I have been writing a series of articles this summer comparing living in Belize versus living in Mahahual, Mexico. I have got a lot of response from readers both good and bad. Of course, I have got a lot of negative comments from people living in Belize, which I expected.
The reason I started these articles on this blog was, I was sitting having a beer with some people and they asked me if I would ever live in Belize again after I have lived in Mahahual. I thought for a second, and said no, I much prefer Mahahual and Mexico. And this got me to thinking, there are a lot of people out there maybe considering Belize as a place to retire or live in the future, and they might like to see a comparison from someone who has lived in both places.
I am constantly bombarded on the internet by several websites that tout Belize as the best place to retire or live on the Caribbean Sea, and this is not true. Every day I get emails from International Living and other publications claiming Belize is paradise on Earth, and the best place for expats to live.
I thought that myself when I first went to Belize in 2002, and then returned again in 2009. I, like a lot of other people from the USA and Canada, went to Belize originally because they speak English there, and I felt I would be more comfortable with that aspect of life there. Well that was before I discovered Costa Maya and Mahahual.
If you would have asked me five years ago if I would have ever considered living in Mexico, I would have said no way. But like a lot of other people in the USA and Canada, I had always heard a lot of negatives about living or even visiting Mexico from the media growing up, and I hate to say it, but I believed a lot of it.
Before I went to Belize, I read a lot of stuff on the internet about how Belize was an unspoiled tropical paradise, and how life was great there and everything, and again I believed it. I never even considered Mahahual and Mexico.
So today I am stating Belize’s best case for living and retiring in Belize from Belize.com’s website. I have gone over several aspects of these reasons in past articles on this blog, but for some new readers I thought I would state Belize’s case and break down the reasons for relocating in Belize according to Belize interests.
I will conclude with these posts comparing Belize to Mahahual in the next couple of days, and give my reasons why I much prefer Mahahual over Belize.
What I feel about Belize can be summed up in this quote…….”There is a fine line between Paradise and a third world shithole”
Living As An Expat in Belize
If you’re looking for a place to live or to retire that’s just like back home, only better; for a United States or a Canada on the cheap, for Florida with ruins, reefs and rum, you may get a rude awakening when you move here. Because Belize isn’t just like the U.S. or Canada. It does have world-class rum at economical prices, awe-inspiring ruins, hot women and music, the beautiful Caribbean sea and much more.
But the rules are different. The people who make and enforce the rules are different. Sometimes there are no rules. Sometimes there is a set of rules for you, and a different one for everyone else. Just about every expat resident of Belize has some story to tell about problems he or she faced in adjusting to life in Belize – or, in not adjusting. Let’s look at some of the differences, and what they mean to you as a potential resident or retiree.
First, Belize is a country with a population hardly bigger than a small city in the U.S. Even including recent illegal and uncounted immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the population of the entire country is only about 350,000.
Most expats seeking retirement or residency here are middle-class North Americans, from a society still run by white middle-class North Americans. Belize, on the other hand, is a truly multi-cultural society, with Latinos, Creoles, Mestizos, Maya, Garifuna, Asians, and what in the rest of Latin America would be called Gringos, living together in complex and changing relationships. Living together in probably more harmony than anyone has a right to expect.
In several areas, Creoles (African descent) dominate – especially in the bureaucracy and security services; increasingly, in other areas Latino Belizeans and immigrants dominate. One thing is for certain, though: In this mix, North Americans and Europeans have very limited power. Money talks in Belize, of course, as it does everywhere. Most of Belize’s tourism industry is owned by foreign interests. But much of its industry and agriculture is controlled by multinational companies or by a few wealthy, well-connected Belizean families.
In Belize, culture shock is sometimes masked by the surface familiarity. Most Belizeans speak English, albeit a different English. They watch American television. They drive big American or Japanese cars. They even accept U.S. currency. But, underneath the surface sameness, Belize is different, a collection of differences. Cases in point: The ancient Mayan view of time, cyclical and recurring, and even the Mayan view today, are grossly different from the linear way urban North Americans view time.
