Ambergris Caye, Belize
Ambergris Caye is Belize’s most popular tourist and expat haven. It is commonly referred to as the “Isla Bonita”, this term of endearment becoming popular after 1987 when Madonna released a song about the island. Stunning turquoise seascapes surround this Caribbean island. Looking out to sea you’re greeted by quintessential Caribbean scenes. Frothy white waves break on the offshore Mesoamerican barrier reef, a home to exotic, colorful sea creatures, coral, and sponges.If white sands and aquamarine waters are what you’re seeking on an island paradise, then look no further. Divers, snorkelers, fishermen, and sailors won’t be disappointed with Ambergris Caye.
Ambergris Caye was first inhabited by the Maya as early as 200 B.C. It was the Maya who dug a canal on the north side of the Mexican peninsula, creating the island of Ambergris Caye. The caye is 25 miles long, making it the largest “island” of the some 200 that lie off the coast of Belize.
More tourists and expats flock to Ambergris than any other region of Belize. Beyond its natural beauty and outdoor activities, this island offers Belize’s most sophisticated lifestyle. Combining a casual beach life with upscale amenities, it’s no wonder Ambergris has become so popular. The increase in tourism, infrastructure, and amenities has led to a cost of living that’s high-end for Belize, and real estate prices have been on an upswing since 2010.
San Pedro Town is the island’s only town. This is where you’ll find plenty of action. The island itself has grown significantly since 2010. Recent estimates suggest there are at least 20,000 current residents.
Golf carts are still the preferred mode of transportation for expats. They provide a means to travel from home to a wide variety of grocery stores, trendy restaurants, nightclubs, coffee houses, and friendly mom-and-pop stores. Some residents still prefer to get around on a bicycle, on foot, or by taxi. Many of the island’s once sandy main streets have been paved, making travel much easier during the rainy season.
Ambergris Caye has come a long way from its roots as a humble fishing village. Development has progressed at a dizzying pace in the 21st century. These days Ambergris is known as a hustle and bustle tourism center with a myriad of activities, and its fair share of traffic…
Retire in Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is the most frequently visited area of Belize. Tourists and expats alike flock to this lively Caribbean island for the quintessential turquoise seascapes, diverse outdoor activities, nightlife options, and active social life. In 2013 and 2014 Ambergris Caye won back-to-back Trip Advisor members awards as the “best island” in the world to visit. As a result, an increasing number of tourists have been visiting the island, while more and more expats are choosing to retire here.
Given that everything must be transported to the island, and that this is the country’s main tourism center, the cost of living is higher on the island than in most other districts of Belize. The benefit of living on Ambergris Caye is that you’ll find more activities, amenities, and luxuries available on this little island than anywhere else in the country.
The island boasts free live music and festivals—many of which are on the beach—a sophisticated wine and cheese bar, several espresso cafés, yoga studios, and many fine restaurants and beach cafés. And it only takes 20 minutes to fly to the mainland for a change of scenery.
When you retire on Ambergris Caye your lifestyle can be simple and relaxed or active and engaged—it’s up to you. Some expats prefer to chill out, socialize with friends, play games, and volunteer or get involved in church activities. Others buy or start a business to fund their luxury life in paradise, or simply because they are happiest when they are busy.
A growing number of retired expats on the Caye are becoming focused on their health. They spend time biking, beach walking or running, swimming, or meeting friends at a local fitness center to work out or take a yoga class.
No matter where you retire in Belize, if you are over 45 you can apply for Belize’s Qualified Retirement Program (QRP). QRP retirees qualify for a number of benefits, such as bringing in their personal goods into the country duty free, as well as a car, boat, or airplane (during their first year in Belize).
If you’re willing to pay a slight premium, Ambergris Caye delivers an island lifestyle with more of the comforts of home than anywhere else in Belize. The rents can be higher on this popular island than in some other areas of Belize, but there is a fairly broad price range to pick from. And if you can afford to buy a condo or home, your monthly costs will be quite a bit lower long-term.
Many expats have retired to Ambergris Caye and adore it. Tamara and Ron Sniffin moved to Ambergris Caye in the hope of simplifying and improving the quality of their lives. Having spent so much time in Belize over the years, the decision of where to move was easy for Tamara—San Pedro, the main town on the small island of Ambergris Caye.
“Daily things are a pleasure…like riding my bike to work or driving my golf cart—the main mode of transportation here,” says Tamara. “You’re always outside in the sun and the sea breeze.”
