5 Best Caribbean Islands to Live On… and 2 to Avoid

By on April 14, 2018

By Internationalliving.com

Ambergris Caye, Belize

Over the last few decades, expats have flocked to English-speaking Ambergris Caye, Belize, and there are good reasons for its popularity. (Among them the fact that in 2013 and 2014, TripAdvisor readers ranked Ambergris as the best island in the world.)

Ambergris and the small nearby islands are not overly developed, which means they’ve maintained a laidback vibe. Ambergris is Belize’s center for ocean sports during the day and for partying at night. In view of all this, it’s easy to understand why real estate prices have risen, especially for beachfront property.

Getting to Ambergris is easy because both of Belize’s domestic airlines—Tropic Air and Maya Island Air—have frequent flights to the island from Belize City. You can also reach Ambergris by water taxi.

San Pedro is the major population center on Ambergris, a town of roughly 18,000 part- and full-time residents. The once-sandy main streets are now paved. But golf carts are still expats’ favorite means of transportation from home to the beach, or to the dozens of restaurants, nightclubs, and friendly mom-and-pop stores.

Surprising to many, moving to Belize is easy—U.S. currency is accepted, credit cards are widely used and well-known U.S. brands are available too; they’re expensive, but substitutes are easy to find.

After years of 16-hour days as owners and operators of a Victorian B&B and cupcake shop in Richmond, Virginia, the easy-going lifestyle of San Pedro is just what Dawn Schick and her husband, Albert, were looking for.  And in 2010, they made the move.

“We’d been vacationing here several times a year for more than six years and decided this would be our eventual retirement home. But after years of hard work we thought, why wait until ‘someday,’? Why not take the plunge right now?” Dawn explains.

“We love being outdoors and the year-round warm weather lets us go snorkeling or paddle-boarding anytime we want. The marine life here is amazing. Swimming alongside rays, tropical fish, and turtles is like being in another world. We also love that it’s not touristy here.

“Life on the island moves at a slower pace, and that’s just fine with us.” 

For between $2,700 and $2,900 per month, a couple can enjoy a comfortable retirement in Ambergris Caye—a budget that includes the cost of a house or apartment rental. If you own your own home on the island outright, then expats report it’s possible for a couple to live quite comfortably on less than $2,000 a month.

Roatán, Honduras

On the English-speaking Bay Island of Roatán, 30 miles off the coast of Honduras, you will find what is arguably the best-value island real estate in the region.

For less than $175,000, you could have a two-bedroom Caribbean home right on the water in a quiet neighborhood with no tourists—your own private getaway. If you stayed just part of the year, you could rent your place out to help cover your holding costs.

If you lived on Roatán, you’d have the sound of gentle waves and the rustle of palm fronds to wake you in the mornings. Looking out your window, you’d see clear, blue skies and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. You could occupy yourself with a swim…enjoy a cup of coffee on your deck…or just sit back in your Adirondack chair, warm up in the sun, and take in the view of your own private stretch of beach…

On this tropical island, beachfront lots can be had for under $100,000. We’re talking established developments, with amenities like a community pool and/or shared or private docks. Utilities are in place. Construction costs are reasonable, and you can build a home to your specs.

There are also plenty of turnkey condos for well under $200,000—in resort communities on the beach. And if you’re okay with walking a few minutes to the water, or setting up on a hillside with views, you’ll pay even less for a lot, home, or condo.

This is an island where “normal” people can buy a vacation home or permanent digs to live out their sunny, low-cost, and comfortable retirement. The infrastructure is good and getting better all the time, with a new power plant online and the recent opening of a hospital with specialist care and a 24-hour emergency room.

It’s still out of the mainstream, at least compared to other Caribbean island getaways, and that has kept prices affordable for real estate and day-to-day costs. A couple could live well on $2,000 to $2,500—that includes all expenses.

And it’s simply a beautiful place to look at, thanks to the tall, jungle-covered mountains, white-sand beaches, and blue Caribbean (turquoise within the reef and a deep azure beyond it). Living here, you’ll have no shortage of things to do, with plenty of parties, sunset happy hours, water sports, and other fun.

Roatán boasts an international airport—with regular flights in and out it’s accessible and it’s quick and easy to see family back home.

“The one word that always comes to mind when asked how I like living here is ‘contentment,’” says Ann Winters of her retirement on Roatán. “I have never felt so content anywhere.”

