if you’re a world traveler with a bazillion frequent-flier miles, chances
are that you’ll be fascinated by your first glimpses of Belize,
the little English-speaking country on the Caribbean coast of Central America.
Hundreds of travel-poster islands dot the turquoise sea along Belize’s
200-mile coast. Just offshore is the longest barrier reef in the Northern
and Western hemispheres, with an undersea world of fantastic color and
diversity. The diving and snorkeling are world-class, and the fishing is
so good that it usually takes just a few minutes to catch a sea bass or
spiny lobster for your lunch. Inland are lightly populated savannas, limestone
hills and lush rainforests, home to more than 500 species of birds, 800
kinds of butterflies and 4,000 varieties of trees and shrubs. Bananas and
mangos grow like weeds. Exotic animals like the jaguar and tapir still
roam free in “backabush” Belize. Hidden under cohune palms are thousands
of mysterious Maya ruins. The small villages and towns of Belize -- the
only city has just 70,000 people -- are alive with a cultural gumbo of
colors, races and backgrounds.
Belize also appeals to those who want to linger longer than a week or two
of vacation in paradise. It is getting the attention
of prospective retirees who want a laid-back lifestyle in a frost-free
climate similar to South Florida, with a stable government and economy,
and a familiar legal system based on English common law where all documents
are written in English.
attracted by low real estate costs and an overall cost of living that stretches
retirement pensions and Social Security checks further than they would
go in the United States. But most of all they like friendly Belizean neighbors
who have put out a subtropical welcome mat for Americans.
As one American
expatriate in Belize puts it, “This is the friendliest place I have ever
been, and I have traveled a lot. Belizeans take people one at a time --
foreign or local is not the issue.
How you behave
and how you are in your heart is what makes the difference,” says Diane
Campbell, a real estate developer on Ambergris Caye who moved to Belize
from California. “If you are nice, kind and honest, you will be loved and
respected here. When you get used to living here, you won’t be able to
imagine living elsewhere.”
recently has enacted a retiree incentive program that permits U.S., Canadian
and United Kingdom citizens to establish official residency in Belize and
to live there free of most Belize taxes.
Under the new
program retirees can’t work in Belize, but income from outside Belize isn’t
taxed, and retirees can bring in household goods, a car, a boat and even
an airplane without paying import duties. Bill Wildman, a long-time real
estate agent, surveyor and developer based in Corozal in northern Belize,
says he thinks the new program is a solid beginning.
He says applications
are being approved quickly, typically in less than three months. The Belize
Tourist Board, rather than the immigration department, handles applications.
Some retirees, however, question the amount of money that retirees are
required to deposit in a Belize bank -- up to $2,000 a month -- and don’t
like the paperwork and application fees of about $700 associated with the
program. One is Doug Richardson, a retired lawyer and investor from Malibu,
CA, who is building a large home on the Caribbean Sea in Placencia.
“I feel the
program is a failure as an inducement to encourage anyone to retire (in
Belize). There are too many fees, hurdles and demands made by the government,”
says Doug, who also believes the program doesn’t offer enough to wealthy
it permits retirees to bring only $15,000 worth of household goods and
just one vehicle duty free. Yet for a retiree with limited resources, the
monthly income requirement may be too high.
For those who
don’t qualify for the new retirement program, residency in Belize is available
through regular channels, most of which require more red tape and a residency
period before you can apply for residency status or a work permit.
also is available through a controversial “buy-a-passport” citizenship
program that costs a minimum of $25,000. Many expatriates simply stay in
Belize as perpetual tourists, renewing their 30-day entrance permits for
$12.50 per month for up to six months, at which time they must physically
leave the country for at least 48 hours.
came to Belize under the new program or not, retirees say they like living
in a country with many of the conveniences of modern life, such as Internet
connections, air-conditioning and North American-style houses, but without
franchised fast-food restaurants and chain stores that have come to dominate
America’s frenetic consumer culture. Belize has no Wal-Marts or McDonald’s.
was a 37-year-old lawyer in New Orleans when he first visited Belize’s
Ambergris Caye in 1982. Intrigued by what he saw,
six weeks later he came back a second time. “I found five acres with a
house I couldn’t afford and on return to New Orleans called the owner and
agreed to buy it on the Gringolian plan: There, I’ve bought it. Now how
the heck do I pay for it?” It took him about 11 years to pay for it, he
says, with periodic commutes to resample life on the island. John finally
moved to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye full time in 1993 and registered with
the Bar Association in Louisiana as “retired.” The biggest mistake he made
in moving to Belize was “not moving here sooner,” John says.
Belize is not
for everybody, however. “We’ve seen so many gringos give up and go home,
and so many others still here who are burned out and bitter, that you sometimes
feel there is really something insidious underlying the friendly surface
appearances,” says Phyllis Dart, an ex-Coloradan who runs a jungle lodge,
Ek ‘Tun, in western Belize.
“You have to
really like Belize for what it is. You must be prepared to adapt your lifestyle
to fit Belize -- Belize will not adapt to you,” says Pamella Picon, the
publisher of a newsletter on Belize and co-owner of Mopan River Resort
in Benque Viejo del Carmen. For those who are willing to put up with the
challenges -- such as lack of high-tech medical care, a high crime rate
in some areas, the high cost of imported items and the occasional hurricane
-- Belize can be a wonderful place to live.
