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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for expats

Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Is the BEST Way to Make Friends as an Expat

Jake Nomada is one of our favorite writers and social media influencers in Latin America. Here, he writes about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and why it’s one of the best things that travelers and expats can do, not only to stay fit, but also to combat loneliness and meet people.

Traveling around can get lonely.

You’re moving from place to place at “break-neck speed” and constantly searching out new experiences.

From new hikes to surf spots to poppin’ nightclubs to good restaurants…you often don’t even catch your breath.

Until you do.

Maybe you get sick. Maybe a raging hangover keeps you in bed for a few days. Maybe you just need to chill for a bit.

It happens to all of us while on the road. And during these moments, you begin to realize how lonely you might be.

How it would be nice to just unwind watching a game with a close friend. Or maybe ordering a pizza with the fam that night. Or hell, even just having a good convo with someone who speaks the same native tongue as you do.

Your mind quickly turns to minor issues like…

  • Lacking family and friends from back home
  • Struggling to communicate in a new language
  • Day-to-day difficulties of living abroad

And it’s completely normal.

While traveling and living in Latin America since 2014, I have felt alone and lonely many times.

Every traveler has.


This kinda changed when I began training Brazilian jiu jitsu a few years ago.

Below, I’ll explain why, but the TL:DR is…

Jiu jitsu (BJJ) is the absolute best way to make friends as a male traveler and expat – by far, bar none.

Why BJJ While Traveling?

Let me explain…

1. It’s everywhere

For starters, you can find BJJ gyms in damn near every big city in Latin America.

Hell, you can even find BJJ gyms in small beach towns all over the region. BJJ and surfing are a popular mix.

Anywhere you go, you’ll be able to find a place to train.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in Costa Rica or Mexico. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an island beach community like Bocas del Toro or a big city like Bogota.

You don’t need waves to surf or a mountain to hike.

You need some mats and a coach. Simple.

2. The BJJ “high”

There’s nothing like sparring 5-6 rounds after class and the “high” you feel.

It’s better than any drug out there. Pure adrenaline and endorphins.

And all of your fellow classmates feel the same way after a good sparring session.

Body aching and beat up, but mentally you’re in a happy place.

You start chatting with your fellow classmates after sparring the way you would talk with someone you just met after 5-6 beers at the bar.

And of course, you quickly become “friends” with many of your sparring partners for this reason.

3. BJJ culture

While boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA are all incredible martial arts in their own rights, BJJ is a bit different.

Many call it a “physical chess match” because you not only have to be able to properly complete the techniques, but you also have to plan several “moves” ahead and counter what your opponent is doing.

This leads to BJJ attracting a smarter, sharper type of martial artist.

You’ll often be training BJJ with doctors, lawyers, and successful businessmen – both locals and expats alike.

The physical chess match of jiu jitsu isn’t ideal for morons, so the people in these classes are usually smart.

BJJ is also called the “gentle art” because the sport can be practiced properly, with great intensity – without much force. This again brings in people from all walks of life – not your typical MMA bro who is just looking to “smash” and fight.

As such, BJJ attracts a chill, sharp person who is interested in martial arts and fighting, but often not purely for the violent aspects of it.

This also brings in people from all ages – 5-65 years old.

Therefore, the culture of BJJ is very chill, friendly, and welcoming.

You find many BJJ bros are very easy to get along with.

Common goals and shared experiences

Think back to your childhood and many of your friends…

You guys probably did a lot of stuff together and had shared experiences that allowed you to bond – you might even talk about them to this day when you get together.

BJJ allows you to experience that again.

Here’s why:

Everyone in BJJ class is looking to get better, have fun, and potentially move up the belt rankings.

You all have the same goal of improving at BJJ and moving up the “rankings” so to speak.

This gives you a common goal with your classmates.

You can then magnify that by sharing the experience of going to competitions with your fellow classmates.

Just like you used to go to sporting events with your teammates as a kid, you’ll do something similar with your BJJ classmates when going to competitions.