Ann and her husband Ron have much to be content about. The couple are settled into a three-bedroom house set amid lush vegetation, overlooking the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea.

“I immediately loved the sounds and smells of Roatán,” says Ann of what drew her to the island. “The sound of the ocean soothes me. I love the smell of the salt on the breeze and the way the air smells so fresh after a rain. I love the cooking smells in the downtown mercado (market) and along the streets of West End, the scents coming from the open-air fruit and vegetable stands and the fish and meat markets. The flowers in my gardens that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.”

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Legend has it that an ancient Maya Goddess of childbirth, identified Isla de Mujeres as a sacred place. The name Isla de Mujeres means Island of Women.

It was the Spaniards in the 16th century who decided that Island of Women would, therefore, be a fitting name for this tropical paradise where they noted hundreds of idols and carvings of women.

Today Isla Mujeres, eight miles off Cancún on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, is a retreat for tourists and retirees alike and offers easy living in the sun year-round.

You can own a one-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse condo with a view from $230,000 or rent a one-bedroom place for $700 to $1000 a month, according to local expats.

When it was time to retire back in 2008, Lawrie Lock and his wife Lynda drove from their long-time home in Canada’s Okanagan Valley to Isla Mujeres.

“We live on the windward side of the island, facing the open ocean,” says Lynda. “That’s where all the action is. We often see pods of dolphins feeding just offshore and sea turtles basking right on the surface.

“We’d vacationed on the western side of Mexico for many years. But when we discovered the Caribbean side back in 2002…Wow! The turquoise and green water, fresh sea food, and the friendly islanders here on Isla Mujeres, along with the warm weather, were too much to resist.

“We have a large circle of friends. Some live here full-time and others come for the winter months. Winter is our busiest social time and summer is our wind-down, re-group time.”

The island enjoys a warm tropical climate (low to mid-80s F for most of the year) and a laidback vibe; golf carts are preferred to cars as the main means of transport.

Every winter, the permanent population of around 13,000 is joined by thousands of snowbirds fleeing colder weather up north. At four miles long and less than a half-mile wide, this tiny Caribbean island is connected to the mainland by high-speed ferry service that leaves every 30 minutes during daylight hours.

There is plenty to do on Isla Mujeres. Naturally, water activities top the list as the nearby reef offers amazing opportunities for scuba, fishing, swimming, boating, and snorkeling. There’s even an underwater museum set up by an English sculptor to explore, if the local sea life isn’t enough. And of course, there is the seasonal migration of whale sharks which draws many to view and swim with them.

Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic

Most Americans have never heard of the little beach town of Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic’s northeast, on the Samana Penninsula. That’s understandable—it’s a spot better known among Europeans. But it offers one of the Caribbean’s best-value escapes today.

Here you’ll find 19 miles of public beaches, and palm trees swaying in the breeze. And compared to other Caribbean islands, property in this little corner of the D.R. is a roaring bargain.

French and Italian vacationers have been coming here for decades—vacationing and then coming back to stay. Along with the tang of saltwater in the air and the scent of fresh-cut coconuts, you’ll smell French bread and croissants baking. The Italian influence is strong, too, with rich Italian gelato on offer and strong, Italian-style coffee. There’s steak, sushi, and grilled seafood, too.

Las Terrenas has everything going for it that a Caribbean island escape should. It’s not overdeveloped—there are no mega-resorts here, just boutique hotels. It has great dining, stunning scenery at every point, and a vibrant expat community.

The most incredible thing about it, though, is the real estate prices. A one-bedroom, one-bathroom loft apartment can be had for as little as $99,500.  

A couple can live in this tropical haven for around $2,000 a month, although most choose to spend closer to $3,000 a month.

When Dan Williams decided to retire there, he had been working for eight years as an environmental engineer for the Missouri state government. At the time, he was 57 years old, single, and longed to retire to the beach.

“The country is a mini-continent, with a wide variety of terrain, from oceans to the highest mountains in the Caribbean, and everything in between,” he says. “The climate is wonderful. It is close to the U.S. and is economical. Weighed in the balance, it is the ideal country for me.”

After a few months in Sosúa on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, Dan decided to tag along with a friend who was taking a road trip to Las Terrenas.

Dan was enchanted and decided to relocate there. “I loved the beach, the vibe, the natural beauty, and the European flavor of the place,” he says. “It seemed like a hidden Shangri-La.”

Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The Corn Islands are two little dots of paradise just 50 miles off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast—a retirement nirvana with white sands, gently swaying palms and blue waters where English is the official language.

Big Corn—about four square miles in size and with maybe 6,000 inhabitants—is just 10 miles (or a 30-minute boat ride) from Little Corn, one-fourth the size of Big Corn in both land mass and population.

On Little Corn, there are no roads, just a three-foot-wide sandy walkway…so no vehicles allowed.

It’s a truly undiscovered, little-developed escape. Many say it’s like the Bahamas or Grand Cayman 30 or 40 years ago.

If you’re looking for a “throw-back” getaway, you won’t find a better one in the Caribbean. Here a custom-built home with an ocean view a 15-minute walk to town and beaches can be had for $150,000. And that’s fully furnished.

“With no vehicle traffic on Little Corn and lots of hotels, hostels and restaurants, it’s fun to walk around and see what there is to see,” says Bonnie Hayman, ILNicaragua Correspondent. “This is the place where the tourists go.

“Big Corn is more adventurous with fewer tourists. Many hire a taxi to travel from one gorgeous beach to another sampling the wonderful “Islander” food like coconut bread and rondon (fish/seafood coconut stew). Either way, a fabulous time is to be had on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua.”

The Corn Islands aren’t for everyone. Supplies that aren’t locally grown or pulled from the waters must be shipped in. With small exception, restaurants tend to serve variations of the same dishes.

“The cost of food on the island is slightly higher than on the ‘main,’ as islanders call mainland Nicaragua,” says Mike Hopkins who lived on Big Corn while housesitting on the island. “However, in general, costs are still less than U.S. prices. Weekly, my food costs averaged about $30. I also ate at some local restaurants, where meals and a couple of drinks ranged between $15 and $20. My total food and drink cost for the three-month period was approximately $610.”

The islands have a rustic charm, perfect for those looking for an off-the-beaten-track retirement.  The healthy reef is ideal for scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and lobstering. With friendly locals and very few tourists an authentic island experience is ensured.

Two to Avoid…

The beauty and tropical appeal of St. Thomas and Grand Bahama are impossible to deny. However, they can be costly.

“While we at International Living have nothing against St. Thomas or Grand Bahama—they’re thouroughly ‘discovered’ and that translates to more expensive,” says Jennifer Stevens, Executive Editor of International Living. “If money is no object, you might well like the polished escape either island can provide. But our list of 5 better-value picks in the Caribbean points you to lesser-known retreats where you’ll find a more laid-back vibe and lower costs.”

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Located in the Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands is made up of over 60 islands—most of them uninhabited. The three most populated, and most visited, are St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.

The appeal of these tropical islands is the mixture of the exotic and the recognizable—an island paradise with modern comforts and a balance of Caribbean culture and American practicality.

While St. Thomas may be a nice place to live, the International Living report says “avoid” due to the high cost of living. Apartments rent for about $2,000 a month and to buy a two-bedroom house in a good neighborhood will cost about $285,000-plus.

Grand Bahama Island, the Bahamas

The Bahamas is often thought of as a paradise—an upscale group of islands with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

And the Bahamas has many advantages—friendly to newcomers, there’s no foreign language to cope with, crime is relatively low, and the islands are positioned just off the Florida coast.

But the bad news is that properties aren’t cheap. Medium-sized residences in exclusive gated communities with ocean views often cost more than $2 million.

Grand Bahama is the closest major Bahamian island to the U.S.—about 55 miles off the Florida coast. It has become a haven for beach-lovers as well as divers, fishermen, golfers, and sports enthusiasts of all kinds. It’s also a prime destination for people who enjoy world-class shopping.

But living here costs a premium as it’s between 30% and 50% more expensive than in the U.S.

 

 

About International Living

For 37 years, InternationalLiving.com has been the leading authority for anyone looking for global retirement or relocation opportunities. Through its monthly magazine and related e-letters, extensive website, podcasts, online bookstore, and events held around the world, InternationalLiving.com provides information and services to help its readers live better, travel farther, have more fun, save more money, and find better business opportunities when they expand their world beyond their own shores. InternationalLiving.com has more than 200 correspondents traveling the globe, investigating the best opportunities for travel, retirement, real estate, and investment.

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5 Best Caribbean Islands to Live On… and 2 to Avoid