Driving in Belize is truly a trip unto itself… you’ll see things that you think must be a joke. You’ll know you are acclimating to driving in Belize when a pickup truck passes you with 20 soccer players and all their fans hanging out the back and you don’t blink an eye… Or you’re passed by a cow and calf standing on the back of a small lawn trailer with no railings to keep them in and consider it workaday.
For example, there’s an odd rule of the road in Belize… if you want to turn left onto another road you must first pull over onto the hard shoulder on your right, let all the traffic coming from behind you pass, then cross the oncoming lane to make your turn. I’m told this law is in place because back in the old days, brakes were so unreliable—or absent—that you couldn’t assume the person coming behind you could stop when you did. Cars are a bit better now (mostly), but this shows the mentality of Belizeans on the road and the general pace of life here.
Luckily, there are very few vehicles in Belize. I can drive from San Ignacio to Belize City (about a two-hour drive) and only pass a couple of other vehicles. Traffic jams simply don’t happen unless there has been a serious accident or you try get into one of the towns at peak times (during celebrations, parades, or holiday rush hours).
My commute to work is 3 miles, the village grocery store is about 200 yards away, and my local expat pub is literally over my fence. So I don’t actually have to drive much here. But if I want to drive across the entire country to Belize City for business, materials, or to take a friend’s boat out around the islands for the weekend, it’s only about two hours away (it’s more like an hour-and-a-half at the speed I drive).
It’s not uncommon for people to walk down a road and ask for a ride if you’re going in their direction. You can stop to let them in the back of the pickup (the most commonly used vehicle in Belize) and they’ll tap the side or the back window when they want to get out. Understand, though, that if you give people rides are assuming some responsibility for them and their safety too.
Most roads are generously called all-weather roads… which can mean anything from gravel chips to rock dust to mud. If there are heavy rains, the road surface of all-weather roads will deteriorate sooner or later, depending on its material. For some people, usually those who are new to living outside the States or have always lived in cities, the state of the roads causes all sorts of consternation and upsets. There is a very simply solution: Drive slower. What’s the rush anyway…? You’re in Belize, after all.
I have a neighbor, recently retired from the States, who lives 5 miles out of town on a small all-weather road. It usually takes him five minutes to get to town. A couple of times per year, if his road gets really bad, it can take him 10 or, at the worst, 15 minutes to get to town. When this happens, he refuses to leave his house… if he does leave, it seems it’s only to rant about how long it took him to get to town. Out of exasperation, one day I asked him how long it took him to get to town or to commute to his job back in the United States. He told me town was 45 minutes away from his former home and his commute to work was over an hour. (I think he was just looking for something to complain about here…)
Yes, driving some of the unpaved roads can be a little hassle here sometimes, but if a 15 minute commute to a bar or restaurant is your biggest problem, life is pretty good. Which brings us to…
Drinking And Driving
The fact that Belize has not become a nanny state is one of its many benefits. It’s, of course, illegal to drive drunk in Belize. However, if I choose to do so, I can—at my own risk. If I get into an accident and I’m under the influence, it is automatically my fault, no matter how it occurred. With this in mind I make my own decisions… and Belize trusts me to do that.
There are no Breathalyzers here, and the only person who I have heard about in Belize in more than a decade who was arrested for drunk driving (who had not been in an accident) was stopped at a police checkpoint and when the officer opened his door to check his license, he promptly fell out onto the highway and couldn’t struggle back to his feet or his car. The police had never arrested a driver for simply being under the influence before, they usually only arrest for injuring someone. They didn’t know the correct procedure and the matter was thrown out of court.
I don’t condone or encourage this kind of driving (or this kind of drinking!), but the story is true.
Many people on the road in Belize have not formally passed any test or taken instruction on driving, they got their licenses through amnesties or other means. You should drive defensively—be observant and never make assumptions about what people will do next. It’s safe to assume that some of your fellow drivers are under the influence after dark (sometimes before dark, too), so give everyone a wide berth on the road.
License And Insurance
You’ll need a driver’s license to drive in Belize. One from your home country will do temporarily, but when you move permanently to Belize it’s very easy to get a local license at your local municipal or district transport office. Simply show your current license, pay a small fee, and get your new card—you’re good to go.
It’s a serious offense to be caught driving in an uninsured vehicle. In Belize the vehicle is insured, not the driver, so be sure your tax and insurance stickers are valid before you head out to a highway. There are typically checkpoints at the start and end of all four major paved roads in Belize, so chances are good you’ll be stopped and checked when you hit the road.
Choices for insurance vary from fully comprehensive coverage (I use RF&G Insurance—the largest provider in Belize) to the most basic “Blue Note” plan also issued by RF&G (blue note refers to blue BZ$100 bill—the cost of the coverage). This Blue Note package covers you with most basic form of third party insurance for three months.
Renting a vehicle in Belize can be quite expensive in the medium to long term. I generally encourage anyone who is moving to Belize to import a good used vehicle from the United States, which you can do duty free under the Qualified Retired Persons Residency Program (the savings on duty for the vehicle alone is usually more than the entire cost of the QRP process). Even without the QRP, it’s worth brining in a car and paying the duty. Interestingly, pickup trucks can be brought in at the lowest level of duty. The number of cylinders in the engine is a big factor in the duty cost, as is whether it’s a SUV or luxury vehicle.
Here’s a rough guide to the cost of importing a four-cylinder pickup truck into Belize without a duty concession:
|Kelly Blue Book value of pickup|
|+||Cost of shipping (about US$850—but if you drive it through Mexico there’s no shipping)|
|+||GST 12.5% on the above|
|+||Multiplied by 1.17 to gives you the rough cost of duty (15%) and environmental tax (2%)|
|=||The cost to import to Belize… It adds up to just above 30% of the value.|
Compare that to an eight-cylinder SUV… Expected duty could be over 80% of its value. A four-door pickup can be much more useful and economic than importing an SUV.
Run Away To Belize
If you are importing your own vehicle there are several factors to consider. First, choose a make that has a dealership in Belize. You’ll be glad when you need to get parts or need it serviced. Also, decide if you want to be the person driving a flashy or high-end vehicle in Belize… the attention it might attract isn’t worth it. And once you arrive, ask other expats to whom they bring their vehicles to be serviced and worked on.
Motorcycles and scooters are a common means of transport in Belize. As with the pickup trucks, you’ll see people stacking and loading family members on scooters what could easily qualify the drivers to be circus performers. I don’t choose to use motorbikes here due to the changing condition of the roads and weather, the disappearing hard shoulder segments on the highways, and the other drivers who might have had a beer to two before they set off. A Harley Davidson franchise opened in Belize City several years ago and now there is a local chapter Harley Davidson Club in Belize, for those interested.
Come to Belize, have fun, explore… but be safe.