Editor’s Introduction: This compelling story recounts almost all the nuts and bolts of two U.S. nationals – Ray Auxillou and Sylvia Pinzon escaping America and successfully relocating to Belize. It is almost required reading for those considering retiring to Belize. Ray and Sylvia did it on a very small budget.
One caveat – what is not recounted in his story published elsewhere, is that for Ray, it was actually moving BACK to Belize. Ray you see, is British, via Canada and Belize. He moved to Belize as a young man, married a Belizean , started a family and spent most of his productive adult life in Belize. He became a schoolteacher, fisherman, diver and tourism entrepreneur. He is a local icon and storyteller and has authored a couple of self-published adventure books based in Belize. After his marriage ended, Ray moved to the U.S., snagged a Colombian beauty, remarried and then decided to move back to Belize.
Since penning this account, Ray is now 75 and now occupies himself doing small scale day trading from his computer – yes he has Internet access now. He and his wife alternate time between their home in Santa Elena, Cayo District, and their digs on the island of Caye Caulker – courtesy of one of his daughters who is a tourism entrepreneur.
By Ray Auxillou and Silvia Pinzon de Auxillou
We decided to prepare for retirement about six years before we actually did. It was a second marriage for us both, as we had met in 1992 and married in 1996. Our goal was to have about $600 usa to U.S. $700. a month income to retire with, in order for the wife to retire earlier at 55 years of age. We figured we could only do that in another country were the cost of living was much cheaper. As a second marriage, we were 14 years apart in age. As events worked out we did better than we thought. Between the early pension of my wife small as it was and my social security, we managed to achieve our goal, then the added bonus of selling our Miami house put is over the top with some extra security.
Since we had substantial savings and had been investing in the construction of our home and small intended hostel business in Belize for four years, by the time the retirement day arrived, we already had our new house and business in Belize completely constructed and outfitted. It was simply a case of finalizing the sale and taking off through Mexico with such personal effects we could carry in a small red pickup truck that was 8 years old and had been through the wringer at the mechanics to make sure it was going to last awhile. It is a 6000 mile drive to Belize from Miami. We abandoned almost everything. The new furniture, appliances in the Miami house, a Toyota Camry I gave my grandson, multiple tools I used building an airplane, which I gave to one of my buddies. We had to get free and clear in a matter of three hectic weeks and we did. It was to be a new adventure in life, at least for Silvia, though old for myself. Abandon the old and start the new.
In earlier preparation, six years before Silvia was going to be 55 years of age and I, at 69 years of age, we explored several countries for retirement. We explored Panama, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic as places, were the cost of living was low enough we thought to be able to retire and grow old until we died. I had already spent most of my life in the country of Belize and knew it well and had children and grandchildren there.
In the Dominican Republic we were afraid of the silent army that actually ran things from behind the politicians. There was no such thing as security and justice. In Panama, it turned out to be too expensive. A standard of living equal to that of the USA was available, but was expensive. The places you could probably live cheaply were lowland, hot, muggy and full of bugs. We had wanted something in higher altitudes with a better climate. Roughly 1000 to 4000 feet in altitude seemed about right. We couldn’t afford the right places to retire in Panama. In Costa Rica, we loved the country, particularly the southern part, but found they had a squatters law, that in essence said; if you as a foreigner left your property and country for more than 90 days, your land and house could be claimed by any birth right Costa Rican, through squatting.
We wanted to travel and at the time figured to have a home in the USA, in Colombia and in Costa Rica. Staying in one place was not what we planned for in retirement. We want to travel. In fact, the TICO TIMES newspaper was full of articles on Costa Rican squatting gangs that took property of foreigners while they were away, getting medical treatment in the USA and so on. The wheel eventually turned full circle and we ended up in Belize. Not before first acquiring a 2.5 acre ranchette in Central Florida with the idea of retiring in the boonies in Hendry county, with a small population and where we might get decent medical treatment. I had found that it was impossible to get Medicare A and B treatment in metropolitan Dade County and usually ended up going to the $40 doctors fee, poor social clinics. We could do that at half the price in Belize, of equal medical quality we knew. The cost of medical in rural Hendry County in Florida was also low and the service reputed to be good. County bureaucratic red tape for building purposes turned us off. In the USA, county government are plagued with ZONING, building permits, codes and other stuff. The world has many nice places to live that are of lower costs and not plagued by too many regulations and government. On a low monthly income, retiring early in the USA seemed almost impossible. Going foreign was the only solution.
