In 2006, Lara Goldman’s husband was killed in a plane crash. Two years later she was ‘not getting any better.’ Around this time she had a conversation with her sparring partner. It reminded me of a conversation I would have with myself every time I was on a hour plus commute (one way) to work which was, ‘how much of my life would really change if I was a barista?!?’ Except for Lara’s conversation was, ‘how much could it really cost to live on a tropical island?’ Unlike me who could never quite get an answer to that question, Lara’s sparring partner had real intel. He recommended living in Costa Rica, El Salvador or Belize as low cost but solid tropical options. At the time, Lara did not even know exactly where Belize was. Two weeks later she lived there.
Here is a bit of her story.
You have been living in Ambergis Caye, Belize for over four years now, what keeps you there?
Everything. The not so pleasant human things that happen to everybody everywhere still happen here, but no matter how bad it gets I still get to be near the reef, the ruins and in Belize.
Nobody here asks what you do. Nobody cares. Nobody evaluates you based on that like they do in the first world. One of my closest friends is Coconut Leo. He is literally our friendly neighborhood addict. You will see him, me and the richest guy on the island sitting together having a beer. You see souls here. All we have is each other.
Our Thanksgiving dinner is mostly expats and that includes you know, crazy cousin Linda who has her dress over her head and everyone is like, ‘Ok who is taking crazy cousin Linda home?’ No one is evaluating you based on whether or not your shoes are nice. It is more like, ‘Oh you have shoes? EXCELLENT!’
When people come and visit and I ask if they want to go out on a boat they will ask, ‘Is the boat nice?’ And I say, ‘YES! It floats AND it has a motor!’
When I go to the States I get caught up in the noise and the fastness and I think you end up feeling a little bad about yourself. No matter how much you love your bathroom remodel when you see a nicer bathroom you want that. You do not have that here. My property taxes in the US were 7500 US dollars a year. My property taxes are 65 dollars a year here. My transportation in Belize is a bicycle.
How do you handle earning a living and working in Belize?
Originally I came down here and I just needed to stop. I did not work at first. I was 32 when my husband was killed. I am 40 now. You are just getting started at 32. I was still cooking, if you know what I mean. I took a lot of time to heal. I traveled all around Central America by myself.
When I used to go on the one week island vacation from my corporate job I would look at the girls who were clearly not from there but were living there and would just think, ‘How do you get to do that?’ Once I got here I lived that life. When someone asked me if I wanted to go sailing I went. I learned to spin and dance with fire. I pierced my belly button.
I used to be a union buster and bop around on jets. After awhile of being here I started doing destination weddings and honeymoons and being a destination management consultant, specializing in romance travel which is great. I get to show off Belize to people. I love it.
How do you get a visa to live in Belize?
Americans and British do not need a visa in Belize. When you first arrive you get a 30 day tourist visa and then every 30 days after that you have to go to immigration and pay 25 US dollars to get a new stamp or you need to leave the country and come back in for a new stamp. I decided I would rather spend my money traveling than going to the immigration office to get the stamp.
So for the first two years I would leave the country every 30 days and when I came back, I would get the stamp. After a year you can apply for your permanent residency which I now have. I own a home and land here. After five years I can get dual citizenship and can keep my citizenship with the US if I choose.
The thing about Belize is that people do not know we are here. We are the St. Barts of ten years ago,the place where the rich and chic would go to because it was yet to be discovered by the masses. We have the largest living barrier reef. It is more alive than Australia’s. Theirs is longer, but ours is more alive. It is the second largest barrier reef in the world. We have over 600 Mayan sites. We are the only place with Mayan sites and a reef and we are the size of Massachusetts. It is this amazing little country. It is really amazing.
What recommendations do you have for someone who wants to move there and get a job in Ambergis Caye?
You have to get a work permit which is not horribly hard to get. There are certain jobs you cannot get being an expat such as being a tour guide. They want all tour guides to be Belize nationals, although they are changing that if you get your citizenship. I think a work permit is for one year and an employer can help you get it. With the work visa you do not have to go get the stamp every 30 days.
Do you know of any resources where people would look for jobs online in Belize or Ambergis Caye?
No. There is a message board amergiscaye.com. People are always posting that they can do hair or construction work or other types of work hoping they will get work that way, but that never happens. You need to come down here. People need to see you or you need to know someone before you get here.
Unless you are looking for the higher end jobs such as an international property manager, those types of jobs can be found before you arrive, but the lower end jobs you will never get unless you come down here.
If you just want to tend bar or be a waitress or do something that is a little more entry level, are those jobs hard to get in Belize?
A lot of people do get them. It is not the most difficult thing in the world. It so depends on the individual. You live in Barcelona, but you are not originally from there. Where are you from originally?
Now that you are in Barcelona you might have seen the expats that arrive there like they do here and are like, ‘in the US this and in the US that,’ and I am just like, ‘Honey, you aren’t in Kansas anymore. You are in the middle of Central America. You are in Mayan Country. What you did in the US is completely irrelevant.’ When someone comes down with that attitude they will fail. No one will work with them and they will fail miserably.
As they should.
As they should. I agree completely. Ba-bye.
What is the cost of living in Belize?
We need to be specific when we talk about Belize. We have mainland Belize and then 200 islands. I live in San Pedro, Ambergis Caye which is more expensive than mainland Belize
I have been to Ambergis Caye.
