A Tale of Two Low-Cost Retirement Towns: Corozal in Belize and Boquete in Panama
By Lan Sluder
With millions of Americans and Canadian baby boomers just a bank CD or two away from retirement, the race to find low-cost retirement destinations is off and running. That's particularly true in Mexico and Central America, where many prospective expat gringos see the potential of stretching their dollars and living better for less than is possible back home, yet being within two to four hours by jet from their old home towns.
While there are many exciting choices south of the border, two contenders in that race, Corozal in Northern Belize and Boquete in Panama, are already attracting a lot of lookers and an increasing number of buyers.
These two small towns, both boasting a high quality of life and low cost of living, are worth looking at closely to see how they really compare in key areas of interest to relocating expats and prospective retirees, such as daily living costs, real estate prices, the cost of home building, acceptance of foreigners by local residents and overall appeal.
In looking at the Corozal and Boquete areas, retirees and other expats have to make a choice between living on the water and speaking mostly English or living in the mountains and speaking mostly Spanish.
I've recently visited both areas and talked with people who have taken the plunge to get their perspectives on the pros and cons of the two towns.
PROFILES OF COROZAL AND BOQUETE
COROZAL PROFILE - Corozal Town (pronounced Cor-Roh-Zahl) is located in Northern Belize, just 9 miles south from the Mexican border and less than 90 miles north of Belize City. Named -- in the Yucatec Maya language -- for the cohune palms that once were common in the area, Corozal Town has a picturesque setting on Corozal Bay. Once a trading center of the ancient Maya, who lived in the area from at least 2000 B.C., in the 19th century Corozal was settled by Mestizos fleeing the Caste Wars in the Yucatán.
In 1955, much of the town was destroyed by Hurricane Janet. It was rebuilt in a combination of Mexican and Caribbean styles. Today, the town is a sleepy gateway to Belize from the expanding "Mayan Riviera" of Mexico. The main part of Corozal is laid out at the edge of the gently curving Corozal Bay, offering one of the most appealing settings in Belize. By contrast, the town otherwise is of no particular distinction, with ramshackle storefronts and simple houses with fenced yards keeping barking dogs at bay. Near town are the "suburbs" of Xaibe, Ranchito, Calcutta and other villages along the Northern Highway. To the north is the Four Mile Lagoon and the Consejo area, where several small real estate projects targeting expats are being developed. Across Corozal Bay are the ruins of Cerros, the village of Copper Bank and Progresso Lagoon.
Corozal Town's population was is around 8,000 and the entire Corozal District, comprising 718 square miles, has a population of around 35,000. About 15 miles away by boat is the fishing village of Sarteneja. Beyond that, hanging down from Mexico like a tropical stalactite, is an appendage of the Yucatán peninsula and, separated from Mexico only by a narrow channel, Belize's most popular resort area, Ambergris Caye.
The economy of Corozal is based on services, importing goods in a duty free zone near the Mexican border where there also are several small casinos and sugar cane production. Increasingly, the area is getting income from real estate and tourism. Corozal and surrounding areas have about a dozen small hotels, and there has been a mini real estate boom over the past year or two, with speculators buying up tracts of inexpensive bayfront land near Corozal Town.
Unlike Ambergris Caye, Placencia and some other areas of Belize, Corozal is on a shallow bay, not directly the Caribbean Sea, and has no real beaches. The waters of the bay are as blue as those elsewhere on the coast or cayes, however, and the breezes from the water as cooling and constant as any in Belize. Anglers find good fishing for tarpon, bonefish, permit and other fish, and boating is enjoyable on the protected waters of the bay. Especially outside of town, you can swim in the warm, clean water.
The climate in Corozal is subtropical, similar to that in central or south Florida. In winter, temperatures may drop to the high 50s F at night, but there's never a frost. In spring and summer, the thermometer may hit the low 90s at midday and drop only to the 70s at night. Bananas, mangos, citrus and other fruit grow almost like weeds. Belize is in the hurricane belt, with the greatest risk in September and October. The last major hurricanes to hit Belize were Keith, in October 2000, which hit Ambergris Caye and Belize City, and Iris, which struck southern Belize in October 2001. Neither had an impact in Corozal. Since Hurricane Janet half a century ago, Northern Belize has not experienced a truly serious hurricane, although several storms in Belize and Mexico have caused moderate damage to the area.
Local residents are primarily Mestizos of mixed Indian and European heritage, with some Yucatec and other Maya, a few Creoles, along with Chinese, East Indians, gringos and in nearby Shipyard and Little Belize, quite a few Mennonites who moved to Belize in the 1950s and 60s.
English is the official language of Belize, and you can easily get by with English alone in Corozal Town, although many residents of the district speak Spanish as a first language and some speak only Spanish. Signs are in English, distances are measured in miles and local laws are based on the English Common Law, as in the U.S. and Canada.
Next door is Chetumal, population around 260,000, capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, with its good, low-cost medical care and inexpensive shopping. While Corozal Town has only small grocery stores, inexpensive local restaurants and little shops, Chetumal has large supermarkets, Wal Mart-style super centers, department stores, multiplex cinemas and even McDonald's and Burger King.
