We’re always in search of geoarbitrage opportunities around the world. Many of our vacations are planned around exploring locations that offer awesome food, activities, weather, and natural beauty at bargain prices. We’ve already investigated retirement destinations in Costa Rica and Spain, so we jumped on an opportunity to fly to Belize for free. I was surprised that many people we ran into were already retired in Belize or planning to move there.
Belize is one of the smallest countries we’ve considered for retirement, and being in Central America, the cost of living can be quite cheap. Property taxes are very low, there is little regulation, and the official language is English. When it comes to natural beauty, the entire country is lined with the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere.
Visiting Ambergris Caye, Belize
While there are mountains in the southwestern part of the country, Belize city is surrounded by flatland. The biggest destination for expats is Ambergris Caye, a low island off of Belize’s barrier reef. It’s accessible from Belize City via a water taxi or by air.
The water taxi takes about 1.5 hours and costs $30 round trip, or you can take a 15 minute flight over for $140 round trip. Since we already had free flights to Belize City, and a long travel day, we elected to fly over. It wasn’t the cheapest, but the views were incredible.
Ambergris Caye is like a giant campground. The preferred method of transportation is by golf cart, and some of the main roads, like the one to our Airbnb, are the actual beach.
What to do in Ambergris Caye, Belize
The island itself is small and flat, but the real draw is the water and the reef. San Pedro is the main city on the island, and here you can walk the beach for miles. It’s not the best beach for swimming as the water drops off very slowly and is full of grass. But it is lined with long piers which are privately owned, but open to the public.
Just sitting on the pier in front of our Airbnb, we saw more sea life than snorkeling most places. My favorite part of the day was relaxing out there in the evenings when the spotted eagle rays come cruising in.
Aside from enjoying the long beach, the big activities on the island are fishing and snorkel/scuba trips.
Fishing on Ambergris Caye
There are a lot of tourists that flock to Ambergris Caye to go spearfishing. For around $250, a local fisherman will take tourists out to spear their own lobsters, then prepare a fresh seafood picnic on the beach. We saw one captain busy standing in ankle deep water preparing fresh ceviche with their catch – lobster, fish, and conch. Swirling around their feet in the water were some giant rays, pelicans, and barracudas – all waiting for the scraps.
While the tourists pay big bucks, the locals, including ex-pats living on the island, mostly fish from the docks. With just a hook, line, and sinker they would cast and pull the lines in by hand. A fresh snapper for dinner is a prime catch.
While the sea life is incredible, locals will tell you it’s nothing like it used to be. Loggerhead turtles were almost wiped out because their meat and eggs were a delicacy, but things are starting to look up.
To the consternation of some, new regulations are in place. Commercial fishing is becoming more regulated, and several marine reserve parks have been established. These parks are now home to world class snorkeling and scuba diving.
Snorkeling Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Most of the snorkeling ventures charge $50 per person. I recommend finding someone willing to take you out early, because the reef can get crowded. We snorkeled three spots including Hol Chan (Mayan for small channel), shark alley, and the conch graveyard.
I could already tell the water was exceptionally clear on our ride out to the reef. As we cut across the Caribbean blue waters, flying fish scurried over the waves ahead of us like skipping stones.
We arrived to an empty reserve, and I dropped over the side of the boat into some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. It was like glass, and there was a lot to see including giant snappers, sharks, parrot fish, a massive moray eel, and troops of spotted eagle rays.
There are also small underwater caves to explore. At one point, our captain dove deep down and disappeared into one. I was thinking “this guys nuts” until he floated out the other end. When he surfaced, he pointed at me and back at the cave. “Take a deep breath!”
I sucked in as much air as I could and dove down. When I reached the entrance I was already out of breath – it was deeper than I thought. I made a split second decision to go for it. Once inside the cave, there was no turning back. My lungs were screaming for air. Flailing my hands to get through, I almost lost a fin on the mouth of the cave as I scurried to the surface. I spent the rest of the day enjoying long deep breaths of air.
Things are a little more wild down here, and the next spot was no exception.
Snorkeling shark alley
As soon as we moored up, our captain started chumming. Within seconds, the water was a frenzy of sharks and jacks all racing for chunks of bait. “Just stay out of the middle and you should be OK,” said the captain.
It’s the craziest thing being the water with dozens of fish and sharks brushing up against you while trying to snag a snack. I kept my digits in close, but couldn’t help petting some of these hungry beasts. They felt like sandpaper.
As the other snorkelers showed up, we packed up and headed to one last spot – the conch graveyard. Fishermen come here to clean conch then dump the remains for the fish to clean up. We saw a loggerhead turtle coming in to check out the pile of shells. He was headed straight at me and kept getting bigger and bigger. It wasn’t until he was under me that I realized this thing, with its giant head, was almost as big as I was.
