Marlene “Mar” Houghton never wanted a conventional life.
“Adventure — that’s what makes my heart sing,” the now-63-year-old, former British Columbia resident tells MarketWatch. So when she happened across a story online about Belize being the next hot retirement destination about seven years ago, she almost immediately booked a flight.
“I got to Belize and fell in love. It’s raw — not like Hawaii or Mexico — people are very nice, it’s English-speaking. I just found it so fascinating and thought this might be an interesting place to do a coffee shop,” Houghton tells MarketWatch, adding that she’d wanted to open a coffee shop abroad for years because she’d found it was often hard to find a good cup of coffee when traveling.
“I was 56, I was on my own, my worst-case scenario was I go back home and pick up where I left off,” she explains. “When I die I want to go down kicking, say I tried it. I hate winter. For me, this was an adventure. Who does that — who goes to a Caribbean country in their 50s and says to hell with it? That was part of the appeal — why the hell not do it?”
Then something unexpected happened: After a couple of visits to Belize, the singleton booked her plane ticket in May 2013 to move to Ambergris Caye — a gorgeous, laid-back tropical island popular with tourists and expats — that November. By June she’d met a man. “Sometimes the universe puts interesting things in your way,” she says with a laugh.
At first, she thought the relationship might just be casual — “I said to him, you know I’m heading out in November; if you want to have fun this summer, then I’m in, but I am leaving” — but they fell in love, and moved to Belize together that year. (Her partner, Rob, who was retired when they met.) They bought a home, and on the property next to it built a bed and breakfast and a coffee shop (now worth an estimated $1.3 million altogether).
She rented out her home in Canada and sold property to fund the coffee shop. Rob was a real-estate investor.
“I have been so blessed to realize this dream,” she says, tearing up. “I’ve met interesting people — and annoying people — I’ve done things that I would not have done under other circumstances.”
Here’s what life is like in Ambergris Caye, the largest of Belize’s islands — including costs, health care, entertainment, crime and more — and why Houghton now plans to leave the island she loves for the United States.
The area: Madonna has been all over the world, but it’s Ambergris Caye she sings about in “La Isla Bonita,” calling it “where I long to be … the beautiful island.” And she’s right about that: “Encircled by the second largest coral reef in the world, lined with mangrove and palm trees … Ambergris Caye looks like a real-life postcard,” MarketWatch wrote in a recent story about where to retire in the Caribbean.
There’s also plenty to do: “The coral reef offers diving, snorkeling and fishing options (the island is the self-proclaimed dive capital of Central America); there are more than 500 species of birds on the island (you’ll frequently see people with binoculars glued to their eyes) … And it’s easy to get around town, with golf carts the most common mode of transportation,” according to the MarketWatch story. Houghton adds that she loves the food on the island — you can get everything from a simple meal of tacos for under $5 to a five-star dining experience for upwards of $50.
For Texas native Shannon Martin, 50, who recently bought two condo units at the Alaia Belize resort — a 155-unit beachfront resort where prices start at $199,000 — the people are what stand out. “The people are the friendliest people you will ever meet. Everybody greets you, tells you a story, stops to say hi.”
The cost: Though Mar and Rob’s spending is particular to their situation — they don’t pay rent, since they own their home — Mar says that “Rob estimated when we first moved here that it would cost two of us to live very comfortably about $49,000 [in U.S. currency] a year. That is everything you could imagine to live with.”
Rents aren’t supercheap: For example, Mar rents out the two apartments on her property for about $750 and $1,100 per month each, and she says that you can rent a one-bedroom oceanfront condo unit for about $1,500 a month. She estimates expenses for groceries are about $350 or $400 a month, though she notes that you may spend more if you opt for imported foods. (She’s seen a bag of Lay’s potato chips, for example, sell for about $6.)
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Mar’s electricity for the past month, with two air-conditioning units, was about $300, she says, while TV, cable and internet total about $100 a month. Gas is pricey, at about $6 a gallon, but many people get around town in golf carts (which you can buy, though it takes “a pile of paperwork” to do so, Mar reports).
International Living magazine estimates that, if you’re frugal, you can get by on $2,000 a month. Sample monthly expenses might include:
• Rent: $850
• Electricity: $250
• Water: $35
• Cellphone: $50
• Internet and land line: $35
• Cable TV: $24
• Transportation: $50
• Gym membership: $100
• Food: $600
• TOTAL: $1,994
Source: International Living
It’s important to note that living on Ambergris Caye is often more expensive than in other parts of Belize, in part because many things have to be shipped to the island. For example, Houghton points out that brand-name items can be pricey, as can electricity. Real estate, too, depending on what you buy, can be expensive — with some properties going for upwards of $1 million.
Health care: For small health issues, there’s a clinic on the island, and for more serious needs people tend to go to Belize City on the mainland or to Mérida, a larger city in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, Mar says. Health care is inexpensive in general; Houghton says she pays about $25 for a routine doctor’s visit on the mainland. But she says she’ll go back to Canada if she needs a major procedure.
Residency/visa: Belize’s Qualified Retired Person (QRP) visa is “one of the most accessible retirement programs available,” MarketWatch sister publication Barron’s wrote earlier this year — and is available to retired people over 45 who can prove income of at last $2,000 per month. Its perks include tax exemptions on income, but it does cost $1,000 to apply.
Cons: The fact that an Ambergris Caye resident may need to leave the island for quality, major medical care may be a big drawback for many retirees, and there are less expensive options if you want to retire by the beach. And Ambergris Caye does not have a large airport (you must go to the mainland for that). Plus, the U.S. government has put the country of Belize at a Level 2 on its travel advisory, asking travelers to “exercise increased caution” due to crime.
Bottom line: Though Houghton says she loves Belize, she’s put her home, coffee shop and B&B on the market and plans to set up a new home base in the United States. The reason? Her business has done so well she’s working more hours than she wants to at 63. “We’re reaping what we sowed,” she says. “But now we want to do more traveling.”
Still, she says, the couple plans to purchase an apartment in Belize to maintain the close friendships built there. “For me, it was an adventure — it is an adventure,” she says.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Ambergris Caye had a championship golf course and some waterfalls. It does not. The story has been corrected.