The appeal of Corozal is clear: Corozaleños are friendly, the crime rate is lower than in some other areas of Belize, though there has been an increase in crime of late, and the climate is sunny with less rain than almost anywhere else in Belize, around 50 inches a year, about the same as Atlanta.
Best of all, housing and real estate prices are a bargain, with large bayfront building lots going for US$60,000, bay view lots for less than US$20,000, and modern large homes built to U.S. standards available for US$100,000 to $200,000. Belizean style homes are much less, and some expats have built simple but attractive homes for less than US$50,000. Building costs for concrete construction run US$35 to $55 or $60 a square foot, and rentals range from US$200 to $800 or so a month, the latter for a pleasant, modern three or four-bedroom house.
Most foreign residents of Corozal say that can live pretty well for less than they could in the U.S. and Canada. Although gasoline and electric costs are two to three times higher than back home, taxes, insurance, medical care, restaurant meals and most personal services are cheaper. A carpenter or mason, for example, gets only about US$25 a day, and a maid or gardener around US$15. Grocery prices aren't a bargain, but local fruits and any foods grown or made in Belize are very affordable. Chetumal is nearby for big-ticket purchases.
No one knows for sure how many foreign retirees and other expats live in the Corozal Town area, but the best estimates are that the total is around 300 to 400. Some live in Corozal Town proper, and others live a few miles north in the Consejo area or in other nearby communities.
Three of Belize's banks, Scotia Bank, Belize Bank, and Atlantic Bank, have branches in Corozal Town, and Belize Bank has an ATM that works with foreign-issued ATM cards.
The town has a Rotary Club and a few other local organizations of interest to foreign residents. An informal expat association meets monthly for lunch. Attendance is usually around 40 to 50 people. Some foreign residents take courses at Corozal Junior College. Tuition costs are nominal. Corozal Town has a small public library. Local cable TV has more than 30 channels, some in Spanish but most in English, for under US$20 a month.
BOQUETE PROFILE - After being spotlighted as one of the best places in the world to retire by Forbes, Fortune and AARP's Modern Maturity, Boquete (pronounced Boh-Keh-Teh) has become a hot spot for baby boomers looking for a retirement location, and the real estate market in Boquete has started to sizzle.
Boquete is in the Highlands of Chiriquí (pronounced Chee-Reh-Kee), about 300 miles west of Panama City, and 55 miles northeast of the Costa Rica border at Paso Canoas.
From the Lowlands city of David (pronounced Dah-Veed), less than 25 miles away, an unpretentious small city of 80,000, you drive north on a good, paved country road to Boquete. The roadway slopes gradually upward. David is at about 100 feet elevation. The town of Boquete is at around 3,000 to 3,700 feet, and the areas just north of Boquete are at 4,000 to 6,000 feet, with Volcan Baru topping out at 11,411 feet.
As you enter Boquete, the red zinc and tile roofs of the town are spread out in a valley below you. A good viewing point is the IPAC (Tourism Panama) office, in a handsome building on the south side of town. The name Boquete means "between two mountains." The town has a population of around 5,000, with close to 16,000 people in the entire Boquete district.
Boquete is also nicknamed "the city of flowers and coffee," and both are in abundance here. Flowers and tropical plants grow in lush arrays around Boquete. Wild impatiens cling to the mountainsides, orchids are in the trees, and roses, bougainvillea and colea are in many yards. Eucalyptus trees, silvery green, add texture to the hillsides.
About 50,000 acres of coffee is in production in Panama, and the best of the country's Arabica coffee is grown above 3,000 feet in the Chiriquí Highlands. The highest quality coffee is shade-grown, organic and handpicked. Kotowa, Café Ruiz, Hacienda La Esmeralda and Lamastus Family Estates are among the higher quality coffee operations in Boquete. The coffee beans turn cherry red and are harvested in this area in October and November. Each January, Boquete celebrates its twin passions with the Festival de Flores y Café. In April, there is an orchid festival.
The dark, rich volcanic soil makes the Highlands the breadbasket of Panama. Above Boquete and around Volcan and Cerro Punta large fields of onions, potatoes and other vegetables are intensely cultivated.
With more than 500 American, Canadian and other expats living at least part of the year in Boquete, and with increasing tourism from both foreigners and Panamanians, a number of new restaurants and tourism activities have sprung up. The downtown area, basically only two streets wide, has a dozen or so restaurants, a new deli with a selection of imported items, and two well-stocked groceries.
The climate here is dubbed "eternal spring." While it is spring like, at times it can get warm during the day, especially in Boquete town and south of town at the lower elevations. Temps in the high 70s or low 80s F. are not unusual. At night, though, it cools down. Most homes require neither air-conditioning nor heat, except perhaps for a fireplace, although interestingly the tourism office in Boquete does have central air conditioning. At the higher elevations around Cerro Punta and up Volcan Baru, it can get positively chilly, and you may need a sweater at night. Boquete and the Highlands get considerable rain. One weather station near Boquete reported an average of about 131 inches of rain annually, two to three times the average in much of the U.S. Southeast. While rain can come in torrents, often it comes as a bajareque, or drizzle, in the afternoon. When that happens, rainbows are common.
Panama is south of the hurricane belt, but earthquakes are possible. Volcan Baru, while dormant for at least 800 years, could awaken.
Residents of Boquete have access to good medical care at hospitals and clinics in David, about a half hour away.