The emerging Hispanic majority in Belize has social, religious and political views that are quite different from the views of the average North American, or, even of the typical Belizean Creole. In many cases, family connections and relationships are more important here than they are in the U.S. or Canada. Time is less important. Not wanting to disappoint, locals may say “maybe” when “no” would be more accurate. Otherwise honest men may take money under the table for getting things moving. Values North Americans take for granted, such as “work hard and get ahead,” do not apply in Belize in the same way. Physical labor, especially agricultural work and service work, because of the heritage of slavery and colonialism, is viewed as demeaning among the Creole ethnic group, reason why they gravitate to and dominate the bureaucracy.
Like most countries, full and practically Free Citizenship is available to those who marry a national. While this of course is not possible for those already married, for the single person this can be an attractive option.
To wed a Belizean, an expat must obtain a marriage license from the Ministry of the Attorney General. This is a relatively simple process and costs but U.S. $25.00 The country has many eligible women (and men) who may be interested in marrying an expat in hopes of a better life. After one year of marriage, the expat can apply for Citizenship Via Marriage. If there is an issue from the marriage (child) the process is further cemented.
Many medical doctors from Cuba volunteering in Belize, have found this mechanism as an escape from their homeland. On a parallel scheme, many elderly U.S. nationals, men and women, have started a new life by marrying young Belizeans and moving back home with their new wives or husbands. Apart from the benefit of acquiring a young spouse, they also have the benefit of acquiring Belizean citizenship if they so desire, for offshore financial benefits.
Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program
Pros: Quick approval, application through the Belize Tourism Board rather than Immigration Department, some residency rights (except voting), tax-free entry of household effects, car, boat and airplane, only have to live in country for one month a year.
Cons: Must deposit US$24,000 a year in a local bank, somewhat costly application process, can’t work for pay in Belize, must be 45 or over, still have to pay tourist exit taxes when leaving the country.
Does not earn points if you want to achieve permanent residency later. Most retirement experts dismiss the Belize Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program as a convoluted money-making scheme for the government and bureaucrats. Other countries such as Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua offer offer much better terms. But there is a work around.
Forget about financial privacy. The government requires that all Qualified Retired Persons submit a yearly bank statement showing compliance with the financial requirements of the program. Most retirement experts regard this as intrusive. The program is so lucrative in generating fees that the government has launched a slick website in an effort to net prospective retirees into its program. Reports are that the program is increasingly being used to facilitate select Belizean-Americans to return to Belize. These individuals, having per-existing nationality, are able to work making the program very attractive for them, but not for the expats the QRP was was originally designed for.
Some canny immigrants use the QRP primarily as a way of moving their household effects, vehicles and boats into the country tax-free, including several years worth of expensive linens, clothes and spare parts. Then after a reasonable time, they abandon their QRP status and apply for permanent residency. Another loophole for married couples: one spouse gets QRP status while the other opts for permanent residence. This gets them the tax free household and vehicles benefit, and allows them to legally compete for jobs with the locals. If you look at the people hawking Belize property and real estate in Belize, chances are most of these individuals are savvy folk exploiting the QRP while peddling real estate to their fellow U.S. and Canadian citizens.
Pros: Full residency rights (except voting in national elections – but you can vote in municipal elections, can work, open to anyone regardless of age, one-time tax-free entry of household effects.
Cons: Year-long residency before applying, more red tape, costly application process, and some people are turned down for minor details; you can bring in household goods but NOT a car, boat or airplane free of duty.
In addition to these programs, full citizenship in Belize is a possibility for those living here over a certain period. To acquire citizenship, applicants must have been a resident or have permanent residency status for a minimum of five years. Applicants for citizenship need to provide essentially the same supporting documentation as those applying for permanent residency. Applicants also must demonstrate a knowledge of Belizean history. Since most of Belizean history was written by the occupying British over a the past two centuries, reading a couple of books with test answers will suffice.
Top Ten Reasons to Why You Should Consider Living or Retiring In Belize.
