How This Expat Couple Has Reinvented Their Lives From San Francisco To The Caribbean One Step At A Time

Oct. 29, 2012, Ambergris Caye, Belize: Over the past eight years, former San Francisco Bay-residents Ann and Mike Kuffner have reinvented their lives on Ambergris Caye, Belize, a top retirement option in the Caribbean

Dear Live and Invest Overseas Reader,

It was early February 1999 when my husband Mike and I stepped out of a tiny turbo-prop plane onto the tarmac in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, for the first time. We'd joined a group of intrepid adventurers ready to explore opportunities in the then little-known country of Belize. We had no idea what momentous life changes would occur as a result of that fateful tour.

At that time we simply wanted to escape to our own little piece of heaven. For us, that meant a Caribbean island. We'd been day-dreaming forever about floating in the clear aquamarine waters of the Caribbean Sea.

I couldn't wait to get back into scuba diving, and I knew that Belize's stunning Mesoamerican Barrier Reef would be an ideal choice for this. We did have it in our minds that, if we liked Belize as much as we thought we might based on our research, we might buy a place of our own in the country. An investment near the Caribbean Sea seemed like a no-brainer in 1999.

Mike and I toured the entire country during that first trip. At the end of the weeklong tour, our hearts led us back to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. We were so taken with the little island that we bought our first property at the end of that trip. Our intention was to vacation in Belize. We weren't even thinking about retirement. Not yet 50, I'd just stepped into a lucrative VP position for a Fortune 500 company. Life was good. We just wanted a place to escape for regular doses of Caribbean sun and sea.

On the flight back to San Francisco, Mike, an architect, began sketching our first home, Mi Casa. He relished the chance to build in a country not hindered by regulations. Over the next 12 months, Mike followed through on the plans he'd made, designing and building Mi Casa, a unique apartment building. Our home was the penthouse.

Mike was focused on Ambergris Caye and his building project. I was traveling back and forth between California and the island. In the process, coming and going on vacation that first year, something unexpected happened. I got hooked on the community's spirit. I quickly felt at home in this quirky, charming little town. Even people I'd met only once remembered my name. Everyone waved and welcomed me back each time they saw me. This was the small town environment I'd never experienced. The sense of community was enticing.

Those first few years, we evolved a plan to live in Belize part-time. We were still young and energetic. Again, we weren't even thinking about retirement yet. Mike sold Mi Casa and bought 6 acres on which we planned to build the San Pedro Fitness Club. We did, and then we operated the club for five years. Those were exceptionally fun times for us. In 2008, we sold the club and property to a development company and entered into a joint venture with that group.

That year, 2008, marked another important transition. That was the year I moved to the island full-time. I decided, finally, to take early retirement and walk away from my corporate position. I had worked as a manager in the environmental field for more than 30 years. That was enough. Plus, I could see changes coming in the United States, changes that led me to worry about Mike and my future. It was time to make a move, while we were still young enough to make new lives.

The cost of living in Belize is considerably less than in most parts of the United States, including in San Francisco. That was an important determining factor in our decision.

I've lived full-time on this island for nearly five years now. Mike moved here before I did so he could be on the ground managing our early ventures. What do we think now about our decision to start over in Belize? Do we still love this country and island? You bet! Let's face it. No country is perfect. But our lives have been incredibly rich and diverse since we made this move. Much of our satisfaction flows from the charm, beauty, and comfort of this unique country and our quirky little island.

We continue to appreciate the good nature of the Belizean people, their commitment to a free and democratic society, and their intense community spirit. English as a first language made our transition easy. And the solid banking and legal systems give us comfort. The internet, phone, and utility services are reliable on Ambergris Caye. We have access to most of the amenities we had in the United States, but that's not what keeps us so happy here.

We've been able to re-create our lives through challenging but satisfying transitions. From building our own homes to starting, operating, and selling new businesses, each transition has been an adventure and life-changing. We would not have had these options or opportunities in the San Francisco Bay region, and each step has been one of self-discovery.

These days I have time for things I really enjoy doing—writing about the international lifestyle Mike and I are leading and about Belize and volunteering for a cause that touches my heart. I've come full circle. I'm applying my environmental expertise and management skills to lead a drinking water project in a disenfranchised Belizean community.

Most satisfying have been the bonds formed with kindred spirits we've met along the way. Our island friends have moved here from France, Italy, Ireland, England, Romania, Canada, and other Latin American countries. We regularly meet amazing people from all over the world. Each has a unique story to tell. We socialize more than we'd ever imagined we would living on such a small island.

Do I miss the Bay Area and the United States? At times. We certainly do miss the kids, grandkids, and old friends. But due to our manageable cost of living in Belize, we can afford to return to visit them several times a year. We haven't considered moving back to the United States, though, and I don't think we will. Our lives are here now.

I am grateful that fate brought us to this unique country and that we had the opportunity to take the transition one step at a time. That worked for us. We've had some major successes, and we've had some major disappointments. But that has little to do with the quality of this country, its people, or the life we're living here.

If you are considering moving overseas, just get on a jet. Take that first step. You don't know where it will lead you, but you'll never know unless you take the chance to find out.

Ann Kuffner

Editor's Note: Ann Kuffner will be on stage with us during our Live and Invest in Belize Conference taking place Jan. 30-Feb. 1 to share more of her personal experiences living, investing, and doing business in Belize with attendees at what will be our one-and-only Belize event of 2013. We intend to begin taking reservations for this conference later this week. Meantime, you can get your name on the hot list for advance notice of special limited-number VIP registrations here.

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Kathleen Peddicord

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.

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