Mention the word “Caribbean” and most people think of places like Aruba, the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, and other tourist-rich dollops of sand. The region conjures well-deserved images of crystal-clear waters and white-sand beaches.
And there’s no question: If you like sun and sand, these islands are great for a vacation. But move there? Most folks assume it’s just too expensive and don’t give it another thought.
But that’s too bad. Because the Caribbean is bigger than many people realize. And when you look beyond the mass-market shores the tourist brochures describe, you’ll find a variety of sun-splashed islands well worth your attention. They’re not only beautiful… but a lot more affordable than most people realize.
Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico all offer islands off their Caribbean coasts—islands that share the same turquoise-blue waters and powder-white beaches you expect when you hear “Caribbean”—only you won’t pay a fortune to live on any of them.
Read on to find out more about five Caribbean islands that won’t break the bank…and two that just might…
1. Ambergris Caye, Belize
English-speaking Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize at 25 miles long and a little over a mile wide, and San Pedro is its only town. About 30 years ago, Ambergris became a hotspot for divers and fishermen thanks to the Belize Barrier Reef, just a half-mile offshore. This natural wonderland of living coral supports a dizzying array of marine life, and it’s the main reason Ambergris has seen its recent (and significant) growth.
Until just a few years ago, San Pedro was a little fishing village that catered to adventure tourists coming for the scuba-diving and deep-sea fishing. The main motorized transportation on Ambergris Caye at that time was golf carts (which remain popular, though there are many more cars on the island today). San Pedro is now the second-largest town in Belize District with more than 15,000 people, surpassed in size only by the former capital, Belize City.
Expats give up little living on Ambergris Caye. Power, water, cell phone coverage, and internet are reliable…and you can buy most necessities for daily living on the island. Regular water taxis and flights make it easy to take a quick shopping trip in Belize City, or Chetumal, Mexico. The selection of quality restaurants and bars is constantly expanding.
Expats who live on the island report a cost of living, including rent, of $2,000 to $3,000 a month and properties can be found from around $175,000.
Ambergris Caye is no longer a sleepy little Caribbean island hide away. But for expats who prefer to live in an active community that offers both convenience and the natural beauty of the surrounding Caribbean Sea, it has much to offer.
2. Roatán, Honduras
An emerald escape in the western Caribbean, Roatán has quietly graduated from secret divers’ getaway to livable island haven. Just 50 square miles, this green, hilly island off Honduras’ northern coast is long and skinny, fringed by a reef rich with sea life and garnished by white-sand beaches.
The beaches here are quiet and pristine. Life is laidback, lived in rhythm with the sun and the surf. No big-name resorts. No “spring break” strips. No high-rise developments. This is old-school Caribbean…though fitted out with modern conveniences…
“I’m an American so I was raised with certain luxuries,” says one expat. “Living in Roatán allows me to indulge those. I don’t have to search far and wide for a great restaurant with quality food—the options are plentiful here. I also appreciate my work life—I’m not cooped up in a high-rise office. My meetings are conducted on the dock with an ice-cold beverage in hand.
“I still maintain the American-style ethic of hard work, but my view is of the ocean and my clients are on an island so they’re always smiling. Can’t beat that!”
Here, 35 miles off the coast of Northern Honduras, English is widely spoken. That, along with an established expat community, makes it a relatively easy place to settle in.
Peggy Stranges, an American who founded and directs the island’s Clinica Esperanza, says, “Every day I wake up and look at the tranquil water and thank God that I have such an opportunity as this. The lifestyle here is much more relaxed and slower paced.”
Life on an island is often more expensive than mainland living—almost everything has to be imported, after all. But relative to the rest of the Caribbean, Roatán offers excellent value. The monthly cost of living for a couple, including rent, is $2,000 to $2,500.
Bottom line: Roatán is great for good-value, laidback living in the sun. Culture vultures will get bored, but if you like to dive, snorkel, swing in a hammock or sit with your feet in the sand, you’ll want to linger.
3. Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Isla Mujeres is about eight miles from Cancún in Mexico, but this laidback island is a world away from the hustle and bustle of its more tourist-developed older sister. Before Cancún existed, Mexicans and a few adventurous foreigners went to Isla Mujeres for some of the best beaches and water sports in the world—diving for coral, swimming with dolphins, and sailing on a crystal blue sea.
Clear, azure waters and white-sand beaches are never far away, and the cost of living is far lower than a similar lifestyle would cost back in the States. A couple can live a very nice life on Isla Mujeres for around $2,500 a month, including rent. Rents range from $900 to $1,500 for one- or two-bedroom apartments and groceries for a couple typically total around $600 a month.
Jim and Daisy Silver married in 2008, and moved to Isla Mujeres in 2012. “We love lots of things about Isla Mujeres,” says Jim of the couple’s decision to relocate here.
“There is a constant stream of visitors from all over the world, which is good for our business. We have beautiful blue water, and with Cancún so close, it’s easy to get back to the States when we want to. Plus, the cost of living here is moderate compared to other islands in the Caribbean.”
4. Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic
Columbus knew he was on to something good when he spotted a beautiful, coral-rimmed island in 1492. “This is the fairest land under heaven,” the explorer is reported to have said.
Though Columbus made many mistakes on his first voyage to the New World, he was right about the island, now known as Hispaniola, the eastern part of which is the Dominican Republic. (The western side is Haiti.) The Dominican Republic has great weather and world-class beaches, not to mention a low cost of living and a stable government—plus it’s just three-and-a-half hours from New York, which means you can leave the city in the morning and be on the beach for lunch.
The north coast of the island has some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean, the east coast is a sportsman’s paradise with some of the newest designer golf courses in the region.
If you’re looking for a low-key getaway but with all the conveniences of home, you’ll find the town of Las Terrenas offers excellent values with its combination of beautiful beaches, a small-town feel, chic style, and relatively affordable property. Thirty years ago, it was a rustic fishing village. Twenty-four years ago, the town didn’t have an electricity supply. But an influx of 6,000 French and Italians, who loved this place so much they decided to settle here, changed the face of the town.
Today, the town center is a whirl of motoconchos (motorcycle taxis), stores and cafés painted rainbow-bright. The original old wooden homes sitting on the beach are now trendy cafés and restaurants. They’re family-run, serving wood-fired pizza and simple snacks, right up to gourmet Italian and French food.
This isn’t all-inclusive resort territory, and thanks to strict planning laws it should stay that way. The beach hotels here are small and family-run rather than sprawling, faceless chains.
The beaches around Las Terrenas are some of the most pristine in the Dominican Republic. Even though Las Terranas is becoming increasingly popular with expats, you can still find condos for sale for less than $200,000.
After meeting in Canada in 2008, Terry Bolduc and his wife Rachel Langevin discovered they shared a passion for the beach and for a lifestyle far removed from the icy-cold, North American winters. In April 2011, they arrived together in Las Terrenas.
Between the two of them, they’d lived in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Saint Martin, and Mexico. They had also visited several other island destinations—all of which were fine for vacationing, but not where they wanted to live full-time. The Dominican Republic emerged as their leading contender.
Their cost of living “is much lower than when we lived in Montreal,” says Terry.
“Sure, if you go out to dinner in touristy areas every night, you’ll spend more. But we can cook with fresh fish, mix our own drinks, and live a great life for pennies on the dollar. We rent a four-bedroom house with a pool for only $650 a month.”
Everything included, a couple can live in this tropical haven for around $2,000 a month, including rent (though most choose to spend closer to $3,000 a month). Real estate in Las Terrenas remains affordable. Newer condos, close to shops and a 15-minute walk to the beach, start at $100,000.