1. Your Money Goes Further In Belize
Belize is definitely not the cheapest place to live in – a tropical paradise with so many advantages does not come as cheap as other retirement areas such as certain Latin American or Asian countries. In fact living on a North American or European lifestyle here will cost as much or more. But in resident expats here say they live more comfortably than back home. Retirement cheques, stocks and investment income, just appear to go further in Belize.
Services that are significantly more economical in this country include medical care, cable TV, household help, insurance, farm produce, seafood, property taxes, and yes, wine, song and so on. This tropical paradise produces and exports high quality rum made from locally produced molasses and cane sugar. In fact sugar is so cheap it is one of the rare local products smuggled out of the country into the neighboring republics. The other side of the coin is that gasoline, electricity, telephone, mobile phone and Internet access are more expensive. But you can always setup your own satellite dish and enjoy Internet access at near U.S. prices. And new wireless internet access services keep popping up offering reasonable Internet access giving the government owned Belize Telemedia Ltd, a run for its money.
Housing, depending on your taste can be significantly cheap compared to back home. Belize has a thriving Mennonite community that provides many services including pre-fabricated homes out of pressure treated lumber, local hardwood or industrial galvalum metal. For about U.S. $15,000. to $20,000. you can get a modest North American design three bedroom cottage pre-wired and complete with plumbing, transported and set up on your site.
If you prefer to rent, you can get a modest house for US$200-$400 a month, or build a new home for US$50,000 to $250,000. depending on size. Waterfront lots run from US $40,000 to $100,000. depending on location.
If your taste is more upscale Belize has condos on the beach ranging from U.S. $99,000. to the multi-million dollar range.
Sample Budget For Expatriates Living In Belize On $1,500. Or Less
Spending needs are different for most anyone but here is a sample monthly budget in U.S. dollars for a couple living in comfort as expatriates in Belize:
* Rent or mortgage payment: $300. * Car expenses: $250. * Electricity, water, telephone, and Internet: $500.
* Groceries: $300. * Health insurance: $50. * Entertainment: $100.
2. You Speak English
If you are North American or from the U.K. there is no need to learn a new language because, as a former British colony, the country is English speaking. Spanish is widely spoken and unofficially it is believed it is the more popular language as Latinos are now the largest single ethnic group in Belize. But most Belizeans are bilingual and many trilingual. All official documents, street signs, menus and so on are in English and most of the media, newspapers, radio and television stations are primarily in English
From the day you first set foot in here you can dine, chat, shop, and ask for directions without having to look up a foreign language app on your laptop or smart phone. For expats with kids, the Belize education system is in English and well regarded.
3. It Is Good For My Health
Its true. Living in Belize can make you feel and look better and actually improve your health. There are plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally ranging from bananas, oranges, grapefruit, soursop, pineapple, papayas, mangoes, noni, many grains and nuts not to forget fresh coconut water, free range chicken and eggs, natural grass fed beef – the list would fill a farming newsletter. Fresh fruit and unprocessed food are found aplenty in the local shops or at better prices on markets days.
Most towns have special market days – Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturday are the most popular. Wide open spaces mean that you can ride the car less and walk more.
You can spend much more time outdoors in the crisp, clean , unpolluted air rather than in an artificial climate-controlled office or residence.
You go home for lunch or take a siesta at mid-day. Arthritis, rheumatism and and other aches and pains seem to melt away. Many folks who move to Belize report feeling better within a couple of weeks, perhaps due to a better diet, sunny clime or less stress. But of course you can easily have an unhealthy lifestyle in Belize — staying indoors, eating greasy Chinese fried chicken which unfortunately is cheap and plentiful, watch TV all day, binge drinking and not exercising.
4. There Are So Many Things To See Or Do In Belize
There are so many things going on in Belize it is very hard to get bored. If you’re bored here, it’s your own fault. The country may be small but its rich diversity of landscapes, cultures and as it is rapidly developing this makes for almost no end of things to do, places to explore, projects to plan and maybe even start a new business.
