By LAN SLUDER
Here, in thumbnail sketches, are your main choices for living, retiring and investing in Belize.
The two largest of the Northern Cayes are Ambergris (pronounced Am-BUR-griss Key) and Caye Caulker, sometimes known as Caye Corker.
Ambergris Caye is the most popular place for retirees and other expats to live in Belize. It offers the beauty of the Caribbean in a fairly compact, accessible package. You can dive, snorkel, swim and fish to your heart’s content. San Pedro, Ambergris Caye’s only town, has Belize’s biggest selection of restaurants and nightlife.
Island life, however, presents its own special set of pleasures and problems. On Ambergris Caye, residents say island fever strikes from time to time. Most residents go into Belize City regularly to conduct business, shop for items not available on the island or to get dental care. Many expats take vacations in the U.S., or long weekends in Cayo district or elsewhere in Belize.
While beachfront house and lot prices are no longer the bargain they once were, they are not too expensive by U.S. coastal standards. You can buy a buildable beach lot on North Ambergris for US$75,000 and up, or build a small but pleasant seaside home for US$200,000. Costs on the back or lagoon side are lower.
Prices for quality beachfront land, especially near San Pedro, rose rapidly (at least until the big recession hit the U.S. in 2008-2009) and now are in the US$3,000 to $5,000 a front foot range. As of 2008, more than 700 new condo units were under development on the island, mostly on North Ambergris Caye. Some of these projects were completed, but others were delayed.
Most of the island’s economy is focused on tourism. If you aren’t busy selling real estate or running a hotel, the island offers some volunteer opportunities. Some expats help out at the local library, or do church work (the island has one Catholic church and several Protestant denominations). The San Pedro chapter of the Lions Club is the island’s most active civic organization. Its weekly barbecue is delicious, cheap and a fund-raiser for the group’s good works.
Ambergris Caye’s sister island is smaller and, if anything, even friendlier. Residents here have managed to maintain close ownership of land on the island, though some lots and houses are available on the open market. A few condos are going up. We see Caulker as a real growth area for real estate over the next few years, barring a major hurricane. A few apartments are for rent, starting at around US$300 to $500 a month.
Corozal in Northern Belize
Most visitors to Belize either never get to Corozal or pass through quickly en route somewhere else. But Corozal Town and nearby Consejo village offer a lot for those staying awhile: low prices, friendly people, a generally low-crime environment, the beautiful blue water of Corozal Bay and the extra plus of having Mexico next door for shopping. There’s even a new Sam’s Club in Chetumal, just across the border. Corozal is one of the undiscovered jewels of Belize. There’s not a lot to do, but it’s a great place to do it.
The Sugar Coast – sugarcane is a main agricultural crop here as it is in the adjoining Orange Walk district – is a place to slow down, relax and enjoy life. The climate is appealing, with less rain than almost anywhere else in Belize, and fishing is excellent. The sunny disposition of residents – Mestizos, Creoles, Maya, Chinese, East Indians and even North Americans – is infectious. Real estate costs in Corozal are among the lowest in Belize. Modern North American-style homes with three or four bedrooms in Corozal Town or Consejo Shores go for US$100,000 to around US$250,000, but Belizean-style homes start at less than US$35,000. Waterfront lots are available for US$75,000 or less, and big lots near the water are US$20,000-$30,000. Rentals are relatively inexpensive – US$150-$400 for a nice Belizean-style house or US$400-$1,000 for a modern American-style house.
Rural Orange Walk District in Northern Belize
Orange Walk Town — the name came from the orange groves in the area — could be any number of towns in Mexico. There’s a formal plaza, and the town hall is called the Palacio Municipal. The businesses and houses along the main drag — Queen Victoria Avenue or the Belize-Corozal Road — have barred windows, and some of the hotels and bars are in fact brothels. In this setting, conservative Mennonites from Shipyard who come to town to sell produce look strangely out of place. However, Orange Walk Town is a gateway to a magical area of Belize — the wide sky, fertile land and unpeopled forests of Belize’s northwest shoulder, pressed against the Guatemala border.
Cayo District in Western Belize
Cayo has a lot going for it: wide open spaces, cheap land, few bugs and friendly people. This might be the place to buy a few acres and grow oranges. The major towns are San Ignacio/Santa Elena, with a population of about 18,000, about 10 miles from the Guatemala border, and Belmopan City, the miniature capital of Belize, with a population of around 13,000. Agriculture, ranching and, increasingly, tourism are the major industries here. About 30 years ago, the first small jungle lodges began operation around San Ignacio. Now there is a flourishing mix of hotels, cottages and jungle lodges near San Ignacio and in the Mountain Pine Ridge, along with a lot of natural attractions and outdoor activities – canoeing, caving, hiking, horseback riding, to name a few. The country’s most accessible Maya ruins are here, as well as Caracol, in its heyday a larger city-state than Tikal. Between Belize City and San Ignacio, Belmopan is the downsized capital of Belize, but the attractions are in the surrounding countryside. The Belize Zoo is nearby, as are several excellent jungle lodges. Along the scenic Hummingbird Highway are barely explored caves, wild rivers and national park areas. Small farms are available for US$25,000-$75,000.
