Is Belize a Safe Place for an Expat to Live?

I am Laura Diffendal and I am the Belize correspondent for International Living, and we’re going to do a quick video today on safety in Belize.

Belize is a very small country, about the size of New Jersey, and it is sometimes in the news because of a relatively high crime rate or murder rate. A lot of this is because we have Belize City which has a population size of around 50,000 people. There is organized crime only in Belize City. The population size outside of there is 380,000, unfortunately, the crime in Belize City skews the statistics and there is not enough population in the rest of the country to absorb the crime rate. So unfortunately, the whole country of Belize suffers because of the high crime rate in Belize City.

However, Belize City is not a place that we recommend for most expats to live. That would be considered a place for an experienced seasoned expat who knows which parts of the city to go, which parts to avoid. In the areas of San Pedro, Placencia, Cayo, you’re going to find crime rates pretty comparable to anywhere else in the world that expats live. If you took out Belize City from Belize, the crime would just be right in the middle, the same as anywhere else.

So is it safe to live in Belize? You will find the vast majority of expats, especially those that live in Placencia which is considered a small town, will say they feel very safe. In Ambergris Caye, because it is a little bit closer to Belize City, they will have a little bit more crime there. For the most part, it happens late at night. It happens when people are trying to buy drugs. It happens when people are very drunk and not following common sense.

Petty theft is high throughout the country. That is something to be aware of. Probably in anywhere you’re going to travel outside the U.S., petty theft is high. Where there’s tourism, there’s going to be petty theft. But being aware of that and taking some precautions goes a long way.

Is it Safe to Travel in Belize?

There’s a wonderful regional jet system. They call them puddle jumpers. They’re very safe, great safety ratings. The water ferries to the island of Ambergris Caye are very safe, although there’s only one highway system and it would be considered about like a country road in the U.S. and it’s not considered, highly safe compared to, let’s say, the highway system in the U.S. Most people get around. They say driving is comfortable for them in Belize.

Is Drug Use Allowed in Belize?

As I mentioned drug use earlier, marijuana is now legal in Belize. It’s a little bit subjective because you’re allowed to have a very small amount on you and you’re allowed to smoke marijuana on a private property. They still don’t really want you doing it in public, so I would not recommend doing it anywhere except for private property.

Is Prostitution Legal in Belize?

Sometimes people will ask about prostitution in Belize. It is illegal but, like a lot of places in Central America, you are going to find it in certain bars and there’s a kind of an understanding in each town where that occurs. It’s really not something in the news or something that you’re going to hear too much about.

What Areas Would You Avoid in Belize?

As far as where to avoid going in Belize. If you are not a very seasoned Belize traveler, I really recommend starting out in Placencia, Hopkins, and Ambergris Caye. You’re going to feel comfortable in those places. You’re going to find a lot of expats. You feel pretty safe in those areas. And after you get a little bit of a comfort level with the culture in Belize, I recommend trying Cayo and Corazol. Corazol’s close to the Mexican border and Cayo is close to the Guatemalan border, so you’re going to find a little bit of a different culture there. It’s a little bit less tourism driven, which makes it feel a little bit more, exotic, a little bit different. And with that goes wanting to understand a little bit more Spanish and a little bit more integration with the local culture and probably areas that I suggest you know what you’re doing a little bit more in Belize before you visit. Hopefully that helps, and we hope to see you in Belize soon.

What is the Crime Rate in Belize?

About 140 murders a year in the country. In the last decade there have been 20 murders of Americans. If you look at the total statistics of number of American visitors and the murder rate, this would be over the last 10 years, about 20 chances in 10 million.

One of the very best resources for safety is the U.S. Department of State as they actively work with embassies and are useful for making sense of statistics and understanding actual risk. They have Belize at a Level 2—this means exercise caution—but note, this is the same level as the U.K., France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, and many others. Why do they say this when Belize has a much higher murder rate than those other countries? Because Belize does not have the suburban population to absorb the small number of very high crime areas in the country.

Belize is a developing country and there is a lot of poverty here. If you do not use your common sense, keep things secured and locked— just like anywhere you are increasing your chances of having a problem.

