Let’s fast-forward to Belize’s unique appeal to U.S. retirees: It's the only south-of-the-border country whose official language is English. Until 1973 it was called British Honduras, and was a crown colony of the U.K.; it was granted full independence in 1981 (although Queen Elizabeth II is still head of state). Another goodie: It’s catching up to Panama and Costa Rica's retiree perks. Its Qualified Retired Persons program, known as the QRP, offers benefits and a fast track to residency status.
Squeezed between Mexico’s Yucatan coast and Guatemala to the south, sparsely populated Belize is a Central American paradise, with tropical jungle flora, endless white beaches, an aquamarine Caribbean sea, some of the world’s best reefs for snorkelers, fishing to die for, Mayan ruins, and even casinos. Most expats settle either on the largest island, Ambergris Caye, or in Corazol Town on the mainland’s northern tip. Ambergris Caye has the fancy restaurants and condos, including million-dollar properties. It can be as expensive as South Florida (Leonardo Di Caprio bought an island west of Ambergris Caye). The Corozal district, a few miles’ drive from the Mexican border, is far more affordable. Corozal expats live a laid-back life, with year-round outdoor play (boating, hiking, swimming, diving), but are still only 20 minutes from the malls and cineplexes of Chetumal, the capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
After many visits to Belize, Atlantans Walter and Terri Fisher, 55 and 49, built a "concrete ranch house" with a water view for $125,000, including the lot. "The house was finished in 2007," Walter reports. "Last year we sold our house in the States, got off the corporate treadmill, and moved here. I drove down in my truck on my own, and Terri—and five cats—flew down. We're completely happy, though it’s tough being this far from family."
A former educator, Audrey Shabbas, 68, moved to Corozal from Berkeley, California, with two of her four children three years ago. "We looked at Nicaragua, but Belize had what we wanted—water all around," she says. "We bought a home with one-third of what we got for our Berkeley house—and it’s three times as wonderful. I'm very blessed to be here."
Think South Florida—subtropical, hot, and humid. Three times more rain in the south (200 inches per year) than in the north (60 inches per year). Note: Belize lies in the Hurricane Belt.
An estimated 600 to 700 Americans and Canadians in Corozal; 2,000 to 2,500 in Ambergris Caye.
In Corozal you can live comfortably on $18,000 a year (twice that in Ambergris Caye). Dinner for two: $30. Domestic and garden help: $15 to $20 a day. The American dollar is accepted almost everywhere.
Homes sell for $75,000 to $300,000, depending on oceanside proximity and modern amenities. Rentals: Begin at $250 to $500 per month, again depending on location and features.
Good but basic in Corozal and Ambergris Caye. For serious medical matters, expats travel to Belize City (a two-hour drive from Corozal), cross the border into Mexico, or fly to the States.
Fishing, snorkeling, and sailing rule here. For shopping, movies, and entertainment, expats cross the border to Chetumal, Mexico, where there’s also a fascinating museum of Mayan culture.
Good. Nonstop flights are available from Belize City to Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte, North Carolina.