On Driving In Belize
You’ll know you are acclimating to driving in Belize when a pickup truck passes you with 20 soccer players plus all their fans hanging off the back and you don’t blink an eye…
Or when you’re passed by a cow and a calf standing on the back of a small lawn trailer with no railings to keep them in and consider it workaday.
There’s an odd rule of the road in Belize that says 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 in this country are a bit better now (mostly), but this rule (which you’d do well to keep in mind) shows the mentality of Belizeans on the road and the general pace of life here.
Luckily, there are very few vehicles in Belize, so, in practice, this rule isn’t as burdensome as it may seem. I can drive from San Ignacio in Cayo all the way to Belize City and pass only 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 during a celebration, parade, or holiday rush hour.
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 drive much. When I do drive, it’s across the entire country (for business, to buy materials, or to take a friend’s boat out around the islands for the weekend). I can drive from one end of this country to the other in two hours.
It’s not uncommon for people walking down a road to 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 common vehicle in Belize), and they’ll tap the side or the back window when they want to get out.
Most roads in this country are generously referred to as all-weather, which can mean anything from gravel chips to rock dust to mud. In season, the rains can be hard, and you can imagine the consequences. For some people, the state of the roads causes all sorts of consternation and upsets. There is a very simple solution: Drive slower. What’s the rush anyway? You’re in Belize.
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 most, 15 minutes to get to town. When this happens, he refuses to leave his house, and, if he does have to venture out, it seems it’s only to rant about how long it took him to get to town. Exasperated with him one day I asked 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 more than an hour…
As with everything in Belize, you drive at your own risk. Belize is not a nanny state. I and everyone I know in Belize see this as one of this country’s greatest advantages. It is, 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 the accident occurred.
There are no Breathalyzers in this country, and the only person who I have heard about in more than a decade living here who was arrested for drunk driving (who had not been in an accident) had been stopped at a police checkpoint. When the officer opened the guy’s 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 simply for being under the influence before. 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 passed any formal test or taken instruction on driving. You should drive defensively—be observant and never make assumptions about what any drivers around you 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.
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, you’ll need a Belize license. This is easy to get 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 three of the country’s major paved roads, so chances are good you’ll be stopped and checked.
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 the blue BZ$100 bill—the cost of the coverage). This Blue Note package covers you with basic 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, solid, 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, this is one country where it can be worth bringing in a car and paying the duty. Interestingly, pickup trucks can be brought in at the lowest level of duty.
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