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In Search of Wellness, Some Americans are Moving Abroad

Working remotely has taken on new meaning for some expats, including Kim Kessler who now enjoys this view while at work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to re-examine our lives and priorities. While many yearn to return to “normal,” others have come to the realization that they can do better by adopting a healthier lifestyle that immerses them in nature, puts their wellbeing first, embraces community, and makes time a friend rather than a foe. For some, that has meant leaving the U.S. and settling abroad in destinations that welcome and encourage a slower, more mindful pace of life.

For yoga instructor Andrew Sealy, co-host of the Yoga Revealed Podcast, a move to Costa Rica fulfilled his desire for a more nature-inspired setting. “2020 was a wild year filled with uncertain outcomes and high stakes due to the dramatic spread of the COVID-19 virus and the timely nature of the U.S. presidential election,” says Sealy. “I was prompted to take action by a jarring rainy day bike ride to the local Whole Foods in Venice Beach, CA. Upon arrival, I witnessed complete mayhem as shoppers raided all aisles of everything from toilet paper to canned peaches. There was nothing left on the shelves, and that’s when I realized this situation was a lot larger than I had thought it to be.” In early March, Sealy made the decision to travel Costa Rica, which was greener and less populated. “I am a huge nature lover and have been traveling to Costa Rica since 2012 for its absolute beauty and unparalleled nature adventures.”

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Sealy has found nature to be key to his overall wellbeing.

In a stroke of serendipity, his friend Nadav Wilf, founder of Imiloa Institute, asked him to consult on the programming for his retreat center in Dominical. “With my negative COVID-19 test results and passport in hand, I was welcomed to Costa Rica with Pura Vida vibes upon landing.” Says Sealy. “With lockdowns and travel restrictions increasing, my online yoga teaching career has expanded, and I have made more money teaching yoga online than ever. My health has been better than ever, and I’ve been able to tap into deeper meditations due to less stress living in the jungle near the beach with great WIFI and peace and quiet. I watched the mayhem unfold from afar with a deeper sense of presence to what matters most: my health and my freedom.”

According to Sealy, his wellbeing, health, and mental balance were some of the primary reasons he chose to move. “When it comes down to it, your health is your wealth, and there is no reason that anyone should have to live in an environment that is not conducive to growth,” he says. “My body is literally my livelihood and is also my main means of income, considering I teach people how to become healthier through body movement and breath awareness.” With the motto, “Pura Vida,” which means “pure life,” Costa Rica promotes a well-centric lifestyle. “The lifestyle here is much more supportive of health and wellness, considering Costa Rica has universal healthcare for all of its citizens, tons of hiking trails, national parks, and nature preserves,” says Sealy. “The lifestyle here in Costa Rica is exactly what I needed to amplify my yoga teaching career and support more optimal performance, sustainable productivity, and longevity in my life and the lives of my clients.”

For Kori Zornes, founder of Revamp Retreats, an international retreat company, a life-changing move to Bali turned out to be the best surprise of 2020. Although she had been based in Los Angeles, she spent much of her time traveling for work to some pretty magical destinations. With her company’s 2020 retreat schedule planned, the first retreat was slated to take place in Bali in March. “I arrived in Bali in February and didn’t really take much of the pandemic news seriously,” says Zornes. “I remember arriving in Hong Kong airport with everyone wearing masks but me. I didn’t understand the effect COVID-19 would have on the world yet.” As March drew closer and news of the virus spread, it became clear to Zornes that she and her team would need to cancel the upcoming retreat as well as those scheduled throughout the rest of the year. Although she had time to return to her home in LA, she decided to stick it out. “My intuition told me to stay in Bali, and I have been here ever since,” says Zornes. “Now, it is no longer just a temporary home while I wait out the pandemic. When I go to LA next, I will clear out my apartment, pack up my two kitties, and come back to my island home.”

While Zornes spent the first seven months of the pandemic in Bali, she is now living on a small nearby island called Nusa Lembongan. “The island is small, and everyone knows each other,” she says. “It reminds me of how my family grew up in Hawaii, way back in the day. It’s a small community where everyone takes care of one another, you can always leave your door unlocked, and you never wear shoes. It’s a sandy barefoot lifestyle of slow days, surf, chatting with friends at the local café, and just this beautiful stillness.” According to Zornes, the biggest challenge has been missing family and friends. There is also the guilt that comes from being able to live a somewhat “normal” life while those back in the States deal with mask mandates, lockdowns, and social distancing. “My wellbeing and lifestyle are 10 times better than what it was in the States,” says Zornes. “I live surrounded by nature—things move more slowly, and my feet are in the sand every day. We eat local fruits and fish that have been spear caught that morning, and the culture is one where everyone cares so deeply for each other’s wellbeing.”

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Surfing is one of the healthy activities Zornes is able to incorporate into her day.

Although it was never her plan to move, the pandemic brought into focus her desire to live abroad. “Wellness and self-care are just ingrained in the lifestyle here,” says Zornes. “When I was living in the U.S., I had to try a lot harder to fit it in my schedule. In America, I felt so busy all the time. There is so much stimulation, so much work to do, things to buy, and more money to make so you can keep up. My health, happiness, and vitality are all so nourished living here.”

