Belmopan, Belize Report of what it's like to live there - 01/15/11

Personal Experiences from Belmopan, Belize

Belmopan, Belize 01/15/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

I have lived abroad a good deal, primarily in Europe and the Middle East.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

There are daily non-stop flights to Belize City from Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas. Almost all flights out of Belize go to the US. The flights are short but costly. Round trips usually cost $700 and up.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Several months in the summer of 2010.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Temporary work with the US Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Belmopan is a new capital city, and there is limited western-quality housing. There is barely a rush hour, and many folks can walk to work. In fact, you can walk to most places in Belmopan from most residential neighborhoods.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

The grocery situation is getting better all the time in Belmopan. There are several "supermarkets" that sell a range of US and Mexican products. The local Mennonite community operates an excellent dairy products company. There were only a few items we could not find in Belmopan. Many folks make an occasional all-day trip across the border to Mexico where there is a WalMart and some other US-brand stores. There is a twice-weekly farmers' market with excellent fresh produce available.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is good pizza (a few outlets deliver), and a few modest restaurants in Belmopan that are OK, but that's about it. There are no world-brand (McDonald's, Burger King, etc.) fast-food establishments in Belize. Some of the jungle resorts provide a weekend getaway and fine-dining option, but they are hours away over bad roads. Coppola Enterprises has two excellent resorts with world-class cuisine, and there are a few others as well. We enjoyed some of the local restaurants for what they are.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

My wife is a vegetarian, and she got along pretty well. There are few specialized products for vegetarians, but there are plenty of excellent vegetables available (seasonally).

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

There are all sorts of tropical bugs, but mosquitoes seem pretty well controlled in Belmopan. There are lots of poisonous snakes.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

I used US Government facilities that are relatively fast. I have no experience with the Belizean and international mail, but heard no particular complaints.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

It's widely available and cheap.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Limited.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

There are some ATMs, particularly at the banks, and they appear to work well. Credit cards are accepted in the larger establishments (including supermarkets).

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Yes - several Christian denominations - Roman Catholics predominate, but there are several Protestant denominations. About 20% of the population is Hindu or Moslem, or belongs to a local faith.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Available, but considered largely content-free. There is an expensive cable service with lots of US programming (also largely content-free).

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is the official and most prevalent language, although Spanish is spoken at home in the north and west of the country. Kriol is the language of the streets and it can be a challenge to understand, but it's fun to learn.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Maybe a tad fewer than average for the third-world country.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

No trains. Buses are frequent, cheap, and not very safe. (They are all used US school buses and a few 1950s Greyhounds.) Only the tourist sector has modern vehicles. Taxis are ok but expensive, particularly for out-of-city rides (US $ 150 for a round-trip to Belize City from Belmopan).

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Absolutely bring a four-wheel drive SUV-type vehicle. Only the main roads are paved, and trips to the ruins and other sites are over pretty rough back roads. US brands predominate. Oddly, there are not many Asian vehicles in Belize. Note -- the roads in Belize are not very safe, particularly at night, when there will be many inebriated drivers out there with you. While the few paved roads are in fair condition, they are narrow, and passing on curves appears to be a national sport. Fatal accidents are a weekly occurrence in this small country.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Available, but relatively expensive. It is priced by bandwidth (speed). A connection running at 512K can cost over a hundred US dollars per month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

They are widely used and available, if a bit more expensive than in the US. Everybody has one.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Many folks have dogs and cats, but the quality of vet care is something we did not investigate.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Maybe - inquire in advance.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Tropical and casual. Ties are rarely seen, even among the resident ambassadors. As everywhere, women always dress better than the men.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No serious concerns beyond the usual precautions. Except for some neighborhoods in Belize City (not often frequented by foreigners), crime, particularly violent crime, seems fairly low.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Medical care is limited. There are a few doctors in Belmopan that provide routine medical services, with some additional specialties available in Belize City. There is a very modest hospital in Belmopan, and a somewhat more competent one in Belize City, but most westerners and Belizeans alike go to the US or Mexico for any serious medical treatment. Local medical facilities are good (and experienced) at treating snakebites. Malaria is present in theory, but is rarely seen. Dengue Fever is present and is a concern, since there is no vaccine. (But then, Dengue is also prevalent in Key West, among other places in the tropical US.)

