American expat Lee makes her living as an artist in Caye Caulker, Belize


Lee Vanderwalker-Alamina

October 22 2006

-Where were you born?
Detroit, Michigan, USA

-In which country and city are you living now?
Caye Caulker, Belize

-Are you living alone or with your family?
With my husband (met him here) my middle daughter (24 years old) and granddaughter (4 years old). I have 2 other daughters and 4 grandchildren who live in the U.S.

-How long have you been living in Belize?
6 years

-What is your age?

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Belize?
When my youngest daughter went into high school in 1997, I made the opposite decision of all of my friends and I did not plan on buying that next gigantic house and encumbering myself with a huge mortgage for the next 30 years. I decided to cash out when she graduated and do something for myself for a while, even if I failed at it.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
At that time, no. Now it requires much more documentation and money.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
I was on my (now ex) husband's insurance for the first year, but he changed jobs and so I was dropped off. I have no health insurance, and it doesn't bother me. No, really, it doesn't. We have somewhat socialized medicine here, Cuban doctors, and if I needed serious surgery I would go to Guatemala, Mexico or Cuba.

-How do you make your living in Belize? Do you have any type of income generated?
I started my own business about 6 months after moving here. It is an art gallery, which makes sense because I'm an artist. I added the cafe and coffee bar 2 years ago. I could never live on Belizean wages, which are anywhere between $75-150 U.S. a week.

-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?  
The local language is English, although everyone speaks Kriole and Spanish. It's definitely important to observe the local customs, and to always remember, no matter how nice people are to you, that you are still a stranger in a strange land, in their land. There is always going to be some resentment toward you. Even though I have a Belizean husband who was born and raised on Caye Caulker, I'll still get some ignorant person saying "GO HOME" about once a year.
They are usually drunk.

My mother, when she visited this year for the first time, commented that Belize is the friendliest country she has ever been in. I think that is partly because it is so small, everyone knows everyone or is cousins with them.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I went through a period about 3 years ago where I missed my family terribly and almost went back, but the thought occurred to me...I would have to get a REAL job. When one of my daughters and granddaughter moved here, that changed everything. Plus I go back and visit once a year, which even though it's not enough, it's still something.

In Belize, I like to swim, ride my bike, work on my computer, read and of course work on my art.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
I would like to show my art in Europe. I would like to travel to Cuba for the art scene, and to be able to travel more in the off season here.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
On Caye Caulker we live in a half-renovated clapboard house. In the half that is renovated, we have 2 apartments for tourist rental. We live in the unrenovated part, though; it's right on the beach. I can't complain (even though I do). We also have a house on the mainland about 30 miles from Belize City that is mine. It's a smallish three-bedroom house on about an acre, in an area near the Belize Zoo. Until a few years ago, jaguars roamed that area. With the exception of this subdivision and a few restaurants, there is nothing in either direction for 20 miles. The house on the mainland was $30K U.S.

The house on the Caye was built by my husband over a period of 40 years and has 12 rooms, 5 bathrooms, houses our 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment with an office, verandah and kitchen and 2 more apartments on the second floor. The first floor has a restaurant that seats about 75, an ice cream parlor and my art gallery and cafe. It occupies a block on Caye Caulker. It's built on what was the Alamina estate which was divided up between Norman's brothers and sisters in the 70s. The value is probably about $500K U.S. now.

There is no prime beachfront property available on Caye Caulker, his family owns several blocks. To buy a lot in the interior of Caye Caulker will cost you $30-100K U.S. depending on the condition: if it needs to be filled, etc. The cost for building on Caye Caulker is more than double what it is on the mainland.

-What is the cost of living in Belize?
On Caye Caulker it is high, especially if you buy from the local grocery stores. We go into Belize City once a week and do all the shopping for the store and for home. I don't keep such good track of those things since we eat in the cafe most of the time. Imported foods are about double what you would pay in the U.S., all other food like meats and fruits are about the same price as in the U.S. However, our income is much lower.

Electricity in an average home is around $100 U.S. a month. Rent and everything on the mainland is much cheaper than on the Cayes. Here, everything has to come in by boat or plane. You can rent a really nice home in San Ignacio (on the mainland) for less than $500 U.S. a month. On Caye Caulker you can rent a dump for $500 U.S. A water taxi to Belize City or San Pedro is $15 U.S. round trip. If you live on the economy, making workman's wages you will struggle, if you come here with a pension and an income of $2000 U.S. a month, a retired couple can live lavishly.

