5 Best Caribbean Islands…And Two to Avoid—Internationalliving.com

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Most people assume it’s just too expensive to live on a Caribbean island and don’t give it another thought—but the Caribbean is bigger than many people realize. Look beyond the mass-market shores the tourist brochures describe to find a variety of affordable, sun-splashed islands well worth attention, detailed in a report by the editors at International Living.

Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic.

Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic.

"The Caribbean is bigger than many people realize.”

“Mention the word ‘Caribbean’ and most people think of places like Aruba, the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, and other tourist-rich dollops of sand,” says Dan Prescher, a senior editor at International Living.

“The region conjures well-deserved images of crystal-clear waters and white-sand beaches, and if you like sun and sand, these islands are great for a vacation. But the assumption is that they’re way too expensive to actually move to. And that’s too bad, because the Caribbean is bigger than many people realize.”

International Living editors and correspondents have discovered that, beyond the popular shores the tourist brochures describe, there are a variety of sun-splashed islands well worth attention. They’re not only beautiful… but a lot more affordable than most people think.

Belize, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Panama and Mexico all offer islands off their Caribbean coasts—islands that share the same turquoise-blue waters and powder-white beaches as more expensive Caribbean destinations and are much, much more affordable.

International Living editors have identified five of the best Caribbean islands that won’t break the bank…and two that just might.

Ambergris Caye, Belize

English-speaking Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize at 25 miles long and a little over a mile wide, and San Pedro is its only town. About 30 years ago, Ambergris became a hotspot for divers and fishermen thanks to the Belize Barrier Reef, just a half-mile offshore. This natural wonderland of living coral supports a dizzying array of marine life, and it’s the main reason Ambergris has seen its recent (and significant) growth.

Until just a few years ago, San Pedro was a little fishing village that catered to adventure tourists coming for the scuba-diving and deep-sea fishing. The main motorized transportation on Ambergris Caye at that time was golf carts (which remain popular, though there are many more cars on the island today). San Pedro is now the second-largest town in Belize District with more than 15,000 people, surpassed in size only by the former capital, Belize City.

Expats give up little living on Ambergris Caye. Power, water, cell phone coverage, and internet are reliable…and most necessities for daily living are readily available on the island. Regular water taxis and flights make it easy to take a quick shopping trip in Belize City, or Chetumal, Mexico. The selection of quality restaurants and bars is constantly expanding.

How much?

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. Own your own home on the island outright and it’s possible for a couple to live quite comfortably on less than $2,000 a month.

Roatan, Honduras

Roatán, one of the Bay Islands, has quietly graduated from secret divers’ getaway to livable island haven. Just 50 square miles, this green, hilly island off Honduras’ northern coast is long and skinny, fringed by a reef rich with sea life and garnished by white-sand beaches.

The beaches here are quiet and pristine. Life is laidback, lived in rhythm with the sun and the surf. No big-name resorts. No “spring break” strips. No high-rise developments. This is old-school Caribbean…though fitted out with modern conveniences. And English is commonly spoken.

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.

How much?

Less than $175,000 buys a two-bedroom Caribbean home right on the water in a quiet neighborhood with no tourists. Life on an island is often more expensive than mainland living—almost everything has to be imported, after all. But relative to the rest of the Caribbean, Roatán offers excellent value.

The monthly cost of living for a couple, including rent, is $2,000 to $2,500.

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Isla Mujeres is about eight miles from Cancún in Mexico, but this laidback island is a world away from the hustle and bustle of its more tourist-developed older sister. Before Cancún existed, Mexicans and a few adventurous foreigners went to Isla Mujeres for some of the best beaches and water sports in the world—diving for coral, swimming with dolphins, and sailing on a crystal blue sea.

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.

How much?

Clear, azure waters and white-sand beaches are never far away, and the cost of living is far lower than a similar lifestyle would cost back in the States. A one-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse condo goes from $230,000, and a one-bedroom place rents for $700 to $1000 a month.

A couple can live a very nice life on Isla Mujeres for $2,500-$3,000 a month, including rent.

Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic

Columbus knew he was on to something good when he spotted a beautiful, coral-rimmed island in 1492. “This is the fairest land under heaven,” the explorer is reported to have said.
The Dominican Republic has great weather and world-class beaches, not to mention a low cost of living and a stable government—plus it’s just three-and-a-half hours from New York.

The north coast of the island has some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean, the east coast is a sportsman’s paradise with some of the newest designer golf courses in the region.

This isn’t all-inclusive resort territory, and thanks to strict planning laws it should stay that way. The beach hotels here are small and family-run rather than sprawling, faceless chains.
The beaches around Las Terrenas are some of the most pristine in the Dominican Republic.

How much?

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.

Isla Colon, Panama

Not many people know that Panama has its own tropical archipelagos. Set on the Caribbean coast, close to the border with Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is a group of nine main islands and a few hundred smaller cayos and islets, dotting calm turquoise waters.

The main hub is bustling Bocas Town, on the large island of Isla Colon, which sits below the hurricane belt. It’s a ramshackle seaside town of brightly painted buildings—many on stilts over the water. It’s the home base for most visitors and where the majority of expats live.

Bocas, as it is known, is all about water. Water sports, fishing, and whale watching are just some of the popular pastimes for locals. The small city is tourist driven but with a laidback feel.

How much?

Depending on the lifestyle expats choose, a couple can live here on as little $1,400 a month, renting a simple, snug, island-style home. Bocas is home to a great deal of untitled or right of possession (ROP) property. It’s best to rent and familiarize yourself with the unique landscape before contemplating a property purchase here.

Two to Avoid…Because Costs Are High

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 U.S. Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated United States territory and their people are U.S. citizens.

St. Thomas is the island on which most of the population of the U.S. Virgin Island lives. It is also the most commercialized of the islands and a regular stopping off point for Caribbean cruise ships. This 30-square-mile island has jungle cliffs that soar high into the sky and the turquoise sea is dotted with yachts of all shapes and sizes. St. Thomas, and in particular the capital of Charlotte Amalie, can get overrun by tourists.

While St. Thomas may be a nice place to live, 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, Bahamas

What do Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, Oprah Winfrey, Sean Connery, Bill Gates, and Tiger Woods have in common? Apart from being celebrities, they’re among thousands of North Americans and Europeans who own second homes in the Bahamas.

Like other expats who live there for all or part of the year, these stars often think of the Bahamas as a paradise—an upscale group of islands with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The Bahamas are 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.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that property on the islands usually isn’t cheap. Medium-size residences in exclusive gated communities with ocean views often cost more than $2 million.

Grand Bahama Island 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.

For more information on the Caribbean’s most affordable islands, including interviews with expats living and working there, go to 5 Best Caribbean Islands to Live On… and 2 to Avoid

Editor's Note: Members of the media have permission to republish the article linked above once credit is given to Internationalliving.com.

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About International Living

Since 1979, Internationaliving.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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