Relocating to Belize Is a Top Choice
My wife and I are planning to relocate overseas within the next two years. And moving to Belize is definitely on our short list. We have visited several times and are seriously considering Belize as a retirement destination.
culture, beaches, attractions, retirement communities
Moving to Belize is by far the easiest choice if you are looking to relocate abroad. Here’s what makes it so appealing to potential expats.
- It’s an English speaking country
- It’s close to the US
- The government and banks are stable
- The currency is pegged 2 to 1 to the US dollar
- Easy residency choices
- Established expat communities
- Low cost of living
- Bargain real estate opportunities
In addition, Belize is a small and manageable (about the size of state I’m trying to get out of – New Jersey).
Plus it borders on Mexico and Guatemala, so you can make easy border runs to visit or buy stuff you can’t get in Belize.
Living in Belize has lots more pros (and some cons of course) and this is a lengthy article so feel free to skip to the sections that interest you most.
Table of Contents
A Very Brief History of Belize
I know what you’re thinking “History? Boring!”. But if you are seriously considering living in Belize you should read this little summary lesson.
A brief look back on the history of this little Central American country will give you an understanding about the essence of Belize and Belizeans. here we go.
The height of Belize’s power and importance was a long time ago – during the Mayan period from around 250 BC to 900 AD.
Belize had three major Mayan Cities – Corocal, Xunantunich and Altun Ha – and dozens of smaller settlements and outposts. The ruins of which draw thousands of tourists annually.
The Mayan Empire came to a sudden demise around 900. When the Spanish got here 600 years later most of the Mayan culture was forgotten and the cities were already covered by earth and vegetation.
For the next 300 years Belize was caught up in European colonial skirmishes – between the English and the Spanish. You know – man o’ war ships, pirates etc.
In 1796 Spain tried to poke England in the eye one last time and attempted to take the territory back by force.
This was a defining in Belizean history. In the battle of St. George’s Caye, a ragtag militia of fishermen, villagers and slaves held off the invading Spanish forces.
It’s more than just a turning point. The Battle forever forged the identity of Belize and Belizeans – scrappy, fiercely independent, British and a bit rascally.
To this day they are proud of the pirates and other resourceful outcasts that settled here.
In fact, six years later, another important group of refugees arrived on the southern coast and further solidified this aspect of the Belizean soul.
The Garifuna – a group of Afro/Carib people – fled from the Lesser antilles and settled the town of Dangriga – contributing a distinct Caribbean flavor to Belize.
For the next 185 years British Honduras (as the colony was called) became a neglected outpost whose main industry was logging.
During this time other immigrants arrived – such as the Chinese and the Mennonites.
Then in 1981 British Honduras gained independence from England and became the sovereign nation of Belize.
See, I told you it was short.
If you are considering moving to Belize, your transition will be much smoother if you understand and appreciate the people who live here.
Basically, four main cultures have influenced Belize.
I think it would be fair to say that – in spirit – the modern Belizean is part Mayan, Spanish, British and Caribbean – in different measures depending on where they’re from.
In the north, the west and far south Mayan/Spanish (Mestizo). Along the southern coast – Caribbean. And England has left its stamp on the whole country.
Half the people you will meet are a wonderful combination that can only be described as Belizean.
Additionally the Chinese have established themselves as the grocers to the whole country.
Likewise Mennonites provide a large percentage of the meat and produce in Belize.
Almost every Belizean speaks another language besides English.
A Mestizo will speak Spanish and maybe Q’eqchi or Mopan. A person from Dangriga will talk to friends and family in Creole. Mennonites converse with each other in German dialects. And the Chinese, well, you know.
Whatever their heritage, Belizeans identify themselves as Belizeans. They have great pride in their country and are touchy about criticism from outsiders.
Tip – Try to refrain from complaining about any aspects of Belize that don’t meet your first-world standards. I made that mistake with a driver and noticed a distinct change in attitude.
But in general, Belizeans are extremely warm, friendly, cheerful and good natured. Have some understanding of their culture and you will make many lifelong friends.
The Layout: Geography of Belize
Belize is a very manageable country to get around in. You are never more than 70 miles from the ocean, and you can drive from any two points in a few hours.
Belize is small – 8867 square miles. As I said, it’s roughly the size of (Ugh) New Jersey. It’s an irregular rectangle – 230 miles long and 70 miles wide.
It borders Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south.
There are some considerable mountains near the south coast (Victoria Peak is 3688 ft.) and it is very hilly in the Cayo District along the Guatemalan border. Otherwise it is very flat.
Roads and Transportation
As I said – Belize is compact and you can get around quickly.
The highways around Belize City and the airport are excellent.
The main routes between bigger towns are good, 2-lane roads.