This is great for making friends on the road – be it as a traveler or as an expat.

How it Works

Now that you understand a bit about BJJ and why it’s ideal for travelers looking to meet like-minded folks…

Here’s how it plays out in real life:

You just show up to class…consistently

You train hard. You’re welcoming and friendly. You chat during breaks and after class.

People will quickly warm up to you, maybe you’ll exchange Instagrams or WhatsApp with some classmates.

Then when a big UFC fight comes around on a Saturday night, go to class on Thursday or Friday and ask:

Is anyone watching the fights this weekend?

Start a convo and if anyone is interested, invite people out for dinner and some beers to watch UFC.

Doesn’t matter if they’re locals or travelers or expats, you’ll most likely get a few takers. BJJ bros love watching UFC.

Go have a few beers, watch the fights, talk some shit, and get to know your fellow martial artists.

If the bros you’re with like to party a bit, make a plan while watching the fights to go to a club and party after the fights.

Do this a few times over the course of 2-3 months in a city and you’ll surely have some friends to kick it with while in the city.

And the best part…

These friends will be far more like-minded than most you meet.

Martial artists. Generally pretty smart. Often businessmen or professionals. Welcoming and down to earth people.

Far better than the average dude you meet at a bar or hostel.

Again, it doesn’t matter if they’re from the country you’re in or a foreigner. BJJ culture trumps that.

Couple Tips…

Before wrapping this up, I wanted to give you a few more tips and tricks…

1. Don’t shy away from a gym just because there’s MMA guys there

I’ve trained at some pretty rough-around-the-edges “no-gi” gyms in Mexico and Panama – and the guys were insanely friendly.

No need to be intimidated. BJJ is a welcoming sport – even if the guys look like they want to snap your arm off.

2. Test out a few gyms in the city/location where you’re at

When I was looking for a gym in Panama City, Panama – I did my research and found a few that looked good.

After some trial and error, I started training at Serpente Panama near Via Argentina.

The place didn’t look promising from the outside and the head coach Morris, looks like an absolute monster.

But as soon as I walked in, he greeted me with a huge smile and was insanely friendly. Everyone at the gym was hyper-focused on BJJ, but super welcoming and friendly – even though many are professional MMA fighters.

Can’t judge BJJ bros by their cover.

P.S: They also have a great location in Bocas del Toro.

3. Go to a retreat

After you’ve been training BJJ for a year or so, checking out a BJJ retreat is an incredible idea.

You’ll get to spend a week surrounded by nature learning jiu jitsu from a high-level coach. Win-win.

You’ll also meet some great people.

One of my gringo training partners in Panama City spent a week at Hero Academy in Tamarindo, Costa Rica on a retreat – and couldn’t stop raving about it when he got back.

El Fin

There’s tons of ways to meet people while traveling these days – between apps, social media, and more. Bars, gyms, etc.

The list could go on and on.

But outside of the connections I’ve made on Twitter over the past years, the people I’ve met rolling around on a sweaty mat trying to rip my arm off have become some of my closest friends on the road.

If you’re a male expat tired of political BS convos and hanging out with fellow foreigners solely because they speak English, you need to take up jiu jitsu.

BJJ is the best way to make friends as a traveler and expat.

Te lo juro,

Jake Nomada

Jake Nomada quit the corporate grind in 2014 to live a life of adventure in Latin America. He’s lived all over the region, building digital businesses while helping others realize their dreams of escaping the rat race and working remotely abroad themselves. He enjoys “shithole” tourism, jiu jitsu, lifting weights, and spending time with his growing family. Learn more about Jake by clicking here and subscribe to his excellent Substack newsletter for great stories, great intel, and more than a few laughs about life in LatAm.

Jake Nomada

Jake Nomada

Originally from the United States Midwest, Jake Nomada quit the 9-5 corporate grind in 2014 to live a life of adventure in Latin America. Since then, he's lived in Mexico, Colombia, Panama, and elsewhere in LatAm building digital businesses while helping others realize their dreams of escaping the rat race and working remotely abroad.