Lifestyle in Ambergris Caye
Ambergris Caye is best known for its ocean sports during the day and for partying at night. There are plenty of activities to keep you entertained on this island. But for expats who live on the island, there is much more to do.
Ambergris Caye is home to San Pedro, a bustling town that now has paved streets downtown and leading north towards the major tourist resorts. The side streets are mainly made of sand, so the island still retains its historic fishing village charm.
During the last five years this fishing village has transitioned into a 21th-century tourist mecca. You can still buy fresh fish from a local fishmonger on the beach. But now it’s also possible to surf the web with a MiFi token, or to make a Skype call to family back in North America or Europe.
Due to its popularity, the traffic tends to get frenetic on the island during holidays and in the high season. And yet it’s still normal to encounter nature every day. Head out of town just a few miles and you’ll glimpse egrets, blue herons, and even roseate spoonbills.
With the Caribbean to the east and the San Pedro Lagoon to the west, the natural beauty of Ambergris is just one of the many draws for property buyers from North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Additional attractions include the island’s live music, festivals and nightlife, sports, shopping, and restaurants. This is also a stable community where it’s easy to get to know your Belizean and expat neighbors.
Although many tourists assume Ambergris Caye is a party town where expats sit at bars all day long, sipping pina coladas, there are plenty of health oriented options on the island. You’ll find several health clubs, a large number of masseuses, three yoga studios, a trained Pilates instructor, and other healthy activities. And many expats are actively involved in a church, or volunteer activities.
Getting to Ambergris is easy because both of Belize’s domestic airlines—Tropic Air and Maya Island Air—have hourly flights to the island. It takes only 20 minutes to fly from the mainland to San Pedro. Or you can take a water taxi for about a third of the price. It takes 90 minutes to travel from the mainland to San Pedro, but it’s hard to beat the view.
You will also find sizeable supermarkets, hardware stores, art galleries, coffee shops, and more, making the lifestyle on Ambergris Caye comfortable and convenient.
Cost of Living in Ambergris Caye
The cost of living on the island of Ambergris Caye is higher than you will pay in most other regions of Belize, except for the mainland beach villages of Placencia and Hopkins. But you can still live for quite a bit less than many parts of the U.S. International Living Belize Correspondent, Ann Kuffner, moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ambergris Caye in 2008.
She and her husband note that their cost of living is a third of what it was when they lived in the U.S.
A couple can live on $2,000 a month, including rent, on the island if they live a simple lifestyle. As with everywhere else, their cost of living will also depend upon their lifestyle choices. Some expats who own a home on the island spend less than $1,500 per month.
Other expats, who rent a two-bedroom condo on the beach, eat out at high-end restaurants, entertain regularly, and keep their AC on most of the time, can easily spend $3,000 per month.
Here is a sample budget for a couple living on Ambergris Caye:
|Rent (one-bedroom, two bathroom condo)||$850|
|Internet and landline (use a SMART MiFi)||$35|
Video Tour of Ambergris Caye, Belize
Ambergris Caye is one of the most popular destinations for visitors in all of Belize, and for good reason. It has some of the prettiest aquamarine water, with the second biggest barrier reef in the world.
The island has three distinct parts, and only one town, San Pedro.
San Pedro has a lively, energetic downtown with a central park, an array of shops, bars, and restaurants, water taxi stops, docks, and endless beach bars. You will see golf carts zipping by, tourists having fun, and expats at the numerous expat-owned establishments. It is the heart of the island and a great mix of a gritty, authentic, local feel, combined with a Jimmy Buffett-esque tropical vacation feel.
The building of a new bridge and road north of San Pedro, several years ago, has connected this undeveloped part of Ambergris to the downtown area. Since then, development has exploded with many North American businesses, resorts, beach bars, restaurants, and boutique hotels being built. And, even more development is predicted for the future. In 2020, a Margaritaville resort, is set to open and will be the first chain-based hotel resort on the island.
With less of a crowded feel compared to downtown, north of the bridge has a tropical feel, making it a very popular destination for visitors to Ambergris Caye.
South of San Pedro is more affordable, offering long-term rentals and a good mix of local and North American culture. There are many expat owned businesses south of town, and many of the most popular hangouts, including Crazy Canucks, are located here. The south has a more walkable feel than up north, where it feels more like a vacation community. Expats moving to the island have many choices about the lifestyle they want.
Golf carts are the preferred method of transport on the island and all of the roads are designed for this smaller type of vehicle. The golf cart culture is one that is unique to San Pedro.