We spent four years traveling to Belize twice a year in preparation for retirement, sometimes three times a year and bought a small government, cramped two bedroom, one bath, house from a housing scheme. ( 420 sq ft ) It cost about double, to put it back in shape. After experimenting, we finally got somebody who would not rip us off and would handle the paying of our bills and a mason, general handyman who would work on days we had money available. Our resources were slim. It took a lot of scrimping and saving to keep the money flow and work going. The air ticket costs increased three times in those years and made planned monthly trips to Belize impossible. Our plan was to establish some kind of business and expand the original house we bought, to include a tourist hostel.
The intent was to generate a bit of extra income, without working too hard or seriously. As events turned out, we ended up going into retirement exactly on the date we planned when the wife turned 55 years, with a combined income from her retirement and my social security of a U.S. $1000. a month. A bit more money than the original estimate. Government land in Belize comes first with a 30 year Lease Certificate and then you can get what they call a Freehold title by paying the same amount of taxes and fees as before. What pushed us into the comfortable middle class was selling our house in Miami. Finding a high interest bank CD environment was critical to added income.
In order to survive on a low budget in retirement it is important you own your house and land and not rent. You can even live in a tent if you want to down here in Belize. Renting leaves you very vulnerable to inflation. Our very small house came with surveyed lot, dirt streets, electricity, piped water of good quality, cable television, garbage pickup twice a week, tortilla delivery three times a day and a corner grocery store. We could not get telephone service, or the internet. But now have telephone service via cell phone. Impatiently we wait for the internet. We currently drive to the nearby twin towns and use an internet café, or the library computers for this.
We are at 600 feet of altitude in the cooler foothills of the Western part of Belize, below the Belize Alps. We live in a rural suburb of an agriculture community called Santa Elena Town and have lovely views across two valleys. Green Parrot Valley on which our suburb is built on the western slope and across the Belize River valley to the Yalback hills. Our climate is ETERNAL SPRING and eight months a year, the mornings are shrouded by cold mountain mist, rolling down from higher elevations. Retirement readers have asked about Corozal up North by the Mexican border is ETERNAL SUMMER. Much drier climate and coastal land on Chetumal Bay.
Within fifty miles of here, are about 50,000 rural farm Mennonites, Spanish-German-English speaking church cult sects with different social values, who are white with blond hair and blue eyes. The rest of our local population are Mestizos mostly, with significant Creoles. We have been here now one and a half years, as of this writing, late January, 2008. We enjoy watching the bird flocks flying through the valley. Green parrots and white cattle egret flocks being the most common. The cattle are grazing daily across the valley and since we first bought our house four years ago, the suburb has improved from a raw muddy, rugged primitive housing development into something quite nice. All our trees, plants and shrubs have grown and decorated our home nicely. The houses around us are now painted and also planting shrubbery to make our suburb really nice.
The only gripe is dirt roads. Whenever they pave these streets with asphalt, the place will be incomparable. Our hostel is now into the second tourist season and we get a small steady trickle of guests for about eight months. We are doubling our guest volume in 2008 from last year and by next year we should be in the English speaking guidebooks, which is expected to give us a boost. Not enough to make a profit right now, but covering the overheads pretty much. We live on the premises also. The intent was never to have a big business, just enough to offset some of our living costs. Our guests are mostly University students in their 20’s. Low budget Hostels are popular in Europe but little known in North America. Basically they are communal kitchen, unisex bathrooms, recreational areas and shared free kitchen facilities and bunk bed dormitories. As they get bigger, hostels offer free internet, camp grounds laundry facilities and sometimes a restaurant. Sleeping arrangements are usually bunk beds, and not private rooms. Though larger hostels sometimes offer the odd private room. Hostels are not small hotels, cabins, or guest houses. Basically they offer a low budget home away from home. Usually a place to secure your valuables while you explore.
Our current building goal is to continue our next annex building in the backyard. We have finished a Spanish Mission style one bedroom apartment, occasionally rented in an annex we are still building. Couple of retirees like it. Useful to rent for a month and explore the area and scope the prices. You can get cheaper if you have a few weeks to look around, but as a tourist operation we charge a bit more for short time rental. We are now working on our third floor annex apartment and a second floor studio efficiency will be finished for rentals. Our warehouse is finished on the first floor and working, while the garage is getting better and better. We have hydroponics shaded nursery up on the 3 rd floor of the annex and it feeds our family in herbs, lettuce, peppers and tomatoes.
