As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine May/June 2006
Belize is simply beautiful. It is a place of incredible natural beauty, mint green or turquoise seas and emerald green forests, and the longest barrier reef in the Western and Northern Hemispheres, with more kinds of birds, butterflies, flowers, and trees than in all of the U.S. and Canada combined. Massive ceiba trees and exotic cohune palms stand guard in rainforests where jaguars still roam free and toucans and parrots fly overhead. Rivers, bays, and lagoons are rich with hundreds of different kinds of fish. Belize is one of the world’s wild frontiers, a kind of pint-sized, subtropical Alaska.
Belize also has an of interesting mix of cultures, ethnicities, and heritages. It’s a dilemma, an enigma, and an exception to most of the rules of its region: an English-speaking country in a Spanish-speaking world, a British colony in Latin America, and a Caribbean culture in a Latino society.
With a stable, democratic government, Belizeans treasure their freedom, but politics is intensely personal and often cut-throat. Belize is usually safe and friendly, but it can be dangerous; there are sharks on land, as well as in the sea. Theft is endemic. Belize is a little country with big problems to overcome. It has both corrupt politicians and proud bureaucrats who expect respect, not bribes. It’s a poor, developing country, but even so, it seems to pay more attention to the environment than do its richer neighbors to the north. Belize is a nation in the making, but also a land with a four-thousand-year history of achievement. While Europe huddled in ignorance during the Dark Ages, Belize was the center of an empire of wealth and sophistication and a land of a million people, four times the population of the country today. The Maya were mathematicians, architects, and theologians of great skill, who erected buildings that still remain the tallest in the region.
Belize is probably not like any other place you’ve ever been. Despite the palm trees, frost-free climate, and slow pace of daily life, it’s not a land where the living is always easy. It’s cheap or expensive, depending on how you choose to live. You can’t just move to Belize and vegetate in comfortable retirement or hide behind the gated walls of a housing development for expatriates. It’s not a place in which to make easy money, and it’s all too easy here to lose the money you have.
Take a little bit of Africa, a little of Europe, a little of the Caribbean, a little of Mexico and Guatemala, and a little of the U.S., and you almost have Belize. Yet Belize is more than that.
You’ve probably heard someone say about a certain part of the world, “I like it, but it is not for everyone.” Of course not. But Belize is really not for everyone.
Coming to Belize for the first time you arrive at a little airport at the edge of nowhere. The hot, humid air hits you like a steaming blanket. Inside the airport is a confusing mélange of people of every color and station in life, speaking many different languages, and everywhere you look is a mix of anxious tourists and laid-back locals.
En route to wherever you’re going, you soon pass a wide, dark river that looks like something out of a Joseph Conrad novel. You see run-down, pastel-colored shacks like those in Jamaica, unfinished concrete houses such as those in Mexico, and new homes with chain-link fences and signs in Chinese. You pass by bars and brothels that would have attracted the famous novelist and jammed streets with rickety wood-frame buildings. Just when you think you’re ready to turn around and go back to where you came from, you catch a glimpse of an unbelievably blue sea, a group of friendly school children in khaki uniforms who wave and shout, or, perhaps, the mysterious Maya Mountains in the far distance.
Belize may not be for you. But then, maybe you are that one person in 10 who will fall in love with Belize, with all its failings and frustrations. You won’t find it paradise. You won’t find it perfect. But you’ll wish you’d found it sooner.
Is Belize Right for You?
Over the years, I’ve talked with hundreds of people who have moved to Belize or who are considering doing so. Here’s what they say they like about the country:
Life on a human scale: Belize operates at 98.6 degrees. It’s about people. Belize is a culture of relationships—it is still a country of villages and small towns where people know each other. The only city, Belize City, is hardly more than an overgrown town. The most American of places, the suburbs, with big houses separated by automobiles, barely exist in Belize.
Belizeans are usually remarkably friendly and open. Money is often secondary to respect in relationships, and disrespect can get you in serious trouble with Belizeans. They take people one at a time, and you’ll often be amazed at how welcoming they are to foreigners, but that doesn’t mean they won’t grumble about wealthy foreigners buying up their country.
Reasonable cost of living: Living as some do in America or Canada, with a big SUV in the driveway, the A/C turned to frigid, and three fingers of Jack Daniels in the glass, will cost more here than back home. But if you live like a local, eating the same foods Belizeans do, drinking Belizean rum, using public transport, and living in a Belize-style home with ceiling fans and cooling breezes, you can get by on a few hundred U.S. dollars a month, certainly less than a thousand. In between, combining some elements of Belizean life and some from your former way of doing things, you can live well for less than you would pay in the U.S., Canada, or Europe.
