Five years ago, up-and-coming Irish journalist Kelly O’Brien quit her job to embark on an epic adventure – backpacking through almost the entirety of Europe and the Americas, as well as parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Though she made her way through 76 countries, there was only one city Kelly ever considered growing roots. Now a proud member of TLR coworking, Kelly has written a moving love letter to her favourite city in the world: her beloved Málaga.
Adventure in the blood
Growing up in a rural setting (aka, the back arse of nowhere) deep in the countryside of southern Ireland, my childhood was, by all accounts, a happy one.
On a daily basis, I was up the fields, down the bog, up a tree, or down a river. I was picking blackberries, climbing straw bales, jumping fences, and chasing butterflies.
I was an only child, growing up in the house of my grandparents, which meant I largely kept to my own company and that of the dog’s. Every day I was out and about somewhere. Nobody ever knew exactly where, and that suited me just fine.
And with all this, I mean to say: I was a child that craved adventure.
This, dear reader, never changed. The seasons changed, but I did not.
Getting a taste for it
As you might have already guessed, I don’t come from a particularly affluent family, and so, as a child, the only few times I was ever on a plane was when I travelled with my grandparents to England to visit their eldest daughter (my aunt) who lived in a nunnery there.
(The nunnery thing is a whole other story but basically, back in the day, Irish couples would send their firstborn to the church. If it was a boy, he was to become a priest. If it was a girl, you were to send them to the nuns. This all usually happened when they were between 16 and 18. It was all very Catholic.)
As you can imagine, I absolutely loved it. It was a whole other type of adventure for me. For the first time, I thought about how big the world was, and how little of it I had seen. I told myself that when I grew up I would go to every single country in the world. I would see absolutely everything there was to see.
Maxing out credit cards
Fast-forward ten or so years. I’ve finished my primary and secondary level education and I am shipped off to University. On campus, there is a bank. It is the first day of term, and they have a stall outside with a promotion: ‘Sign up for an Ulster Bank account today and get two free return flights to a European destination!’
Looking back, this was truly where it all began.
I opened that account, and I got those flights. I brought my mom to Prague. My Ulster Bank debit card came in the mail… along with a credit card I hadn’t applied for. I believe the limit was something like €2,000.
As I said earlier, I was not from a particularly affluent family. Two grand was a lot of moola to me. I’d never had access to two grand before. And here I was, barely 18-years-old, in charge of my own life for the first time ever, and acutely aware of the thirst for adventure coursing through my veins.
I booked a flight to New York City.
Die With Zero
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was whole-heartedly practising an ethos I later read about in a book called Die With Zero by Bill Perkins. He basically writes about how you shouldn’t save up hoards of money for a rainy day, because you’ll eventually get too old to spend it. He says you should spend your youth getting into a healthy amount of debt, safe in the knowledge that you’ll pay it off once you start your career.
So I went to New York, using that surprise Ulster Bank credit card to pay for my ticket, and I stayed there for three whole months in the summer of 2008. Did it put me in debt? Yes. Was it worth it? Also yes. Would I do it again? Without hesitation. It was a magical summer where I lived in a one-bedroom basement with four other Irish students, working with a number of ex-convicts in a moving company (packing up people’s stuff and moving them from A to B, essentially). It was completely nuts. And completely unforgettable.
Full blown travel addiction
Without going into too much detail, this is how I started to live my life. I would work hard, study hard, and blow any money I made on travel and adventures.
Even when I started my career in journalism, I retained this wanderlust. I would take a tiny backpack (to save on baggage costs) and get cheap Ryanair flights to various European destinations every few weekends. I would also sometimes get free trips thanks to my job – one time an airline wanted me to review their new route, so they sent me to Nantes, and another time the airport wanted me to experience their new shopping section, so they sent me to Amsterdam.
There came a time, however, right when my career was taking off, where this level of adventure was no longer enough. It no longer satiated me. I wanted, NEEDED, more. This was when I decided to quit my job, go freelance, and travel the world full-time. Everyone told me I was crazy to give up such a good job – it was hard to get into, it paid well, it had MANY perks, it was somewhat prestigious, I got to meet famous people, and it was a job I truly loved and was genuinely good at.
But, when it came down to it, I simply loved travelling more.
My travels between 2017 and 2020 is also a story for another day. There is simply too much to tell you here. Perhaps I will write a book about it someday. For now, all you need to know is this: at the end of it, I was satiated.
I travelled for years on end, mostly alone, with only a small backpack for company. What I did, the things I saw, the people I met, the places I went… all completely unforgettable.
And even so. Amid all this adventure, all this happiness, one place stood out. Málaga, Spain.
My first taste of Málaga
My first visit to Málaga was during those first three years of travelling. There was a good listing on Workaway (a site where you can find work in exchange for room and board) which I applied to, and was accepted to. Which is how I ended up flying to Málaga to work in a guesthouse.
I, and six others, were basically house elves for three months. We lived in the basement underneath a gorgeous villa on Monte Gibralfaro. We cleaned in the morning, ran the reception in the evening, and took turns cooking for each other. In my spare time, I continued to work remotely as a freelance journalist for outlets back in Ireland.
At the end of my three month placement, I moved on. But Málaga stayed with me, in my heart. I never forgot the city – how vibrant it was, how much adventure was to be had there, how happy I had been.
Around a year later, Covid hit. It was March 2020 and I was in Stockholm, Sweden living in a hut in the garden of a picture-perfect Swedish family. Wild deer would come into the garden every day, eating apples from the trees when the season permitted. It was all very Scandinavian. Suddenly, all international travel ground to a halt. I was stuck there. Granted, there were worse places to be stuck given that Sweden never had a lockdown, but I still felt trapped. Slowly I began to plan my escape.