5. Corn Islands, Nicaragua
White sands with gently swaying palms…impossibly blue waters…a healthy reef for scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and lobstering… friendly locals who speak English as their official language…and very few tourists.
That’s what you’ll find (or won’t find) on these two little dots of paradise just 50 miles off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Big Corn—about four square miles in size and with maybe 6,000 inhabitants—is just 10 miles (or a wild 30-minute boat ride) from Little Corn, one-fourth the size of Big Corn in both land mass and population.
The Corn Islands aren’t for everyone. Supplies that aren’t locally grown or pulled from the waters must be shipped in. With small exception, restaurants all tend to serve variations of the same dishes.
On Little Corn, there are no roads, just a three-foot-wide sandy walkway…so no vehicles allowed.
If, though, you’re the adventuresome sort…and the pioneering sort, as a few hearty expats who’ve gone before you are…go sooner rather than later. Real estate is coming into its own here. But there are still plenty of deals to be had. On Big Corn, for example, an ocean view, two-bedroom home a two-minute walk to the beach recently listed for $150,000.
“The cost of food on the island is slightly higher than on the ‘main,’ as islanders call mainland Nicaragua,” says Mike Hopkins who lived on Big Corn two years ago while housesitting on the island. “However, in general, costs are still less than U.S. prices. Weekly, my food costs averaged about $30. I also ate at some local restaurants, where meals and a couple of drinks ranged between $15 and $20. My total food and drink cost for the three-month period was approximately $610.”
Two to Avoid…Because Costs Are High
The beauty and tropical appeal of St. Thomas and Grand Bahama are impossible to deny. An expat traveling with unlimited funds might well choose either for his island getaway. But for anybody who’s a budget-conscious, these Caribbean retreats will prove hard on the wallet…
1. St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Located in the Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands is made up of over 60 islands…most of them uninhabited. The three most populated, and most visited, are St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. The U.S. Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated United States territory and their people are U.S. citizens.
The appeal of these tropical islands is the mixture of the exotic and the recognizable—an island paradise with modern comforts and a balance of Caribbean culture and American practicality.
St. Thomas is the island on which most of the population of the U.S. Virgin Island lives. It is also the most commercialized of the islands and a regular stopping off point for Caribbean cruise ships. This 30-square-mile island has jungle cliffs that soar high into the sky and the turquoise sea is dotted with yachts of all shapes and sizes. St. Thomas, and in particular the capital of Charlotte Amalie, can get overrun by tourists.
While St. Thomas may be a nice place to live, we say “avoid” due to the high cost of living. Apartments rent for about $2,000 a month and to buy a two-bedroom house in a good neighborhood will cost about $225,000-plus.
2. Grand Bahama Island, the Bahamas
What do Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, Oprah Winfrey, Sean Connery, Bill Gates, and Tiger Woods have in common? Apart from being celebrities, they’re among thousands of North Americans and Europeans who own second homes in the Bahamas.
Like other expats who live there for all or part of the year, these stars often think of the Bahamas as a paradise—an upscale group of islands with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The Bahamas are friendly to newcomers, there’s no foreign language to cope with, crime is relatively low, and the islands are positioned just off the Florida coast.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that property on the islands usually isn’t cheap. Medium-size residences in exclusive gated communities with ocean views often cost more than $2 million.
Even though Grand Bahama is the closest major Bahamian island to the U.S. (about 55 miles off the Florida coast), it was one of the least developed until only a few decades ago. In the middle of the last century, the population was about 500.
Today Grand Bahama is the second most populous island, with more than 50,000 residents. Its major city, Freeport, has a population of about 27,000, making it the second-largest metropolitan area in the country, far eclipsing West End, the former capital of Grand Bahama.
Grand Bahama Island has become a haven for beach-lovers as well as divers, fishermen, golfers, and sports enthusiasts of all kinds. It’s also a prime destination for people who enjoy world-class shopping. But living here costs a premium as it’s between 30% and 50% more expensive than in the U.S.
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