Expats living in Ambergris Caye tend to be quite socialable, and there is a tight-knit community on the island.
There are plenty of social activities and events every night, with a mix of tourists and expats. This is most definitely an outdoor living island and everything is open air, typically, life revolves around the water. Ambergris Caye has a beer-friendly culture —you won’t get a second look for ordering a beer at breakfast, walking everywhere in town with a beer, or even driving on the golf cart while drinking.
There are also plenty of ways you can give back to the community, too, with frequent garbage pick-ups, fundraising events, and volunteer opportunities. Ambergris Caye is also a place where expats who want to run a business can be successful, as Belize is an investment-friendly country with British-based laws and English as the official language.
Things to Do in Ambergris Caye
By Laura Diffendal
Snorkel Hol Chan, Shark Ray Alley, or Mexico Rocks
One of the main reasons people come to Ambergris Caye is because of the gorgeous water. Just a 10-minute boat ride away from the shore is the reef, with ample snorkeling opportunities. You can see a vast array of tropical fish, rays, nurse sharks, and turtles. Or you can enjoy an exhilarating swim with a school of nurse sharks at Shark Ray Alley. Mexico Rocks is a slightly longer boat ride away, but it’s worth it as many visitors say they find it to be their favorite snorkel spot near the island.
YOLO Sand Bar Cruise
YOLO is one of those boats that when you see it coming in, you immediately have a feeling that you missed something good. It is always full of happy people. The boat leaves from the heart of town and they have two great destinations Secret Beach, or Caye Caulker.
You get to snorkel Hol Chan, and enjoy unique experiences on the island, all in one day, and meet new friends, too.
Ferry to Caye Caulker
If you’d rather spend more time in Caye Caulker, also highly recommended, it is a must to take the ferry (about 20 minutes, and around $11) to Ambergris Caye’s little, laidback sister, Caye Caulker. You will feel like you stepped back in time when you get off the ferry as you pass through candy colored wooden buildings, hostels, and cafes, all leading to the “Split”. This is named after the hurricane that split the island in two.
This is a great social spot where you can meet people from all other the world, swim, kayak, and paddleboard.
Day at Palapa Bar
Palapa bar has been an anchor on the island for a very long time, and for good reason.
Every event on TV can be watched here. There is often live music, and plenty of new people to meet, all in a huge, over-water palapa. A trip to the island isn’t complete until you spend an afternoon on the dock here.
Secret Beach used to be a quiet swimming spot that you had to know about to find, but today it is a sprawling, bohemian mix of beach bars, clubs, swimming, and socializing. It is a truly unique and Belizean experience with a rustic look and feel.
The ride out is part of the experience—you can enjoy a fun golf cart ride out that will show you the middle of the island and all the undeveloped land north of the bridge.
Chicken Drop/Crab Race
Chicken Drop on Thursdays at Wahoo’s and Crab Races on Tuesday at Crazy Canucks are institutions on the island and are true must do’s. In the Crab Races, you bet on which hermit crab will finish the race first.
The prizes are not only good, but part of the money goes to island charities every week.
The Chicken Drop has been around forever. The chicken is placed on a bingo board and you must guess which number it will leave its droppings on.
Karaoke is very popular in Belize and you can find many karaoke nights throughout the island. Top places to go are AJ’s, Bernie’s Back, and Melt, but more and more places are adding karaoke to their events because of its popularity.
Game-night type events like trivia are also very popular on the island and are well supported by the expat community who favor low-cost or free activities.
Golf Cart/Rojo Beach
One of the joys of a vacation in San Pedro is zipping around on a golf cart—golf carts are the main way to get around the island.
There are few places in the world with the golf cart culture of San Pedro. Rojo Beach Bar, with its talking bird at the bar is a great place to spend an afternoon.
Belize Food Tour
One thing that almost everyone can agree on is that the local food in Belize is amazing—made from scratch, simple, and perfectly cooked. One great way to experience a lot of local favorites is to join the Belize Food Tour which can be found in downtown Boca Del Rio.
This is a great way to enjoy a vast array of food and drinks that would be nearly impossible to find all on your own.
Ambergris Caye has some great yoga options, one in particular is Ak’bol Yoga, north of the bridge. Every morning, Kristin the instructor has a yoga class in a huge palapa over the water—it is a remarkable experience. Ambergris Caye offers countless breathtaking spots to meditate and unwind.