With a big
SUV in the driveway and Belize gasoline at $3 a gallon, the Carrier turned
to frigid and three fingers of French cabernet in the glass, living in
Belize can cost more than back home. But if you live as a local -- eating
the same foods Belizeans do, using public transport and living in a Belizean-style
home with ceiling fans and cooling breezes -- you can get by on a few hundred
dollars per month. In between, combining some elements of both lifestyles,
you can live well for less than you would pay back home. Health care, the
cost of renting or buying a home in most areas, personal and auto insurance,
property taxes, household labor and most products produced in Belize are
less expensive than what you’re used to paying.
eat well for a modest cost in Belize. Even in
resort areas, a fresh grilled-seafood dinner is $10-$12, and stewed chicken
with rice and beans -- Belize’s national dish -- might be $5. In-season
(mid-June to mid-February) lobster in nice restaurants costs $10-$20. Belize
City has modern supermarkets, and district towns have smaller but still
well-stocked shops. Many towns and villages have weekly markets (usually
Saturday morning) where fresh fruit and vegetables are sold at low prices.
In coastal areas and on the cayes, fresh seafood is sold cheaply off the
dock or at local seafood cooperatives.
items imported from the United States, Mexico or England are expensive.
Examples: A 15-ounce box of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran is $5.13, a three-ounce
box of Jello is 80 cents, a can of Campbell’s chicken soup costs $1.75,
and a bottle of Gallo Turning Leaf cabernet is $12.50. But locally produced
products are fairly inexpensive, including black beans at 75 cents a pound,
red beans for 40 cents a pound and a dozen eggs for $1.25. A liter of premium
One Barrel local rum is $7.30, corn is the equivalent of 10 cents an ear,
mangos are 15 cents each, and pork chops are about $2 a pound.
Orleanian John Lankford, living in Belize is cheaper than in the United
States. “I need neither heating nor air-conditioning with their attendant
bills, nor insulation in my house, nor much of a house, nor much in the
way of shoes. One casual wardrobe serves all purposes except travel back
to the USA,” he says.
If you know
where to look, prices for seafront or rural real estate in Belize will
remind you of costs in the United States in the 1960s or 1970s.
In small towns
in Belize, you can rent a pleasant seaside house for $250 a month. Land
in larger tracts can sell for $200 an acre or less. Building lots on a
remote caye might start at $4,000. Outside of high-cost tourist areas,
you can build for $30-$50 per square foot or buy an attractive, modern
home for $50,000-$100,000. Property taxes in Belize are low, rarely over
$100-$200 annually even for a luxury home. Unlike Mexico, Belize generally
has no restrictions on the ownership of land, even seafront land, by foreigners,
as long as the parcel is of 10 acres or less outside a town limit, or one-half
acre or less inside town limits. Purchases of larger tracts and, in a few
instances, land on the cayes require government approval.
offer mortgages and personal and commercial loans, but rates are higher
than you’d pay in the United States, about 12-16 percent. Therefore, most
expatriates try to get loans outside Belize or arrange owner financing.
About the best owner-financing deals available for property in Belize require
10 percent down with payout over 10 years at 10 percent interest.
old greenback is the national currency of Belize -- almost.
Belize does have its own currency, the Belize dollar, but it is pegged
at two Belize dollars to one U.S. dollar, and it has been that way for
decades. Belize shops accept both currencies and often give change in a
mix of the two currencies. As it’s not always easy to exchange Belize dollars
back into U.S. dollars or other hard currencies, expatriates in Belize
usually keep most of their funds in a bank in their home country, transferring
what they need for living expenses, or what is required under the retirement
program, as needed to their Belize bank account.
The main tax
affecting expatriate residents is a national 8 percent sales tax on nearly
all goods and services, with exclusions for some food and medical items.
(An unpopular 15 percent value-added tax was eliminated in 1999.) Import
taxes are a primary source of government revenue. They vary but can range
up to 80 percent of the value of imported goods. Official residents in
Belize under the Retired Persons Incentive Act do not have to pay import
duties on a car, boat, plane and up to $15,000 in household goods imported
into the country. For those working for pay in Belize, the country has
a progressive personal income tax with a top personal rate of 25 percent.
Belize has no estate or capital gains tax. On real estate purchases, buyers
who are not Belize citizens must pay a 10 percent transfer fee.
The exact number
of foreign expatriates from the United States, Canada, Asia and Europe
in Belize is unknown. Estimates range from around 1,000 to several thousand.
Most foreigners living in Belize are not in the country as official residents.
Often they are snowbirds, in Belize for only part of the year. In any case,
the number is as yet small, although interest in Belize as a second home
and as a retirement or relocation destination has been growing by leaps
and bounds in recent years.
Belize is that
little spot on the map just to the right of Guatemala and just below Mexico.
The Rio Hondo separates Mexico, a country with 100 million people and an
area of about three-quarters of a million square miles, from Belize, with
its area of 8,866 square miles, about the size of Massachusetts, and population
of only 240,000. By air, Belize is about two hours from Miami or Houston.
