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Living At Carmelita, Belize

How To Go Off-Grid In Belize

My husband Mike and I live full-time on the lively, lovely Caribbean island of Ambergris Caye, Belize. We love our life here, but at times we find ourselves yearning for a more lush, more peaceful mountainous setting. That’s when we head for the hills–the Cayo hills. We’ve become so enamored of this region that we’ve invested in what will become our second Belize home here.

We’re not alone. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an interesting trend. Many of our fellow expats who also call Ambergris Caye home have also begun investing in second homes on the Belize mainland, primarily in the Cayo District.

The Cayo is Belize’s most popular place for expats seeking a sustainable lifestyle. In this part of this country, you find rushing rivers, flowing waterfalls, and lush jungle landscapes. Colorful flowers and fruit-laden trees bloom year-round, and vibrant and diverse species of birds are everywhere.

In the Cayo you also find well-manicured productive Mennonite farmland. This region reminds me of the hills of Pennsylvania, where my father grew up on his family’s farm. If not for the palm trees, you wouldn’t know you were in Belize. The soil of this region is fertile and rich, and the Mennonite farmers who work it produce most of Belize’s food supply.

The expats living in the Cayo are a diverse group, but most all of them are interested in pursuing a sustainable lifestyle and many are living off the grid. I spent 30-plus years working as an environmental engineer/manager prior to moving to Belize, so this option in the Cayo appeals to me.

The main agenda of this most recent Cayo visit was to check on progress at Carmelita, the sustainable community on the banks of the Belize River where Mike and I bought a lot about two years ago. The visionary behind this development, Phil Hahn, refers to it as “Agrarian Urbanism.” For Mike and me, Carmelita represents escape. Our plan is to build a little place here where we could escape if ever we chose to long term and live off the grid. Meantime, our second home at Carmelita will be a great place to escape the next big hurricane out on Ambergris! We don’t get hit often, but, living on a Caribbean island, you always know it’s a possibility.

Before we discovered Carmelita, Mike and I had considered buying a piece of property in the Cayo and building on our own. We’ve successfully built several homes on Ambergris now and feel confident we could do it in the Cayo, too. But we’ve come to appreciate the benefits of living in a community of like-minded people. When we learned that Phil was designing a community that would fit our needs, it seemed a no-brainer to invest. It’s easier and less costly to let the developer do the legwork.

On this return visit, we saw that Carmelita is ramping up. Three houses are currently under construction, two on the river. By year end, five homes will be under way. The designs and the quality of the workmanship are impressive, but perhaps the best part is how little capital you need to own here. The initial cost of building a sustainable property is higher than for a traditional home, but, in the Cayo, everything is relatively cheap. And, building sustainable means a reduced cost of living over time.

What does it mean to pursue a “sustainable lifestyle”? At Carmelita, it means solar energy for most power needs. Year-round, we have plenty of sunshine in Belize, and it’s now possible to buy decent solar panels in this country. Most of the homes at Carmelita will have generators, but these are for back-up.

For cooking, residents at Carmelita will rely on propane. Note, though, that Belize is funding a variety of innovative bio-gas research projects. The country is determined to become energy independent.

Water isn’t a problem, as there is an abundant supply. What you need is a strategy for treating the collected water. Each home at Carmelita will include a cistern to store rainwater. The rainwater then will be treated with an internal filtration system.

For wastewater treatment, residents at Carmelita have two options–a septic tank with discharge wastewater gardens or installing high-tech, low-discharge toilets.

Fresh fruit, veggies, and herbs will be grown on the property, and many fruit trees have already been planted. The community will have access to a local source of fresh chickens (and eggs) and other animals, and each owner is being encouraged to plant a garden and to co-op with his neighbors.

On this visit, we had a chance to meet with others who have also bought at Carmelita, the folks who will be our neighbors, including some who intend to live at Carmelita full-time. They, like us, are committed to reducing their environmental footprint. Some want to live off the grid for political reasons. Some are independent-minded survivalists. All this makes for interesting company.

Ann Kuffner

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