How a Colorado couple swapped the Rockies for a life in Belize

If you’ve ever dreamed of ditching your 9-to-5 job and moving to the beach, well, you’re not alone. Even though life here in Colorado is pretty great, there’s something about the siren song of the ocean that’s pretty darn appealing, inspiring fantasies of sun, sand and endless piña coladas.

Former Denver ad exec Ellen Larson Lee, along with her telecom industry husband, John Lee, turned their beach-living dreams into a reality, swapping the Rocky Mountains and Denver skyline for the lush jungle and crystal-clear Caribbean of Belize. After visiting the tiny Central American country in 2004, the couple decided to quit their Colorado jobs and, without any related experience whatsoever, buy a hotel on the beach (the Maya Beach Hotel), just off the second-largest barrier reef in the world. 

We’re guessing it was either a pretty good visit, or pretty strong piña coladas. 

We asked Ellen how she and her husband made the leap, why they fell in love with Belize and what she misses most about her home state. 

Boulder Lifestyle (BL): How did you end up in Belize?
Ellen Lee (EL): John and I have both traveled extensively. In fact, we met while we were both living and working in Finland. We decided to get married and then returned to Denver, where I came from. From that point on, we traveled a lot for work and started taking longer and longer vacations too, both to Australia (where John is from) and to places we’d never been. Eventually, we both started getting itchy feet, and once we started talking about the possibility of moving abroad, there was no turning back. We really wanted to find something tropical, but we didn’t really know exactly what we wanted to do. We were looking in the South Pacific and around the Caribbean, and eventually, we narrowed it down to Belize. 

BL: What made you fall in love with Belize?
EL: The best things about Belize are the people and the weather. Belizeans are ethnically and culturally diverse, naturally friendly and good-humored. And just like Colorado, the friendly weather is definitely a draw since you tend to spend a lot of time outside.

BL: How did you decide to purchase the hotel?
EL: It’s just like deciding to buy a new house. You narrow down the neighborhoods and then find something that suits. In our case, the location in the quiet Maya Beach area was perfect, and while the “hotel” we purchased was a start, we saw a lot of opportunity for creative improvements and small expansions. 
BL: Did you have any prior experience running a hotel?
EL: Neither of us had any hospitality experience other than a few restaurant jobs in high school and college. I had a few tourism clients in my advertising career, so the marketing challenges weren’t too daunting. There is absolutely no way we could be doing what we do without our Belizean staff. We have a caring and charming hotel staff, an experienced, fun waitstaff, and about 20 Belizeans in the kitchen, including sous chefs, line cooks, prep cooks and an in-house bakery. Everybody adds something important to the mix.

BL: What’s it like to live and work as an American ex-pat in Belize?
EL: We had previous experience living outside our home countries and were not expecting things to be just like they were back home, so it was an easy transition for us. As long as you are patient and follow the procedures for work permits and other requirements, you have the same opportunities as anyone else. It’s just like coming to the U.S. and going through the processes of immigration, including getting a green card before you can work. It takes a few months, but it’s worth it! 

BL: One of my favorite things about the Maya Beach Hotel was the food at your on-site restaurant. How’d you find a chef that good? 
EL: For the first seven years, John was the head chef. He was self-taught and our experience as eaters was all we had! John developed our original recipes and practiced them on our friends. Eventually, he got really good at it and we started getting a lot of local attention for our food. Then we simply got so busy we needed a more experienced chef to come in and make our kitchen run more professionally, as well as continue the concept we had started. Chef Mary Kay Bader came on the scene in 2011. We are so fortunate that somebody with her experience (approximately ten years at Denver’s Potager) wanted to come and join us.   
BL: What do you miss most about Colorado?
EL: Family, of course. We do spend a lot of time with them when we travel back. And we still have a lot of close friends to see as well. And I have to admit, my first meal when I travel back to Denver will almost always include raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and cheeses — all the things that we can’t get down here. We try to have a few dinners at the hottest new restaurants and re-visit our favorites. All the ethnic foods — Mexican and Asian, especially — are kind of limited where we live.

BL: Belize and Colorado seem pretty different, but how are they similar?
EL: Both have a lot of people who are outdoor, nature and sports-oriented. The sports might be different, but the attitude is the same. People value the environment and what it brings to the area in the form of tourism. I also think both are friendly places to live, and people make the most of their free time. I think, for the most part, people have their priorities straight. Colorado legalized weed before Belize, though.