I just came back from my third trip to Belize and there are a lot of things to love about the country as a traveler. Unfortunately, the prices won’t be one of them.
“This is the most expensive place we’ve been to in years” one British couple told me as we were dining together after kayaking around on a remote island. They weren’t splurging all that much either, really. We were staying at a place with shared bathrooms and composting toilets where we were sleeping in tents. Nice tents, but still…
It has long been a mystery to me why Belize is costly when right next door is cheap Guatemala. There are some clear fundamental reasons to start with though. The Belize currency is tied closely to the dollar, so there’s no travel advantage when the greenback is strong. (The same is true of expensive Costa Rica, but oddly enough, also cheap Honduras.) The population is small, which keeps labor demand high. The main business of Belize is tourism—by a wide margin–so in some ways the whole country is like one big Puerto Vallarta in terms of what drives the economy.
There was probably a time when Belize was a relative bargain. One guy I met on this trip talked blissfully about camping on deserted islands and getting a guesthouse room on Caye Caulker for $5 a night when he visited the first time decades ago. There was probably a very short window when this was the case though, before development kicked in. Belize has only been independent since 1981, after all, which was when international tourism was already growing rapidly.
Now, when you walk into a grocery store on Ambergris Caye you’re liable to be shocked—and it’s not just because the prices are in Belizian dollars. Even when you cut the numbers in half to get to U.S. rates, they’re still double what you’re used to paying at home. It’s a little better on the mainland, but unless you’re shopping for a few select items, you won’t find many bargains.
Here’s about all I could find that was any cheaper than what I would pay in the USA: rice, tropical fruit, dried beans, fresh fish, rum, local beer, Marie Sharpe’s hot sauce, local buses (not air conditioned, frequent stops); and “fry jacks” – stuffed fried dough concoctions that are popular with the locals. Much of the rest is imported, expensive, or both. Going out for drinks is a bargain. Going out to eat is definitely not.
It’s also not that easy getting around this country. You can pile in with the locals on a bus for cheap, but it’s going to be an old school bus from the USA with open windows and not much leg room. The upgrade from that is a massive one: you fly and take taxis. Neither is anything close to cheap: figure $50 to $100 for every one-way internal flight on a prop plane and even just renting a golf cart in San Pedro is $50 a day.
Over the past decade the percentage of upscale travelers has increased and the government announced while I was there that it was trying hard to raise the average spend per visitor by greenlighting more luxury developments. I once got a hotel room for three for $20 a night in 2009 in Placencia, but good luck pulling that off now. (Check here: Booking.com usually has the best selection at the low end.) The room we stayed in then is going for $40 a night double now. Here’s what the choices look like these days at the bottom of the scale:
I’ll sometimes get e-mails from people asking me about retiring there. They’ve got some vague recollection of seeing something on TV or reading an article about bargain real estate. What they saw or read is often from 10 years ago or more though, back when you probably could find a deal if you beat the crowd. Now the condo prices in popular parts of the country are higher than the listings I see on the coast of Florida. Since living expenses aren’t any lower (except possibly a maid and your rum supply), I don’t see a lot of advantages of going to Belize. You can enjoy the same sun and fun elsewhere and benefit from the currency/spending arbitrage.
I’m not discouraging anyone from going to Belize. If you’re on a vacation budget, you’ll have a blast and this country has the longest stretch of continuous coral reef in this hemisphere. It’s a terrific place for diving, snorkeling, or jungle adventures. Flight prices usually aren’t too bad from the USA. If you’re on a backpacker budget, however, you might want to just spend a week or two here, then make a beeline for Honduras to the south, Guatemala to the west, or Mexico to the north. All three are a better value.