Lucy Culpepper's children were ages 6 and 9 when she and her husband decided to take them on a yearlong scouting trip.
"We felt there was a window of opportunity before schooling became too restrictive," Lucy explains, "to take the children out of school and go exploring for a new place to live."
But where? From the research Lucy had done online, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula looked like a good starting point. "It came across well on paper," Lucy says. "There are international schools, the coast looked fabulous in the photos we saw online, there was an expat community, and property prices were low."
In addition, the middle-aged couple targeted Panama. "Again," Lucy explains, "lots to choose from in the way of international schooling, plus a climate that appealed to my husband. In addition, this country looked like a great place to start a new business, which my husband was planning to do.
"From Panama," Lucy continues, "we would wing it and make up a schedule as we went along."
In February 2008, the couple booked a flight to Cancun, Mexico, for the end of May. In the intervening months they sold just about everything they owned in a massive yard sale -- furniture, toys, kitchenware, bikes, linens, clothing... everything but the family treasures (that is, anything with sentimental value).
"Certainly everything electrical went as we didn't want to ship electrical goods that might not work in our dreamt-of Latin America home. We packed the remaining boxes, all the things we couldn't bear to part with, put them in storage and bade farewell, not knowing when or where it would all reappear," she said.
Then, in May, the family of four took their flight to the Yucatan. From Cancun, they traveled south to the coastal town of Progreso, 30 minutes from Merida.
Lucy explained, "Our plan was to spend a month in Progreso. It had taken us a lot of searching to find a month-long rental near the coast that looked moderately appealing. The house we finally found in Progreso looked good online, was owned by an American, and was close to the beach.
"We arrived in Progreso at the end of a fiesta so the town looked pretty beaten up. But I've experienced lots of Latin American fiestas. I know that a town can look trashed one day and tidy the next. So we headed to the rental," she said. "There were the usual tweaks and changes to be made when you set up temporary home, especially when you have two children in tow who are feeling a bit bamboozled by the time change and the new environment."
The trouble was, as Lucy and her family discovered, Progreso didn't really shape up post-fiesta.
"We had not planned to live in Progreso," explains Lucy, "but to use it as a base to explore Merida and Campeche. Merida was the most likely place for us because of the international schools. We rented a car and drove everywhere; searching, looking, hoping, I'm not exactly sure for what. I suppose it was a feeling of 'home.' I'd glance at my husband as we drove along thinking, when do I tell him that this is absolutely not where I want to live? As it turned out, he was thinking the same thing.
"Of course we knew the Yucatan would be very hot... and it was. But that wasn't the main problem. There just wasn't any character to this region, nothing that we felt drawn to. Not a problem. We were a mobile family, we told ourselves. Where next on the list?"
Panama. The family needed a break from the relentless heat of the Yucatan so they scoured the Internet for somewhere above sea level and found El Valle de Anton, in the mountains outside Panama City.
"It really felt like heaven-on-Earth when we drove down into the lush green volcano and El Valle town," said Lucy. "Again we rented a house from an American couple. It was cool and fresh; there was a pool and a yard big enough for playing ball. Being here felt like I was lying down in a spa with a cool compress on my head."
Although it was a magical place, Lucy knew that El Valle could only be a base for their travels, not their ultimate destination. For that, they realized they needed to focus on Panama City, both for the children's education and for the business Lucy's husband planned to launch.
"We weren't necessarily looking for an international school. Both our children had been educated in public schools to this point, and we were open to local education. The problem was that local schooling in El Valle was a bit too basic for the kids," she said. "We recognized that their education really would have to take place in Panama City, which meant that's where we'd have to live. And that became a stumbling block for me. I am a country girl at heart and miserable in cities. And what a city Panama was...and still is."
The family spent eight weeks in El Valle, traveling back and forth from this mountain town to the big city. The more time they spent in Panama City, the more they were certain this was not the place for them. The construction frenzy, the humidity, the crazy traffic... Lucy remembers being overcome with the sensation of: "Get me out of here!"
Costa Rica seemed a logical next country to consider. It borders Panama and is perhaps the most recognized choice for expats in this part of the world.