Placencia on the Southern Coast
Placencia has the best beaches on the mainland, and it’s an appealing seaside alternative to the bustle of Ambergris Caye. This peninsula in southern Belize has some 16 miles of beachfront along the Caribbean, a backside lagoon where manatees are frequently seen, two small villages, a few dozen hotels and restaurants and an increasing number of expatriates and foreign-owned homes. In recent years, the Placencia peninsula has been undergoing a boom, a boom that was slowed only temporarily by Hurricane Iris in 2001. Building lots by the score have been sold to foreigners who think they’d someday like to live by the sea. Beginning around 2004-2005, condo development on the peninsula took off, and now some 1,500 condos are either under construction or planned, though construction slowed down dramatically as the housing crunch and recession seized up markets in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Seafront real estate costs are higher in Placencia than anywhere else in Belize, except Ambergris Caye. Beachfront lots cost US$2,500 to $3,500 per front foot, making a seaside lot around US$100,000 or more. Lots on the lagoon or canal are less expensive. There is little North American-style housing available for sale or rent, and many expatriates are building their own homes, with building costs ranging upwards of US$100 per square foot, depending on type of construction. A contract to pave the peninsula road, a monster that everyone loves to hate, was signed in 2007, and as of this writing the road is paved from Placencia village to Maya Beach. It is expected to be completed by 2011. A new airport is under construction just north of the peninsula. It is supposed to open in 2010, with limited international service. It’s too early to say whether the international service will actually materialize.
Hopkins on the Southern Coast
On the southern coast of Belize in Stann Creek District between Dangriga and Placencia, Hopkins today is what Placencia was like just a decade or so ago. Expatriates are moving to Hopkins, a friendly Garifuna village that got telephones only in the mid-1990s, and to real estate developments nearby. New small seaside hotels and condo developments are going up in Hopkins and Sittee Point. Although at times the sand flies can eat you alive here, you can get in some excellent fishing and beach time, with day trips to the nearby Cockscomb jaguar reserve and boat trips to the reef. You’ll love Hopkins if Placencia is too developed for you.
Punta Gorda in Southern Belize
Rainy, beautiful and remote, Punta Gorda in far southern Belize is the jumping-off point for unspoiled Maya villages and for onward travel to Guatemala and Honduras. Over the next few years as paving of the final 9-mile portion o fthe Southern Highway to Punta Gorda is completed and the road is extended into Guatemala, this area is expected to take off, both in terms of tourism and as a place for expatriate living. “PG,” as it’s known, is Toledo District’s only population center, with about 5,000 people, mostly Garifuna, Maya and immigrants from Guatemala. Maya villages, hardly changed for centuries, are located around PG. Cayes and the south end of the barrier reef offer good snorkeling and fishing. Lumbering and fishing are about the only industries. Undeveloped land is inexpensive, with acreage beginning at a few hundred dollars an acre. Few North American-style homes are for sale. Quality rentals are fairly expensive due to demand from missionaries and lack of supply.
The days of buying your own private island for a song are long gone, but if you have money to burn and the willingness to rebuild after the next hurricane, one of Belize’s remote islands could be yours, beginning at about US$100,000 and going up to several million. In 2005, Leo DiCaprio, the star of “Titantic,” bought Blackadore Caye, a 104-acre island near San Pedro, for a reported US$2.4 million, or about US$23,000 an acre.
Developers have been selling lots on a few small cayes. Keep in mind that transporting materials to the island, building there and maintaining the property likely will be much, much higher than on the mainland.
Beachfront Land Costs in Belize
Many dream of living on a Caribbean beach. Here’s the reality of what you'll pay for beachfront lots in Belize today. These are typical selling prices per front foot on the beach. If the lot has 75 feet of beach frontage, multiply that by the per-front foot cost in U.S. dollars. While the overall size and depth of the lot affects the total price, a 200-foot deep lot may be only a little more expensive than a 100- or 150-foot deep lot. It's the frontage on the water that matters most. The top end of the price range are for better-quality, buildable lots on higher ground. Large tracts with extensive beachfront typically would be less that prices shown here.
Corozal Town Area: US$800-$1,800
Cerros/Sarteneja Peninsula: US$750-$1,800
Ambergris Caye: US$2,500-$5,000
Placencia Peninsula: US$2,500-$3,500
Hopkins/Sittee Point Area: US$2,000-$2,500
Toledo District: US$500-$1,500
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