Mexico from Texas takes about four days.
Belize is a
true multiethnic, multicultural society. About 40 percent of Belizeans
are Mestizos, persons of mixed Indian and European heritage, most originally
from neighboring Latin countries and most living in northern and western
Belize. Thirty percent are Creoles, of mixed African and European descent,
concentrated in and around Belize City. Ten percent are Maya, and another
10 percent are Garifuna, of mixed African and Carib Indian. The Garifuna
live mainly in southern Belize along the coast. Kek’chi and Yucatec Maya
are in southern, western and northern Belize. The rest are Americans, Europeans
and other Anglos, plus Chinese, East Indians and others.
a stable democracy, a member of the British Commonwealth
with an English common-law tradition. The country -- formerly British Honduras
-- has been independent since 1971. The Westminster-style system has a
prime minister, an elected house of representatives and an appointed senate.
The current prime minister is Said Musa, a British-educated lawyer of Palestinian
and Belizean heritage. He heads the People’s United Party, which swept
the last national elections in 1998. The main opposition party is the United
Democratic Party. The two parties are centrist, and their policies and
ideologies are not very different, but Belize politics are often intensely
to know everyone else, and party loyalties are rewarded and remembered.
Belize is one of the few countries in the world where English is the official
language, and Spanish also is widely spoken. All official government documents,
deeds and papers are written in English. If there’s a lingua franca in
Belize, it’s Creole, a mixture of English and other vocabulary and West
African grammar and syntax. Garifuna and several Maya languages also are
spoken in Belize, and many Belizeans speak two or three languages.
of Belize is subtropical, similar to that of South Florida. Daytime temperatures
generally are in the 80s or 90s most of the year, with nighttime temps
in the 60s in winter, 70s in the summer. In areas of higher altitude, such
as the Mountain Pine Ridge and Maya Mountains, winter temperatures may
occasionally fall into the high 40s or low 50s.
high year-round, tempered on the coast and cayes by prevailing breezes
from the sea. Rainfall varies from 150-200 inches a year in the far south,
feeding lush rainforests and jungle, to 50 inches in the north, about like
most of the Southeastern United States.
Belize is in
the hurricane belt, but the western Caribbean does not get as many hurricanes
as the Southeastern U.S. Atlantic coast or the Gulf coast of Texas. On
average, Belize is visited by a hurricane about once every 10 years. Tropical
storm and hurricane season in Belize is June through November, with most
storms coming late in the season, particularly September through early
The most recent
storm to strike Belize was Hurricane Keith in late September 2000. The
hurricane’s winds of 120 miles per hour hit Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker,
the two largest islands off the coast of Belize, doing about $100 million
in damage and killing four people, including two American citizens, residents
of Ambergris Caye who were attempting to move their catamaran to safe harbor.
The Belize mainland received an additional $150 million in damage, mostly
from flooding, but there were no additional deaths.
government and international relief agencies moved quickly to restore services
and to assist in rebuilding, and within a few weeks most of the damaged
areas were almost back to normal, welcoming visitors and potential retirees.
In the past,
expatriates in Belize used to say that their hospitals were “TACA, American
and Continental airlines,” the three major airlines serving Belize. For
top-flight medical care, Americans in Belize still may fly to Miami or
Houston or go to Chetumal, Mexico, just north of Corozal, but Belize City
and most towns in Belize have doctors and dentists trained in the United
States, Mexico and Guatemala. Local medical care is inexpensive. A medical
office visit is $15-$20, and prescription medicines are less costly than
in the United States.
is one-third to one-half the cost in the United States.
Crime is one
of Belize’s puzzling dilemmas. On one hand, most who visit Belize feel
safe, and visitors and expatriates rarely are affected by serious crime.
Crimes that would pass almost unnoticed in Honduras, Guatemala or Mexico
get big headlines in Belize. Belizeans expect their police to solve crimes,
and the police try, even though many are undertrained and underpaid. On
the other hand, the statistics – which are incomplete -- suggest that the
entire country has a serious crime problem, albeit one affecting mostly
the lower strata of society.
Belize has more murders than Ireland -- more than 50 in Belize compared
with just 39 in Ireland in 1998, despite the fact that Ireland has a population
more than 14 times higher and a land size much larger. Muggings, shootings
and knifings are sadly common on the rougher streets of Belize City and,
to a lesser degree, in the towns of Orange Walk and Dangriga. Hardly a
weekend goes by that the newspapers and television news aren’t filled with
news of people being injured or killed in robberies or attempted robberies.
Most of these
crimes are committed by the poor against each other, are drug-related or
are a result of family squabbles. However, if you’re planning to live in
Belize, even in a rural area or small village where crime is not routine,
you should take crime-prevention measures. Many expatriates keep large
dogs, and walls, fences and burglar bars on windows also may be a good
idea. When you leave on a trip, you will need to arrange for someone to
watch your property. Bicycles, construction supplies and movable equipment
of any type are likely to disappear if you don’t have a security guard,
housekeeper or dog keeping an eye on it.