Adventures and Feeling Younger Learning Spanish Overseas

When my wife, Suzanne, and I retired, we loved the free time, but we found filling it with something meaningful a bit tricky. We wanted to tackle new goals and new activities and avoid flabby waistlines and flabbier minds. We were determined to make the most of our time.

We started by exploring the United States in a small RV. We visited most of the national parks and stayed active by biking and hiking. Along the way, we discovered that we didn’t need as much stuff as we owned, that a more minimal life was liberating, and that we no longer wanted our house of 25 years. This was followed by the “Great Purge,” as we spent a year downsizing and selling the house.

After two years as full-time nomads, we realized—in the time it takes to blow an engine—that it was time to try something new.

We had circled the globe dozens of times in our work lives, but we had never crossed the equator into the southern hemisphere. So we decided to explore South America. But we wanted to pick up enough Spanish so we could ask for directions to the bathrooms, order a beer, or give an address to a taxi driver.

For the last four years, we have been Spanish students on the move. We’ve spent time in 12 countries in Latin America and have found the people to be warm, friendly, and welcoming. Our travels have been a blast, but the schools and their contacts have lent structure to our voyage of discovery.

With some Spanish skills, your world will expand, your competence will increase, and you can choose whom to hire and how you will travel. On our first trip to South America, we visited Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile. We booked our excursions using a U.S. travel agent. If we’d waited until we reached South America, we’d have cut our costs in half. Each layer of distance adds another agency to be paid: Dallas to Lima to Cusco to Aguascalientes. In the end, you’ll be served by someone from Aguascalientes—so why not hire them directly?

Going back to school in your 50s and 60s is an enlivening experience. It’s a wonderful way to meet young, energetic people. Their “my whole life is ahead of me” enthusiasm can extend to those of us whose lives are mostly behind us. Shouldn’t life be as exciting and full of possibilities for jubilados (retirees) as for the jóvenes (young people)? Our studies have made us feel younger and more mentally healthy.

Thanks to the schools we’ve attended, we have friends all over the world. We watched a fellow student sing in the Lima Opera Fest, and we’ll soon head to Bogotá to see a classmate’s newborn son.

There are also immediate advantages. You’ll have better access to local knowledge and services. A few bucks go a long way with a local seamstress, cobbler, or artisan, if you can describe what you want.

Travel can be tough on luggage and on shoes; locals can repair them for a few dollars. It’s much cheaper than back home.

You also have a way to handle emergencies: the doctor, a dentist.

When my tooth became infected in Chile, I was able to talk to the dentist about what was wrong and what we could try before submitting to an expensive treatment.

We started our language journey with five months in Costa Rica in 2014. We chose Costa Rica because it welcomes U.S. citizens and was close to home. We used Heredia, just outside San José, as our base for exploring the rest of the country, and we attended a highly ranked school (see sidebar).

We couldn’t have chosen a better place to start. Costa Rica is small and one can get from the Pacific to the Caribbean coasts in a day, or stop in the middle to explore the mountains, volcanos, and wildlife of the highlands. We also made trips to adjacent Nicaragua and Panama. Our immersion into the language was enhanced by two “home stays,” where our Mama Ticas kept things lively and introduced us to traditional foods and the tico culture.

The next year, we headed to South America. On our first stop, we fell in love with a school in Peru’s capital, Lima (see sidebar). It has become our “home school.” The teachers are talented and eager, and it’s located in an unbelievably beautiful place. Miraflores is a suburb of Lima that sits atop a tall cliff over the Pacific Ocean. A malecón (promenade) 300 feet above the sea winds through a string of parks for six miles along the coast.

Miraflores is both clean and safe. We are comfortable walking around, even at midnight.

We spent the next seven months exploring, including vacations to Easter Island, the Galápagos, and Tierra del Fuego. In the Galápagos Islands, you have such amazing access to sea lions, penguins, blue-footed boobies, and tortoises, that it’s easy to forget they are wild.

But what we enjoy most is being able to experience a city beyond the tourist route. We rent a local apartment, we shop in the local markets, we explore local venues. We walk everywhere, and we both weigh considerably less than when we started this adventure.

After South America, we headed to Europe (including three months in Spain). We found the Spanish of the motherland somewhat different, but we had enough basic vocabulary to get around. We spent the rest of 2016 traveling around non-Spanish-speaking parts of Europe.

Our next trip was to Mexico. To knock off some rust, we hired tutors (another useful approach) in Mexico City. After a month, we went to Guanajuato. This is a gem of a college town, surrounded by steep hills that any hiker would enjoy. We spent six months wandering around Mexico and even took a three-week journey into Cuba.

In Cuba, Spanish was crucial, because very few people speak English. It enabled us to work directly with providers, rather than having to rely on a costly, government-structured tour. Best of all, we were able to find out what the Cubans really think. They are incredible people who’ve experienced great hardships. They’re careful about what they say but will loosen up over a shot of rum and a Cuban cigar.

After a short visit to the States, we are now back in Peru. We’re meeting interesting people of all ages and catching up with old friends. One of our friends owns a leather workshop and is making me two hand-tooled belts, all leather, and better than any I’ve ever owned. I saw the tanned hide being cut and watched the workman handstamp the leather, using tools made from old automobile valve lifters. It’s costing me just $3.

We’ll be down here for another six months. This time, if we do our homework and keep practicing, we may cross the line into feeling truly bilingual.


Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. Delivered straight to your door each month, we delve into the details you need to take action. We share our contacts. We lay out the pluses and minuses. And we keep you up-to-date on the latest developments with the best havens abroad, including…7 Great Retirement Towns You’ve Never Heard of…

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