How long ago?
I thought you sounded familiar. [Laughing] We are very different in cost of living from the mainland. A decent one bedroom apartment that an expat would feel comfortable in would be about 600 to 700 US dollars a month.
What is the cost of food in Belize?
When I first got here you could not eat like an American. Now you can. If you want Doritos they are going to cost you 6 US dollars. If you want the local nacho chips they will cost you a dollar. I would say for groceries you should give yourself a good 50 to 75 US dollars a week.
How do people find apartments in Belize?
It is a word of mouth thing. There is an online newspaper, Ambergis Today. There is also The San Pedro Sun. There are also apartment management companies that can help you. A lot of time people find me and I refer them out to people to help them find apartments.
Do you have any recommendations on property management companies in Ambergis Caye?
It really depends on where they want to be on the island.
What are the differences between living in the US and living in Belize?
You often hear that people come to Belize for the attractions and come back for the people. People from Belize are very, very nice. That niceness is part of their culture, but at the same time they are not pushovers. They will just look at the tourists that are screaming at them with this blank expression on their face. Not a lot fazes them. They are not excitable or inflammatory. They are not the fighters you see in other cultures.
It is incredibly community driven in Belize which is understandable in the third world and a place that gets hit by hurricanes, although, we have not had a major hurricane in Ambergis Caye in 12 years. When you are one of the expats that stays through the hurricanes the Belizean people notice that and welcome you more into their culture.
It is a very family driven culture as well. Sunday is family day – period. People will not be doing anything but family stuff on Sunday.
How do expats meet people in Ambergis Caye?
When I moved down here I had not so much as gone to the mall by myself in the US. I did not know a soul here and I still went out every night after I arrived. It is definitely a drinking culture. It is definitely a no shirt, no shoes, no problem culture. Even the fundraisers for the elementary schools have drinking contests. There are so many community activities that are going on. It is easy to go to them and meet people.
Ingratiating yourself into the true Belizean culture takes more time. Now that I have lived here for so long I understand it. If 100 people move here every year, maybe five will stay. Belizeans are really sensitive to that and so am I. If you are coming here for a year or two, you generally will not be invited into Belizean homes. But once they know you are here for good they are more open to welcoming you into their lives.
What about language in Belize?
English is the official language here. They also speak Creole. It is a Spanish Creole. It is specific to Belize. There are some people who speak Mayan and everyone speaks Spanish. It is a whole country of trilingual people.
How are salaries for those living in Ambergis Caye?
A waitressing or bartending job will give you 100 to 200 US dollars a week plus tips. The tourists tip, but the Belizeans don’t, so you want to be where the tourists go.
Tell me a bit more about your business. You do destination weddings?
I do corporate travel as well. Once you land here I handhold you the whole way. I figure out which part of the country you want to be in, what you want to do, what hotel you want to be in. I tell people things that only the locals would know: what hotels have back-up generators and which don’t, which hotel operators are drunk by five o’clock and won’t answer the phone. I help people with things like that.
Do you feel safe living in Ambergis Caye?
Belize City is going through some problems, but it is self contained to Belize City. Sometimes the problems in Belize City get put on the whole country and that is just not how it is. In Ambergis Caye we have petty crime, but it is no more or less than anywhere else in the world.
How do you handle health insurance?
Our basic medical care is so cheap you do not need health insurance for that. I just got my annual exam. The doctor was also a dermatologist, so I had her check my skin, she did all of the blood work you would ever want and it was 400 US dollars. It is so inexpensive you do not need health insurance. I carry catastrophic international insurance, so if anything severe happens I can get taken care of in a country with better medical care.
What international health insurance do you use?
I use BUPA. I used to use AMEDEX. I might switch back. Very few people have health insurance, which makes me sad. What happens to them if they get stricken by cancer? What are their parents going to do? Let them die? No, they are going to sell their house to save you.
What about frustrations in living in Belize or Ambergis Caye?
You are not going to change Belize and you are not going to force anyone to do anything they do not want to do. They will tell you that they are going to do something and then three days later you are waiting for it.
There are weird droughts of things. Like the great kitty litter drought of 2008. You can go months without things because the barge that was carrying it sank. It is a part of living here. I don’t let it bother me, but it might bother others.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to move to Belize?
I don’t think most people know what they can and cannot tolerate. They don’t know how much alone time they can handle. They don’t know if they can live on an island, live without McDonalds, the mall or a car. A lot of people do not know what they really need. If somebody really knows what they need and what they are made of; if they can evaluate what is important to them and what they need then they will be fine anywhere but people who think they are going to come to Belize and it is going to solve all their problems – they are not going to do well.
How is your life different on a day to day basis compared to how it was in the US?
I don’t even know how to answer that. If someone called me today and asked me if I wanted to go sailing for five days, ‘Well, yes I do.’ I don’t even have to think about it. I still work hard, but I don’t think it is work because I love doing it.
Here, ‘I was drunk,’ is a good excuse for not doing something. We have a much more touristic attitude in that way.
The lack of anonymity is probably the biggest hurdle for some people. If you are from a small town in Montana you will be fine. If you are from a big city it could be hard. If you got drunk last night everyone knows it, so you better behave yourself.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think we covered it.
I am really sorry to hear about your husband.
It precipitated a great change. I call this mother Belize. She healed me.
More about Lara: romantictravelbelize.com