A sabbatical story...

Victoria’s Costa Rican Study Leave with a Toddler

Needing an escape from the Montreal winter, Victoria took a study leave from her career as a nurse and decided to finish her Bachelor’s degree — from Costa Rica — with her one and a half year old son Sasha. Since this first snowbird trip south, she has managed to escape the winter every year with her family. Back home she has been making changes — such as introducing a recycling program to her hospital unit — inspired by conservationists she met on her tropical sabbatical. Victoria endlessly proves that you can be adventurous with your kids, even as a single mother.


Waking up in your beach house, leaving your toddler with a babysitter for an hour and walking through a beautiful tropical forest to your yoga retreat. Big flowers fall from the trees around you as you are engulfed by the magic of the jungle’s huge leaves reaching out to you. You feel good in body and spirit after your class and go home for lunch.

You study in the shade of your beach house with the sea breeze blowing through, and in the late afternoon you take your son to the beach. He fits right in playing soccer with the local boys, and they laugh and enjoy his participation. In the evening you head to a nearby hotel where there is a beach BBQ and live music. You run into some of your neighbours and friends and enjoy some delicious food outside in the warm evening air.

Another winter with noisy neighbours

Victoria had been suffering from lack of sleep for at least a year. Her upstairs neighbours in Montreal kept her up late every night — especially in winter when it was too cold to go out — and she had to wake very early for her morning shift as a nurse. Having grown up in Moscow she was no stranger to cold dark winters. But late sleepless nights, stress-inducing neighbours, and dark early mornings were making winter a truly miserable time of year for her. She couldn’t stand the thought of spending it in Montreal.

She applied for a three month study leave and enrolled in two online courses to help complete her Bachelor’s degree. She spoke to some friends and chose Costa Rica — a safe, beautiful and developed place where she could live and study at the beach.

A tropical beach house in a surfer’s village

Montreal’s winter felt a million miles away when their Swiss Airbnb host picked them up from the airport and drove them under a warm starry sky to their new home in Playa Negra. She felt like Alice in Wonderland. Everything was different — the plants, the air, the sea.

She was looking forward to finally having a great night’s sleep her first night in Costa Rica. However strong winds threw the branches of a tree violently against the metal roof of her bungalow all night. Once the wind finally died out at about 4 am, howling monkeys kept her up (and scared her half to death). But somehow she wasn’t angry about it, her perspective had already shifted. Instead she felt rewarded by a big sky packed with bright stars to look at outside while she couldn’t sleep.

Sasha was immediately comfortable and at home in Playa Negra. He was running through the river, playing soccer with the locals, and helping himself to other people’s food when he was hungry. Concentrating on studying statistics while always having an eye on her adventurous toddler was difficult, but the locals were always looking out for her and her son. They warned her about the crocodiles in the river, poisonous snakes in shoes, and thieves that come to the area. By the time they left, Sasha had been bitten by a scorpion and a dog, and she had her home burgled, but she always felt like they were in good care. Her hosts drove them to the hospital when Sasha was bit by the dog and she learned that health care for anyone under 15 years old is free in Costa Rica regardless of where you come from. (Hear the whole story by listening to the interview below).

By the time she left, Victoria knew when and where to buy fresh fish, which day the bread pastry truck comes to the village, where to get freshly made cheese, who she could catch a lift with to San Jose to shop. She had her own local hang out spots, made local and expat friends.

Inspired to launch a recycling initiative back home

Her neighbour in Playa Negra was Marc Ward — an Oregon-based conservationist who comes to Costa Rica every winter to help save endangered baby turtles. In addition to protecting the baby turtles, he has set up agreements with local environmental authorities and has also conducted plastic cleanups of the ocean.

Victoria realised that in her dialysis unit back in Montreal they weren’t recycling any of the huge volumes of plastic waste produced by the unit. Inspired by Marc’s achievements, she began working with her unit on a recycling program and is proud to say that it’s under development.

She also changed to working part time — 4 days a week — and feels much happier with this schedule.

Her advice? Start your trip with a homestay and enjoy some hospitality

Victoria found a friendly host on Airbnb who not only picked them up from the airport but also showed her the ropes for the first month. She spent extra money on this first month, but it was worth it for the warm welcome. Once she arrived she looked for a place that would better suit her needs, closer to the beach.

Victoria used study leaves twice to go south for the winter, and one year she took a full year sabbatical — all while keeping her job.

As a budget, all she needed for her little family to stay in Costa Rica was $400-500 for accommodation and about the same for food and entertainment, if you’re willing to eat locally. That’s less than $1000 per month for a family of 2-3 people.

She advises to use lockers provided to protect belongings, and to reach out to locals for help. Victoria had vegetables and fruits delivered weekly to her house, all set up by a local pizzeria owner, and learned how to prepare local foods from local friends, as the the food variety can be lacking in a small remote village.

“If it’s really what’s calling you, don’t be afraid, go right ahead. Enjoy every day.”

Listen to the full interview

All images courtesy of Victoria Fadeeva.

About Victoria

Victoria Fadeeva is a Russian-born nurse and mother of a fearless young boy, based in Montreal, Canada.

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