What is it really like to move your family to a foreign country? What does it take to leave your friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors for any amount of time longer than a typical 1 – 2 week vacation? Where do you go? How do you find a place to live? What does it feel like once you get there? How do you establish a new normal?
I don't know what it was/will/would be like for you and your family, but I can share what it has been like for ours.
First, a little context:
- We are a family of 4, Michael and I are in our thirties (just barely!)
- We have two kids, 2.5 years and 4.5 years old
- Michael's part-time remote work pays for our expenses as long as we keep them relatively low (as in $2,000 – $3,000/month).
- Our paid off home in Colorado is being used as an Airbnb rental for additional income while we're gone.
- We have a desire to reach a high degree of Spanish fluency for both our children and ourselves. Michael and I met at a language school in Mexico and are both pretty fluent, but we know we still have a long way to go before we'll ever be really fluent.
- We have lived abroad with our kids two times previous to this trip, both times in Cuenca, Ecuador for 3 months each.
We are currently in the Central Valley of Costa Rica in a city called San Ramón. We chose this particular place for a variety of reasons:
First, Why Costa Rica?
We wanted to explore a country we hadn't been to before. We knew we'd be abroad for at least 12 – 15 months this time* and wanted to be somewhere that had cheaper/easier flights to and from the States for ourselves or visiting friends and family. Costa Rica is well known for its stunning natural beauty (beaches, volcanoes, hot springs, waterfalls, cloud forest, sloths!) and we want to see all of those things. Costa Rica also has mountains that allow for life at a higher (cooler) elevation but still with easy access to the beaches and other crazy beautiful sites. Plus, Spanish.
*When we were in Cuenca, we were inspired to witness the level of Spanish fluency achieved by the girls of our friends Chad and Kari after they spent 17 months there.
Why San Ramón?
We wanted to find a place that was high enough to have a cooler climate. San Ramón is at 3500 feet and averages 65 – 85 degrees Farenheit year round. It's known for its fog. I prefer a cool, cloudy day over glaring sunshine most of the time anyway. Of course, we arrived in the dry season and almost every day has been quite sunny and warm after the morning clouds burn off.
San Ramón is big enough to have most comforts our family wanted (cafes, schools, buses) but still very authentically Costa Rican. It's not exactly a tourist destination. It is, however, pretty conveniently located to a lot of great things. The nearest beach is about an hour, the airport is about an hour, and the Arenal Volcano is about 2.5 hours, to name a few.
When we first arrived, we hopped on local buses to visit some of the other Central Valley cities that are nearby just to see how they compared. We went to Palmares, Atenas, Naranjo, and Grecia. Naturally, we visited the playground in each city's central square. Obviously.
And sure enough, the main playground in San Ramón was the shadiest and nicest in terms of equipment. I can't say it was the only data point we used, but it was definitely weighted pretty heavily for us! Can we picture ourselves bringing the kids to this playground over and over for the next year or so? In San Ramón, it was a clear yes.
This wasn't part of our decision making, but San Ramón also has a really nice community of expats. Many of the people we've met so far have chosen to make San Ramón their long term retirement home and have helped us feel welcomed and comfortable. They have a very casual weekly meetup at a local cafe, and a variety of other gatherings/events/activities throughout the month.
We have now been here for approximately 7 weeks (holy moly that has gone by quickly!!). Here's a review of our transition broken up into meaningful chunks:
- Preparing to Leave
- Landing in the New Land
- Settling into the New Normal
Preparing to Leave
There are hours and hours of research tucked behind the decision to move to San Ramón. When we first decided we'd commit ourselves to a year or more abroad, we had to decide where we would go. This looked like a lot of online research, mostly poking around other travelers' blogs and reviewing our own mental checklist of places people had recommended to us in passing.
On our short list:
Costa Rica (we didn't initially know where) – it's no secret that Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination.
Medellín, Colombia – lots of people have told us great things about this mountain city. As a country, Colombia's reputation hasn't quite caught up with its current level of safety. For those who know that it's no longer the drug lord haven it once was, Medellín has become a popular destination.
Boquete, Panama – this is actually a pretty small little town very popular with expats. Michael's work colleague recommended it to us, but after more research, we decided that it was too small for what we had in mind.
Cuenca, Ecuador – okay, this wasn't on my short list, but it was on Michael's. After two winters there, I was simply ready to explore somewhere new. It really is a great city, though, for lots of reasons.
The site The Earth Awaits is a great resource for narrowing down options. It's a big world out there.
Ultimately, of course, we decided on San Ramón, Costa Rica. We thought it would serve as a good hub for exploring the rest of the country while also being a shorter (and cheaper) flight back to the States as needed. We also felt like choosing Costa Rica would mean more friends and family would visit us while we were away. So far, that has proven true… we have three groups coming to see us in the next 3 – 4 months with others who have expressed interest.