If you are on a budget, you will find and be able to take advantage of specials that are offered on the off season. For example the two local airlines often offer half price airfare deals for cash only customers and these are often only announced locally.
Belize is a natural wonderland. It is home to thousands of species of trees and flowers, orchids, animals, birds exotic tropical fish and butterflies.
The cultural diversity of Belize is what attracts some many visitors again and again. If you are so inclined you can spend the rest of your life studying and learning the the rich flora and fauna of the country. The culture and history of the Maya dates back thousands of years.
Latinos were the first Europeans to venture into the area and in fact the Father of the Mestizos Gonzalo Guerrero was the first European to make Belize his home. Later immigrants were the Scots, Irish and British, Africans, Garifuna, and more modern immigrants such as the Mennonites, Central Americans Chinese and other Europeans. Every local ethnic group has a colorful history to explore, cuisine to enjoy and cultural events, festivals and fairs to enjoy.
Outdoor activities include the gorgeous beaches and the majestic Barrier Reef, the wide open savannahs and mountains, countless caves – many yet undiscovered, the tropical rainforest, the many rivers and waterfalls, the Maya ruins and of course you can easily hop across the border into Mexico or Guatemala for entirely new horizons and things to do, see and explore.
Travel links to Mexico and Central America, once neglected, have been recently come under attention for development. The Mexican bus company ADO now does twice daily runs between Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula with destinations in Cancun, Tulum and Merida. These first class air conditioned buses are a great alternative to travel deep into southern Mexico for a change of scenery.
In the west, the highway on the Guatemala side is now completely paved and a new bridge is now open. This makes a once bumpy trip to Tikal, Rio Dulce in Guatemala and Guatemala City a more enjoyable journey. In the south, a new highway is under construction to link the south with Guatemala.
5. The U.S. Dollar Is Accepted Belize Currency
The BZ Dollar still bears the image of the Head of State – Queen Elizabeth II. With independence the Belize Dollar has sprouted some indigenous symbols such as various local flora and fauna as well as nationalistic symbols and landmarks. But the U.S. Dollar is accepted everywhere – coins are not.
You can pay for most anything in Belize with your U.S. Dollars except, and we are not making this up, government offices or any government transaction. A government that is perennially short of foreign exchange does not accept U.S. dollars at any government cashier, for e.g. the courts, the post office and so on – that is unless the clerk on duty wants the foreign exchange and accepts it and then pays in the Belize Dollar equivalent out of his or her pocket.
But apart from this, any other business establishment, be it the gas station, your local grocery or supermarket will welcome your U.S. Dollars. The BZ Dollar has been pegged at the rate of two BZ Dollars for One U.S. Dollar for decades. Thus for those who bank in U.S. dollars prices remain stable as the value of the Belize Dollar does not float.
6. You Like Belizeans
As a general rule Belizeans like North Americans and Europeans and folks from all over the world. It is estimated that the equivalent of Belize’s entire population lives in North America. Because Belizeans speak English, hundreds of thousands live in the U.S.A. and Canada. Thus most any Belizean has a relative in North America.
Many Belizeans work and live in the North America then retire back home thus it will not be strange to run into a Belizean who lived and worked in your hometown for a few decades before moving up here just like you! Some locals refer to these returned Belizeans as BelAmers – short for Belizean Americans. Folks here are of fun loving and like to party and celebrate. Belize has fifteen official holidays including the very long Easter Holiday that begins at midday on Holy Thursday and runs through Easter Monday – that’s a four day weekend holiday.
7. I Love Belize Time
Belize is on a different time clock – much more relaxed and easy going. Maybe not the most efficient but the idea is to take it easy. Government offices are supposed to be opened for business at 8 a.m. sharp but apart from the Post Office you will not get much attention until 8:30 – that is the essence of “Belize Time”.
