Just any old car will do!… Or will it?
Lots to consider before deciding on the best vehicle for Belize… Should you bring a car by having it shipped? Perhaps drive it or have someone else bring it down for you? Can you even get your current make and model fixed here? Or should you just buy a car here?
They do drive on the same side of the street as in the States, but so much is different otherwise…
Shipping A Car To Belize
If you come as a QRP (Qualified Retired Person), you won’t have to pay duty. If you’re in Belize on any other visa, you will. Rental car companies bring in damaged vehicles, for which the duty is much less. After having them fixed in Belize or Mexico, they look brand new.
Either way, shipping a car here is not cheap. I was quoted US$3,500 to ship a full-size truck, while a friend only paid US$600—check prices beforehand if you choose to have your car shipped.
Driving In Through Mexico
Driving on the toll road and staying at name-brand hotels has its benefits, like secure parking. Make sure you have plenty of pesos for the tolls (the best way to do this is to pull pesos from a local ATM instead of trying to exchange dollars).
Plus, driving the non-toll road can be a challenge and possibly dangerous… Friends that took this route or had to go this way because they ran out of pesos said they did not want to go to Mexico again…
Buying A Car In Belize, Car Parts, And Other Considerations
Some feel that buying a car locally is the best choice, and it certainly works around all the shipping hassles. I recommend an SUV with four-wheel drive… the Mahindra pickup truck (not available in the States) is a good one to have here. A friend bought this model and it has taken us places where other four-wheel drives may have failed.
Find out what vehicle is right for you… What are you going to do in Belize? Are you going to live close to the ocean or inland? What kind of trips do you plan to take?
If you are here to relax and not lift a hammer, then a car or SUV should do. If you tinker and might build shelves or haul stuff, then a vehicle with a pickup bed would better fit your needs.
While living by the sea is beautiful and you always get to enjoy an onshore breeze, the salt air plays havoc with steel car parts. On the other hand, living inland away from the salt breeze will take years off the life of your car.
Have in mind the kind of trips you plan to make and that there are few paved roads in Belize. If you are going to tour the country—no matter the road, you’ll need a sturdy vehicle. Talk to owners and a mechanic on the options that will best suit your needs. For instance, if you’re only going to drive around Belize City, Belmopan or even Chetumal, a car will probably do, and it will help keep the front end and body parts tight.
If your driving habits include going slow and trying to avoid potholes, the car lasts longer. But if you plow ahead road conditions be damned, you’re sure to keep the mechanics busy. Maintenance costs will add up quickly.
Find out if the car is serviceable locally. Is the car run-of-the-mill, generic or well-known? At some point, you’ll need to get your car fixed, and you have better chances (and cheaper costs) if you see a lot of the same kind here. Parts are generally available for popular cars, but if there’s no dealer in Belize or Southern Mexico, they have to be ordered and brought in, and duty on car parts is high. Even if you buy them locally, prices can be as twice as high as in the States. For example, engine oil runs about BZ$8 per quart.
There is money to be saved by buying tires in Mexico… and stiff fines if caught not declaring them when crossing the border. If you should be in Mexico and run low on fuel, gas and diesel are about US$2 per gallon cheaper there.
Buying a car here takes a lot of checking. Most cars and trucks here are salvaged, fixed, and rented or sold. Damage may be minor… or it could be major, like flood-damage. A friend who bought a flood car was always repairing it. Because clear-title vehicles get a better price when sold, a representative of the selling company will hold the title until the transfer is made so the buyer is not aware it’s a salvage.
It’s also important to check the VIN number to make sure the vehicle was not stolen or if there has been any damage sustained. In Mexico, stolen vehicles are impounded.
Plates And Insurance
Plates can be bought for six months or a year. I keep buying mine for six months because I plan to get a newer car and there’s no refund on unused time. Before plates are issued, all vehicles must pass a basic inspection.
The law on car insurance recently changed in Belize. You can purchase insurance for three or four months, or a year. Full coverage is only available for non-salvage vehicles for up to 10 years of age. For salvage vehicles it’s seven years.
Ask about what papers you need to get insurance. I recently purchased mine and I needed my passport (for non-native Belizeans), drivers licence, copy of car title, and current electric bill.
When selling your car, remove and take the insurance sticker for credit toward the next package you buy.
If you’re selling your QRP car here, the new owner must pay duty. So when buying, make sure the car is not QRP.
Oiling And Undercoating
Car washes are inexpensive, for BZ$20 (US$10) you get a full hand wash and dry, inside and out. For BZ$50, you get the wash and they’ll also spray oil under the car.
Undercoating the car before it’s brought here is a good idea, especially if moving close to the ocean. My neighbor who lives about 200 yards from the ocean has a 5-year-old truck. He has had to replace panels due to rust even though he keeps it maintained and has undercoated the entire under chassis.
Belize Driving Laws And Local Drivers
There’s one law that stands out—if you are making a left turn on a two-lane road, and almost all Belize roads are two-lane, you must pull off to the right shoulder until traffic is clear in both directions before you make your left turn.
The maximum speed limit is 55 mph, but seldom does anyone adhere to the speed limit. You must be a defensive driver—a lot of local drivers will pass on the right at a speed bump and flat ignore stop signs. Though that might seem daunting, just being observant and careful.
Belize drivers think nothing of parking behind you and blocking you in. Parking in any direction is common.
It seems like a general Belizeans’ rule: drive until it breaks, then fix it, and drive more… no preventative maintenance.
In time, you get used to all of these quirks and they become no big deal.
A large majority of roads in Belize are dirt and paved roads seldom have shoulders other than by intersections. Pavements may drop off, even when there is a shoulder.
Most villages have at least two speed bumps, which come in two varieties: low bumps that might be encountered in a U.S. parking lot (these are to slow traffic, generally by schools and at each end of villages) or long, tall bumps (at pedestrian crossings—you must yield for people crossing.)
Few police patrol the highways, and in my experience they don’t hand out tickets.
Occasionally, you’ll get stopped at a checkpoint. They might check for current tags, insurance, or drivers license, or sometimes for contraband.
A gringo might get a parking ticket where a Belizean doing the same thing won’t… That’s just how it is. Police will wait until you leave the vehicle before giving a parking ticket. They avoid confrontation. In town, do not park over the yellow curb line.
All in all, I have been living in Corozal, Belize, full time for over six years and I have never had an accident. If you are friendly, courteous, and a defensive driver, you should have no problems.