In the five years we have been casually under house and hostel construction, while still working in Florida and now down here full time, we brought down personal stuff we might need as airline baggage and pretty much have everything we could want. You can buy most everything here anyway. Though it is usually more expensive.
We have pretty much achieved and surpassed our original goals and I will be 71 years old this year. We finally got through the two year laborious process of going from a lease transfer, to a Ministerial Lease Certificate, to the FREEHOLD TITLE. With that the place is salable free and clear instantly. It is not important for us to sell, just like building things. Enjoy the challenges. A castle sounds like a nice project to carry me through to 80 years old.
Belize Finances – Retirement Costs
Our living costs have been met so far, by the fact we sold our small house in Miami back in 2006. With that money we placed some in a CD up in Miami for backup reserves in US currency and half of it we placed in a CD locally in the agriculture twin towns, Atlantic Bank, at 8.25% interest in non changeable local Belizean currency. We have been living off this interest money and have not much touched our combined income up in the USA as originally intended. In essence we have our finances planned to keep a substantial sum in the USA as reserves for possible devaluation, or inflation here in Belize, our pension and social security income also as reserves in the USA and are trying as much as possible to live off our interest income here. Plus any business cash flow.
We found the original estimate of U.S. $400. a month to live was possible, if we owned our own house, but tight for unexpected things, like $10 a gallon gasoline, or emergency repairs and medical visits. We plan to dip into our Miami savings for things like house hurricane insurance and vehicle insurances, truck repairs, new construction, which are big ticket items. House insurance is around U.S. $300. per $50,000 coverage. Recently we found we needed more cash flow as we are continuing to build an extension building in our house lot and the materials are quite expensive, though labor is half what it was in Florida, though labor is slower so it works out about the same cost. Doing work by job contract is a bit more expensive, but very much faster. Our local bank interest income is now fully used on a budget of U.S. $150. per week to live for ordinary expenses. Food costs us about U.S. $35. a week. We do not buy imported fancy foods from the USA. We eat mostly vegetables and local produced stuff.
We have two pickup trucks about eight years old, each pickup truck, we bought in Miami and drove down loaded with personal effects through Mexico over the last two years. The roads here are rugged in the rainy season. It was a six day trip from Miami to Belize and costs about $600. to do. We made two such trips in four years. Import duty for the pickups ran around U.S. $550 each. Because of the cost of licensing and insurance we only keep one pickup truck workable and the other parked in reserve for eventual emergency. We also have a rebuilt Honda motor scooter. This was bought four years ago for $1300. imported locally by Chinese from Taiwan. It has been invaluable as cheap transportation and burns about $4. in gas a week. The distances in our twin towns are short, not more than two miles anywhere. We still use about $23. gasoline a week.
We also have a new building construction maintenance budget of U.S. $500. per month. We bring in our contractor to do odd jobs and work as many days as the money can afford. Material costs are the biggest controlling factor. We have long range plans to build a three story quadrangle monastery type building. Do not know what we are going to do with it, but have the spare money and investment in real estate square footage is never wrong. Currently we have four bedrooms and three baths. Construction materials are very expensive. We are half way through the first side of the U shaped building. We try to feed our part timers masons family by finding a couple of days work per week for him, after that he must get other outside contract jobs.
The new building construction is being paid out of our Miami income savings. The same lady who handled our bill payments while we were absent, continues to pay our utility and construction bills for a small monthly stipend. The biggest hardest part is finding trustworthy people. We have two such people and got ripped off some small amounts in the beginning while we experimented with different part time contract people. I don’t think our experimenting trial and error method cost us more than U.S. $500. total in ripoffs, in the first two years of building. When we found two honest people we stick with them and use them for everything, when we need it. Trying other odd job people has been erratic, either from shoddy work, or petty theft of tools, to occasional excellence. The temporary day labor cost is cheap, but not quality. Contract work by licensed recommended people has been good, for plumbing and electricity.
We have been to the doctors once in a while. Sometimes you can get service for minor things at the Government hospital. This is FREE! When you cannot get such service because there is no doctor available and only Cuban nurses, then we go to a private doctor. There are a bunch of these and we’ve tried a few different ones. One local doctor guy charged us twice what we paid in Miami at the poor clinic in Opa Locka city, Florida. Generally speaking though, a doctor costs U.S. $20. per visit, plus you go to the drug store for medicines. So far, we have found the local drug stores specialize in Generic medicines which are cheaper to buy. Everything is imported mostly and come from all over the world. French stuff is better than USA medical drugs. Medicines come from Finland and India as well.
