This Is Our Family Gap Year: Itinerary and Future Plans

This is a summary of our family gap year. Here we give an outline of our itinerary, our philosophy of travel, and what might lay beyond this special time.

This post was updated and republished several times as we progressed throughout our journey. We made a final update in December 2023, five months after we returned from our travels.

In nearly every post we write, we reference our family gap year in South America. After all, this blog’s main purpose is to record our experiences and thoughts while our family of five travels long term. But what about the big picture? In this post, we give you a high level summary of the trip so you don’t have to piece it together from our 100+ posts.

A recent family photo from Iguazu Falls.

What is a Family Gap Year?

A gap year is what happens when a person graduates high school and realizes they don’t legally have to go to class next fall. They take a year of freedom, because, why not? When a professor takes a long break, it’s called a sabbatical. When a family with kids takes a year off work and school, it’s called a family gap year.

It often involves international travel but doesn’t have to. It could be joining a community and doing a cool or meaningful project, or living in one place with a host family for a year. There might be a goal — writing a book, learning a new skill, experiencing things you would never do back home — but then again, there doesn’t have to be any set purpose. You might find the purpose as you go.

When it comes to traveling with three little boys, it gets complicated. What do you do with the kids’ schooling? The house? How to afford five plane tickets every time you fly? But once you figure out the logistics, it’s essentially the same idea. Take a break from “normal” life, and live it up, learn new things, try new things, and recover that lost sense of wonder.

What Made Us Decide to Do This?

Wanderlust is in our DNA. We’ve always dreamed of leaving it all and traveling the world. It was always just a matter of when and how.

The final nudge from fantasy to reality came from the suggestion of a family friend who was gearing up to take their own gap year. Our biggest problem was the house. We couldn’t just leave it there—pipes could burst, branches could fall on it, a gang of squirrels could move in—but we couldn’t bring ourselves to sell it either. We had just spent seven years of sweat and love rehabbing it.

Our friends had already solved that problem. They were putting their house online as a vacation rental and paying someone to manage it. Brilliant! Home care with the benefit of extra income!

We decided we were going to do it. That was 2019. That same year we were surprised with a third child. We were still determined to do it, but not while lugging a sack of diapers. It became our three-year plan. The delay didn’t matter anyway because we all know what happened in 2020. In fact, it made the pandemic doldrums slightly more bearable. We had something to work towards and look forward to during COVID’s darkest days.

What Did We Hope to Get Out Of It?

That’s a big topic. I’ve devoted several blog posts to various aspects of it.

If I were to boil it down to four main points they would be: rest, growth, purpose, and family. It was a chance to get out in the world and be challenged. It was a time to lower the stress and catch up on a decade of crappy sleep. It was a period to reflect on our life’s purpose and where we wanted to dedicate our time in the long term. And, importantly, it was a time to spend our fleeting moments as a young-ish family—learning, growing, and experiencing amazing things together—before the kids grow up.

The kids were educated in the ways of the world. They saw that places can’t be boiled down to simple binaries like dangerous or safe, ugly or pretty, friendly or aloof. They learned the subtle art of cross-cultural communication and becoming aware of their own privilege as Americans. They also got to see another side of their parents—the fun-loving, adventurous side as opposed to anxious and zoned out parents they usually interact with.

By the Seat of Our Pants

We didn’t plan the whole year in advance. And, in fact, we had to revise even our most high level plans due to continued COVID-related closures in Asia.

What we did decide, more or less, was our travel philosophy. In a word, we wanted to travel slow. We made a preference for seeing more of a few places than trying to see it all. That’s why we stuck to one continent, South America, for a whole year.

We had to prioritize our motives. We decided to scratch one potential motive off the list: trying to impress people back home. We weren’t going to travel to every major city and tourist trap. We weren’t going to circumnavigate the globe. In fact, we spent most of our time in places nobody’s ever heard of, because those are the kinds of places we love best.

The slow approach had a lot going for it. It gave us stability and made us more flexible. That was critical with three boys occasionally getting sick or needing days of rest. It gave the kids a chance to form friendships with the local children. It was also more affordable and better for the environment to fly less and spend more time in a place. The result was a less hectic, more pleasurable travel experience.

So now that you know more about our general approach, here was the itinerary.