This is particularly important to me. I'm super sentimental about staying connected with friends and family. Being in a place where people would want to visit us helped ease my wariness about being away from home for so long. This is an adventure, but I'd be lying if I said I don't miss being able to meet up with my friends at the local brewery back home.
Once we had settled on San Ramón, I joined several expat FaceBook groups for Costa Rica, The Central Valley, and San Ramón specifically. Michael hates to recommend FaceBook under any context, but these groups have been very useful. Just about any question I had was likely to have already been asked and could be answered with a simple keyword search. For the questions that weren't already asked, I was able to reach out to the members directly.
Those FaceBook groups are super helpful. And sometimes so mean. : ) Questions like, "how can I find a job in Costa Rica?" will get a lot of snark and sass in response. One question I posed in the San Ramón group received a comment by a woman who said she sure hoped the city didn't get overrun by expats (herself excluded, I assumed). Of course, I understand the sentiment. Anyway, I recommend searching for answers before asking because those FaceBook groups are filled with a lot of people who seem to have plenty of time their hands. Some of them don't mind using that time to respond to redundant questions with a bit of vitriol.
Some Nitty Gritty of Packing up and Moving Out
This is a topic probably worthy of its own post, because the to-do list is for REAL. But as a simple summary:
- Purchase items that might be difficult/expensive to get in your destination country. For us, that was things like used Keen sandals for the kids, vegan DHA/EPA vitamins, smoked paprika (LOVE it), and nutritional yeast (a popular ingredient in plant-based cooking).
- Plot out your to-do list on a calendar so things don't get squeezed into the last day or two of leaving. Assume you'll need a least a week more than you think to get it all done.
- Make plans to spend time with friends and family. Try to finish all of those get togethers the week before you leave. Even though I'm the more sentimental of the two of us, that "good bye… see you when we get back in a year and a half…" was really important for both Michael and me.
- Think through the logistics of moving through the airport with your luggage (and kids, if you have them). We had two large suitcases, a carry-on suitcase, and all four of us had backpacks.* Weigh your suitcases before leaving for the airport. Anything over 51 lbs. on most international flights will cost you a lot more. Our largest suitcase had plenty of extra space but was right at 50lbs. This is obvious, right?! I don't think we weighed our stuff before our first trip to Cuenca. Because of that, I had an unpleasant few minutes on my knees with suitcases open in front of the ticketing counter.
- Arrange lodging and transportation before you arrive in the country. This might be obvious, but my 20-something self definitely never did that. My 30-something mother self definitely does. At the end of a long day of traveling with two young kids, there is no energy left for figuring out how to catch a bus or find a hotel. Also, grab some local currency from an ATM before leaving customs… rates are usually better than currency exchange booths. We use the Charles Schwab card which waives international ATM fees.
*A Note on Carseats: We brought two carseats with us both times we traveled to Ecuador. They were such a pain to lug through the airport along with luggage, backpacks, and kids that couldn't walk far on their own. Between those two trips, we used them only once. That was it. And yet I wouldn't have traveled without them.
Now that our kids are both older but still need carseats, I bought two Ride Safer 4 Kids Travel Vests. We practiced using them in the States first. Marcella is technically under the approved age (she'll be three in May), but she is in the 98% percentile for height and fits all of the required measurements.
These fit in our backpack and will be used with rental cars to travel the country. They are a really amazing (and just as safe if used properly) alternative. They won't be great for car ride sleeping (I didn't bring the optional headrests because of reviews saying they're kind of awkward and take up precious space). Our kids will be able to use the travel vests for the next several years as well. Note, they are not the same thing as the Cares Safety Restraint for use on airplanes.
Key Points on Preparing to Leave:
- Read blogs and join Facebook groups to get to know an area before traveling there.
- Buy any must-have items like smoked paprika and nutritional yeast! 🙂
- Book transportation and lodging before arriving. Give yourself time to explore and get to know the area before finding longer-term housing. More on that below.
Landing in the New Land
When we arrived at the San Jose International Airport, it was dark, we were exhausted, and we were grateful to know exactly who would be picking us up on the other side of customs. Thank goodness too! My experience at international airports has been that there are a lot of people hanging out waiting for tired and confused looking foreigners to coax into their taxi or van.
We had booked ourselves an Airbnb rental before we arrived. The first time we went to Cuenca, we made the mistake of booking something for our entire three months before we even got there. The place we had picked out was terrible and we ended up canceling and finding a much better apartment just by walking around town until we came across a listing posted in a cafe.
