From San Francisco Bay to Ambergris Caye

How one couple reinvented their lives in the Caribbean.

By SHARE

Ann Kuffner and her husband Bill had thriving, high-power careers in San Francisco. They were on the fast track, making good money, and living well. In June 2008, they decided to walk away from it all—the careers, the money, the condo, and the lifestyle. In the three-and-a-half years since, they have completely reinvented their lives—on the Caribbean island of Ambergris Caye, Belize.

[See The 10 Best Places to Retire in 2012.]

"I was first attracted to Belize about a dozen years ago by the natural beauty and the environment, including the opportunity its Caribbean islands, especially Ambergris, offer for scuba diving and water sports,” says Ann. “All my life I’ve wanted to be on the water.”

The Kuffners fell in love with Ambergris Caye while looking for a vacation home and decided to buy. For eight years, they traveled to Belize annually to relax and dive. "I wanted to be sure before committing to something as dramatic as a move to another country,” says Ann. “Back then, I mainly considered being in the country part-time.”

But then the 2008 recession changed their plans. A close friend and co-worker lost her job and the couple began to worry that they would be next. “I knew the time had come for me to get serious about making a move, even a full-time one,” says Ann. “As more financial and political landmines exploded around me every day, I began to plan my escape.”

Ann says relocating to Belize provided her with a safe haven in a difficult time. The move also allowed them to retire eight years earlier than if they had remained in the U.S. "Like everyone else, our investments and 401(k)s have taken major hits, but my husband and I will be OK. The cost of living here is very affordable,” she says. “I'm relieved to have escaped in June of 2008.”

The Kuffners established full-time residency in Belize through the country’s QRP resident retiree program, which allowed them to obtain permanent legal residency in less than four months. They now live on Temptation Island, as the Ambergris Caye base for the 2001 season of the Fox reality show has become known. The Hollywood producers left long ago, but the beauty and charm of Ambergris Caye remain.

"You don't need a big retirement account or income to live the good life here,” says Ann. “My husband and I are living a great life, and we get by on much, much less than we were spending to live back in the San Francisco Bay area.”

If all you know about this country is what you may have seen on Temptation Island, you're not alone. Belize remains seriously under-appreciated. Belize is a small country, with a population of fewer than 350,000. English is the official language, which means the transition for foreign retirees can be painless. The country gained independence from Britain in 1981. Its government is stable and democratic.

[See 6 Affordable Places to Retire Abroad in 2012.]

Belize is a peaceful eco-tourist retreat, and tourism is its primary industry. There are more than 540 species of birds here, 4,000 species of flowering plants, and 700 species of trees. Nearly 40 percent of Belize is protected as parkland and nature preserves.

Ambergris Caye is like a small town, a place where everyone knows everyone else and the primary means of transportation is your own two feet. “It is easy to get to know people here and there are many volunteer activities to get involved with,” says Ann. “You aren’t alone and everyone speaks English.” There are no movie theaters, museums, or other trappings of a big city. This is a beautiful, still-unspoiled Caribbean outpost, where life is lived mostly outdoors.

The country boasts the second-largest barrier reef in the world. This underwater resource teems with colorful fish, coral, and unusual marine life and makes the waters off this country's coast a fisherman's and diver's paradise. Yet, Belize also has all the modern conveniences you need to live comfortably. Easy Internet access allows you to continue working, if you want, and it makes it easy to stay in touch with friends and family back home.

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"Most North Americans realize that their quality of life is declining. At the same time, countries that once seemed remote are now within easy reach and they have much to offer,” says Ann. "We pay a high price to reside in North America. For many, the price has become too high. I'm one of those people."

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.