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality seems fine, at least during the rainy season.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The weather is tropical, with a rainy season lasting from summer to late fall. Tropical storms are always a threat in season, and Belize City has been heavily damaged several times by hurricanes. Belmopan is 50 miles inland and fares better. Flooding is the most serious problem all over the county.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There is one faith-based school in Belmopan that some western students use. It is not currently accredited by any US accrediting body, although it has made a few unsuccessful attempts. Many parents consider it unacceptable beyond the first few grades, and they either home-school their children or send them back to the US. Inquire in advance if you are contemplating a move to Belmopan. Educational options in Belize City (50 miles distant) are better, but they are too far away for children in Belmopan.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Probably very little.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

It appears to be available, and many families have nannies, sometimes brought from previous posts.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The entire population of Belmopan is only about 10,000 souls, and the expat community is probably 10-20 percent of that number.

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2. Morale among expats:

Morale seems ok among those who have decided to make the most of the limited opportunities in Belize.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There is lots of entertaining among expats and educated Belizeans. Basically, social life is what you make of it. The British Embassy pub and some other expat organizations have weekly happy hours.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

There really isn't much to do in tiny Belmopan, so making your own entertainment is essential, whatever your family status. Socializing within the small expat community and with Belizeans is prevalent and easy. Belizeans are naturally friendly, and there is little, if any, hostility to foreigners.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

It's probably somewhere in the middle.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

None were apparent. Belize is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country, and at least publicly, most Belizeans celebrate that part of their national character. Belize is largely Christian, and there are a number of denominations present.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Standing atop a Mayan pyramid (a fantastic experience). Trying to find a good restaurant in Belmopan (not such a fantastic experience).

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Touring the Mayan ruins in Belize and nearby Guatemala. The ruins are spectacular, particularly Tikal (Guatemala), and Caracol (Belize). If you're a beach, boat or diving person, you're in paradise (or at least 60 miles from paradise). If you're looking for sophisticated dining or entertainment, you are SOL. Visiting nearby countries in Central America (except southern Mexico and northern Guatemala) is difficult. Capital cities of other nearby countries are distant by road (Guatemala City is 8-10 hours), and there are only a few weekly flights to San Salvador, with connections to elsewhere in Central America.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Handicrafts, particularly things made from tropical woods.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Beach life, reef diving, and exploring Mayan ruins are the principal (and almost only) things to do.

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11. Can you save money?

Probably if you don't travel back and forth to the US too often.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Maybe, but a long tour could get a little boring.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Skis, boots, and poles; winter jackets; dressy clothes; appetite for fine dining; etc.

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3. But don't forget your:

Swim trunks, SCUBA gear, boat, hiking gear, a love of pizza, etc.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Our Man in Belize: A Memoir
by Richard Conroy, who was the US Vice Consul in Belize in the early 1960s at the time of Hurricane Hattie (which largely destroyed Belize City). It's hilarious.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

The Mosquito Coast (Zaentz)
was filmed in Belize, as were a number of other movies with tropical settings.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Belmopan is the smallest national capital in the world. At 10,000 people, it's really a small town. There are only a few foreign embassies (several haven't yet moved from the former capital, Belize City), and only a few foreign companies. The expat community is small, but active. Belmopan is absolutely without sophisticated dining and entertainment, and indeed, the few modest local restaurants get old fast. If pizza will suffice for your dining-out experiences, then you'll do ok. The local beer is great and is always served ice cold. If your expectations are modest, then you can have a good time in Belmopan. Otherwise, the departure lounge at the airport is likely to be your favorite local hangout.

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