By LAN SLUDER
Over the years, I’ve interviewed, talked with or heard from via e-mail hundreds of people who have moved to Belize or who plan to do so, and I’ve asked them this question: “Why did you choose Belize?” I’ve gotten many answers, but these are the most common:
“I like speaking English.” You don’t have to learn a new language to live in Belize, because English is the official language. You don’t have to struggle with grammar and syntax in an unfamiliar tongue. While Spanish and several other languages are widely spoken in Belize, and many Belizeans are bi- or trilingual, everything from street signs and newspapers to official government documents are in English. From your first day in Belize, you can shop, dine, chat and gossip without having to thumb through a dictionary or cast about for the right verb ending.
“I love the warm, sunny climate.” It never frosts or snows in Belize. The climate ranges from sub-tropical to tropical, similar to that of South Florida. As long as you’re comfortable with warm to hot temperatures, perhaps tempered by cooling breezes from the sea, you’ll like Belize weather. As a bonus, you’ll never have to pay for heating oil again.
“I feel welcome here.” Belize is not a Never-Never Land where everyone loves everybody in perfect harmony, but the fact is, by and large, Belizeans are as friendly a bunch of people as you’ll ever find. Belizeans take people one at a time. Whether you’re black, white, brown or green, short, fat, ugly or beautiful, rich or poor, you’ll find acceptance in Belize. Your neighbors will say hello to you on the street, check on you if you’re sick and share a joke with you over a Belikin at the bar. And they may try to hit you up for a loan. For the most part, Belizeans genuinely like Americans (and Canadians and Europeans). At the official level, the Belize government welcomes retirees and others, especially if they bring some resources to the country. The Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program (see below) is administered not by a bureaucratic immigration department but by the Belize Tourist Board, and they generally provide approvals within three months.
“I enjoy the lifestyle here, doing things outdoors and on the water.” Belize offers relatively little in the way of cultural activities — museums, art galleries, the arts. But it makes up for it with a wealth of options for those who love the outdoors. You can garden year-round. The saltwater fishing is some of the best in the world. Boating, diving, swimming and snorkeling can be as close as your back yard. For the more adventurous, there are caves and ancient ruins to explore, rivers to canoe and mountains to hike.
“I can live better here for less money than where I came from.” Belize is not the cheapest place to live, and in some areas of Belize an American lifestyle will cost U.S. prices or higher. Overall, however, expats in Belize say they can live larger than back home, enjoying some luxuries such as a housekeeper or meals out. Investment income, pensions and Social Security checks seem to stretch a little farther in Belize. While some items such as gasoline, imported foods and electricity cost more in Belize, other things including medical care, housing, insurance and household help are significantly cheaper in Belize than in the U.S., Canada or Western Europe. Although Belize has a few half million dollar houses and condos, you can rent a little house for US$150--$300 a month, set up a made-in-Belize cabin for US$15,000, build an attractive new home for US$60,000 to $100,000 and buy a waterfront lot for US$50,000 to $100,000.
“I thought I could never afford to live on the beach … but I can in Belize.” If you’ve seen the prices for beachfront lots in Florida, South Carolina, Massachusetts or California – often hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars – you know that oceanfront living in the U.S. is out of the question for most people. In Belize, beachfront lots aren’t as cheap as they used to be, or as cheap as they still are in places like Nicaragua, but you can still buy a buildable lot on the Caribbean for US$50,000 to $100,000. Lots a row or two back from the sea start at US$15,000 to $20,000. And you can put a storm-resistant concrete house on the lot for US$50 to $85 a square foot. So, with a little patience and planning for around US$100,000 to US$150,000, you can own a small new home right on the water.
“I appreciate the fact that Belize has a stable, democratic government.” You don’t have to worry about a coup in Belize. Politics in Belize is highly personal and can be rough and tumble, even dirty, but Belizeans take their democracy seriously. The voter turnout in the last national election was almost 75%. Along with Costa Rica, Belize has the most stable political system in the region.
“I’m glad I escaped from America’s consumer society.” In Belize, you won’t find Starbucks, McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. Global franchise businesses are almost unknown. That can be frustrating when you’re trying to find a cheap home appliance or a quick meal, but on the plus side you don’t need to spend your life accumulating stuff.
“I like living on Belize time.” Like many sub-tropical and tropical countries, Belize offers a slower way of life than the frenetic pace of life in many more developed countries. If you don’t get it done today, there’s always tomorrow. Slow down. Be cool. Don’t make your blood boil. “I’ll be here at 7:30 Monday morning” really means, “I’ll try to get there early Monday but if I decide to go fishing I’ll be there sometime Tuesday.” Not everyone can adjust to this way of living, but for those who do it has a lot of appeal.
