BELIZE IS DIFFERENT
THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BELIZE
– BEFORE YOU ARRIVE
Living in Belize is great. Life is so much easier in a warm country and the whole life-style here is slower and more casual. Everybody is friendly and it’s a really nice place to live – for the whole family.
But it is different!
I guess by now I should know better than to be surprised at some of my clients’ reactions when they first come to Belize. One woman flew all of the way from England with her young son, stayed the night in a cheap and nasty hotel near the airport, then flew home the following morning. She had decided that she didn’t like Belize.
Another woman arrived in Cayo almost in tears after driving from Belize City. She had no idea that people could live in little wooden shacks and that some children walk around without shoes.
I guess, in a way, arriving in Belize could be a bit of a culture shock if you have no idea what to expect and hence the purpose of this letter, to give you some idea of what Belize is really like, before you actually arrive.
Belize is probably very different to what you are used to. It is a very small country (330,000 people), from north to south Belize is less than 200 miles in length, and at its widest point it is less than 70 miles across.
It is also a poor country. Poor is a relative word because Belizeans have a higher standard of living than people in other Central American countries. Of course, Belizeans are generally poorer than people living in developed countries in North America and Europe. Being such, Belize cannot afford a lot of the things that the inhabitants of other countries take for granted. What is more important; large, smooth highways, or schools and hospitals?
Speaking of roads, you will definitely find ours different to yours. I once had a desperate phone call from one of my clients who was driving around Belize and was lost and couldn’t find the Northern Highway. It turned out that he was calling me from the Northern Highway but he was expecting a multi-lane freeway and not a two-lane road with on-coming traffic.
We don’t have any super highways. Saying that, our roads are not that bad, apart from a pot-hole here and there. Most of the main roads, including the ones in towns are paved but you will definitely come across some unpaved road. Drive slowly and don’t drive near to the edge.
We don’t have many police patrol cars or any radar speed traps so we mainly use speed bumps to slow traffic down, normally near schools. Watch out for these if you are driving because they are not all sign-posted or painted. Low sports cars are also not very practical in Belize. Likewise, there are few directional signs in towns so you just have to follow the direction everybody else is going. Don’t worry, the police are not going to fine you if you make a mistake. Please note that if you are driving into Belize from Mexico or Guatemala, 3rd party insurance is mandatory here and you can buy it by the day or week at the borders. You will be in trouble if you drive without insurance.
Something else on bringing cars into Belize. Import duty on cars can be expensive. An old, 4 cylinder, pickup will not cost you much, but a new, 8 cylinder SUV is going to cost a lot. Gasoline and diesel here are expensive so think twice about bringing a gas-guzzler.
In many ways, you will find Belize as your own country was 30 or 40 years ago (if you are that old to remember). Children mainly walk to school, sometimes long distances; you will see the occasional horse walking through town; women openly breastfeed their babies; and, as you drive by the rivers, you will often see women and girls standing up to their waists in water doing their laundry.
Life is a lot slower in Belize and you will not see many people rushing around in a hurry to get somewhere. You will see them standing around chatting to their friends though and they will all have time to say hello to you, even if it means stopping their car in the middle of the road for a quick chat. Life in Belize is summed up by the saying, “Go slow. Be happy”.
“Belize Time” is a local joke but, no matter how long you have lived here, it can still be annoying – if you let it. Belizeans do not mean to be deliberately rude but being on time for anything is not one of their best traits. I pride myself on my English regard to being on time for appointments and social events – but I’m one of the few in the whole country – lol.
Not everybody has a car and buses are cheap and frequent, although often full to bursting. Although not the fastest way of getting around, buses are a good, inexpensive way of seeing the country. Nobody is going to bother you on the bus.
I want to put this paragraph somewhere and I guess this place is as good as anywhere. If you intend seeing different areas of Belize, it makes no sense to book one hotel for two weeks; especially in Belize City. In fact, there is not much to see in the City so I would suggest trying to get to your destination the same day that you arrive, if possible. I always think it makes sense to book a hotel in San Ignacio or Santa Elena for a few days to give you a chance to look around and do some tourist stuff and then decide where you are going to go next. You can always find room in a hotel somewhere.
Ladies, there is no need to bring your ball gowns to Belize and, gentlemen, likewise, leave your dinner jackets at home. Belize is a very casual country and most people just wear shorts or jeans, and casual shirts or t-shirts. Suits and ties are rarely worn, if ever, and you really don’t need to fill your suitcase with a whole load of heavy clothes that you will not wear. I have worn a light sweater once in 29 years.
