Monday, May 27, 2024

How moving from the US to Costa Rica’s ‘blue zone’ transformed this family’s life forever | CNN

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When Kema Ward-Hopper and her then-fiance Nicholas Hopper, both from the US, decided to get married in Costa Rica, they had no idea that they’d end up relocating there a few years later.

But a series of devastating events led the couple and daughter Aaralyn, now 15, to a new life in the Central American country’s very own “blue zone,” one of the regions of the world where people live longest and are the healthiest.

Ward-Hopper, a health and life coach, was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months before their wedding in 2016.

“[I had] started treatment and everything,” Ward-Hopper tells CNN Travel. “If you see pictures from my wedding, I didn’t have hair, and I didn’t really look like myself. But I was sick.”

While she hadn’t been feeling well before they traveled to Costa Rica for their big day, Ward-Hopper noticed a change in her energy levels during the time that they spent there.

“I just felt the best that I had been feeling since I’d been diagnosed,” she says. “When we got back.

“That feeling good… I thought that I was getting better. But it really seemed like it was environmental, because after about a week, I was feeling bad again.

“So that was the first indicator that there was something special about Costa Rica.”

Ward-Hopper went on to have a unilateral mastectomy before undergoing reconstruction surgery and the family, who were based in Houston, Texas, tried to return to normal.

However, they suffered another major blow when their home was destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane in August 2017.

“I had the surgery and then Hurricane Harvey hit Houston,” she says. “And we ended up losing our home. So it just seemed like a lot of bad things [happening] back to back to back to back.”

After struggling to find a new home, the couple realized that there wasn’t anything holding them to Houston anymore, and decided that it was time to move on.

“My husband was like, ‘Well, let’s just leave the country,” adds Ward-Hopper.

They initially mulled over relocating to four potential destinations – Ghana, Sweden, Mexico, and of course, Costa Rica.

“Costa Rica ended up winning out over the other places that were on our list,” adds Ward-Hopper, explaining that they were impressed by the country’s health care and education system, as well as the environmental protections in place – Costa Rica is the first tropical country to have reversed deforestation.

“Ever since we left there from our honeymoon, we just felt like we wanted to get back there and just feel good,” she adds. There’s something energetic about being in Costa Rica.”

Ward-Hopper goes on to explain that the country’s proximity to the US – Costa Rica is less than four hours from Houston by plane, was a major factor in their decision.

“It just felt so serendipitous,” she says. “I feel like if we had chosen one of the other locations, we would have done way more research and preparation than we did for Costa Rica.”

In 2018, around eight months after deciding to make Costa Rica their new home, the family left Houston to start afresh in Pueblo Nuevo, a neighborhood located in the Nicoya Peninsula, one of the world’s blue zones, along with Loma Linda in California, Italy’s Sardinia, Japan’s Okinawa and Greece’s Ikaria.

“My husband and I came first and we were here for six weeks without my daughter,” says Ward-Hopper, explaining that they’d signed a lease on a property a friend had found for them.

“It was like a second honeymoon.”

The couple spent their time tending to their garden, meeting the locals and getting used to their new surroundings.

“We were in the jungle,” she says, recalling how they had to adapt to the sounds and creatures that came with their new environment.

“It was an adventure. My memory of that time is very fond. By the time we came back with our daughter, it was peak rainy season. So that was a whole adventure in and of itself.”

As they’d entered Costa Rica on a tourist visa, the couple were only permitted to remain in the country for 90 days at a time, and would regularly return to the US to renew their visas.

Thankfully, Ward-Hopper already spoke Spanish before they arrived, while her daughter had some knowledge of the language, which helped the family to transition more quickly.

“I don’t know that we would have gotten some of the deals that we’ve gotten had we not had the ability to communicate,” she says, adding that her husband, who runs a logistics business, has been learning Spanish during their time there.

As the family settled into life in Costa Rica, Ward-Hopper, who describes their first year in the country as “one long learning experience,” was particularly struck by the country’s strong sense of community.

“I had an idea of what I thought community was, but that was completely obliterated when I got here and experienced true community,” she says.

“The locals were helpful whether they knew you or not… It was amazing. The community really looked out for each other.”

Their son Nicolai was born in Costa Rica in 2020.

According to Ward-Hopper, Aaralyn adapted very quickly and enjoyed being able to spend so much time on the beach and going on “lots of hikes.”

“My husband and I both commented that she was able to kind of have a childhood like we had in the 80s and 90s,” she says.

“Being able to go outside and play outside of the watchful eye of your parents.”

The family also found that they felt more energized, which Ward-Hopper attributes to access to fresh fruit, vegetables and whole foods, as well as cleaner air.