TIP: Be aware that Belize uses speed bumps to control traffic – even on major roads. Watch for signs (if they’re there) and start slowing down when you approach even the smallest cluster of houses. There will be speed bumps.
Many of the secondary roads are unpaved. Some are pretty rough.
There is cheap efficient bus service – local and express – throughout the country.
And two airlines – Tropical and Maya – allow you to easily (if not cheaply) get around the country.
In addition, regular ferry service runs to all the offshore towns.
The Districts – Short Version
We’ll cover the districts in more depth later on, but here is a quick rundown.
Belize is divided up into 6 districts. 4 along the coast: Corozal, Belize. Stan Creek, and Toledo. And 2 interior districts: Cayo and Orange Walk.
Belize District is by far the most populated. It contains Caye Caulker, Ambergris Caye (San Pedro), Belize City and The Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport. This is where all the “stuff” is – car dealerships, warehouses, department stores (total =2) and other commerce.
Cayo District is home to the capital – Belmopan. It’s also where most of the farms and ranches are. It feels like frontier country. The twin cities of San Ignacio and Santa Elena near the Guatemalan border comprise the second biggest town in the country.
Stann Creek is home to orange groves and two of the nicest beach towns in Belize – Placencia and Hopkins. Its capital is Dangriga – epicenter of Garifuna culture.
Corozal – This sleepy district on the border with Mexico sits beside the placid Bay of Corozal. It is my top choice for expat living in Belize.
Orange Walk – This is sugar cane country. It’s basically an agricultural district in the north with the massive Rio Bravo Conservation Area to the southwest.
Toledo – Lush and tropical, Toledo has some of the best fishing and unspoiled nature in all of Belize. Its capital, Punta Gorda (PG) is a colorful mix of Mayan and Garifuna peoples.
Because Belize is small and lacks substantial changes in altitude, the weather is more or less the same across the whole country – hot, tropical.
There are some slight variations, though.
Because of the mountains the south coast gets the most rain gets more rain than the rest of the country. From Hopkins Village south the weather can be described as jungly.
The north – Corozal and Orange Walk – and west – Cayo – are drier than the rest of the country. But generally – this place is pretty hot.
Average daily temperatures range from the high 60’s at night to the low 90’s during the day. With high humidity – especially during the rainy season.
Oh yeah – Belize has 2 seasons – rainy and dry. Dry season is roughly December through May. Rainfall, temps and humidity are all lower during these months. The weather is pretty spectacular.
Rainy season June through November – roughly corresponds with hurricane season. The weather is unstable and you can expect some short periods of heavy precip (with thunder) just about every afternoon.
So if you are thinking about moving to Belize make a least one trip down during the rainy season to see how you cope with the heat and humidity. Most expats that I’ve talked to say that your body adapts and you get used to the tropical warmth.
Money and Banking
One of the appealing aspects of Belize is its money.
Belize pegs the Belizean dollar (BZE) to the US dollar at a ratio of 2/1. Not only does this make prices easy to calculate in your head – but it insures the the currency remains stable.
The banking system is also sound and well managed. Belize is under constant pressure from the US to guard against money laundering.
While this makes opening up an account a major pain in the butt (it can take up to 6 months) it strengthens the integrity and transparency of the banks.
Cost of Living
Because the Belizean dollar is worth 50% of the US dollar, many people assume that means living in Belize costs half of what is does in the States.
That’s not a bad rule of thumb, but it’s not that simple. Some things cost a lot less – some a lot more.
For example – housing, real estate, labor, fresh food, restaurant meals, local beer and rum, taxes and insurance are probably at least 70% less.
But Belize imports just about everything so cars, gasoline, groceries, wine, and any name-brand items will cost the same or more.
Electricity, internet and cable is about the same as back home (US, Canada)
But let’s look a little closer.
Housing and taxes comprise a major percentage of household expenditures. Aside from major tourist areas like San Pedro, your rent is going to be at least 60% less. A nice 2-bedroom house can rent for as little as $450/month.
And if you have $90,000 to buy a place, your options are incredible. With property taxes at around $200/year. That’s right – P E R Y E A R!
So if you: buy local beer, rum, meat, fish and produce; stay out of the tourist restaurants; avoid popular brands, a couple could easily live on $2000/month. That’s about a 60% discount from the US or Canada.
As I just mentioned – houses and building lots in Belize can be jaw-droppingly cheap.
If you don’t mind living on the outskirts of almost any town – you can buy a building lot for $5000 and get a Amish built prefab for $45,00 and plunk it right down.
For 50K – 80K USD you can have your own little hacienda. And as I said – property taxes for the year are about the price of a fancy steak dinner.
That is of course if you don’t mind living a bit like a pioneer.
If you want a waterfront lot or live in a luxury condo – that’s a different story. And living in desirable places like San Pedro or Placencia is obviously going to cost more.
