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Reflecting upon our family’s move Costa Rica: WHAT WOULD WE DO DIFFERENTLY?

By on November 29, 2017 in Travel with 1 Comment

Surfing on sunny days in Costa Rica was great for Geoff Barry but he says his family would have benefited from better planning prior to moving to Central America.

By Geoff Barry

Our family spent 20 months living in Costa Rica. We returned permanently to Wenatchee at the end of August 2016 so the kids could start school here last fall.

Both during my trip and upon my return, I have been asked for advice many times about how one endeavors to plan for such an adventure.

I have been contacted for advice on how to plan for such an adventure by friends locally, but also by families in faraway places contemplating their own travels who heard my experiences from previous articles published in The Good Life.

If I had the trip to do over again, my approach to planning would be very different. I would like to dedicate this article to discuss how and why we made the decisions we made while planning our life abroad, as well as what we would do differently if we had it all to do over.

In my experience, many of the individuals who dream of (and embark upon) such a family adventure consider themselves highly spontaneous, perhaps the types who like to figure it out as they go.

I am certainly one of these folks. Back in my younger days when planning for a trip meant planning for one, I abided by certain rules specifically designed to make the trip maximally spontaneous. I would buy the Lonely Planet Guide Book for the country of my destination, but would only allow myself to read the sections that discussed culture and history. I forbid myself from reading any particulars pertaining to places I intended to visit for fear that my voyage might become rigid and “Japanese bus tourist like.” Not until I boarded the plane did I allow myself to consider any sort of itinerary.

No hotel reservations. No plans for how I was going to get around once I got there. No need for anything to get me started in my first city. These issues were meant to be sorted out on scene.

I loved these trips. Spontaneous they were. Problematic? For sure. But that was all part of the adventure. I explain these rules to paint a picture of my expectations when my poor wife and I began to discuss our adventure. I was quite content to figure it all out once we got there.

I’ll sum up my best advice for you now: DON’T DO THAT! There’s a world of difference between eight weeks in India by yourself and building a life overseas for your family.

If you are contemplating a detour of your family’s life for a trip overseas, you probably have some vision about what it will be like. Is it the mountains or on the beach? In a major city or in a jungle pueblo? In a place where no one speaks English or surrounded by expats and bilingual locals with whom to share your experiences?

It’s unlikely that your adventure will be exactly like your dreams, but that doesn’t mean you are powerless to shape your adventure.

If you have a short list of your most important wishes, with planning you have an excellent chance of shaping your adventure to fulfill those dreams.

My wife Celeste did as much planning as I could stand at the time, thank goodness. Those simple plans that included a town, a home and a school largely shaped our experience. We had felt rushed to get started because of concerns the kids were getting older. As a result, before we left, we never found a town that either of us felt was absolutely right.

Particularly for Celeste, she always felt she was in a setting that wasn’t her dream. While we still had a great adventure, I think it could have been even fuller if we had taken on a more diligent search for our perfect setting. There are certain ready-made experiences such as Nosara that have pipelines to them (often a school). While they may be convenient for many reasons, my observation is that many families find after the fact that it is not what they anticipated. We had many friends move to another location or cut the adventure short and return home. I believe a diligent and honest search initially could have averted the need for such a change.

I suggest that the whole family start by making a prioritized list. When the sun finally sets on this glorious odyssey, how will you define success?

Focus on the few aspects of your experience you wish to shape most. If Celeste and I had created such a list, I think it would have looked something like this:

  • Find a community where we are safe, comfortable, and that feels right (including climate).
  • Have a cultural experience where we all create meaningful relationships with locals.
  • Have ample opportunity (necessity) to further develop our command of Spanish.
  • Have a reasonable educational experience for the kids.
  • Be close to a beach with good surfing and other activities like snorkeling.

Our first wish on the list I think is somewhat universal. Obviously, everyone needs to be safe. However, narrowing our search unnecessarily was another mistake. Because I was commuting back to Wenatchee, South America was too far. Mexico, which we both love, was still not truly stable. Costa Rica seemed the clear answer.

We both agree, in retrospect, we would have considered broader options much more thoroughly. Nicaragua and Panama are both stable countries that each have their own advantages.

Furthermore, if I wasn’t tied to work at Confluence Health, we could have considered all of South America with other wonderful countries.

Celeste, who was doing all of our research, tried to inform me that there are many reasons not to go to Costa Rica. The two most important being that it is unjustifiably expensive and that it is so heavily touristed. While not everything is about money, it is quite painful to pay first world prices for third world accommodations.

The fact that Ticos (Costa Ricans) are so accustomed to interacting with tourists, many of whom are obnoxious and disrespectful, taints the interaction. We ended up in Nosara because I felt it was the best option we had encountered. Celeste was apprehensive and never came to love it. She blamed it largely on the insufferable heat, but it was never her kind of place and I should have recognized that. If we could do it again, we would put much more effort into finding a place that we both felt was right. There are many safe options. Focus efforts on finding and knowing a community that feels right from the beginning. Also, there is no reason to postpone your search until you are planning the adventure. Make this a part of your ongoing travels. Dedicate ample resources to exploring potential places and return multiple times when you think you’ve found it.