Kim Kessler, founder of KIPR Global, hadn’t planned on becoming an expat either, but when the pandemic hit, she found her life in Venice Beach, CA, to be unsustainable. Homeless encampments near her home grew, and she began hearing screams in the middle of the night. There was also a shooting one block from where she lived. The year prior, she had purchased an ocean-view casita at Careyes, a residential resort community in Jalisco, Mexico, where she planned to live part time. “I started traveling to Careyes Mexico more than three years ago and truly fell in love with the destination and always felt at home when I landed,” says Kessler. By May of 2020, she had made the decision to move to Careyes full time. “I had become friends with some of the community members and felt very strongly that I belonged here,” says Kessler. “Now, I know it was definitely the right decision, as the community members have embraced me as family. I love being able to walk down to clean, swimmable beach coves surrounded by the lush, green jungle; have meals at friends’ homes, go to cacao and sound healing sessions in La Copa del Sol regularly; practice yoga, often in person; and take a small fisherman boat to white sand beaches.” Just a three-hour flight from LAX, Kessler has already had a number of friends visit. And those in the community hail from all over the world, including Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, the UK, and the U.S.

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Kessler is able to take part in regular sound healing sessions at La Copa del Sol.

With no plans to leave when the pandemic is over, Kessler is happy with her decision to relocate. “I feel so much more peaceful here in nature, and my lifestyle is enhanced with being able to see friends daily, swim in the ocean, work in a beautiful setting, enjoy wellness sessions, and have fascinating people visit regularly,” she says. Kessler is also able to prioritize her health and wellbeing in her new home. “I practice yoga, often in person, with top international instructors, through the new yoga residency program that I’ve created, where a yoga teacher visits for one month at a time and teaches every morning at El Careyes Club & Residences,” she says. “I’ve had to get creative because I’m vegan, so now I make my own vegan cashew cheese, flax crackers, smoothies, raw chocolate truffles, zucchini noodles with pesto, and other healthy dishes.”

John Newton and his husband Marc Perrotta also found their new chapter in Mexico. Although they had already decided to make their home in Merida, Yucatan, before the pandemic hit, they did speed up their timeline, choosing to move into a rental in November as opposed to waiting for work to be completed on the house they had purchased there. A driving force behind their move was a desire for financial wellness. “The cost of living in New York City was the main motivator,” says Newton. “With Marc working as an architect and me in publishing, even doing ‘well’ can feel like you are working long hours and struggling to put aside anything for retirement. We would often run the numbers in those retirement calculators you can find online, and the results weren’t encouraging—unless we could reset the numbers with a much lower cost of living outside of New York or, even better, outside of the U.S.” Newton and Perrotta also didn’t want to wait until retirement to make the move. Instead, they wanted to do it while they were still young enough to enjoy the destination and get settled.

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Perrotta, Newton, and their pup, Lily Beth, didn’t want to wait until retirement to pursue a healthier and more relaxed lifestyle.

When it came to choosing a destination, they did their homework. “We really did some pretty systematic comparisons of Spain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Mexico, and some other options,” says Newton. “We looked at what visa programs each offered, the cost of living, etc. Part of why we settled on Mexico was emotional. Both Marc and I enjoyed every visit and always felt somewhat sad returning to New York after a trip to Mexico.” The fact that it was fairly simple to get a temporary resident visa provided you have adequate savings, the low cost of living, Newton’s fluency in Spanish, and the existence of a substantial expat community also played a role as did the fact that it was relatively close to friends and family in the U.S. “I wanted a place where getting good health insurance isn’t a serious financial obstacle, where retiring and having a good retirement feel like goals that can be achieved, where I can work less and enjoy life more, where the food is fresh, where people have a better life-work balance, and where it is possible to be outdoors and enjoying nature for more of each year,” says Newton. Mexico provides that and more. “We recently bought our health insurance for the year—our premium VIP plan here is $800 a year,” he says. “In the U.S., I was paying $600 a month for crappy bronze level Oscar. The fact that everything is cheaper means I am not waking up each day wondering how I will cover my monthly expenses. If I want to take a two-hour lunch, I can.”

Gil Antolin, founder of Luxury World Traveler, had always wanted to move to Europe, where the culture is more conducive to a better work-life balance. It wasn’t until the pandemic that he made the move. “After five months of lockdown in Los Angeles and not being able to travel, I was starting to go a little stir crazy,” says Antolin. “For the last six years, I had never been home for longer than a month, and for the four previous summers, I had spent a substantial amount of time in Europe. Los Angeles had changed with the riots and the lockdown, and the overall energy was just not as magical as before.” It also didn’t hurt that he had a client, who owned a resort in Marbella, Spain, that he had visited for the past three years. “I had always really liked this area from the first time I visited and had met a lot of friends and associates in the area,” says Antolin. “[My client] offered me an opportunity to come to Spain and consult with his marketing team for three months. Because they were able to offer me a work contract, I was able to get into Europe.” When the three months was up, Antolin realized he had fallen in love with the area and the people, and he decided to make the move permanent.

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Photo: Pexels
Antolin moved to Marbella, Spain, to find a better work-life balance.

Wellness played a primary role in his decision, such as the fact that Spanish culture is much more easygoing. Since relocating, Antolin has found time to incorporate more self-care into his everyday life. He now meditates twice a day and has lost 14 pounds, leaving him feeling better physically, emotionally, and spiritually. “I was always so stressed in the United States and always felt like I was on the go and was not able to be present most of the time,” he says. “In Spain, things move much slower, and there is way less stress to deal with. I feel as though I have been able to focus a lot more on improving myself and have alleviated 90 percent of my daily stress. This way of life better suits me than the fast-paced LA lifestyle.”

About The Author
Heather-Mikesell-author-1

Heather, co-founder of Well Defined and the former editor-in-chief of American Spa, is an award-winning journalist and content strategist, skilled in writing, copyediting, and media relations. She is also a freelance writer and has contributed to Elite Traveler, Islands, Kiwi, Luxury Travel Advisor, Organic Spa, Porthole Cruise, Travel Agent, abcnews.com, jetsetter.com, outside.com, and wellandgood.com, in addition to various custom publications. She is frequently called upon to comment on various spa and wellness trends for various media outlets.