There is an American local private hospital, but we found it more expensive than clinics in the USA. Belize has good medical treatment. If you got smashed up badly in a car accident and need extensive re-construction, the local medical facilities here in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala might be hard put to serve you. Most burn cases go to the USA. For ordinary stuff though, medical service here is adequate, and often SUPERIOR to what is found in Miami, Florida. I have since CANCELLED my Medicare A and B and take the money instead ( about $82 usa a month ) as I was never able to use it in Miami anyway and will never use it from here. At my age ( 70 years ) I figure anything serious, it is time to kick the bucket anyway. Local generic variations of Viagra, though they make all kinds of variations, some last as long as five days, are about U.S. $2.50 each a pill and made locally. The last one I tried was called Tinibex and the effects lasted for five days. For an old guy this is definitely a bonus here!
The wife had a kidney stone this week. Excruciating pain. By 2p.m. we were at Dr. Sanchez, 5 minutes later she had a pain shot, worked quick too. Next was a visit to a nearby Ultra Sound Lab and they found the stone had passed to the top of the tube that goes to the bladder. Sent us back to Dr. Sanchez with photos and interpretation and we were prescribed antibiotic for the inevitable infection by scratching of the kidney stone and a pain killer. Back home by 2:30 p.m. same afternoon, all done. Total cost was U.S.$90. for everything. Service superb. You can’t do that in Miami let me tell you.
Few days later I chomped a sugar cane stalk and lost a crown. Friend found it on the ground. Few days later I went to Dentist Dr. Matus, a lady who did whatever they do with root canals and glued it back in. Cost U.S. $5. Root canals are U.S. $125 here. Extractions are $15 usa. This is a Western Belize agriculture area.
My pickup truck started making lot of noise. Mechanic ordered and imported the correct exhaust pipe with bends for my Toyota 1996 and installed same. Total $45 everything.
How To Explore For Retirement
The main areas of rich retirees are the offshore islands of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker for the richer crowd. The land and cost of living is quite high. Corozal in the North near the Mexican border has a small colony of retirees. Place there called Consejo Shores is popular. The climate there is hot and sunny, fairly dry, due to low rainfall, land prices are variable, running around $2,500 an acre depending on where you want. They get bugs in seasons, due to seaside elevation. The Cayo hilly District here is popular and a mix of low budget and rich retirees. The rich ones usually have built mansions on large acreages.
We get considerable visits from the California Hollywood crowd drifting down from Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. The poorer retiree ones are building in one of the smaller canyons and hills around the area, which are very scenic. Land prices run from $2,500 to $15,000 for a building lot in a development, up to as high as $15,000 an acre depending on location. Most prices are lower if you are not in prime locations. Government has several housing schemes and you can buy either lots, or houses. Better to buy a lot and build what you want though, is my opinion. American real estate promoters are very active here.
Your Character And Expectations
People vary in attitudes and expectations. You carry your problems with you and moving to Belize will not get rid of them. If you are anti-social you will be in Belize also. If you are an alcoholic, you probably will get lonely as nobody likes to be around talkative alcoholics. There are one or two bars in San Ignacio town that cater to retiree American drunks. A lot of bars on Caye Caulker and San Pedro. Only one I think, in Corozal. Drugs, nicotine and such will still bother you here, if you bring your habits with you. Nothing will be different.
If you are a self reliant person with many hobbies and interests you will do well. My wife and I are so busy, there isn’t enough time to do all the things we are interested in. We play musical instruments, write books, do research projects currently in hydroponics agriculture, clay pottery, organize a folk music festival, bicycle races, cater to guests when we have them, friends drop by to shoot the bull, children and grandchildren from Caye Caulker pop in for weekends sometimes, also are we on the internet every day. I read a lot, the wife likes TV programs, particularly the news. Television is better here than what we had in Miami. We get Hindu stations from India, couple of Chinese stations, Arabic, South American news, Caricom news of the Caribbean, European and World news. Plus we get all the movies. Even a few US TV news stations.
I’m old and take a 2 to 3 hr hour nap every midday/afternoon, our siesta time. I’m most physically active in the mornings. Tend to my plants early morning and evening. Besides guests to talk too, we also get friends dropping in and belong to social listserves on Belize and chat most days via email with people around this country and abroad. We plan to spend more time over in the volcano mountain country of Guatemala on the Pacific side during the year. Belize is primarily an agriculture rural style country with a small scattered population. All towns are very small compared to the USA. If you are a city orientated person you will have a hard time adjusting. There are no big supermarkets, just lots of small grocery stores. We buy food in bulk from a wholesaler to save money. And rely on fresh vegetables we grow in our own vegetable nursery on the roof top and flower nursery, or fruit and vegetables bought at the Macal River country open air market. Darn but we have fun! Wish I was an octopus with more hands and younger too, to do all the things I want to do.
