Belize living, what they don’t tell you (Part One)

First, big shout out to my co-contributor in this series and editor, Mardel Hackett. Yep, my Mom! She has awesome insight on international living on a social security income. I will happily forward questions to her so you can get her unique perspective. 

You’ve pcorozalrobably already got the idea. I’m going to take a bit of a break from my RV living and lifestyle posts to answer questions we have heard since our return from Belize. This will be a minimum two-part series, after which we’ll get back to RV living, travel, Christian life, etc. Please ask away, I’m sure there are lots of questions from those considering the move as well as some of you who may have be living there now.

Most of you know we spent six months living in Corozal, Belize. If you check out my earlier posts, I recorded a good chunk of our Belizean adventure. Prior to our move we spent quite a bit of time at International Living. We used the expat forums to look at prior questions and answers AND we asked plenty of our own questions. We read the book, EASY BELIZE, How to Live, Retire, Work and Buy Property in Belize, the English Speaking, Frost Free Paradise on the Caribbean Coast BY LAN SLUDER. In other words, we did the research!

They don’t mention pitfalls

stumblingblockThe problem we encountered…mounds and mounds of positive information about how to move to and live in Belize. And when I say mounds, I mean we did not find any expats with anything negative to say about moving to or living in Belize.

The magazines, books, websites, forums, etc. generally paint a rosy picture about living in any foreign country. Don’t believe what you read. Try visiting with some one who has been there/ done that to get a realistic picture of life in a third world country.

In hind sight, one of our hints should have been, there was no information on how to return to the states if the move didn’t work for us. I mean really, the odds of an international move working out fabulously for everyone moving to Belize are billions to one. We were so excited about our new tropical life; it never occurred to us to ask why there were no cautionary tales.

It is true the cost of food is substantially less, property (not on the sea) is reasonably priced, property taxes are low, and you can find great rental properties if you don’t want to buy. There is a substantial expat population in various locations throughout the country so you can find others to who have walked the path before you who are full of great advice and always ready to lend a hand.

languagebarrierThey don’t tell you there is a language barrier

We lived in Corozal, the northern district of the country and were close to Mexico. Right across the border is Chetumal, a major metropolitan city with nicely paved streets, sidewalks, and commerce. Wal-Mart, SAM’s Club, well-stocked pharmacies, american chain fast food, major department stores, minute marts, auto dealers, and the list keeps going. The downside, it is Mexico so everyone speaks, you guessed it, SPANISH!

One of the main reasons people choose Belize–the official language is English. No one told us the language barrier would become an issue in Mexico when going to the pharmacy or shopping at any of these wonderful stores! We felt amazingly stupid. This wasn’t the first time we had been to Mexico.

Generally speaking, the locals can speak English but usually prefer Spanish, Mayan, or another dialect. Why? English is not generally spoken at home. Children learn to speak, read, and write English when they start school. Yes, they are sponges and learn quickly but no language is “mastered,” making it difficult for youth to be successful at a university. This generally condemns them to a life of manual labor and poverty.

feesThey don’t tell you about the exit fee

Because we had flown out of Belize in the past, the exit fee of $37.50BZ per person, was always hidden in our ticket price. Every time you leave the country this fee is collected until you establish residency. Therefore, every time you want to travel to this wonderful metropolitan city, you must pay $37.50BZ.

The exit fee also applies if you want to go to the area known as the “free zone.” You pay to exit Belize, your passport is probably even stamped that you left. However, the “free zone” is a  kind of no man’s land where you can get gas for your car, do a little shopping, and go to the casino. The casino is a fun place and the restaurant has great food.

ResidencyThey don’t tell you it’s hard to establish residency

Establishing residency isn’t as easy as all the books and articles we read made it seem. To be able to apply for residency, you must live continuously in the country for 12 months with a total of only 14 days spent outside Belize during that period. That might not sound bad, but get to missing your family (particularly your grandkids) and this becomes huge.

We were aware we would have to visit the immigration office every month and pay for the privilege of staying in the country. The visitor visa for the first six months costs $50Bz per person. Thereafter the fee increases to $100BZ per person. The part no one mentioned, residency still takes quite a bit of time after you apply. It can take several months–even over a year to establish residency.

So here you are stuck  paying $100BZ to stay, $37.50 to leave,
but are unable to leave for more than 14 days
until your residency comes through.

Many expats, who have larger incomes, leave during the rainy season and come back in mid to late October when the weather cools off. These folks usually maintain two homes; one in their home country and one in Belize. Our income level made this an impossible option. Also, for those folks, getting residency status is probably not a big deal, they will always pay for the monthly visitor visa as well as the exit fee.

hotThey don’t tell you how hot it really is

The rainy season in Belize is hot. Now when I say hot, I don’t mean 90°F with humidity of 15%. We’re talking over 100°F with humidity in the 80% range or higher. When is the rainy season? It starts mid-June and goes through July, August, September and the middle or late part of October.  The heat is oppressive, with the humidity, so you are barely able to move. Sleeping becomes difficult or impossible without air conditioning which is super expensive.

expensivelectricThey don’t tell you the real expenses for electricity and Internet

Electricity and Internet is very expensive in Belize. The average electric bill for an apartment less than 1,000 square feet is approximately $130BZ but A/C is rarely used and often not available in rentals.

We purchased an A/C unit for our rental house and had it shipped into the country because the heat was just too much for us. We used A/C at night and, some in the day as well, when fans just wouldn’t cut it. Our electric bill ran more in the range of $250BZ.

expensiveinternetInternet access runs $150BZ per month for 2MB speed and unlimited service. This is the minimum access essential for expats. It makes Skype and Magic Jack work great for keeping in touch with loved ones back home. Trying to use anything less for connectivity makes communication with loved ones virtually impossible or outrageously expensive using international phone rates which can be $.35US per minute or more.

smugglingThey don’t tell you what you can’t bring back from Mexico

We were shocked to find out we could not purchase certain things outside the country and bring it back. For example, it is illegal to bring in fruits or vegetables, rice, juice, beer and soda pop just to name a few. Fines are heavy if you get caught “smuggling” so make sure you ask before you make your shopping list!

The first time you cross the border for shopping it is best to go with a reputable taxi company. The drivers are knowledgeable and speak Spanish which will give you a hand as you make your way around the city. They can point you in the right direction for your specific needs. They can also help you get ready for when you want to try crossing on your own so be sure to ask them lots of questions! When you make your reservation, let the company know what you need and the types of stores you are want. We had the best experience with Belize VIP Transfers. We used them for our travel needs in town as well as crossing into Mexico for prescriptions and other shopping.

Keep in mind that making  a trip to Mexico to shop is an all day job. A large part of your trip is the time it takes to complete four border crossings. First exiting Belize, then entering Mexico, exiting Mexico, and finally re-entering Belize. The major problem is these particular border crossings are staffed by only one or two immigration agents so lines can be quite long.

When you return, you will need the receipts for everything you purchased. The customs officer will check your receipts and your purchases to ensure you have no contraband and to collect duty on certain items. For example, any electronics classified as computers will be charged duty. Also, customs officials require all items be unloaded and brought through the building. This can be very difficult to accomplish if you have made substantial purchases.

Here is your chance to ask questions of some people who have lived in Belize. Ask away! Depending on the number of questions, we might answer in a pod cast or some other forum but we will answer!

Up Next:

  • Belize living, what they don’t tell you (part 2)
  • Addition of campground reviews to site
  • Reflections on the rules–they are for everyone!
  • The Big Loop: our year long trip around the USA

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