Also remember that Belize is sub-tropical and it can get a little hot in the dry season (Apr to May).
We do not have Wal-Mart in Belize, or any of the other mega stores. With a total population of 330,000, it wouldn’t make sense. Saying that, you can normally find everything you will need to live here. If you can’t, there is a large city called Chetumal just over our northern border in Mexico, and they do have Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, etc. Or you can take a weekend trip to Cancun or Guatemala City, and go shopping there. Of course, the internet is available everywhere and you can order goods on-line.
One of the good things about Belize is that we don’t have all of the annoying laws and permits and licenses and authorities and regulations, etc. that you have in your country. And, we are in no hurry to get them.
You may have seen the beautiful Belizean beaches on your travel agent’s wall, or on Belize travel shows. Well, here is a disappointment as we don’t have miles and miles of white sandy beaches. The reason for this is because we have a magnificent barrier reef (the second largest in the world) along our coastline, and, while being a snorkeler’s and diver’s paradise, this reef prevents the pounding wave action that produces beaches. We do have some beaches, naturally, but if you don’t want to snorkel on the gorgeous reef and check out the spectacular fish life, but are looking to spend all day traipsing along beautiful beaches, you should do what I do and drive up to Cancun or Playa del Carmen in Mexico for a weekend. They really are very close and are good, party cities.
If you want to live on a beach in Belize, you can really narrow your search to Placencia or Hopkins on the mainland, or Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker off-shore (caye means “island”). These are popular with North Americans but be prepared to pay a lot higher prices for property and in the cost of living. Other towns on the coast but without beaches are Corozal to the north, Dangriga and Punta Gorda to the south. These places tend to be a little boring and not too many ex-pats choose to live there. All of the coastal towns are on flat land.
When you drive west from Belize City on the Western Highway, you will find the land very flat and boring with just savannah-type vegetation until you reach Belmopan, the capital of Belize (and the smallest capital in the world). You are now in the Cayo District of Belize, very popular with people re-locating to Belize, and continuing westward, the terrain and vegetation rapidly change to hills and rivers, forests and jungle. Passing through the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, the Western (George Price) Highway continues until it reaches Benque Viejo del Carmen and the border with Guatemala. Melchor de Mencos is the border town in Guatemala and every day you will find many Belizeans shopping in the colourful markets there. Just as a matter of interest, several buses full of Guatemalan children cross the border daily to take the kids to Belizean schools, where they can get a better education, in English.
You may hear that Guatemala has made a claim to some of the land in Belize. This is actually true but nobody, including most Guatemalans, take it very seriously – and it is never going to happen. There was supposed to be a referendum for the people in both countries to vote on taking the matter to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, but the Guatemalans didn’t think that was a very good idea and have cancelled that.
You should be aware that it is better to travel to Belize with US dollars as there is a fee at the banks for changing Canadian dollars, and it can be difficult changing Euros or Pounds Sterling. US dollars are accepted countrywide at BZ$2 for US$1. Real estate prices are in US dollars but everything else is in Belize dollars – don’t get confused and pay them US dollars and don’t ask if it is US dollars.
A question I often get is about the cost of living in Belize. Well, you can live very cheaply here, especially away from the tourist resorts of Ambergris Caye and Placencia, and most do, but it all depends on your lifestyle. Phone calls are more expensive but things like car insurance, medical bills, car mechanics, etc. are very much cheaper. Annual property taxes are a fraction of what you are used to paying. And, surprise, surprise, we don’t have any heating bills.
Medical treatment is pretty good here, and much, much cheaper than in North America. I recently had major spinal surgery right here in Cayo.
Wherever you go in Belize, especially if you look like a tourist, you may be approached by a Belizean guy who is going to hustle you under the pretence of helping you. He will be very friendly, polite and helpful but just bear in mind that, somewhere along the line, he is hoping to get something out of this. If you don’t want his assistance, just be polite and firm and tell him that you don’t need his help.
Likewise, you will find Belizeans very friendly and helpful but if you are looking for a car mechanic or somebody to build your house, etc., don’t necessarily believe everything they say. Every Belizean is a mechanic and a builder, or their brother is. It is much better to ask another ex-pat living here for a recommendation.
Like anywhere else in the world, there are people here who will try to take advantage of tourists and visitors. I would advise against hiring anybody or giving anybody money to do a job without a recommendation from an ex-pat living here.
Also, when you buy a house in Belize there is a good chance that it will be empty, including appliances. Make sure that you establish what, if anything, is staying in the house. Many sellers will negotiate a reasonable price for their furniture and appliances, if you are interested.
