How my dream trip to paradise became a nightmare

When Juliet Owen-Nuttall and her husband Daniel saw a programme showing a new life in the sunshine, they sold up and flew 5,416 miles to start afresh in Costa Rica. Here, Juliet, 48, from West Sussex tells how their TV dream became a real-life horror show.

It was a wet and miserable February in 2015 and I was lying in bed with my husband Daniel when a TV show came on about moving to paradise in Costa Rica. 

Over the next hour, we were dazzled by the stunning scenery, endless sunshine and the carefree community, smiling their welcomes.

I was full of cold, approaching 40 and with both of us working 12-hour days, six days a week, in our window-cleaning business, we had become disillusioned with the relentless grind of our lives.

As I stared at the sunny scenes on TV, something in my head just clicked and I thought: ‘There must be more to life’. 

Inspired by the documentary, we scoured the internet for businesses and properties for sale. We found a horse-riding business on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, which looked perfect, as I had grown up riding horses.

I thought: ‘I can do that’ and had visions of myself riding along a beautiful beach with the wind blowing through my hair. We wanted a complete change of life and change of pace – and this was it. Or, so we thought. 

We spent our entire £29,000 savings on the horse-riding business and in December 2015 put all our possessions into storage and packed our bags. Although we were apprehensive about such a big move, we were also hugely excited.

However, things went wrong as soon as we touched down. We received an email from Eve*, the woman we’d brought our new business from, which said all eight of the horses had fallen sick and had to be slaughtered. 

She quickly reassured us she’d help us find more horses, so we settled in our Air BnB in Playa Chiquita and just hoped we could sort things out.

However, every time we met with Eve things felt a bit off. We went through weeks of phone calls and meetings to try to find a solution, but it was futile. It was like a brick wall – and it made me feel terrible.

Eventually, we consulted a lawyer. When Eve found out she accused us of bullying her for answers.

I just didn’t know what to do. We had nothing left to keep us afloat, as any cash we had left had gone on lawyer’s fees. The business was on rented land, and all we had to show for our investment were some bits of tack and a few saddles.

By this point my mental health was in free fall. We were in paradise but there was nothing to enjoy about it. We’d sit on an idyllic beach with the white sand stretched out endlessly ahead of us and the waves gently lapping at our feet, but just felt so stressed and fearful about the future.

Eventually, an American acquaintance lent us some horses for our business – but with no money for accommodation, our only option was to pitch two tents in his stable. It was a smelly, disgusting and depressing place to live.

I frantically tried to keep it tidy, but anything I put down would become immediately infested by cockroaches and insects, while clothes got covered in mould. There was no hot water or proper electricity, and because it was the dry season, where the city turns off the water, all we got was an hour a day of brown, undrinkable water.

We’d fill up a five-litre container of water from the stable tap, and that was all we had to wash our clothes, bathe and cook with. It got so bad we ended up washing in this mosquito-infested stream.

We were dirty, tired, covered in bites and living off rice and beans. Sometimes Daniel would go foraging for plantains, bananas and coconuts, but we often went hungry, and I lost a stone in weight very rapidly.

As the horses were next to us at night and we could hear them weeing and pooing – the ammonia smell was terrible. It was complete and utter destitution.

We lived like this for four months – a far cry from our dream of a new life in the sunshine.

We felt such failures we didn’t even tell our families what had happened, but we’d lost everything. At times, I felt like the only course of action would be to end my life.

The stress impacted our relationship too, and Daniel and I stopped talking to each other. When we did speak, we would argue about money and blame each other for the situation we were in. 

After weeks of living in the stable Daniel went up and down the streets, desperately knocking on doors asking people if they wanted any help in return for accommodation. Eventually an American woman who ran eco lodges offered us a bungalow at the back of her property with a proper bed, kitchen area and bathroom in return for house sitting.

We packed up our stuff, put it all in a wheelbarrow and within two hours we moved in. It was quite basic, but felt like luxury. 

However, by this time, I’d become quite ill. I had a lot of pain in my abdomen, was rapidly losing weight and I had a constant fever. I was really scared.

Once we’d moved to our new lodge my health got worse and I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. There was no medical service nearby and we had no money to pay for it anyway. I tried the juice of a local fruit called noni, which has anti-inflammatory properties, it helped a little.

After four months, I felt well enough to get back onto a plane to the UK for the urgent medical help I so badly needed.

I moved in with my parents and saw a GP, whose doctor did an internal examination – he told me to go straight to hospital. It emerged I had a massive infection in my womb that had been there for months. I was warned I might never have children naturally, which was a huge shock.

Although everything already felt hopeless, worse was to come, as my dad, who had prostate cancer, died at home on January 11.

What’s really sad is that while he was downstairs, drawing his last breath, Daniel and I were arguing on Skype because he’d told me wasn’t coming back to the UK. He was looking after the animals and helping build up the eco lodge business.

It was a real blow. I was traumatised and severely depressed. Our relationship was over and I had lost my dad.

Daniel later told me that when we got off the phone that day, he went surfing, and sat on the board and just cried. He realised he didn’t want to lose me, so he came back for Dad’s funeral two weeks later.

After, we sat by the seafront in Brighton and talked about what to do next. We decided we might be able to salvage something and I agreed to go back out to the place that had nearly killed me.

However, our plans were scuppered again just four months later after my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer –I knew I had to return home to be by her side.

This time Daniel was with me and we came back home to the UK for good.

Weirdly, once our nightmare in paradise was over, good things started to come our way.

In 2019 I discovered I was pregnant and in June the next year our beautiful daughter Lyra was born. Mum also recovered from her cancer.

Now, I work helping other women as a fertility wellbeing practitioner. My experience made me realise how amazing the UK is in terms of our NHS, our welfare, and our legal system. We don’t have the weather and beautiful coastline, but we do have the infrastructure to keep people safe. 

Both Daniel and I were traumatised for a long time. He couldn’t walk around the supermarket; just looking at a pineapple would send him into a spin. And he couldn’t eat rice for two years, bananas for four. If a sandy, tropical beach would appear on TV, we would both end up panicking. I couldn’t even think about planes. 

Do I regret going to Costa Rica? I did for a very long time. I was very bitter and upset. But not anymore. One day I will travel again. 

As told to Sarah Ingram

*Names have been changed

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