The second time we went to Cuenca, we made the mistake of booking a place just for a week, thinking we'd have plenty of time to find another option once we got there (since we already knew the city). That week was stressful as we struggled to traipse around town with two kids in tow trying to find a place to live. We did end up getting something right before our Airbnb rental was up, but it was by the skin of our teeth on that one.
This time, in San Ramón, we booked an Airbnb rental for one month. We paid a premium for the luxury of having a place to land before finding our long term solution. But it was worth it. We were able to walk around town, get the scoop from local expats, find a school for the kids (which ultimately determined where we'd want to live), etc.
Once in San Ramón, we went out of our way to connect with some of the local expats. We joined them at their weekly meetup. Although I started off feeling quite shy about plunking myself down in their world, they were all so quick to welcome us and give us great tips. In fact, one of the women carries around copies of a hand-drawn map of the town with all of her key locations marked so that she can give it to new arrivals. Landmarks are essential in a city that has NO street signs!
I also signed myself up for a Spanish conversation group and a more formal Spanish grammar class. Both have been great for easing myself back into the language and meeting expats who have stories and experiences to share about the area. From those acquaintances, I've learned about volunteer opportunities, great places to eat, and some of their favorite places to visit. One of our Spanish classmates even gifted us several boxes of kitchenware.
In the first couple of weeks we were here, I would split off from Michael and the kids for a couple hours of just walking around town. After we found the kids' school (a lucky find aided with a suggestion from the FaceBook group), I walked up and down the streets within about a 6 block radius of it looking for "Se Alquila" signs. We knew we wanted to be able to walk the kids to and from their school, especially since it is located in el centro, near plenty of supermarkets, cafes, and the bus station.
I never thought we'd do this, but we ended up getting an unfurnished apartment. So, by the time we found the kids' school, a place to live, and got the basics like beds, bedding, and couches, we needed all of that month in the Airbnb rental.
It helps a lot that we speak Spanish. We were able to send messages to numbers we saw on signs (via WhatsApp… everybody in Costa Rica and Ecuador seems to use it), and set up appointments to meet with those owners directly.
Our experience in Ecuador and Costa Rica has been that there are essentially two real estate markets – the one for gringos and the one for locals. You can guess which one is cheaper. If traveling short term or creature comforts (like hot water out of the faucet or a washer and dryer) are essential, then you you'll probably need to stick with the market in place for foreigners.
That's okay. You'll likely end up with nicer accommodations with a nicer view. The places we stayed in Ecuador were sort of in between that – more expensive than local prices (although still much cheaper than in the U.S.) but with some of the quirks of local housing. Consistently hot showers were issues at both places. It can be hard to find something short term (2 – 6 months) with local pricing.
What we found in San Ramón is owned by a señora who lived in the home for 30+ years with her children. She recently had it renovated so it has some relatively nice updates like new flooring and bathroom sink. It also has some crazy quirks like new flooring covered in screws that were used to deal with its bubbling and the bathroom sink that drains directly into the shower. Ha!
It's 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom and really close to the central square (and that lovely playground mentioned above!). The location is awesome. It's about $450/month. But, we had to furnish it.
That was definitely a pain in the butt. But not too bad. We were able to purchase our gas stove, 3 wood frame beds, and 3 brand new mattresses at one store where we got a hefty discount for the large purchase (and, gulp, paying all in cash). It was about $1000 for all of that.
We got two used couches off of FaceBook for about $500 (that included delivery from about an hour away). They're kind of annoying because the cushions are always slipping off, but at least it's soft. Soft couches are hard to find here.
We got a laundry machine from a used appliance store about a block away from our house for about $150. So far, it works great and is even water efficient. Our apartment has a long narrow hallway for line drying. It takes more time and means slightly crispy clothing. We'll see how long it takes for things to actually dry once the rainy season begins.
Otherwise, I was able to purchase all of our linens (sheets, comforters, towels, and curtains) from local stores for about $400 total. I never told Michael this, but I sort of loved getting to buy brand new sheets and towels that don't have a long history of being used by other people. The bedding at our Airbnb rental was so old and musty smelling that I always felt compelled to wash my hands after touching it. Umm, gross.
And, luckily enough, we were gifted the use of several boxes worth of kitchen supplies by a really lovely expat couple who just had them sitting in their garage here in San Ramón. So, we didn't need to buy dishes, silverware, pots, pans, knives, utensils, etc.
The good news is, while there isn't a huge market of furnished rentals here in San Ramón, there is a good market for used items. With that in mind, we made our purchases with some degree of confidence that we'll be able to turn around and sell most (if not all) of it for at least 50-75% of what we bought it for. I assume we'll move into another Airbnb rental our last week here while we get that sorted out at the end of our stay.