But by and large, real estate prices are at least half of what you’d pay in the US or CAN. And if you have time and patience, there are plenty of bargains to be had.
Beware: Belize is notorious for real estate scams. In fact, the biggest one in history was pulled in Placencia ($120 million). There are developments that sell lots and but no houses ever crop up.
Take your time. Get a reputable realtor. If you want to live in a community, find an established one and go talk to the residents. Avoid projects that have a lot of slick marketing and artists renderings but no actual houses to show.
Residency Options in Belize
Belize wants people with money and/or skills to live in their country. Therefore, the path to permanent residency or citizenship is relatively easy.
Visitors who enter the country in a 30-day tourist visa can stay for up to 6 months – provided they go to the immigration office every month, pay $50 US and get a renewal.
If you are testing out whether Belize is right for you, this is the way to go.
If you are sure you want to live in Belize, you have two options: QRP (Qualified Retirement Persons program) and permanent residency.
To qualify for the QRP you have to be at least 45, and show that you have sufficient retirement income or net worth to be able to deposit $2000/month in a Belizean bank account. The whole process costs about $1500 in fees and if you are approved, you must renew your card every year ($25).
One major drawback of the QRP is that you are not allowed to work or own a business in Belize. So be sure that you have enough dough to carry you indefinitely.
If you want to live and work in Belize, you can apply for permanent residency. When you renew your 30-day tourist visa for the first time, inform the immigration office that you are seeking residency.
From then on you must live in the country for 50 weeks (not leaving for more that 14 days in a row). After which you apply and pay the $1000 fee.
If accepted, you are free work and start a business without the mandatory $2000/month deposit in a Belizean bank.
Under either program, a person can apply for full citizenship after 5 years.
Safety in Belize
Belize is relatively safe for expats. Don’t get me wrong – there is violent crime in Belize, but 95% is in Belize City and it’s mostly gang related. And almost all of it occurs at night. There is no reason to go to Belize city after dark – unless you are tired of living.
That said – violent crime against foreigners is rare. Much more common is property theft. Care should be taken to guard your stuff. If you leave something of value outside overnight, it’s not going to be there in the morning.
If you move to Belize, make friends with your neighbors, put bars on your windows – and a dog or two would be helpful.
There are a few venomous snakes to avoid. And insect repellent should ALWAYS be used for extended outdoor activities – the main danger is dengue fever which is spread by misquitos.
Another danger is auto accidents. Because Belizeans don’t care for seatbelts a disproportionate amount involve fatalities.
Most highways in Belize are two-lane roads. This tempts Belizean drivers to take crazy chances in passing slower traffic. Head-on crashes are quite common.
Also – highways in Belize are not lighted. And driving at night is a harrowing experience because the narrow shoulders are used by people on foot and bicycles. They seem to pop out of nowhere. Try to avoid driving around Belize after dark. It’s not fun.
Healthcare in Belize
Unlike Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama – The Healthcare system in Belize is somewhat sub-standard. It’s improving but still has a long way to go.
Healthcare is Belize is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s mostly a government-run system with 8 major hospitals and 60 public clinics scattered around the country.
The best hospitals are in Belize City, Belmopan and Dangriga.
In addition, there are 2 small private hospital and also some private clinics in tourist areas.
If you are a citizen or permanent resident, you are entitled to access to the public healthcare system. It’s not free, but the costs for treatments are a fraction of what they would be in the US.
Expat Healthcare Options
Many expats who acquire residency make use of the public facilities and pay out of pocket for procedures.
The problem is that public hospitals are understaffed and are often short of essential supplies and equipment.
Also – trauma/emergency services are sub-par and the ability to treat those with serious medical conditions of in need of complicated surgery is just not existent in Belize.
So it’s probably a good idea to take out an international insurance plan if you are older or not in good health. These plans usually allow for evacuation to other countries (EXCEPT the US) – for serious problems.
Plans range from $2000 – $6000 per year depending on your age.
In short – if you are over 65 or have a pre-existing condition, I recommend that you do your homework to see if Belize is a good fit for you.
Shopping in Belize
As far as name brand stuff – It’s kind of hard to find outside of Belize city – which has some nice mega grocery stores, department stores and Home-Depot-type hardware stores.
Two much beloved stores are Mirab and Brodie’s. Mirab is a very impressive department store. Elegant, well-stocked and staffed with friendly knowledgeable people.
One of the reasons that it is so cheap to live in Belize is that there is not much shopping to do. No temptation – Amazon does not even service Belize.
You can find the basic things you need, but anything special you’ll have to take a jaunt to Chetumal, Mexico. They have EVERYTHING.
But throughout most of the country your only option is Chinese or Indian owned general stores that carry lower quality Chinese imports.