Government workers arrive by public transport at the town of their employment, then wonder around catching breakfast or doing errands before reporting for work. This can be irritating for some used to precision and deadlines but don’t let your pressure go up. Adjust to a slower more leisurely lifestyle. Be prepared for promises the job will be finished by Monday 8 a.m. Belize Time really means the job will be delivered Monday evening if you are lucky or more likely Tuesday morning.
8. I Feel Comfortable With Property Rights
As a former colony of the United Kingdom – Belize law is based on British Common Law – just like the legal systems in the U.S.A. and Canada. Certain countries in Latin America and Europe base their legal systems on the Napoleonic Code, a system difficult for North Americans to grasp. You will not have that problem here.
The country’s legal system is far from perfect and lawyers just like back home are not cheap. Caveat: beware of what you read in publications put out by foreign writers claiming to be Belize experts. Here like in most countries, squatters or the government can take your property – if you abandon it for a while. Squatters who settle unmolested on a property for 20 years can claim the land. And the government can take away your land if you are a scofflaw or forget to pay land tax. But these are rare cases and who would abandon their property for twenty years or fail to pay the ridiculously low property taxes?
Anyone, including foreigners, enjoys the same property rights under the Belize Constitution. And there are no restrictions on foreigners owning land in any part of Belize, and that includes water front properties. In fact one local newspaper did a non-empirical study and believes more than 60 per cent of Belize’s beach front property is owned by foreigners or absentee landlords.
9. I Can Afford To Live On The Beach In Belize
Prices are going up like everywhere but , you can live on the beach for about one third the cost of doing this in North American. You can buy a beach front lot in Belize for between U.S. $30,000. to $100,000. – depending of course on location and access to amenities. Lots one street or two behind the beach front can be had for about half the cost of beach front.
Construction costs for a strong concrete structure capable of withstanding most any storm range from between U.S. $40. to U.S. $80. a square foot – shop around. Your mileage may vary. You may consider using the services of an architect or engineer to supervise construction. The professional fee may save you lots of money and time. We even have a new company that gives you that nice hot mix asphalt driveway you may be accustomed to at your old digs.
A recent article in the AARP – American Association of Retired Persons Magazine – quotes from one of their members: After many visits to Belize, Atlantans Walter and Terri Fisher, 55 and 49, built a “concrete ranch house” with a water view for $125,000, including the lot. “The house was finished in 2007,” Walter reports. “Last year we sold our house in the U.S.A. got off the corporate treadmill, and moved here. I drove down in my truck on my own, and Terri and five cats flew down. We’re completely happy.”
10. I Can Make A Fresh Start In Belize
Or another way to put it, you can reinvent yourself in Belize. Moving to a different country where the first language is English can open up entirely new opportunities for the retiree. Many retirees mingle with the various ex pat communities and find or take inspiration about new things to do. Some retirees return to work part time – mainly self employed.
Retirees here can find many innovative and often rewarding ways to occupy their mind. A recent article in U.S. News and World Report cites the story of Lara Lennon who moved to Belize from Philadelphia in 2006 and developed a luxury swimwear line, Lemon Crush Belize:
“Sitting on a friend’s porch in San Pedro chatting about this and that in our tropical lives, I realized something: There existed nowhere in Belize a place to shop for dress bathing suits, the kind glamorous enough for a beach wedding or special enough for a honeymoon,” Lennon says. Lara’s swimwear is now featured in luxury boutiques in Belize and internationally. Starting a business takes drive and determination, Lara admits, but she has found the experience in Belize rewarding.
The ultimate American retiree Emory King explains why he retired in Belize. “Wide open spaces and opportunity everywhere. Opportunities for employment as real estate agent, accountant, bookkeeper, property or resort manager or assistant manager abound.” If you are Internet literate you can run an online business from the privacy of your home. Many retirees work the stock market and bank their income in U.S. dollar offshore accounts in Belize. Do consult your local accountant or attorney regarding work permits especially if you intend to work in a public establishment such as at a hotel or resort.
I hope this article was informative, and I will conclude later with how Mahahual stacks up against Belize, and I how I compare the two in my opinion.
Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina