To say Leg 5 was educational is an understatement. We faced a global pandemic and chose to get “stuck” in a foreign country. Obviously we learned a lot. Funny enough, I wrote in my “What Did We Learn on Leg 4” post that we weren’t learning so much about travel life anymore, but more about individual places. Haha, be careful what you wish for! Leg 5 and COVD-19 brought on all sorts of travel life lessons. So, here are the top lessons we learned on this leg:
Learning a Second Language is Extremely Difficult
When I started learning Spanish in Leg 1 and took private lessons in Mexico in Leg 2, I certainly found language learning difficult, but I also made relatively quick progress and by the time we left Medellin, I felt pretty good about my grocery-store Spanish. With our return to Mexico in this leg, I recommitted myself to learning Spanish. Once we settled in CDMX, purchased another set of private lessons. I made progress for sure, but I am still far from fluent, especially in moments of stress (and once masks came into play, my comprehension went way down). Progress at this stage is much slower and more frustrating than when I was first building my Spanish vocabulary. I really want to be bilingual and know how helpful it will be to speak Spanish, but it is so difficult and as time went on in Costa Rica, I lost my motivation to keep learning. I’m not giving up though! I hope that once we begin Leg 6 (or sooner!), I’ll make time every day to practice.
A Pandemic Can Shut the World Down without Notice
I never saw the border closures coming. When Peru closed its borders to all tourists a week before we were scheduled to fly there from Costa Rica, I was completely floored. We recovered quickly, deciding staying put would be safer than returning to the U.S. and finding a new part of Costa Rica in which to base ourselves (see my first COVID Chronicles post), but in all my thinking about living a life of travel and what could go wrong and making backup plans for my backup plans, not being able to travel at will never even crossed my mind. I’m curious if knowing now that this can happen will change our approach to travel planning in the future. Our commitment to living our life on the road hasn’t diminished, but it is jarring to realize it can be halted without warning.
We Love Wildlife, Especially Monkeys
Even when the beaches were closed and there was nearly nothing to do but take walks and hikes, waking up to the sound of howler monkeys each morning and tracking them down early or late in the day brought us a lot of joy. We (especially me) also became quite fascinated with birds and enjoyed encountering several beautiful species. Favorites included Turquoise-Browed Motmots, Orange-Chinned Parakeets, Streak-Backed Orioles, White-Throated Magpie Jays, Black-Headed Trogons, and Great Kiskadees.
Riding A Bike is Just Like Riding A Bike
We’ve never had access to a bicycle during our travels before and it had been many years since either of us had ridden, but the pair of bikes that came with our Playas del Coco apartment in Ocotal made that rural location work for us. It was a 15-minute bike ride to the supermarket but would have been 45 minutes walking and we were able to carry far more groceries. However, relying on bicycle transportation was less ideal the two times we went out to dinner when we lived there because it meant riding home in the dusk or dark. We managed, but moving into the town of Coco made our occasional forays into dining out more convenient, and the grocery store too, since it became a 15-minute walk and required less prep work (i.e. getting out the bikes, checking the tires, getting the bike lock, etc.). That said, I can definitely see us renting bikes on future trips to give ourselves more transportation options.
We Can Afford an “Expensive” Country Like Costa Rica
The way this leg was supposed to go, we were going to have seven weeks in Mexico, seven weeks in Peru, with four weeks in Costa Rica in the middle. We planned it that way rather than an even six weeks in each place because Costa Rica is so much more expensive than the other two countries. We wanted to limit our time there. However, staying for nearly five months during the pandemic proved that we could afford the long time in Costa Rica, at least with the depressed Airbnb market we found. Yes, food and eating out were a lot more expensive than in Mexico, but during the pandemic, we rarely ate out (though we ordered takeout once a week), almost never went out for drinks (maybe twice?), and were organized about meal planning to minimize food waste. And we made our budget work. So while maybe we can’t have our typical eat-out-three-times-a-week, do-lots-of-activities lifestyle in a more expensive country, if we wanted to stay long-term in one, we can make it work with minor adjustments.
This lesson gave us the confidence to plan our next leg to take place in the United States, which is more expensive than almost anywhere. We knew when we returned to the U.S. we’d likely be “trapped” here by all the closed borders and rising COVID cases around the world, but as we were considering options, I created a Plan F that proved that we could do the American Northwest on our budget if we couldn’t go anywhere else. And, spoiler alert, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing this fall. Europe (plans A, B, and C) can’t happen and Mexico (plans D and E) doesn’t seem safe, so Plan F it is!
A Long Beach Stay is Good When You Can’t Do Anything Else
Two of our Leg 2 lessons were that staying in one place for two months was too long and that we aren’t really beach people. We felt our 7 weeks in the town of Puerto Escondido, Mexico, was a little too much and didn’t feel the need to go to the beach every day. Getting stuck in Costa Rica changed that perspective. We deliberately chose a beach town, knowing that most of the rest of the country’s nature (i.e. rain forests and parks) required a hefty entry fee from foreigners, but the beaches are free. Of course, right after we arrived the beaches were closed for almost two months, but once they reopened, going to the beach every day brought us a lot of joy at a time when we really needed it. We also didn’t necessarily feel our four months in Playas del Coco was too long, considering there was nowhere else in the world that was really open to us besides home. Looking back, I think our restlessness during our final weeks in PE was because we were so early in our travel life and there were so many places we wanted to go and see. During the pandemic, knowing we couldn’t go anywhere, staying in one place by the beach was actually pretty great.
Our Lifestyle Is About Traveling, Not Being Away
We ended Leg 5 in July for a lot of reasons, including missing family and friends terribly. But the biggest was knowing that we wouldn’t be able to move on and start traveling again until we left Costa Rica. We really couldn’t have asked for a better pandemic home (maybe New Zealand, but the time difference would have been brutal for so long). Staying put in Costa Rica was certainly preferable to staying put in Columbia, MO (for a lot of reasons), but in the end, any staying put became intolerable. That may be hyperbole – we tolerated staying put, and even enjoyed nearly all of our time in Costa Rica. But by July it was really starting to chafe. And so remaining in Costa Rica as an alternative to being home wasn’t good enough.
The life we’ve built isn’t about away from our home in the U.S. In fact, we love home. It is about seeking out new experiences and seeing really cool things. So, we returned to the U.S. in July in order to spend some time with family and friends before getting back on the road, this time to travel domestically. We have an epic road trip planned to see 10 national parks in 12 weeks, with a goal of hiking 250 miles.
So, maybe the biggest lesson we learned in Leg 5 during the time of COVID-19 is that our ideal life requires movement. Since the pandemic isn’t over, in Leg 6 we’re going to get really creative with our road trip across the northwest to make that happen.