My husband and I recently returned from a long weekend in San Pedro, Belize. San Pedro is located on the island of Ambergris Caye (pronounced like ‘key’), a 45-minute boat ride from mainland Belize. This was our first scouting trip for possible early retirement locations and it was a great way to kick off our future surveying. Here’s our view on the pros and cons of retirement in San Pedro, Belize.
1. Dive spots are less than a 5-10 minute boat ride from shore
My husband and I have been converted into serious divers. We received our advanced dive certifications while in Belize and loved every moment of swimming with the sea life. We enjoyed petting the sharks (they feel like fine sandpaper), observing the colorful coral, and photographing the animals swirling around us.
Incredible dive spots filled with tunnels, caverns, and coral were located just a short 5-10 minute boat ride off the shore. A fleet of small, Baywatch-style boats ferried divers out to the dive spots during the day. (Diving is relatively cheap in Belize, only $80 American for a two tank dive.) I think our longest boat ride to a dive spot was 10 minutes out to sea, but it’s close enough to Ambergris Caye that we never lost sight of shore.
Between dives, it’s necessary to wait at least 45 minutes to allow the nitrogen build-up in the diver’s blood to dissipate. During those 45 minutes, the boat brought us back to shore where we were able to spend our time in between dives relaxing and overlooking the Caribbean, a sea that looked like it was sprinkled with multiple colors of blue, turquoise, and green. We even had time to walk over to the nearest restaurants, located right on the beach, and get a drink (non-alcoholic) and a snack with time to spare. Diving is a retirement activity we are making a priority on our list!
2. Walking, Biking, and Golf Carts are all that’s needed to traverse the island
The whole island of Ambergris Caye, where San Pedro is located, is only 27 miles long (43.4 kilometers) by 4 miles wide (6.4 kilometers). Because of its size, there’s no need to own a car on this island. During our stay, we walked everywhere and saw most everyone else either walking, biking, or driving a golf cart. The only cars we saw were the taxis that were stationed outside the ferry dock to give tourists a ride to their accommodations. The walking made for enjoyable exercise because of the fabulous weather. Plus the golf-cart drivers were extremely friendly and some even offered to give us a ride back to our Airbnb. In retirement we don’t want to be burdened with multiple cars, so taking it easy with bikes and simple forms of transportation are a plus!
3. People (and Dogs) are Friendly
Friendly is an adverb that would describe the people of San Pedro. And not just in the whole, “we want tourists here, so we will be friendly” sort of way, but in the “we really like people and having conversations with them” sort of way. Townsfolk waved and said hi and wanted to know about our home. Like I mentioned previously, strangers would even offer us rides in their golf carts. And not in a creepy “I want to take you home and wear your skin” fashion, but in a “hey, it’s hot, do you need a ride?” sort of way.
A thing that speaks volumes to me about people is how they treat their animals. I am lucky enough to have two pups that I call my best buddies so it’s important to me that others have the same respect for our four-legged friends. Smily, tail-wagging, plump dogs roamed the beaches in San Pedro. The dogs had collars so they definitely had owners. However, no one seemed too worried that their dogs were mingling with random people, jumping into the ocean, and then sprinting down the beach.
We had one black and white spotted dog (who looked like a pitbull mix) follow us from the Palapa Bar to Ramon’s Village. He was our buddy during the 2.2 mile (3.6 kilometer) walk down the sandy beach between the two locations. After he reached Ramón’s with us, he waited for one more chin scratch and then jolted off back down the beach towards where we originally met him. As a dog owner, it was great to have a beach buddy for a little while and to see animals so happy and trusting of new people.
4. The City is Safe
Like I stated, we walked everywhere. The sun went down around 6:30pm each night but that didn’t mean thugs or thieves came out of the woodwork. We didn’t see anyone who could even pass as a thug in a bad Indie film.
No one even begged us for money. This is amazing to me since I can’t even walk to work each morning without being stopped by someone asking for cash. Despite what we’d been told by fellow Americans before we left, no one stared at my wedding ring or followed us too closely. Instead, we felt welcome. Our Airbnb host had lived in Belize for over ten years and said he had never experienced crime in San Pedro.
5. Local Festivals and Entertainment
The week before we arrived, San Pedro hosted their first 5 kilometer (5k) pet run to benefit Saga Humane Society. Dogs were welcome to participate along with their owners. From what I heard and read, it was a big success!
