From Unemployment to Early Retirement in the Caribbean

“I’m having the time of my life,” Mike Whalen beams, when I meet him at his restaurant in Ambergris Caye, Belize. “I’m still learning as I go, but what better place to do it than a tropical island? I live and work on ‘Coconut Drive’! How could I possibly have a single, solitary regret?”

In July 2020, at the age of 51, Mike had reached a dire crossroads. He’d worked at AT&T in Oklahoma City for years, but after cutbacks during the “COVID economy,” he found himself suddenly unemployed. Divorced just three years earlier, stressed to the hilt, and taking a regimen of blood pressure meds, Mike decided to take control and chase down happiness, rather than planning for it to happen “one day” down the road.

He’d visited Belize a few times, and enjoyed its wild, tropical charms and dreamed of one day maybe retiring there. Although still years away from receiving his government pension, Mike was determined to make his overseas dream a reality. He headed to Caye Caulker, an island on Belize’s Caribbean coast, to scout out opportunities.

“I could’ve kept searching for a desk job, where I’d slave away another 15 or 20 years for some faceless conglomerate, but I decided instead to take a leap of faith and move to paradise,” Mike explains.

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Destiny presented itself, as it often does, in February 2021. Mike was perusing some online listings on Businessforsale.com. He stumbled across a turnkey operation on the larger nearby island of Ambergris Caye. White sand, swaying palm trees, colorful beach houses, and a naturally relaxed rhythm, the island is every inch the tropical dream location.

What’s more, there was an opportunity there that was just what Mike was looking for. An established restaurant and café, right in the heart of the island’s main town, San Pedro. Mike’s only previous experience in the food service industry was a brief stint working in a restaurant after college, but he felt ready for the challenge.

He paid $45,000 for the business name and assets, with a three-year, $2,000 a month lease for the kitchen facilities, courtyard-style property, and a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom, fully furnished, air-conditioned private residence above the restaurant.

He moved to San Pedro a week later— and immediately began prepping for the grand reopening of Patz Delicatessen.

I visited Mike as he approached the first anniversary of his business’s launch. He bounced between tables, offering smiles and familiar greetings while refilling empty coffee cups and jotting down new breakfast orders.

Wooden tables, shaded by the outstretched palapa roof, were painted in blues, greens, and yellows. A bottle of “Marie Sharp’s Hot Habanero Pepper Sauce”—a Belize staple—stood proudly on each tabletop. Nearby, a row of brightly colored golf carts, their seats shaded by a canopy of palms, was the only evidence of traffic. (It’s how everyone gets around on Ambergris.)

After buying the restaurant, filling out some paperwork, and submitting a fee of $1,500, Mike’s work permit was approved. He’ll soon be able to apply for permanent residency, after having lived in Belize for a full year (fees vary according to the applicant’s nationality).

He hired two employees through word of mouth. One came recommended by the previous owner and helped him paint and clean the building. She later practiced day and night to prepare everything on the menu, and quickly mastered it.

It didn’t take long for Mike to establish a dedicated customer base of local expats, many of whom stop by daily. Recently, he’s had a surge in local and tourist clientele as well. Business is booming.

Many of Mike’s friends and family have visited in the past year, with some considering a move to Belize themselves. “They’ve all fallen in love with it,” he says. His 19-year-old daughter has already visited him four times, captivated by the island’s tropical charm. “But I’ve told her she has to finish college before I’ll let her move here,” he says.

Nowadays, Mike enjoys living life on his own terms. His workday ends by 3 p.m., and his new laidback lifestyle has enabled him to kick his blood pressure medications. He feels like a new man. “I’m so glad I dropped everything and took the plunge,” he says. “I’ve found happiness in paradise, 15 years before I’d ever imagined.”

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