"We decided to make the trip from Panama to Costa Rica overland, and what a great decision that was," says Lucy. "Hair-raising at times, yes, and now a funny memory. In fact, that 17-hour journey, through some magnificent countryside, is one of the highlights of the entire eight-month adventure for both our children. Nearly five years down the road and they can still remember every detail."
As an aside, if you're contemplating a similar journey but have children and are wondering what to do about their education, Lucy explains here her teaching plan and how it worked out:
"When we set out, I had no idea how long it would be before our two children would be back in formal education and I had no idea which curriculum they would be following -- British, American, French, Panamanian, it could have been any of them. So I decided I would only do math and English grammar with my 9-year-old son; the rest would be a kind of world education --learning from the experiences and places we visited," she said. "A day at the snake sanctuary in El Valle provided more opportunity to learn biology than any workbook could offer. My only objective for my almost-7-year-old daughter was to teach her to read fluently in English. This was pre-Kindle so we carried quite a few books in our baggage.
"On their return to a classroom, learning principally in English, my son was moved up a grade for his age and my daughter was top of her class despite being the youngest. I am quite sure the experiences they had far outweighed the eight months of formal education that they missed."
Lucy and her family headed to Costa Rica's Central Valley, renting a bungalow in a small, gated vacation park. "It sounds like an odd set up, and it was a bit," says Lucy, "but the Costa Rican owners were really helpful and kind, there was a lot of space, two swimming pools, and, apart from one American expat, we were the only people there."
"We enrolled the children in a small, bilingual school to give us some space and time without them to figure out if we could live in Costa Rica. We rented a car, toured around looking at property, rented a cell phone (the waiting list for a new one back in 2008 was three years), shopped, cooked, worked out, went to the coast, hiked mountains, worked a little, met other expats, and got to know the owners of the 'vacation camp' where we were staying. It seemed to be going well.
"To this day, I'm not sure exactly when or why the doubts about Costa Rica as a home started to creep in," she said. "Costa Rica has a crime problem that made us uncomfortable.
"However, perhaps what really started to bother us was the feeling again, as we'd had in the Yucatan, that this just wasn't 'home'," she said.
Whatever the explanation, when Lucy and her husband got a call from family in the United States asking for help during a health crisis, it gave them the impetus they needed to pack up and head north. They did not return to Costa Rica.
"We had six cushy weeks in the United States," remembers Lucy. "I had forgotten how straightforward life in the States is. Compared to the places where we'd been spending time, everything was clean and easy. We almost started to look for property in North Carolina, near my husband's family. It was a close call!
"But I knew enough to recognize that that wasn't really what we wanted," she said. "At the same time, we'd also shown ourselves that we didn't want Central America either.
"My parents and one sister lived in France. My husband and I had traveled enough in that country to think of it fondly... very fondly," she said. "So, after the family health crisis in North Carolina passed and we were ready to resume our search for where to base our own little family, I suggested we focus on France."
Specifically, Lucy and her husband targeted the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, what might be called the "other" South of France. This is a safe, stable, and interesting region, just over the Pyrenees from Spain, bordering the Mediterranean. The family rented a three-story, 1800s home in Cessenon-sur-Orb, a typical Languedoc village, to use as a base to explore.
"The contrast between Latin America and France is like comparing black and white," Lucy said. "While Latin America is animated and easygoing, France is calm and controlled. It took some time to adopt the politeness and formality required to get anything done in France."
By this time, the family had a well-developed wish list. They'd tried enough different lifestyles on for size to know what they wanted. Exploring the southwest of France, they were attracted to the Béarn.
"It's just an hour from the Atlantic Coast and an hour from the Pyrenees," Lucy explained, "and it's known to just a small number of expats. This part of France is green and verdant. Summers are hot and sunny and winters are cold with enough snow for skiing. There are fabulous markets and plenty of Old World culture. Finally, and important, there is a bilingual school where we felt our children would excel."
Lucy and her family took their time about it, but, finally, they found their home. As Lucy put it, "This is where my soul is."