Next let’s discuss interaction with locals. We had been told that interaction with locals in the town we chose — Nosara — was awesome. Agreed, Ticos (Costa Ricans) are exceptionally wonderful. However, tourism is the largest part of their economy and this influences how they interact with foreigners. We are customers buying tourism.

This goes for any tourist community in the world. If you want an experience where people are as intrigued by you (and not your money) as you are by them, then you should not live near touristy areas.

There are a couple of trade offs. Touristy areas are ready made for foreigners. It’ll be easier to find the house with wi-fi and a pool that is walking distance to restaurants and other amenities. In less touristy locales, you will be left to your own devices to find these niceties.

Furthermore, expats are a lot of fun. While it was not our original intention, most of our friends with whom we still communicate are from the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia… And we treasure these folks.

Whether you chose a tourist area or not is a matter of preference, but it’s important to understand that it is likely to affect the nature of your interactions and with whom you will spend your time.

A quick comment on language. Few people are motivated enough to fully immerse themselves in a foreign language and I venture to say none of them are school age children.

If you want your kids to dive in to Spanish, it’s going to need to be the language that they must use on the playground and on the street, not just in the classroom. Bilingual schools have too many English speakers.

If Spanish or another language is important, find a community with a minimum of English speakers (and cross Costa Rica off your list).

The single decision that brings most people to Nosara, Costa Rica, is Del Mar Academy, a wonderful little school in the middle of the jungle with bilingual education. We enjoyed our time at Del Mar Academy. They do as good a job with education as one can expect, but it’s important to realize the limitations of these kinds of schools. Tuition precludes all but the wealthiest locals from attending which means your child’s class will be full of folks just like you. They will speak English as their default language. The default culture within the school will feel more like your home country than you expected.

My assessment (consistent with others’ opinions) was that the quality of education was slightly lower than the standard public school in Washington (which itself is of marginal quality).

We also didn’t come to find out until long after we arrived that putting kids in public school is possible even for families on a tourist visa. If we had it to do over, we would have more strongly considered putting the kids in public school. Families who consider this have infinitely more communities to choose from. They also have opportunity to experience the culture of their country much more authentically.

At the time we moved to Nosara, I eagerly anticipated getting back in the water and surfing. My surf experience was an essential part of my time there. Celeste would have very much liked a place with better snorkeling and diving.

A thorough discussion about the characteristics of the town and available activities is something we would have explored in much more detail in retrospect. What do you anticipate doing with your time day to day while you are there?

Before I close this article I would like to pose two vitally important and related questions. I believe the answers to these questions will shape your family’s interaction with your chosen community: First, how is the family going to sustain itself financially for this extended period? Secondly, what will be your contribution to the community?

Part of the fun of our experience was observing other families and discussing how they navigated these questions. There are a myriad of solutions, and the implications are hefty.

For us, this is where we made perhaps our biggest mistake. We had saved for over a decade to be ready to go without income for two years. When the time came, first because I loved my job and second because it increased our perceived security, I elected to continue working in Wenatchee for the duration of our time in Costa Rica.

It turns out that this crazy commute is more common than one would expect. We had several friends with similar arrangements.

While this option is tempting, I would strongly discourage it. Both personally and in observing other families, the consequences of this decision are considerable.

In fact, divorce seems not to be an uncommon result. With a partner gone for long periods of time, it creates an environment where that individual becomes an outsider, an episodic visitor to the journey they wished to experience fully as a family.

While we escaped divorce, we did return home both eagerly awaiting couples counseling to put our marriage back together.

Other common solutions we observed included being independently wealthy (definitely the way to go if the option is available to you), telecommuting to your home country (very common), local employment (often hard to find and low pay), and entrepreneurship (requires skill, experience and risk).

Next, what do you envision being your contribution to the community. Do you have a skill to offer that can serve as a bridge to create friendships?

Part of creating a profound experience is the balance of what you offer to that community. Will you teach English? Do you have skills or knowledge to benefit the community?

If you have children, they seem to be natural bridge builders with their own interactions in the community. For me I offered my medical knowledge on an informal basis. Medicine helped me make and strengthen many friendships. Consider the balance of what you hope to receive from the community and what you have to offer.

I am very thankful for the opportunity I had with my family to spend nearly two years in Costa Rica. We shared experiences and created memories that only become more valuable with time for each of us.

We made good decisions and made mistakes, learning important lessons from both.

Looking back on our experience, we agree our adventure was very much a success. Decisions we made that we now consider mistakes, we are grateful for having lived. They taught us the most about who we are as a family and what matters.

Don’t be afraid of mistakes on this journey. I assure you, you’ll make many! They will shape you and help your family know itself better. I also hope that you can learn from mine so that yours can be different.

I wish you travels richer than your wildest dreams…




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  1. courtney says:

    this is such great information. in retrospect, what other areas would you have considered?

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