-term? What’s it like to travel, live in, go offgrid. or move to the tropics?
We did just that, we moved to live in a tropical climate as expats over a decade ago, with two very small kids. Subsequently, we spent years in the heat and humidity of tropical Southeast Asia in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia, as we travelled the world before returning to tropical Queensland to become as off grid and self-sufficient as we possibly can.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of life in a tropical climate?
In this blog post we’ll also give you some tips on staying cool, packing, what to wear and behaviours that will help you keep your cool in tropical heat, plus a few tips on growing food and raising livestock in the tropics.
Life in the Tropics, What’s It Like?
The tropics lie between the Tropic of Cancer in the North and the Tropic of Capricorn to the south of the equator. The tropics are a band, stretching around the centre of the globe but some places outside of this zone can and do have a tropical climate.
Infact, some countries inside the tropics actually have an equatorial climate (Malaysia, Singapore) which is even more tropical, if you can imagine that.
When you think of the tropics you probably think of warm humidity, sunsoaked coral beaches, dazzling butterflies, swaying palms and tropical fruits, along with a relaxed tropical vibe, but are there negatives?
Things to consider that are part of tropical life that it could be useful to know about before you decide to move.
Tropical Heat and Humidity
Tropical heat and high humidity may affect your energy levels, skin, hair, or your sleep quality. Obviously they affect what plants you can grow and when.
If you’ve previously lived your life in cooler climes there may be an adjustment period if you move to the tropics.. A few things to know about tropical life, below.
- Your hair may be a lot more wavy, frizzy or curly. Some people develop curls.
- Perspiration causes loss of minerals from the body causing issues such as cramp. You may need to take supplements to fix this..
- Fungal skin infections are fairly common and can be highly contagious in the tropics. Particularly if bare skin touches unclean surfaces.
- Insect bites and scratches may become infected quickly, causing major problems.
- Find out about tropical ulcers.
- Wearing makeup in the tropics can be problematic. After a shower applying make-up is OK until the perspiration begins and cosmetics start dripping off your face. Some people seem to master this, I never have.
Tropical Living Tip: Take showers to cool down or jump in a safe swimming hole or creek. Cooling yourself down with water reduces need for airconditioning, saving you money and reducing your carbon footprint.
Tropical Wildlife and Bugs
The major wildlife issue you will probably face in the tropical parts of the world is mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.
If you’re an arachnophobe, you may have spider issues too, although, honestly, the spiders in the UK were far more of a problem than anything Australia or Asia have ever thrown at us.
There are also snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, poisonous jellyfish, monkeys, and sharks, amongst other things. I can honestly say that I’ve never been eaten or stung by anything particularly venomous.
In 6 or 7 years of full-time travel and the same amount of time living and gardening in the tropics I’ve seen fewer than 10 snakes and maybe 5 huntsman spiders. Does that help?
Beautiful butterflies, birds, monkeys, wallabies. even dolphins make more frequent appearances.
A few useful posts on tropical wildlife are below.
- Mosquitoes. The best way to avoid mosquito bites is to modify your behaviour. Tips for avoiding mosquitos.
- Dangerous jellyfish, box jellyfish and Irukandji are well known in Australian tropical waters. When they arrive we call it Stinger Season and take massive precautions. But other countries also have increased risk. Read about Stinger Season here.
- Snakes in the garden are an issue. Where our chickens sleep at night has to be 100% snake-proof. We bought ready-made chicken coops with snake-proof mesh, (hardware cloth). Chickens and other poultry also need shade, ventilation, and protection from wet season conditions.
- Living with salt water crocodiles – we lived in a place with plenty of crocs, although not nearly as many as The Northern Territory. Crocodiles are more widespread than you might think. The salties are found throughout the tropics, SouthEast Asia and up into India. Crocodile-related incidents are pretty rare though and there are none in our dam. Instead, we have wild ducks, kingfishers, and platypus.
Cockroaches and a multitude of flying bugs love the tropics. Expect the unexpected. Ants are an ongoing problem anywhere tropical.
Tiny sugar ants in Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, Malaysia and Cambodia, seem to have a particular love of making homes in our laptops. They’re just a fact of life. Any food crumbs, blood or protein-containing substance on floors, fabrics and counters will be a magnet for ants and waste animal products in bins soon become infested with maggots.
Tropical Living Tip: If you need to put anything in your bin that flies and maggots will love, keep it in your fridge or freezer until bin collection day. Put it in the bin at the last minute.
Tropical Plants Can Be Hazardous
Stinging tree, gympie gympie, have you heard of it? While we all love frangipani, swaying palms, hibiscus and easy-to-grow tropical fruits, some tropical plants are out to get you. We have a post on the stinging tree, where to find it, and its dangers.
We have found Gympie Gympie in our garden, in an abandoned area. What to do about it? We used a flame thrower and it hasn’t grown back.