So while you can find the essentials for everyday life, Belize is not a shopper’s paradise.
Food in Belize
First of all – produce is organic and the meat is free range with no hormones or antibiotics. Not because of the whole organic movement – but because they never used modern methods of commercial farming in the first place.
OK, Belizean food is not one of the great cuisines of the world. However, it is good, tasty, simple food that is extremely satisfying.
The main staple is stewed meats – mainly chicken. A typical Belizean meal is stewed chicken, rice and beans plus coleslaw or potato salad and usually a piece of fried plantain. You can get this meal – with slight variations – in almost any restaurant in the country.
It’s what Belizeans live on. Of course – the meat might be beef or pork or fish – but the rice/beans and coleslaw/potato salad are ALWAYS there.
Plus you always get a choice of regular rice and black beans OR coconut rice cooked together with beans. kind of a joke between my wife and me – “you want rice and beans or rice with beans?”
Bar-b-que is also excellent and very popular in Belize. Mom and Pop setups with grills – made from old 55-gallon drums – are set up on street corners and roadsides all over Belize.
Aside meats – there is a plentiful supply of fresh fish – especially along the coast. There is excellent fresh shrimp – farmed locally. And two highly prized gifts of the sea – conch and lobster – which are seasonal but available most of the year.
Cheap, delicious tacos are a staple for lunch and simple iceberg lettuce salads are consistently good throughout the country.
So Belizean food is basically “Central American” food. One exception is the Garifuna cuisine in and around Dangriga. The food has Afro/Caribbean roots and is distinct from the normal fair.
Oh, and I can’t forget the addictively tasty Belizean breakfast treat – fry jacks. They’re little deep-fried triangles of tortilla that puff up. You cut a little slice and the stuff them with butter or eggs or beans. Greasy but delicious.
Restaurants in Belize
Most restaurants in Belize are Belizean. Every town has at least one pizza/Italian place, a Chinese restaurant and a Mexican joint. Aside from that – other international cuisines are hard to come by.
So if you are used to jumping around the continents with your dining choices, you’re kind of out of luck.
However, the restaurants are generally of a good standard and clean. And if you stay away from the “travel guide” places, they are cheap. How cheap? Probably 35% of what you are used to paying.
Lunch for two in a local restaurant – with a few beers – will run you about $20 US. Tipping is generally 15% in Belize.
So you will have to be the judge if the quality and price make up for the lack of variety. It’s all part of deciding what you value most in life.
Nightlife in Belize
If you like to stay up to the wee hours partying… Belize is not for you. Sorry. Like most of Central America – the country basically shuts down at 10:00 PM.
Part of it is that Belize is close to the equator and the length of day doesn’t change much. Sunset is usually around 6:00. So people get off the beach, eat and then party for an hour or two.
You can find bars and clubs in San Pedro that stay open later on the weekends, but the general rule is to start partying early and head home at 9:30. It’s just the way it is.
Activities In Belize
The barrier reef off the coast of Belize is the second largest in the world (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). The majority of visitors that come to here are drawn by its beauty and explore it by snorkeling and diving.
Belize is one of the top dive destinations in the world. And scuba schools and dive boats abound.
The cayes offer world class saltwater fly fishing – especially for permit fish.
The beaches are OK in Belize – but nothing compared to the ones along the Riviera Maya. The best ones are in Placencia. The barrier reef along the coast stops any real waves from hitting the shore – so the bathing is not particularly thrilling.
There is decent hiking in Cayo to the west. And road biking is popular among the locals – but considering the way Belizeans drive – I would not recommend it.
In short – aside from top notch water sports – Belize doesn’t have too much to offer in the way of activities.
Attractions in Belize
Happily, one of the reasons that Belize holds so much potential for the future is its unique mixture of outdoor adventures and Mayan ruins that attracts tourists from around the world.
Because Belize is English speaking and so compact, it’s easy for visitors to put together a vacation that includes fly fishing, snorkeling with nurse sharks, clambering over mayan ruins, horseback riding and zip lining and cave tubing.
For example, a few days on the coast and a few days in Cayo will make for a truly memorable vacation. And tourism has been on the rise for the last 20 years.
As more and more folks visit, the infrastructure improves and visitors think about perhaps relocating to this unique, little country.
Consequently, real estate prices have been on a sharp increase – especially on the cayes.
If you are considering relocating abroad – moving to Belize deserves strong consideration.
It is truly a unique country with a lot to offer. It is a definitely a developing nation. Consequently, it has pros and cons.
- Developing Infrastructure
- Property Theft
- Frustrating Bureaucracy
- Lack of retail choices and nightlife
- Sub Par Healthcare
Low cost of living
Stable government, banking system
Real estate potential