-What do you think about the locals?
The locals in Caye Caulker are very nice. They are primarily Spanish and Maya. The rastas who come out from Belize City, Dangriga, Hopkins and Seine Beight prey on female tourists, and that is not so nice to see. We have an influx of people from other Spanish-speaking countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala because Belize has some of the highest wages in all of Central America.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Belize?
The import duty is atrocious and the government has just implemented a 10% GST tax. The cost of gas is more than double what it is in the U.S.

On the other hand, income tax is 1.75% of your gross, and you have to earn more than $3000 U.S. to pay income tax. The country is very eco-conscious and eco tourism-conscious. However, if you plan on making a million dollars, make sure you bring two million.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Belize?
Bring enough money to sustain yourself for more than a year while your paperwork is being figured out. Do not despair, it all gets sorted out in time.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Belize?
Caye Caulker
Belize North
The Belize Forums
Ambergris Caye

visit in May, may retire there

katehobbs's picture

Enjoyed reading about your life in the Cayes.
I am a retired teacher and have a BS in Fine Art. love to paint ,sculpt,tiles etc. Crazy about all of it.
How do you get around taxes if you recieve retirement income from the US? Looks like I will be paying US tax and the Belize Income Tax. Depends on what Belize Tax law considers my gross income.
Considering a month stay in May.
Are there nice secure places to stay that provide breakfast, walking distance(safe) to shops, parks etc. I would not mind staying with an older couple for the month. outofroombye, kate

Hi lee

eric's picture

Hi Lee,
I'm an ex airline pilot who has visited Belize a few times over the past 10 years and love it. I've finally decided and come to a place in my life that I'm ready and very excited to move down permanantly. I like the Caye you live on, as opposed to Ambergis Caye, and was wondering if you have one of the rooms you talked about in your posting available for rent for a month or so while I get settled?
I've got enough to live on while searching for what I'm going to do. I'm SCUBA certified and want to be involed with either diving, teaching, driving the boats, opening my own SCUBA shop, etc. I'm also a writer, and am involved in talks with a few magazines and explorer blogs to write free-lance. Bartending will work for a bit too!

Can you e-mail me at !?

Thanks for your help!!!



Bill's picture

Hi Lee,
I recently accepted an early retirement buyout from my school district and no that my son is out of the house and my duties as a single parent have changed I would like to come down to Caye Caulker for a few months to see if I would like to stay in the area. I have visited during spring break and love it. Any info on rental for mid August- September/October?

house swap in balize

falkingham sue's picture

i am thinking seriously of moving to Belize I am a Brit living in Northern Portiugal at the moment. I have to sell my wonderful designer built house here before i can leave and with the present economic situation here in Europe I am not expecting to sell it quickly. I am a potter with my own studio here and although your caye sounds ideal I think it will be too expensive for my budget.
I have however, found your information about the other places to live in Belize interesting and would like to check them out. With this in mindmI would like to find someone who would like to do a house swap with me in April or May 2010 . If you know anyone who might be intested in this please give them my e-mail address and get them to contact me.
Thank you for your well thought out information
Best wishes
Sue Falkingham

Retire to Belize

JackRussel's picture

Reseaching Belize as potential place to retire from Florida.
Will have appx. $4K monthly retirement with pension and both SS benefits. Prefer to rent, cost of living, healthcare
for two healthy mid 60's couple, safety, shopping, etc.
Would appreciate any info you can provide. Will visit next spring. Thanks JR

Wan to move ASAP Belize

Randsy's picture

I want to just want to sell everything pack up and move to Belize. My wife and I are done with the rat race here. What are the first steps?
Rand in Oregon

thank you

paulabelle's picture

Thank you, Lee, for completing the interview. Read it once and have to reread before asking questions! I will be moving to Belize later on this year, along with a friend who lives in New Jersey. I'm Paula, from Alabama and her name is Jennifer. You appear to have a WONDERFUL life down there and I'm SO excited about making the move. I also can't wait to see your place and your art. I've lived in South Africa and wanted to go back there, but the US$ doesn't have a lot of weight there now, as it did when I lived there. When I starting considering Belize and starting doing my research, I knew I'd found my nitch. Again thanks, and you'll be hearing from me again soon.


1 quick question

paulabelle's picture

I just wrote you so sorry to "blow up" your inbox1 I have one off-the-top question. My goal is to be down there by Aug. or Sept. at the latest. Is your 2-bedroom apt only for tourists or do you do long-term rentals. as in a year? If so, will it be available around that time, how much is the rent, and would you allow my well-mannered, well-trained Weimaraners to live there with me?? I'm a dog-trainer, as well as a retired teacher. I promise you ... my dogs are NOT mean or destructive! They have been highly socialized and loooooooved people and other animals as well.

Thanks again!