“The health benefits of the blue zone, I think, show up later in life,” she says.

“But we have noticed that we feel better when we’re here. Our cardiac health and lung health seems to be better.”

In August 2019, Ward-Hopper learned that she was pregnant with her second child.

“It was a weird turn of events,” she admits. “I didn’t expect to get pregnant.”

When the global Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, shutting down much of the world, the family were granted permission to remain in Costa Rica on their tourist visas.

Ward-Hopper welcomed her son Nicolai at their home in Pueblo Nuevo in April 2020.

Aside from not being able to have extended family with her due to border restrictions, she says that giving birth in Costa Rica turned out to be a wonderful experience.

“The birth of my son was kind of like a meditation,” she adds. “Everything was so intentional… I wish I could have had the experience with my daughter.”

Sadly, Ward-Hopper’s sister passed away suddenly a few months later.

Due to the complications around border restrictions at the time and the fact that Nicolai was born in Costa Rica and would have been unable to leave at that stage, Ward-Hopper made the difficult decision not to return to the US to be with her family.

“That was also a really hard point in our journey,” she says, before recounting the way the local community rallied around them to make sure that they “felt loved and supported.”

“That’s the kind of community that we live in,” she adds.

The family of four, who have since moved to a larger house in Nicoya, are now settled in Costa Rica and their lives couldn’t be more different than they were in Houston.

For Ward-Hopper, one of the best things about the Costa Rican lifestyle is the way in which children are embraced in pretty much every aspect of everyday life.

“I feel like in the States, you feel pressure taking your young child out to dinner or something,” she says.

“Here, if your kid wants to play and walk around the table, then they tell you to leave them alone and let them. So it’s just different.

Ward-Hopper says that being able to raise her children in Costa Rica has been an incredible gift.

“They love children. And I don’t necessarily know that I felt the same when my daughter was little.

“It’s a very family oriented nation. Families definitely [come] first.”

Ward-Hopper, who has been “cancer free” for several years, has adapted to a slower paced lifestyle and learned to not “be so uptight.”

“In the US, everything is super fast,” Ward-Hopper says, noting that she’s had to learn to stop apologizing every time she’s a few minutes late.

“You know the saying, ‘If you’re on time, you’re late.’ But here, that is not the case.”

The average life expectancy in Nicoya is said to be around 85 years and the region has a number of centenarians.

“They’re [the centenarians] delightful to talk with,” Ward-Hopper says, noting that she’s always touched to see the way in which the local families take care of each other, with the old taking care of the young, and the young taking care of the old.

“The elderly are a part of caring for the youngest generation – their grandchildren, or their great grandchildren, because they’re in such good shape,” she says.

“And it’s that way because they’re hardworking people, and they walk a lot of the places and they eat really well.

“So I think all of those things contribute to their long life. They also live with the land and not in spite of the land.

“So they don’t try to remove all of the nature so that they can exist. They just kind of exist with the nature. At least where we live.”

While Ward-Hopper says that there are endless benefits to living in Costa Rica, she stresses that it’s not necessarily more affordable than the US.

“Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Latin America,” she says. “But I also think that depends on how you’re trying to live.”

Ward-Hopper points out that the cost of living in areas of the country where there is a “high ratio of expats to locals” is probably around the same as the US.

“Where we live, it would be way more expensive, [to have the same] quality of life living back in Houston,” she says.

“So for us it is more affordable, it’s getting more expensive as more people move to Costa Rica.

“But there are still places you can go and live cheaper. But it’s far away from the most popular spots.”

Even after several years of living in the country, Ward-Hopper says she’s still as amazed by its incredible nature as she was in the beginning.

“I’m so grateful, because I was worried that all this will become just the norm,” says Ward-Hopper. “But it hasn’t yet… We’re still seeing new creatures this many years in. So that’s fun.”

Ward-Hopper and her husband and daughter all became permanent residents of Costa Rica after the birth of Nicolai, who is a Costa Rican citizen.

Although they have no desire to return to the US, Ward-Hopper misses her “friends, family, and Amazon,” and yearns for a traditional US winter every once in a while.

“When Christmas rolls around, sometimes I just want to put on fuzzy socks and a big hoodie and curl up somewhere cozy with a mug of hot chocolate while it’s cold outside,” she says. “But that does not happen [here]. It’s a hot Christmas.”

And while they’re happy to stay where they are for the time being, the family don’t necessarily plan to remain in Costa Rica indefinitely.

“I think Costa Rica will be [our] home base, but we do have plans to travel and experience other parts of the world,” Ward-Hopper adds, explaining that they’re considering spending time in Colombia and Brazil.

“I guess we’re more nomadic than stationary, but Costa Rica feels like home.”

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