And if no festivals or 5ks are in town, there are plenty of bars and restaurants to keep the day or nightlife going. One of the places I highly recommend is Palapa Bar, which is on the end of dock near downtown. Palapa Bar extends out over the sea. It has an indoor standard bar but also has a line of inner tubes floating in the sea that are attached to the bar. Sunbathers lounged in the inner tubes and waiters dropped drinks down to people by use of a steel bucket. The whole bar was made of wood and writing on the walls and chairs with magic marker was not only allowed, but highly encouraged. Drawings, messages, and also some celebrity autographs covered the place.
Recently, The Steve Miller Band had played at Palapa bar. (There’s a rumor that the Beach Boys may play there in the near future). It must have been quite cozy on the Palapa stage when Steve Miller played there, as the stage was only the size of a pool table.
Palapa Bar was also where we had our first drink of Belikin Beer, the local beer of Belize. Think of it as a Belizean version of Coors Light. We decided after trying it that Belize may benefit from a craft brewery. We definitely want a strong sense of community in our retirement destination.
6. Lack of Bugs
Bugs like to eat my husband alive. He must have tasty blood. If there’s a mosquito, it will bite him. It doesn’t matter how many layers he is wearing or how much bug spray he uses. I am happy to report, he left Ambergris Caye with very few bug bites! For a vacation in the tropics, this is nearly unheard of for my husband. I also had no bug bites, nor did I see any bugs! For a retirement spot in a tropical paradise, this is a big plus!
I hate humidity. I sweat like a pig in even the slightest bit of heat and also have incredibly wavy hair. These two things don’t do well in humidity. I tend to look like a snowman with Albert Einstein hair whose face is melting off. Thankfully, in Ambergris Caye there was a daily trade wind that blew a refreshing breeze off the sea and made the humidity bearable. I still sweated a great deal but when the trade wind blew, sweat didn’t drip off my face like when we were in the middle of the city with no breeze. I guess we would just have to live in retirement on the beach to take advantage of the trade wind!
1. San Pedro Real Estate is more expensive than mainland Belize
Sadly the areas on San Pedro that we’d want to live was a bit too rich for our retirement blood. Condos on the beach near the heart of the city start at $200,000 USD. The $200,000 USD price tag is for a 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, 970 square foot apartment. We are hoping to be near the $150,000 USD range as a high point. Ideally we would like to pay in the $100,000 USD range or below. A prime location is necessary because we plan to use the our retirement property as a rental property when we aren’t using it.
2. The cost of American food is double the cost of generic brands
We were warned that American name-brand foods were more expensive in the Caribbean. Boy, was that true! Belize dollars convert to USD at a rate of 2 to 1. The prices in the photo are in Belize dollars. However, it’s still the first time I’ve seen Oreos cost more than $9 USD per box. Over-inflated prices were common on many American name brands like Kellog’s cereal, V8 juice, and Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. Needless to say, we ate generic brands which tasted just the same and were much more reasonable. Bud’s Best cost only $4.50 in Belize dollars or $2.25 in USD.
3. Fear of Island Fever
Staying in the same place for long periods of time bores me. I like to climb hills, explore new cities, and play in the water. Only one of these is an option on the island of Ambergris Caye. The thought of being on an island for a good part of the year makes me a bit nervous. How do you take a weekend trip on an island that’s only 27 miles long? Yes, boats shuttle folks to the mainland throughout the day, but it’s not like we would be making this trip often. Boat tickets aren’t exactly cheap either at $35 USD roundtrip. Once on the mainland, renting a car on mainland Belize would be another expense, but also a necessity to go exploring. With some of my wants, I’m not sure if this island could keep me occupied every day.
4. Finding a side job or hobby that pays may be difficult
I’d like to have a side job to meet people and make some money once I’m retired. Ideally something that’s purely social and only requires me to work one or two days per week. Unfortunately, foreigners can’t be hired by any business if locals can perform the work. This makes obtaining a part-time job like waitressing, bar-tending, or working in a spa difficult to obtain. Since locals can perform these jobs, I could not be hired unless a local is not available to fill that position.
Foreigners can only be hired into jobs that require special skills that locals may not have the experience to fill. A great example is hyperbaric nursing, where nurses are trained to care for divers who have experienced “the bends.” The only other option for foreigners to obtain work is to start their own business. Although my husband and I discussed opening a micro-brewery, I’m not sure we want to attempt entrepreneurship in our retirement years.
We loved our first foray into retirement exploration. Although we may not retire in San Pedro, we certainly would consider returning for another vacation. Stay tuned as we continue to explore our retirement options. The retirement list includes Roatan, Nicaragua, and Ecuador!