15 Top Safety Tips for Traveling to Belize

  • If it is your first time, focus on the areas that are popular with tourists and not so much off the beaten path. Placencia, San Pedro, and Caye Caulker are all considered safer areas for tourists.
  • Don’t carry much cash when you go out.
  • Do not flash wealth or carry fancy bags, wear fancy clothes shoes etc.—this is a developing country and you will stand out. One of the great things here is the lack of materialism and lack of show of wealth even by those that have it.
  • Until you are more seasoned, take shuttles instead of driving in the country.
  • Wear DEET in the jungle, after a rain, at dusk, or by the leeward sides of islands.
  • Don’t drink the water except in the village of Placencia.
  • If you have a food allergy, please note that this is not fully understood here and you cannot guarantee there will be no cross contamination.
  • Do not go off by yourself at night.
  • Note that although you will see people driving and drinking, even on golf carts, this is not technically legal and can make travel on roads at night something you want to be careful of.
  • Wear SPF when snorkeling or even when it is cloudy outside, the sun is definitely different here.
  • Do not get complacent about locking doors and windows. Stay at established hotels and not an Airbnb which may not have safety devices like burglar bars, night security etc.
  • Although you will see that it is both a drinking and drug friendly culture here, drugs are illegal and buying them is high risk, especially at night.
  • Be aware of any overly friendly individuals who may be running a “hustle.” Do not be shy about setting boundaries and walking away.
  • Don’t pick up hitchhikers, even though this is normal here.
  • Purchase a data plan for when you are here so you are connected as much as possible instead of only relying on Wi-Fi, this is cheaper and easier than ever to do.

Keeping Your Money Safe in Belize 

Don’t carry too much cash with you, it is unnecessary as credit cards are much safer and accepted almost everywhere. Use the safe in your hotel room, and you can go to the ATM here as needed as opposed to bringing a lot of cash with you. It is a very non-materialistic country, and there is no flashing of wealth of any kind here—that looks very strange and out of place and would definitely be a higher risk behavior. Most expats don’t carry jewelry or cash because it looks and feels out of place, and it lowers the chance of being targeted.

Is it Safe to Drive in Belize?

Driving here has some differences from the U.S. It is recommended that unless you are seasoned in Belize or driving in other countries, you take a shuttle your first time here. Renting a golf cart in San Pedro and Placencia is pretty popular and a common way to get around. This addresses driving on the mainland roads.

Is Public Transportation in Belize Safe?

The cabs in the tourist areas are not fancy for the most part, but they are generally recognized as safe. There is no Uber in Belize. Most hotels or local residents can always recommend a cabbie they know, and the cabbies often ride around with their wives and kids in the car.

Hitchhiking, especially expat to expat on golf carts on Ambergris Caye, is generally recognized as safe and you will see people constantly hitching rides with one another here. The bus system is relatively rustic—I do not highly recommend this, and driving in general in the country is not the safest thing in the world. There is no driving school here, and while you aren’t going to be carjacked or anything—you have to defensively drive on the mainland and watch how others pass you etc. If you drive defensively this can greatly reduce your chances of problems, as it is usually reckless decisions that lead to crashes here. You will rarely see too many other cars most places on the mainland, so most crashes are drivers going off the road or passing unsafely. The puddle jumper regional flights and the shuttles throughout the country have good reputations and are recommended.

Can you Drink the Water in Belize?

As far as food and water safety in Belize—you can drink the water in Placencia, but everywhere else, it is recommended that you drink bottled water. Most places make it easy to do so. While you are in a developing country, problems with food are not common, and if you do have any problems, generally it is an upset stomach for a few days. You should check for expiration dates if you buy things at the store, but you rarely hear about any serious food problems. I have yet to hear of one in my six years here.

How is Healthcare in Belize?

There is a great emergency service on Ambergris Caye, and there is a helipad and a clinic coming to Placencia. This is big news and certainly will make a world of difference in the level of risk should you encounter a problem. There is a major hospital in Belize City, and since Belize is relatively close to the U.S. (two-hour flight) you can get to U.S. medical care quickly if needed.

If you have a need for medical care, the polycare clinics are available almost everywhere 24/7 and you can get most prescription medicine by walking into a pharmacy, there aren’t a requirement for most medications to have an actual doctor prescription.

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IL Belize Correspondent | Laura Diffendal

Laura Diffendal Photo

Laura Diffendal moved to Placencia, Belize in early 2014 to build a boutique hotel on the beach, and has recently opened a second hotel in Ambergris Caye, As such, Laura is a particularly good resource in terms of getting information and insight’s on starting and running a business in Belize.

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