Itinerary

We left in July 2022, taking a scheduled 44-hour Amtrak train (which, due to delays, turned into 48 hours) from Chicago to Los Angeles, losing a wallet on the train, and finding it two days later, right before our plane left for Rio de Janeiro. It was quite the start to a year full of new friends, good food, stunning landscapes, and much-needed time to unwind as a family.

Interactive Map

We mapped our journey. You can zoom in, select the markers and view a small slide show for each place.

Brazil — July-November 2022

Teresópolis

kids hanging out at gated community
There were so many amazing things to see in Teresópolis.
But resting and making new friends was by far the most meaningful thing we did in that first month.

We spent a month at an AirBnb in the mountains west of Rio de Janeiro doing absolutely nothing. After a couple visits to the community pool/playground area, neighboring kids quickly befriended our boys. They first used Google Translate, as our Portuguese was pretty rudimentary, but soon discovered many things don’t need translation: soccer, dodgeball, trampoline games, hide-and-seek, and climbing trees. Soon, kids were knocking daily to ask our boys to play. Everyone was sad when we left.

Paraty

Paraty is a preserved historical town whose streets flood with the tide.

At this coastal town, we made our home in a rustic cottage by a river. Matt and Liuan started working remotely 1-2 days per week and the boys went “back to school” to their new teachers for 3rd grade, kindergarten, and preschool: Mom and Dad. The internet and electricity went out intermittently, making work from the cloud and virtual meetings challenging. We ended up renting a separate room closer to town on work days, to get around the outages. With no window screens, bats and marmosets visited us regularly. We made chocolate from a cocao tree in the yard and visited some fabulous beaches. 

EcoCaminhos (Nova Friburgo)

We got hands-on agroforestry experience.

We spent two months volunteering with EcoCaminhos, a farm started by a Dutch social entrepreneur who apprentices at-risk local youth and receives international volunteers to his agroforestry and permaculture project. Agroforestry is growing food interspersed with trees in a way that mimics a forest ecosystem and provides nutrient and shading benefits to the plants and improves the soil. Permaculture is a way of growing food and designing buildings and land use with the goal of long-term flourishing for humans and other life.

We had great conversations, scooped lots of cow manure, planted seeds, pruned trees, gathered eggs, and helped build a toolshed using natural materials, in a method known as bioconstruction. Matt also gave some impromptu baking classes to the volunteers. 

Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay — November-December 2022

Iguazu Falls

It was hard to capture the immensity of this waterfall with a single photo.

Liuan’s mom joined us for our last few weeks in Brazil. We learned to cook Brazilian food with a chef once featured in the New York Times and took an overnight bus from Sao Paolo to Iguazu, the world’s largest waterfall system that made Eleanor Roosevelt say, “My poor Niagara!” 

Buenos Aires

One of the many quaint and colorful streets we wandered in Buenos Aires.

We lived the final rounds of the 2023 World Cup here. Argentines waved flags, hung out their car windows, honked horns, and made a huge ruckus after each victory.

We left the country for Uruguay before the final match, alas, but perhaps it was for the better because the streets of Buenos Aires were jammed with revelers after Argentina’s win. 

Quinta Esencia

Tending the garden. From the left: Me (Matt), Oliver, and our friend Ani from Buenos Aires.

While snow fell back in Chicagoland, we were baking in 90-degree summer weather, picking weeds and watering trees at a nature education and permaculture project in the pampas (grasslands) south of Buenos Aires. We volunteered there for two weeks, adjusting somewhat painfully to the Argentine rhythm of dinner at 9 pm or later.

We also learned afresh the value of water. The region was in a drought and the farm used rainwater collected in a huge cistern, which had been running dangerously low. “Water is gold,” was our mantra, adding to an earlier one from EcoCaminhos, “Manure is black gold.” 

Uruguay

On an outing to Cabo Polonio, where we got an up close view of sea lions.

We spent Christmas at an A-frame beach cabin filled with mosquitoes (to Liuan’s dismay) and then an apartment in Montevideo. We got to watch Home Alone and eat sugar cookies and play board games with some American missionaries that friends of friends connected us with on Christmas Eve. 