Operation prison break
A few months later, when everything started to open up again, I seized the opportunity and flew back to Málaga. Covid had shown me that if I was going to get stranded, I would rather be stranded in Málaga than anywhere else.
I realised it truly was my favourite city and, given that my thirst for full-time 24/7 adventure seemed to have been quenched, I realised it was the only place in the entire world I would actually consider putting down roots.
If you have ever lived in Málaga, you are probably nodding your head right about now, agreeing with me. One thing every Málaga-based expat has in common? We all freaking love this city. If you’ve never lived in Málaga, perhaps you’re wondering what’s so great about it.
I will tell you.
Málaga, my love
The first and foremost reason expats have been flocking to Málaga: the weather. Málaga has a unique microclimate and boasts pleasant weather pretty much all year round. On a winter’s day you’d be looking at a high of around 17 degrees celsius, which is really pleasant. There are definitely days in December and January that I have even been legitimately suntanning on the beach. In summer it hovers around 30 degrees, though it CAN reach around 40 on particularly hot days. This is too much for me, to be honest, but it’s a small price to pay for the great weather of the rest of the year.
Personally, I also like the location of Málaga airport. It’s only around 20 minutes from the city via train (30 minutes by bus, 15 minutes by taxi) and it’s insanely well connected to other European countries. If there was an emergency back in Ireland, for example, I could easily get a last minute flight home. That comforts me somewhat, and makes me feel like I’m not far from my ‘home’ home.
There are a million other reasons to love Málaga, including the Spanish language (it’s beautiful and there are many resources to learn it), the tapas culture (the food is great here), the people of Málaga (who are mostly all super nice and laid back and welcoming), the thriving expat community (the people of TLR coworking, for example!), and the lower costs of living (compared to life in the US, Canada, Australia, Northern European countries, etc).
But there is a main reason that I love Málaga. It’s the reason why I can never see myself living anywhere else, and it’s the same reason why I quit my journalism job, why I went to New York, why I maxed out that credit card, why I opened a bank account to get free flights, why I spent my entire childhood living like a female Tarzan, jumping over streams, swinging out of trees, and snacking on wild berries – it’s because Málaga is an adventure-lover’s paradise.
It’s still in the blood
I’ve lived in Málaga for almost two years now, and I still have a long list of things to do and places to see. Some of those are in Málaga itself, some of those are in the wider Andalucia region and even in neighbouring regions.
Almeria, for example. Only a few hours drive from Málaga, this is an area where Hollywood films used to be shot because of its close resemblance to the Wild West of the USA. Closer to the coastline is Cabo de Gata, a natural park renowned for snorkelling opportunities.
You also have the truly beautiful cities of Córdoba, Granada, Sevilla, Tarifa, Cádiz, and Ronda (to name but a few) all within easy driving distance of Málaga, and all very well connected via public transport.
Closer to Málaga is the Costa del Sol with a short-distance train line that runs from Málaga to Fuengirola. Every stop along the way has something different to offer. You can find amazing beachfront restaurants to chill in, sunbathe in, or go clubbing in. You can snorkel, swim, parasail, surf, windsurf, kitesurf (if the wind is strong enough), rent a boat, rent a jet ski, try a banana boat, rock climb, go to a waterpark, go to a zoo, take a zipline, or even catch a cable car up to the top of a mountain. Eagles can be spotted on the mountain, or you can see endangered white-headed ducks and impressive pink flamingos in the wetlands near Guadalhorce. You can rent a bike, go rollerblading in summer and go ice skating in winter.
Speaking of winter, you can even go skiing and snowboarding at a resort in the Sierra Nevada mountain range only a two hour drive from Málaga!
In Nerja, a nearby town, you can visit impressive caves which feature the world’s longest and largest stalactite and also the Rio Chillar which you can spend a nice summer’s day hiking up and down, with the cool river water lapping around your calves.
El Torcal de Antequera is also a short drive away, featuring a truly alien landscape and rocks embedded with ancient sea anemone fossils.
El Torcal de Antequera
Stay in Málaga city itself and you’ll be treated to beautiful views of the Cathedral and the city in general. There are hundreds of amazing restaurants, gelaterias, and bars to choose from, some of which offer flamenco shows. There are at least 10 amazing rooftop bars, and three hills you can climb for great views over the city. You can go axe-throwing and rollerblading. There are regular cinemas, open air cinemas on the beach, and a retro drive-in cinema on the outskirts. There are also hundreds of social groups you can join in order to practise yoga, boxing, swimming, diving, snorkelling, tai-chi, volleyball, padel, rowing, kayaking, ping pong, stand-up paddleboarding… the list is endless.
Depending on the time of year, you can enjoy one of the many (MANY) celebrations the city puts on: eating 12 grapes at midnight at a New Year’s Eve party, wolfing down Roscón de Reyes for Three Kings Day, choking on incense when following a street-wide throne during Semana Santa, burning a wish on the beach and running into the sea at midnight for the San Juan festivities, desperately trying to make it through the week during the annual Feria experience… not to mention Carnival, St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, and all the celebrations leading up to Christmas.
Málaga, then, to me, is still just one big adventure. It continues to captivate my attention, even two years after first moving here. And as a self-confessed travel lover and adrenaline junky, that’s a pretty big achievement. Will Málaga always hold my attention? I don’t know. I certainly hope so… and I certainly think so. But really only time will tell.
With professional and educational backgrounds rooted in journalism, Kelly can usually be found furiously typing on one of TLR’s many hotdesks – transcribing audio from interviews, or crafting copy for marketing purposes.
Originally from Kilkenny, Ireland but currently living in Málaga, Kelly runs her own company called Kelly Mary Media. When she’s not knee deep in work, Kelly is off trotting around the globe, documenting her many weird and wonderful (and sometimes cat-accompanied) adventures on social media.