Belize doesn’t really have many homeless or hungry people and, unlike some Central American countries, we have few beggars on our streets. Personally, I will give a little money to a poor woman with children, or to a man who is handicapped. I never give to a healthy man who could earn his own money if he wasn’t so lazy, and I never, ever give to children. This only encourages the parents to keep sending them out begging, whereas they should be in school, or enjoying their childhood.
Bugs? I don’t know what to say about these as I live in Cayo and we have few mosquitoes and no sandflies and they are not a problem here. Some places in Belize are worse than others and they can be very annoying. I think everybody eventually gets used to them, though. I don’t know if those anti-bug sprays work but some people swear that Avon Skin-So-Soft is the best thing.
Here is a quick tip. If you are eating a cashew fruit, take your shirt off or lean well forward. Cashew is one of those fruits that leave a stain that you just can’t get out – and I have just ruined a brand new shirt.
Every week I get asked why we build our homes on stilts. Well, it is nothing to do with snakes or floods. Traditionally, all homes were made from wood and built on stilts to catch the cool breeze and to allow the air to flow around and under the house, to keep it cooler. While many home are now constructed with concrete, the tradition still carries on and many concrete home are still built on stilts.
Of course we have snakes in Belize – some venomous – but you won’t see them, or get attacked by them. I have been walking through long grass and jungle for years without ever seeing one. You do see them occasionally crossing the road. I have never heard of anyone dying from a snake bite.
The same with crocodiles. Yes, we have them in our rivers and if you are in a boat passing though the jungle, you may well see one. Once again, I personally have never heard of anyone being attacked by one and you don’t normally see them around habited areas.
Yes, we have crime here and Belize has quite a high record of homicides. Most of these take place on the south-side of Belize City and involves young gang members. It’s rather strange but I have many friends who live in the city but they never feel intimidated by the crime there. I personally would not want to live there, although I often have business there and feel perfectly safe walking around the streets. It is much quieter in the districts and, in the 29 years that I have been living in Cayo, I have never been robbed, attacked, burgled, threatened, or anything. No, I don’t carry a gun and I have never felt the need to.
By the way, Belize has strict laws on the possession of a weapons or ammunition without a permit. You will go to jail. Similarly, all drugs, including medical marijuana are illegal with prison terms and fines for offenders.
When I first came to Belize, the majority of Belizeans used to be ‘Creole’, which is an African/European mix, but in recent years, the ‘Latinos’ have overtaken them and are now 50% of the population. This is partly due to the thousands of refugees that came here during the civil unrest problems in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Salvador, Honduras, etc., many years ago. We still get a steady influx of immigrants from the surrounding Spanish-speaking countries who come here to make a better life for their families. In the last couple of years, I also have had families from places like Costa Rica, Panama, etc., who have decided to move to Belize because of the increase in crime in their own countries. Anyway, getting back to the people of Belize, because of the complete hodge-podge of people and races living here, there are all shades of skin colours and there is no racial discrimination at all.
The official language of Belize is English, and just about everybody speaks it, although for many families, especially near the borders, Spanish is their first language. I personally feel embarrassed because I have been living here for 27 years, but never did get around to learning Spanish. You really don’t need to although you will hear it widely spoken. Perhaps I’ll get around to learning it this year. There are plenty of cheap “Spanish schools” in Guatemala where you live with a Guatemalan family and learn Spanish one-on-one for half of the day, and then become a tourist and relax for the rest of the day.
If you like to travel, Belize is an ideal place to live. Apart from the easy access to North America (1 hour 40 minutes from Miami) and the Caribbean islands, it is an easy drive to exotic locations in Mexico and Central America.
Belize is great. Life is slower and it is much easier and cheaper living in a warm country. Can you imagine getting out of bed on a January morning and putting just a pair of shorts on? Then wandering out to your garden to pick a pink grapefruit for your breakfast. In my garden I have: avocado, pink grapefruit, mango, Chinese plum, tangerine, cherry, sour sop, lychee, and cherry guava. Trees and plants grow easily and quickly in the good soil. They don’t call Cayo the bread-basket of Belize for nothing.
Just one more thing on the subject of “Belize is Different”. A short while ago, one of my clients asked me about the difference between Belize and England, where I originally came from. I thought about that for a minute and then said, “Belizeans are happier!” And it’s true. In England, people in the streets are normally complaining about the weather or the illegal immigrants or something or other, and they tend to be miserable. In Belize, people in the streets are happy. They are poor people but they laugh and smile when you meet them.
If you have any questions on Belize, please just drop me a line – firstname.lastname@example.org – and I will try to answer them.