Snorkeling form the beach
While the marine reserves are further away, other parts of the reef are a short kayak paddle away from shore. There aren’t as many fish, but the water is clear, and there are some fantastic huge corals to check out – still better snorkeling than I’ve seen in other parts of the Caribbean.
Most of the sharks we saw in the open water were nurse sharks, and relatively docile. We did see a bull shark crossing the pier one evening while some kids were playing in the water. While nobody has been attacked by one, it still prompted some locals to shout out “Big BUULLL shark coming! He gonna eat your ASS!”
Food on Ambergris Caye, Belize
If there is one other highlight for me in San Pedro, it was the food. Most of the restaurants on the beach cater to tourists. But if you walk a couple of blocks away from the hotels, there are some excellent eats for cheap.
Our favorite Belizean dishes included coconut curry chicken, stewed chicken, conch ceviche, and of course I had to try their fried chicken. These dishes are usually served with a small salad, rice and beans. At a nice local joint, we paid around $5-$8 a plate. With a couple of beers, our dinner bill rarely exceeded $20.
There is also a good bit of variety to the cuisine on Ambergris Caye. Aside from the more traditional Belizean food, there are also some excellent Mexican and Salvadorian restaurants.
Street food was ubiquitous, and we had a tendency to over stuff ourselves on homemade tamales ($1.50 each), tacos (3/$.50), and street burgers ($2.50).
Mrs. CK quickly formed an addiction for one particular vendor’s chicken burger loaded with fresh grilled chicken, bacon, sausage, veggies, and homemade hot sauce. For only $3, these sandwiches were popular with the locals who would shout out orders as they drove by to avoid the lines. We didn’t mind waiting while salivating over the grill.
Finding out first hand how much healthcare costs in Belize
For Belizeans, healthcare is provided by the government free of charge. Expats can get cheap insurance, and tend to go to private clinics. We had a chance to find out exactly how much these cost.
Part way through the trip, Mrs. CK dislocated her shoulder trying to swat a mosquito. She was in a lot of pain, and we couldn’t get it back in on our own. Luckily, our Airbnb host was home, and managed to find an open doctor’s office close by.
We arrived at the office with Mrs. CK bent over in pain. They immediately showed us into a room. There was no paperwork to fill out. The doctor simply asked her age, and if she was allergic to anything. Then he shot her up with some Valium, slipped off his Crocs for traction, and pulled her arm back into place.
The total cost for our emergency visit was $50.
How much would it cost to retire in Belize?
I had a conversation with a retiree from France while he was fishing the pier. He and his wife purchased a condo in San Pedro and spent their winters in Belize. In France, he said their monthly expenses were $2,400 a month (similar to ours without housing), and in Belize, approximately $1,200 a month.
Real estate is expensive, but in talking to a local, I found that you can rent a beach front vacation apartment for around $1200/month. If you rented an apartment a few blocks from the beach, it would only be around $500/month.
So for just over $2,000 a month, you could retire in Ambergris Caye, Belize with a pretty comfortable lifestyle.
Cons of retiring in Ambergris Caye, Belize
I thought golf carts would be more environmentally friendly, but unlike cars, they aren’t mandated to have catalytic converters. There are a lot of them racing around the island, and the air is thick with exhaust. This even carries over to the beach where the docks are lined with 2-stroke outboard engines.
Another issue is the water management on the island. When it rains, roads wash out, and some houses are literally sitting in ponds for days. Open containers left out also collect and hold water. This means a lot of mosquitoes.
While having less regulations in the country is good for a quick visit to the doctor or hassle-free kayak rental, it can be a double edged sword.
How much did the trip cost?
Our flights were travel hacked. We paid $67 in fees and used 60k miles earned by signing up for an AAdvantage card to reserve free flights to Belize City – normal cost $1,300. The puddle jumper from Belize City to Ambergris Caye cost us $280.
We paid $79/night for our Airbnb – $632 total for 8 nights. It was right on the beach, and a short walk to downtown San Pedro. We were also grateful to have an awesome host who personally drove us to the doctor when we had a medical emergency. You can get a $40 credit when you sign up for Airbnb with our referral link.
With an awesome location, we didn’t have to pay much for activities. The snorkel trip cost $100 for the two of us. Our kayak was rented from a neighbor for $10 a day. In total we spent around $150 on snorkeling related activities.
We ate out a lot, but still spent the same amount of money that we would normally spend on food and booze at home.
So for just over $1k, and a little bit of travel hacking, you can have a pretty sweet vacation in Belize.
A vacation to remember
This is an incredible spot to snorkel, scuba, and fish on the cheap, but it is also a bit small, remote, and secluded to keep us occupied year round. While we probably wouldn’t choose to retire in Belize, Ambergris Caye is unforgettable, and the views surreal. We’ll always remember the awesome food, kind hosts, and clear waters.