Cayo District: Belize’s Best-Kept Secret

“Oh, you live in Belize? That must be beautiful!” people say when I tell them where my husband and I relocated to from the San Francisco Bay Area.

I can see their mental pictures of turquoise water and palm trees, to the soundtrack provided by Jimmy Buffet.

“It is beautiful,” I say, “but it doesn’t look anything like you think it does.” That’s because we live in Cayo, the Belizean district on the western edge of this very narrow country, 60 miles and several light-years from the coast and islands, and 10 miles or less from the Guatemalan border.

The islands and coast are great for vacationing, but when it came time to buy land to build our dream house, we found many advantages to heading inland.

One big determinant was price. We knew if we lived in Placencia, which we loved, we’d have to be right on the water to maximize those cooling breezes. We looked at some lovely lots, but five years ago, even before Placencia had been discovered by Sotheby’s and everyone else, waterfront lots went for $250,000.

In contrast, our lot on the Belize River in the off-the-grid development of Carmelita Gardens, cost us $31,000. We’re still on the water, but our nest egg remains more liquid than if we’d settled in Placencia. We jump in the Belize River off our funky little dock several times a day to cool off.

Cayo is quiet, very quiet, unless you live right in town. Living in town, San Ignacio, Santa Elena, or smaller villages like Christo Rey or San Antonio, you would not require a car, but you could be subject to the locals’ love of music, played at high decibels no matter the hour.

When it comes to costs, just about everything, from groceries to restaurant meals, is cheaper here. Another benefit of Cayo—especially the largest town San Ignacio, its sister town of Santa Elena, and its surrounds—is convenience. San Ignacio has the largest farmers’ market in the country, and a growing availability of organic produce, ordered ahead weekly directly from the farmers who grow it.

We’re equidistant from Spanish Lookout and the main Cayo town of San Ignacio. My husband, David, likes to say, “Turn right, and you’re in the Midwest (Spanish Lookout); turn left, and you’re in Central America.” He most often turns right, looking for building materials and tools, whereas I usually turn left to stock up on groceries from the market and my favorite butcher shop.

Spanish Lookout, a Mennonite settlement, is the commercial center of Belize. The Mennonites, with their Germanic heritage, create an efficient business environment you might not otherwise find in Central America.

Spanish Lookout boasts several American-style hardware stores, one of the largest American-(ish)-style grocery stores in the country, and tradesmen that can fix or build anything if you know who to talk to.

If the business you go to can’t do what you’re asking for, chances are good they’ll be able to tell you exactly who in Spanish Lookout can. And if what you’re looking for is building materials, auto parts, or anything for building or mechanical projects, Spanish Lookout is the place to find it.

If you love the great outdoors, cave exploration, Maya ruins, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, and the uniquely Belizean activity of cave tubing, are all available here.

For the less active, people-watching while sitting outdoors on the recently pedestrianized Burns Avenue in San Ignacio, accompanied by Belikin beer or a piña colada, may be more their style.

The border town of Benque is just 45 minutes from us, with the colorful culture of Guatemala just beyond. The lakefront town of Flores and the enormous jungle ruin of Tikal are both available in a long day or overnight trip from most places in the Cayo district.

Expats who do well here are able to entertain themselves without a lot of organized activities, though there are some who swear by the weekly game of darts at Remo’s Bar. Decent internet—with ongoing improvements in speed, reliability, and cost—is available.

It could just be that beauty is where you find it. You can always mix up a margarita and live-stream Jimmy Buffett if you miss the coast…

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