There are many financial and logistical questions involved in planning a family escape abroad, but there’s also the difficult question of where. The following article explains how our family settled on Monteverde, Costa Rica. We hope this outline of our decision-making process will help others families to take the international plunge.
Finding Our International Home for the Year
Over the course of our twenties, between the two of us, my husband Tim I had the good fortune of living in a number of countries: Northern Ireland, France, Tanzania, Nepal, and India. We even raised our baby for the first two years of his life in the mountains of South India. Now as we approached forty, with two kids in tow, we had the opportunity spend a year away—as a professor, Tim can apply for sabbatical leave every seven years, and as an author my work is portable and often inspired by international adventures. This time, the world was our oyster as we considered different destinations, but, really, the options felt overwhelming. So, we sat down to clarify our goals and to narrow down the list.
One of the great joys of living abroad is learning a new language. In our expat years, we had picked up French, Swahili, Nepali, and a bit of Tamil, but somehow Spanish had never entered the mix. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for us to learn the United States’ second most spoken language. Besides, our kids were six and nine-years old—their young brains were as ready as ever to soak up a new idioma.
So, we started by narrowing our search to the Spanish-speaking world. That still left for a number of countries, but we were getting closer.
Cost of Living
We’d be earning about half of our usual income during our year abroad. We knew we could swing this for a year—in India, with housing provided by our employers, we’d lived on a budget of $200 per month—but we needed to find a country where we could stretch our dollars.
I started playing with cost-of-living calculators like Numbeo. These tell you how much you can expect to pay in different countries for everything from a two-bedroom apartment, to a one-hour taxi ride, to an egg.
Given our income, another limiting factor emerged. Spain was ruled out.
Balancing Budget with Development Indicators
While Tim and I had enjoyed many adventures living in India, Tanzania and Nepal, we also remembered frustrations: corrupt police, constant electricity outages, and multiple bouts of dysentery for our baby. We realized this time around we wouldn’t mind a little less adventure and a little more development. Besides, given that the two of us would be working from home, we needed to count on reliable electricity and internet.
A good resource for finding countries where we could expect a comfortable level of development without breaking the bank turned out to be publications designed for retirees looking to move abroad. One great resource was International Living’s Annual Best Places to Retire report. For two years in a row, it ranked Panama, Ecuador, Mexico and Costa Rica in its top-five retiree destinations. And, so, the list grew smaller.
Our Kids’ Needs
With this short list of Central and South American countries, I read the blogs of families who had lived in San Miguel, Mexico; Panama City; Vilcabamba and Cuenca, Ecuador; and Nosara and Jaco, Costa Rica. Some of the children I read about attended posh international schools where surf class was part of the curriculum; others learned from life on the road through more of an un-schooling approach; and still others took the full immersion plunge in local schools, where they learned a lot of Spanish but also experienced some bullying.
With two fairly young and gentle boys, I felt our family would do best in a school that had some experience with second-language learners. Costa Rica stood out from the pack in this respect, and for many other reasons: it’s a safe, peace-loving country without a military, and it offers strong social supports to its citizens, including potable water (a huge plus in my book). With its strong conservation history (25% of land is protected) and jaw-dropping biodiversity, the tiny nation also offers many beautiful places to explore.
So, Costa Rica, it was. Read more about how we answered the next question: where to send the kids to school?