Crime In Belize
Petty thievery, cat burglars, or opportunistic thieves are the worst. When you buy land, fence it and get a dog. Crime news is free from the police department, so it fills every newspaper and radio and television broadcast. The news is thus one sided. Serious crime is worse in Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, or any big city in the USA. Corruption is also very big news here. That is because everybody knows everybody involved in such a small population. Corruption is infinitely worse by thousands of percent points in Miami Dade County metropolitan towns and county government than in Belize. Heck it is even better than Hendry County, a rural Florida county. The good ole boys control things up there and can be quite vindictive if you complain.
There is a world HAPPINESS INDEX and Belize scores way higher on this scale than the USA, Japan, Taiwan, or any European country. Politics is the local live weekly SOAP OPERA. Lots of fun if you know the characters and read the weekly newspapers with the latest innuendos and alleged scandals.
Belize has a multiparty system dominated by two parties. The politicians make lots of laws to control things for their own self enrichment and greed. There are so many biased laws of self interest it would be hard to live, except with such a small population the examples of exceptions and favoritism make it unlikely that most laws are even applied. The so called DEMOCRATIC government is basically a charade, a big facade.
The bi-cameral legislature a cruel joke, of a ruled population by greedy opportunists. Politics and corruption is the life blood of the many small weekly newspapers and even the internet discussion lists. This SOAP OPERA is basically daily and the scandals come thick and fast in some seasons. Comparatively speaking, politics in the USA, both Federal and at County levels are worse than anything in Belize. Though you hear more about it in Belize, due to the very small scattered population. The locals are learning quickly, the business scams prevalent in USA political life and copying same. Any little peccadillo is the subject of gossip. The rumor mill is very active.
To the credit of the country and a growing maturity, there hasn’t been any program of political party persecution for the past fifteen years, in three changes of elected party government. The drawback with Belize government is that it currently runs on a paternal model using Ministers Discretion, which gives the Cabinet Minister the right of being above the law and who can make unilateral decisions. This mostly is noticed when it involves favors for relatives, family and party hacks. The goal of politicians in all countries throughout human history, is mostly greed and self interest, for which they require POWER, it is not much different in Belize. A Ministerial Cabinet Post gives the most opportunity.
Making schemes and scams, bloated contracts, consultancy and management government contracts, putting family on the government payroll in fictitious jobs, to enrich oneself from the government institutions, or convoluted shell company games to plunder the tax revenues and treasury, is a never ending SOAP OPERA. The newspapers fill their pages with these stories every week. The Belize population is astute however and while saddled with a bunch of pirates of different party persuasions, the media has much freedom of speech and there are no secrets kept for long in Belize. Politicians are careful not to get to the point that somebody will shoot them and most of them, even the good ones, and the worst, with criminal reputations, can walk the crowds smiling and shaking hands without a bodyguard. Movements for political reform of the constitution have been around for more than 20 years. Perhaps one day, political reform will get done?
Should local politics bother a retiree? The answer is NO, unless you are some hypocritical puritan from the Bible belt and criticize too much. If you are from the USA, remember Bob Dole and the Banking Committee and Savings and Loan scandal, or his wife running the Red Cross and a host of similar scandals in the USA you will find on a much smaller scale here in Belize. Human nature has never changed in 6000 years and not likely too. The struggle in Belize, is how to turn democratically elected representatives from being RULERS like Kings and Queens, or tyrants, every five years, into a more efficient system of policy committee managers, on a shorter time limit rotational term, during their five year term.
Retirees who present well researched study papers on development ideas are very much appreciated. They get published regularly in the newspapers. Don’t tell people what to do, just outline the problems and offer solutions. Leave the rest to the bureaucrats and politicians, that’s what they get paid for. Not all paper solutions can be met in real life practice. What evolves is more pragmatic! Belize is an excellent place to live and retire. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Editor’s Note: Ray passed away in 2013 at the ripe old age of 78. He had been suffering for the last couple of years of what he thought was an inner ear infection. He traveled to top hospitals in Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and the U.S.A. with varying diagnosis. His final diagnosis was basal skin carcinoma, perhaps the result of decades of sailing his beloved Caribbean Sea. Article Updated 7 June 2014.