Editors' Pick: Originally published Dec. 31.
It sounds so perfect: a country with Caribbean islands where the principle mode of transportation is a golf cart, the people speak English and you are surrounded by crystal clear waters and gently swaying palm trees. But what is it really like to live in Belize?
On our Web site, Best Places in the World to Retire, more than 50 experts (most of them expats) provided more than 1,000 answers to the most often asked questions about living in Belize.
Belize (formerly British Honduras) is slightly smaller than the state of New Hampshire, but with a population of only about 350,000, which is about one-quarter of New Hampshire's. Belize is bordered by Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south. By plane, Belize is about 2 ½ hours from Houston.
Where you choose to live in Belize will have a significant impact on how much it costs you. The most expensive areas would include the island of Ambergris Caye (winner of Trip Advisor Best Island in the World for 2014) and Placencia, which is a peninsula being developed with several high-end resorts and homes. Less-expensive expat areas include Corozal, which is on the Caribbean near the border with Mexico, and areas that are inland, such as the Cayo District.
Housing prices have a wide range and can wind up being as much as in many places in North America. Macarena Rose, who moved from the U.S. to Belize, provided some examples. "Inland, you could rent a home for $300 to $800 per month. On the ocean, that same house would rent for around $1,000. When you get to the island of Ambergris Caye," she said, "the rentals will start at $1,000 and will go upwards."
Other than housing, some prices can be ridiculously low, again, depending on where you're located. For example, in the Cayo district (where they grow much of the food in Belize), according to Englishman John Acott, "You get 10 bananas for 50 cents, and a sack of 100 oranges for $4 total."
Bentley Wildman, who was born in Canada but who has lived most of his life in Belize, provided another example. "Yearly property taxes are very, very low in Belize. In Consejo Shores (Corozal), they run about $25 a year, either for a house, a bare property, or a mansion."
Lisa McCorkle, daughter of the woman who opened the first hotel in Ambergris Caye, put the cost of living in Belize in context when she explained, "What causes us to live more inexpensively overall is that we don't have a lot of the costs you have in the US." McCorkle gave some examples in addition to how much cheaper it was to have a golf cart than a car and the almost non-existent property taxes. "We don't have any heating bills, and we don't have to pay to go on vacations to beautiful places. For many years I kept taking my kids to beaches in Mexico, until I asked myself, 'Why am I doing this? We live on the beach!'"
Virtually everyone agreed that certain areas of Belize City were dangerous, as were certain activities, but then again, virtually no expats live anywhere around these areas or engage in those activities.
Saira Mahabir, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, reported, "The crime rate in Belize is extremely different depending on where you are. Crime in Belize City is definitely higher than anywhere else in the country. It is more gang-related. If you are not related to any gang, you are safe."
Our experts divided crime into two categories: violent crime and property crime. Josh Buettner, formerly of Toronto and now living in Ambergris Caye, told us, "If you were to eliminate opportunities for petty crime, you eliminate 99.9% of all the issues you would have here. Violent crimes are a rarity here in Belize, especially with regard to expats or gringos. "
Kate Corrigan, born in England, now in Ambergris Caye for more than five years, said, "I am a single parent of a 13-year-old daughter. The only rule I have for my daughter is that she call me half an hour before dark, so that I can make arrangements to come pick here up." Relative to her own personal safety, Corrigan told us, "I go out and I feel quite comfortable walking on the streets, going to clubs, dining out and meeting up with friends. I wouldn't leave my bag in a restaurant or walk up a dark alley at 2 AM here, but I wouldn't anywhere else, either."
If you have a chronic health condition or may need to be rushed to a hospital for a complicated problem, Belize may not be for you.
Many expats, however, don't see this as a problem, because they don't have these issues and they look at health care from a regional perspective. Howard Oldham, from Houston, living in the Cayo area, told us, "The Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Belize has decent doctors, but for something serious or life-threatening, a lot of people go to Mexico, Guatemala, or Panama because it's relatively close to Belize and all of the doctors in Panama, as an example, are US-trained. They're really good and it's very cheap."
A very common theme of living in Belize is that it is very low stress, and that there is virtually no shopping. Boris Mannsfeld, from Colorado, warned, "If you want something like the French club scene where everybody's all decked out in the latest threads and showing off in the nicest cars, Belize is not for you." Mannsfeld further explained the laid-back lifestyle by saying, "Down here, everyone is very unpretentious. Even the rich people are in t-shirts and when you have a meeting with the prime minister, you wear just a pair of khakis and a buttoned-down shirt."
Mark Leonard, originally from the U.S. and now living in Corozal, explained, "If you really want to see cultural plays or if you are used to going to the opera, you might as well forget all that. Belize is, however, rich in culture and tradition. The local festivals and events are a lot of fun to attend." Leonard went on to explain, "When you live in Belize, you are going to stress out 3 times a day; about what you are going to have for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. If you can live with that, you would probably be fine. It's that easy!"
Wayne Robbins, who splits his time between Placencia and Florida, told us about the wealth of things to do in Placencia. "There are water sports: snorkeling, scuba diving, boating and fishing. Belize is Top 3 in the world in these activities. Then there's the eco-natural side. There are mountains, Mayan ruins, and you can go caving, tubing and island hopping. You can keep yourself as busy as you want. Alternatively, you can just sit and read a book and watch the beautiful sunset."
Bob Hamilton summed up his life on Ambergris Caye this way: "I worked a bit too hard for twenty-odd years in suits and ties and had stress living in Canada. Now, I am sitting here in my office barefoot with short pants on. I jump in my golf cart and drive back and forth for about 7 minutes from where I live. If I feel stressed, I just go out my office door, sit under a palm tree and watch the Caribbean."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.