Health care, the cost of renting, buying, or building a home in most areas, personal and auto insurance, property taxes, the cost of heating (who needs a furnace in Belize?), household labor, and most anything produced in Belize are less expensive than what you’re used to paying. Real estate and rental costs in popular areas such as Ambergris Caye are near those you’d pay in Florida, but in rural areas and low-cost towns such as Corozal, you can find nice rentals for US$250 or less a month, build for US$30 to US$90 a square foot, or buy an attractive modern home for US$75,000 to US$200,000. Land in large tracts is available for US$200 an acre or less and farmland with good access is US$500 to US$1,500 an acre.
The greenback is still king: The U.S. dollar has taken its lumps in Europe and elsewhere, but in Belize, it’s still king. Although Belize has its own central bank and currency, the American greenback is accepted everywhere, and for decades, the Belize dollar has been pegged to the U.S. dollar at exactly 2 to 1.
Unspoiled nature and wildlife: Most of Belize remains lightly populated by humans and untouched by developers, so it is a paradise for wild critters and birds. More than 500 species of birds have been spotted in Belize. The country has as many as 700 species of butterflies.
Fun on the water: Regardless of your level of ability or physical condition, you can enjoy activities on Belize’s Caribbean Sea, rivers, and lagoons. Diving around the atolls is world-class, excellent on the reef off Stann Creek and Toledo districts, and not bad even around the more visited parts of the Belize barrier reef. Snorkeling, fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, and other water activities are all excellent. And, for most people, the best part is that property on or near the water is affordable—not cheap, but compared with prices for beachfront land in the U.S., reasonable.
Fascinating history: Belize was the heart of the Maya world, and today, you can visit dozens of ruins without the hordes of tourists common in Mexico and elsewhere in the region. Among the most interesting ruins in Belize for the non-archaeologist are Lamanai, Caracol, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, El Pilar, and Lubaantun. In nearly every pasture or backyard are signs and relics of the Maya past, just waiting to be discovered.
Exciting adventures: Enjoy hiking, canoeing, kayaking, wind surfing, and caving. Indeed, Belize offers some of the best caving anywhere, with huge cave systems, some yet unexplored, in the Maya Mountains and elsewhere. Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Cayo District is one of the highlights of any visit to Belize.
Diverse and rich culture: Belize offers a laboratory of human culture, all in a small and accessible space. Belize is a truly multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual society. Though far from perfect, Belize is a continuing education. The country does not have many museums or art galleries, and only a few bookstores and theaters. But something is always going on, and there’s always something new to discover.
Frost-free climate: If you tire of cold northern winters, Belize is for you. It never snows in Belize, and the temperatures never drop even close to freezing. The weather is a bit like you find in South Florida—humid and warm to hot, but tempered on the coast and cayes by prevailing sea breezes. Subtropical fruits and vegetables such as mangoes, papaya, bananas, and citrus grow almost like weeds.
English spoken: Because English is the official language of Belize and is used in all official documents, adapting to the new culture is a lot easier for English-speakers than needing to come to terms with Spanish in Costa Rica or Mexico. In fact, Belize is one of the few countries in the world where English is the official language. Spanish, Creole, a mixture of English and other vocabulary and West African grammar and syntax, Garifuna, and several Maya languages are also spoken in Belize. Many Belizeans are trilingual—usually in English, Spanish, and Creole. Beyond the language, Belize (formerly known as British Honduras) has other heritages from England, including English Common Law, which the U.S. also shares.
Belize is a multiethnic and multicultural society. Almost five in 10 Belizeans are Mestizos, persons of mixed Indian and European heritage, most originally from neighboring Latin American countries, and most living in Northern and Western Belize; less than three in 10 are Creoles, of mixed African and European descent, concentrated in and around Belize City; one in 10 is Maya; and one in 10 is Garifuna, of mixed African and Carib Indian heritage. The Garifuna live mainly in Southern Belize along the coast. Kek’chi and Yucatec Maya are in southern, western, and northern Belize. The rest are primarily Chinese, East Indians, Americans, and Europeans.
The exact number of foreign expats from the U.S., Canada, Asia, and Europe in Belize is unknown. Estimates range from around a thousand to several thousand. At any rate, the number is as yet small, although interest in Belize as a second home, retirement, or relocation destination has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years.
Most people who have spent any time in Belize realize that, by and large, Belizeans deal with non-Belizeans the same way they deal with other Belizeans—on a case-by-case basis.
As one Ambergris Caye expat, Diane Campbell, put it: “This is the friendliest place I have ever been, and I have traveled a lot. Belizeans take people one at a time—foreign or local is not the issue. How you behave and how you are in your heart is what makes the difference.”
The happiest expat residents and retirees in Belize seem to be those who get actively involved in their local communities, especially as volunteers with hospitals, medical clinics, schools, churches, and in civic clubs. Some even establish family-like relationships with Belizeans they’ve come to know well. You’ll hear references to “my Belizean family” to distinguish those close local relationships from blood ties back home.
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