If you’re a gardener you’re in for a treat. Tropical gardening and food harvesting go on year-round. There’s no real downtime as we have in a temperate winter. That said, growing plants in the tropics is a whole new ball game and you will have much to learn, as I did.
See our tropical garden or homestead on Instagram.
Tropical Living Tip: Never, ever, walk under or sit under a coconut tree. Just don’t!
Mould, Mildew and Laundry
Mould was the bain of my life when we first moved to the tropics with two small kids. Tiny children have a tendency to spill or smear food all over their clothes. Those clothes would quickly grow black mould in the laundry bin in just a few days. There was no more waiting a week for a full white wash, clothes needed washing fast.
There is no way that I’ve found so far to remove black mould. Bleach doesn’t shift it. Sweat also, sometimes, seems to grow mould in the laundry.
Another problem is mildew on leather items. If you have leather shoes, bags or belts that you don’t use often, furry mould or mildew will appear if you keep them in a wardrobe or closet. The only way I’ve found to beat this is to keep cleaning them regularly, even if not in use.
Drying laundry is another issue. In the wet season it’s like trying to dry clothes in a sauna.
It’s best to dry them under a fan, in the aircon, or both. Clothes will dry much faster with aircon or fans.
The strong overhead sun in tropical zones fades some clothes. It depends on the dies, quality clothes don’t fade much in the sun at all but some locally bought items fade fast. It’s best to be cautious and dry in the shade.
Clothes will also fade and disintegrate on your back if you’re outside sweating and in the sun.
Whites don’t last long with sweat, sunblock, and grime. Light, thin clothes also let the sun through to damage your skin. I rarely buy lovely white shirts any more for living in the tropics. Save the whites for cooler climates.
In the wet season or tropical summer you can also expect grout, showers, tiles and all the usual places to grow mould.
The sun can be ferocious and as travellers we’re likely to be out in it seeing and doing the things we came to enjoy. We need to protect ourselves.
Living in the tropics it’s slightly different. Behavioural modifications take us out of the daytime glare and we time our outdoor activities to the daily cycles. We only go outside for walking, running, cycling and gardening very early or very late. In actual fact, we usually run or cycle in the dark or at sunrise and sunset.
If you have to be out in the sun there’s that old rule, slip slop slap.
Slip on a shirt, slop on some sun block, slap on a hat. Cover all the skin you can, protect what you can’t cover with sunblock (AKA sunscreen)
As a mum to a teen who recently had sunstroke, while wearing a hat. Don’t get complacent. Seek shade, avoid full sun.
A hat and sunscreen won’t necessarily prevent sunstroke in extreme tropical climates.
Tropical Living Tip: Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Adjust your behaviour and take full advantage of the cooler hours. Stay indoors or in the shade as much as possible when the sun is fierce
Tropical Weather – Storms
Flooding is a tropical danger you might not have considered when planning your tropical move, travel or vacation. Tropical storms can be really amazing to experience, but they can also be dangerous.
High winds, falling trees, road closures and power losses are something to consider. Will you have adequate shelter in case of cyclones, typhoons or severe tropical storms? I wouldn’t want to be in a tent.
Where our farm is in the tropics of Australia we have power outages often, usually because of tropical storm damage. As so much of our food is frozen or refrigerated a generator, plus solar power backup are pretty much essential.
If the power goes down our pump won’t give us tap water either, so we keep some on hand, particularly for the animals and livestock.
The Tropics and Self Sufficiency, Being Off-Grid
We are never going to be fully off-grid because we need internet. I run an online business, that won’t change.
However, we do not have a phone signal where we live. Satellite internet and a land line mean we don’t miss having a mobile connection.
We are fully self-sufficient in terms of water, we have our own bore and good clean drinking water, plus water for irrigation. This system does rely on electrical pumps, so what to do when the power goes down?
We have a generator for emergencies, plus solar.
The power does go down often in our location.
We never need to buy fruit, jams, most sauces, herbs, coconut and coconut products, or eggs.
Could we be fully self-sufficient here? Yes. But our diet wouldn’t contain wheat and bread and we don’t currently have meat animals other than fish and yabbies.
We buy good quality flour online and make most baked goods ourselves.
We aim to grow pepper and most spices but we’re in the early stages of this.
At some point, we may get bees, but we know how to make palm sugar and could grow sugar cane.
We can grow lentils and other pulses, pigeon peas are a great tropical sustenance plant.
Tropical Life Round-Up
Do you have any tips or tricks for coping with tropical climates? What worries you or pleases you about tropical life? Are you planning to move to Southeast Asia or similar tropical countries in Central or South America, Africa or Australia, from the temperate UK, US the cooler parts of Europe, or North America? If you have never experienced tropical life for yourself you may have surprises in store.
Even if you’ve holidayed or taken a vacation in a tropical climate zone before moving to the tropics you may find daily life in the tropics surprising. As this site is all about gardening and growing food, I’ll send you to our post about the incredible food plants you can grow in the tropics of the world.