Patagonia, southern Chile, and northwestern Argentina — January-February 2023

Patagonia

Torres del Paine National Park, where we saw Guanacos, glaciers, and an avalanche.

On New Year’s Day we took a flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost town on the continent and starting point for Antarctic voyages (maybe next time). We took the “End of the World” train, built by prisoners sent to occupy and assert Argentine rule over Tierra del Fuego, visited some just-hatched Magdalena penguins, and hiked magnificent trails at Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. 

Fundación Retoño (Central Chile)

Learning to make Kuchen, a popular pastry in Chile.

We spent a couple weeks on a thousand-acre wheat, oat, and rapeseed farm hosted by Liuan’s connections through A Rocha, an international network of Christian conservation groups.

Cristina, the daughter of the Swiss-German farm owners, is working with a team to conserve some old-growth forest at the edges of the farm and bring people to the land for nature retreats and volunteering. We picked native maqui berries, invasive blackberries, fed Chanchi the farm pig many scraps, made soap out of used cooking oil, and walked into the crater of a volcano while there.

Matt also discovered a kindred spirit in Cristi’s mom, who also loves to bake desserts at any time for no special reason. 

Santiago, Mendoza, Salta, Jujuy

Mendoza - Cabin
Lounging outside of our cabin near Mendoza – Argentina’s wine country.

In the last weeks of February, we realized that a year is just too short to see everything. We violated our own code of slow travel to cover the area between southern Chile and Bolivia with just a few days in each place. It was way too hectic! Still, we saw some stunning landscapes on the buses, like a 20+ switchback mountain road into the Andes between Santiago and Mendoza. 

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica — March-July, 2023

Bolivia

Sucre - mercado central
An massive, and a bit overwhelming, market in Sucre, Bolivia.

At the overland border crossing between Argentina and Bolivia, our seasoned-traveler confidence was shaken upon realizing we didn’t have visas to enter Bolivia. Also, it was Carnaval, which meant all the shops that could help us print forms and documents were closed. On top of that, Oliver had a severe case of altitude sickness.

After three days in a moldy hotel room, we managed to cross into Bolivia, our bodies now accustomed to the elevation and visas in hand. We volunteered at another permaculture farm and visited Sucre, Cochabamba, La Paz, and Lake Titicaca while in the country. 

Colombia and Ecuador

Dressed and ready for our volunteering work: picking ripe coffee cherries.

Coffee and cacao farms, mountain drives, tropical bird sightings, and a visit to the Poor Man’s Galapagos (Isla de la Plata, off the coast of Ecuador), were some of the highlights here. We also had a few misadventures (got mugged and the police tried to extort $900 from us at a checkpoint).

Costa Rica

Liuan catches a wave in Nosara, Costa Rica.

Our last country was a stopover on the way back to the U.S., where we spent time with Liuan’s brother (visiting from the US), stayed with an intentional Christian community called Casa Adobe, got shoes and socks stolen by the local dog gang, and learned to surf along the Pacific coast. 

July-August 2023—Texas

Upon returning to the States, we weren’t done yet. We stayed in our own house for a just a few days before turning it back over to AirBnb guests and driving to Southeast Texas, where we helped Liuan’s mom put the finishing touches on her house, which had been unfinished since Hurricane Harvey in 2017. 

August 2023—Present—Home in the Chicago Suburbs

We are back to our old life in the Western Chicago suburbs now. The boys are all in school, including Miles, who just started preschool.

They have adjusted back smoothly, doing well in class, reuniting with old friends, and making new ones. Liuan is plotting a much-expanded front-yard garden come spring, while Matt has many home improvement and creative projects up his sleeve, as always. We’re glad to be home, but who knows when the next travel itch will strike?!

How To Follow Us

If you’ve made it this far, you must be really interested in keeping up with our travels! We are not currently traveling long term, but we continue to write about the experience. Our hope is to do this again someday.

If you wish to stay connected, you can check back on our blog from time to time. Or you can just subscribe to our newsletter where you will get a monthly email with exclusive content, plus links to all the blog posts we published since last time.

Or, follow us on Instagram:

  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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  • Liuan

    Liuan is an author and journalist. Her favorite topics to cover are spirituality, embodiment and environmental issues. Her favorite snack is dark chocolate.

    View all posts

Matt

Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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