Key Points on Landing in the New Land:
- Plug in with the local expat community as soon as you can. This doesn't necessarily mean you're only going to hang out with foreigners, but they have been in your shoes. They were once new to the area and had to figure it all out. They probably have great information to share.
- Walk. Take buses. Get to know the area. From first glance, Michael and I were a bit disappointed by San Ramón. (We were unfairly comparing it to Cuenca, a larger city with four lush and rocky rivers passing through it). Once we got to know the area, though, we were happy with our decision.
- If lower-cost housing is important, take the time to look for rentals from the locals. If you don't speak the language, I would suggest trying to connect with someone who does so that you can maybe carve a little off of the "foreigner" premium that you'd likely get from renting through locations that cater exclusively to that demographic.
- Be flexible. When we found the housing market was pushing us to look at unfurnished rentals, we had to think outside of our box. That flexibility has ended up serving us well. (Ask me again when we're faced with selling our life here before heading back to Colorado).
- Remember that change, especially big change, is HARD. Despite our prior experience, Michael and I had forgotten how emotional it is to set up in a totally new place. Our family was on a rollercoaster of crazy highs and lows for the first 1-2 weeks. Thank goodness we're off that ride and it's a little more like tubing down the lazy river now.
Settling into the New Normal
So, we've been here just over 7 weeks, and I haven't quite reached the new normal yet. But almost.
The kids are currently in a really awesome little school 5 days a week for 8 hours a day. What?!? I know… that's what I thought! But, it's such an affordable way ($450/month) for them to 1. get full Spanish immersion and 2. excellent preschool skills. Marcella takes her nap there, so picking them up for a half day would have meant she just came home to take a nap here instead of there. Anyway, they're happy when we drop them off, and filthy, exhausted, and happy when we pick them up.
One of the first things we did after we were done with all of the hullabaloo of finding a school and place to live was sit down and plot out our weekly routine. With beers in front of us (and the kids in school), Michael and I brain dumped our own lists of what we hoped to get out of our time here. We compared them. Then we each drew out rough weekly calendars and plotted out what each day would (we hoped) look like.
I have started a daily workout routine at a gym. Costa Rican beaches can be highly motivating.
Other elements of my new normal: more time dealing with laundry.
Multiple trips to the local supermarket. There are plenty within walking distance to choose from. None of them have everything I need, so I spend a bunch of time walking to and from the grocery store.
Weekly Spanish classes. Time to spend on this website. And, still on my to-do list: time to volunteer in a context that will allow me to practice Spanish.
A weekly daytime date with Michael to talk about our life, our budget, our kids, or whatever fits our fancy. We do this on Fridays before picking up kids from school. From there, we spend time at the playground before heading to a restaurant for my one night a week reprieve from cooking.
Michael has been putting in a lot of extra hours as a consultant for his company. He is also excited, though, to focus on Uncommon Dream and his long-time love of making music.
What I've noticed is that even though I now spend less time with the kids, the time I do spend with them (every morning, afternoon, evening and full weekend days), is so much more relaxed and fully focused on them. I get all of my other "stuff" done before they get home or before the weekend. So when I'm with them, I'm fully with them. They are getting copious amounts of attention and play time with us, and I've noticed that we all seem so much more relaxed and content.
Still ahead in this "new normal": weekend and extended trips to explore the nearby beaches, volcanoes, waterfalls, cloud forest, and maybe even see a sloth!
The Key Point on Settling into the New Normal:
- Use the transition as an opportunity to establish a new routine. With just a little bit of new adventure mixed in.
New Life in a New Country
There's a very distinct sensation that occurs when we transition to a new place in our lives. I've noticed it each time we've gone through any big change – most notably moving to a new city, starting a new job, or the birth of each of our children.
You look around you and everything feels new and unfamiliar.
Here in San Ramón, I remember the first (long, sweaty) walk down the hill from our Airbnb rental into the city center. Michael and I soaked it up like sponges – there's a cafe that looks like we could set up with a laptop, this playground is so great for the kids, here's the bus station with a mess of buses all lined up headed who knows where.
Now, all of those places and things are just normal. But the feeling of them being new is there, logged in my head. It's almost like a room that I stepped out of and it got locked behind me. Now I can only look back at all of it through a window.
The last two times we returned home from Ecuador, people would ask what it was like living there. The best way I could think of to describe it was to say that it was just, "normal life. Except in a different country." We still had to go grocery shopping, we still took the kids to the park, we still got together with friends on the weekend. It's just that the buildings were different, the language was different, the culture was different.
It was just life.
So here we are in San Ramón, Costa Rica. Settling into our new reality, creating our new normal, and soaking it all in.
And with that, I'm off to buy some groceries!