“I feel healthier here.” As I discuss in detail later in this book, Belize does not have the high-tech, state-of-the-art medical care available in the U.S. or even in countries like Costa Rica or Panama. But the Belizean lifestyle can be very healthful. You eat fresh fruit and unprocessed food. You walk more and ride less. You stay outside in the clean, unpolluted air rather than being cooped up in a climate-controlled box all day. You go home for lunch or take a nap at mid-day. In Belize’s balmy climate, your arthritis and other aches and pains seem to fade away. Many people who move to Belize start feeling better within a few weeks. Quite a few lose weight. Blood pressure levels go down. Of course, you can also live an unhealthy life in Belize — watching cable TV all day, drinking all night and eating fried foods and lardy beans and rice.
“I like the people of Belize.” If you’re a people person, you can’t help liking Belizeans. Belizeans come in every shape, background and color, but nearly all are open and friendly. They love to have fun, and there’s always an excuse for a party or a celebration. Expats in Belize are also an interesting bunch, usually with an independent streak and sometimes downright eccentric.
“There’s always something to do or see here.” If you’re bored in Belize, it’s your own fault. Belize is a natural wonder. You could spend the rest of your life just learning about the flora and fauna of the country. Belize is home to thousands of species of trees and flowers, hundreds of kinds of birds and butterflies. The culture of Belize is wide and deep. The history of the Maya in Belize goes back thousands of years. Garifuna came to Belize in the early 1800s; Hispanics have trickled in over the past several hundred years; Mennonites came here in the 1950s. Every group in Belize has a fascinating history to explore. When you tire of intellectual pursuits, you can take trips to the enchanting corners of the country, to the high hills of the Mountain Pine Ridge, to the endless caves of the Chiquibul wilderness, to the lush rainforest of Toledo, to the many islands in the Caribbean Sea and to the 190-mile long Belize Barrier Reef.
“I like the wide open spaces of Belize.” With around 310,000 people in an area the size of the state of Massachusetts (population: 6,400,000), Belize is one of the least densely populated countries in the Western Hemisphere. Outside the cities and towns, you can often drive for miles without seeing another human being. In that regard, Belize is like a little, subtropical Alaska. Or like Florida 50 years ago.
“I don’t have to worry about losing my property here.” Property rights are protected in Belize through the traditions of English Common Law. In some countries, if you leave your house or land unoccupied, squatters can move in, and it’s almost impossible to get them out. Legal documents may be written in a language you don’t understand. Powerful local interests can take your property through tricky legal — or illegal — means. In many parts of Latin America and Europe, the legal system is Civil Law based in some cases on the Napoleonic Code, very different from the system in the United States. But Belize shares with America, Canada and the United Kingdom a legal system based on English Common Law. In Belize, private property is respected and protected. Foreigners can own property virtually anywhere in Belize, with exactly the same rights and protections as exist for Belizeans. Squatters cannot take your property. The Belize legal system isn’t perfect, and lawyers in Belize are almost as costly as those in the U.S., but it’s a far better system than, for example, in Honduras.
“The U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere in Belize.” Belize has its own currency, the Belize dollar, so technically the American greenback is not the official monetary unit of the country. As a practical matter, though, the U.S. dollar is accepted anywhere and everywhere in Belize, and the Belize dollar has been pegged for decades at the rate of 2 Belize to 1 U.S. dollar. Anything of substantial value, such as real estate, is priced in U.S. dollars. This means that prices in Belize are more stable for American dollar holders than they would be if the Belizean currency floated against the dollar. It also means that in periods when the value of the U.S. dollar declines sharply against the euro, yen and many other hard currencies, prices in Belize remained about the same as always for Americans. (Of course, during periods of appreciation of the value of the U.S. dollar, prices in Belize do not become cheaper for U.S. dollar holders.)
What Some Do NOT Like About Belize
I’ve also talked with many people who came to Belize and decided not to stay, or who were unhappy with their life in Belize but couldn’t afford to leave. Here are their major gripes and complaints. Keep in mind that some people who are unhappy in Belize would be just as unhappy where they came from. You can move to a new place, but you can’t run away from yourself.
“We can’t get anybody to do anything here.” If you’re expecting a Minnesota-style work ethic in Belize, everything prompt and efficient, you’re in for a surprise. People have their own ways of doing things and their own time frame for doing them. In remote areas, many Belizeans have never held a regular job. Belizeans have their own methods of work, sometimes developed over hundreds of years. It may take them longer to finish, but they’ll get it done. Eventually. Also, decades of “brain drain” with more than 100,000 of the most ambitious Belizeans moving to the U.S. in search of better jobs means that you may occasionally run into folks who are a little less motivated or skilled.
“We’re tired of getting ripped off.” One of the most common subjects of cocktail party conversation among expats in Belize is how to protect their homes and property from petty theft. “Tiefin” (as it’s said in Creole) is unfortunately common in Belize, as it is in many poor, developing countries. Leave a tool or a bicycle out overnight, and it’s likely to be gone the next day. Leave your house unattended for a week or two, and you’ll likely come back to a home stripped of everything of value. You have to acclimate yourself to an environment where petty theft is going to happen, and you have to protect your possessions. Hire a dependable caretaker, put up a fence around your property and get a big black dog.
“Things cost more than we thought they would.” Belize is a small, inefficient marketplace. Little is manufactured locally, shops are mostly small mom ‘n pop places and shipping costs to Belize are expensive. Import duties are high. All this adds up to an economy where most anything imported is likely to cost more than where it was produced: automobiles, wine, cement, cornflakes, books, shoes. If you come to Belize thinking everything across the board will be cheaper than back home, you’ll be sorely disappointed. To duplicate a Scottsdale lifestyle in Belize, down to the Stoly in the liquor cabinet, the Carrier turned to frigid and an SUV in the drive, you’ll spend a lot more than in Scottsdale. To live in Belize on the cheap, you have to live like a Belizean — eat rice and beans, take the bus, go the local clinic for health care. You can move up a bit from the Belizean lifestyle without paying a ton of money, but you have to buy wisely: Dump the dishwasher, use the ceiling fan instead of the A/C, drink rum instead of Russian vodka, order from Amazon.com, eat the healthful local foods — cheese, brown eggs and watermelons from Mennonite farms, mangoes and oranges off your backyard trees, tortillas from the corner tacqueria.
“We hate the telephone company.” Probably no single fact of life in Belize causes more grouching and griping than telcom service. Belize Telemedia Ltd. no longer enjoys a complete legal monopoly on telecommunications in Belize, but it still controls most of the telephone and Internet service in Belize. Unlike its U.S. counterparts, it’s still a moneymaking machine. Long-distance and Internet costs in Belize are much higher than in more competitive markets. BTL’s service really isn’t bad, and most of BTL’s infrastructure is modern, but for those, especially in business, who depend on telephone and e-mail, the high costs and sometimes-arrogant attitude of BTL is a real thorn in the side.
“Belizean politicians are corrupt.” Belize isn’t Mexico. Petty bribery is rare. The average Belizean official wants respect, not a few bucks. But corruption certainly exists in Belize, especially at the higher levels of government. In the first months of 2005, accusations of alleged corruption were at the heart of a series of demonstrations and strikes against the party then in power, the People’s United Party headed by Prime Minister Said Musa. These culminated in demonstrations in Belize City, during which several people were injured, about 100 were arrested and some stores in the city centre were looted. Since then, further reports of government corruption and waste have come to light. The new United Democratic Party government, which won the 2008 national elections, is trying to prosecute some members of the former PUP government. The Old Boy network is alive and well in Belize, too. It’s accepted, even expected, that senior government officials will do favors for their cronies and family, everything from awarding lucrative contracts for cruise ship shore excursions to selling prime land at bargain basement prices. Not every government official takes advantage of office, but some do. Many expats in Belize get sick and tired of this aspect of Belize reality (especially since as non-voters they benefit not at all from the political corruption.)
“We can’t make any money here.” If you want to go into business and make a lot of money, do it in the U.S. America is still the land of opportunity for the entrepreneur, with a huge, wealthy market for any product or service you can imagine. By contrast, the entire country of Belize has the buying power of a small town of 40,000 people in the U.S. There are some opportunities in tourism and agriculture, but the scale is small – for example, Myrtle Beach, S.C., gets 60 or 70 times as many tourists as does the whole country of Belize. As the saying goes, if you want to make a small fortune in Belize, come here with a big fortune. Belize has some very successful homegrown business people, and some expats have built successful businesses in Belize, but it’s not an easy country in which to get rich. Make your bucks before you come to Belize.
“We don’t have the juice and connections we had back home.” When you move to Belize, you lose the network of contacts – personal, business and political – you used to have. Unless you become a Belizean citizen, you can’t vote and, in any case, you don’t have the political connections that many Belizeans have built up over the course of their life. In short, nobody cares what you think about local matters. You’re not so much at the bottom rung of the ladder as not even close to the ladder.
Lan Sluder is editor and publisher of BELIZE FIRST Magazine. He has had a long-time interest in Belize and the Caribbean Coast of Central America. Among his many books on Belize are Adapter Kit: Belize, Living Abroad in Belize, San Pedro Cool, Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize and Fodor's Belize. The author of Frommer's Best Beach Vacations, Carolinas and Georgia and In Focus Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Sluder has contributed to many magazines and newspapers around the world, including Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, The Tico Times, Bangkok Post, Caribbean Travel & Life, Canada's Globe & Mail, and the Miami Herald.
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