Caye Caulker Belize: A Slice of Paradise

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For Part I of the trip to Belize, click here.

 

I had been looking forward to visiting Belize’s cayes for a long time.  When I first started researching suitable locations to live overseas, Belize immediately caught my attention.  Since I live in Guatemala, making the trek was both a necessity, and an opportunity.

 

After our great stay in San Ignacio, we were ready to hit the beach.  Guatemala is not particularly blessed with typical beaches, so I was looking forward to strolling through Belize’s white-sand beaches.

 

Except Belize doesn’t have those either, a fact I learned after I was already in Belize.  More on that later.

 

Heading to Caye Caulker

 

The ferry ride to Belize was pleasant and fast, taking only 45 minutes from Belize City to Caye Caulker.  The weather was great and the ride afforded great views of Belize City, which admittedly looks way better from the water than the sketchy and rundown atmosphere one senses while driving in to the ferry’s dock.

 

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The Baron Bliss

 

Below is “The Bliss”, a performing arts center/museum/library built by Belize’s government using funds from a trust created by Baron Bliss, a rather strange character.  Belize honors Bliss with a holiday cleverly named “Baron Bliss Day.”

 

A more apt name would’ve been “Free Money Day.”

 

Mr. Bliss, as I’ve said, is a mysterious character.  Besides being born in England as Henry Edward Ernest Victor Barretts, little else is known about his private life there.  In the early 1900’s, Barretts became an Engineer.

 

Somehow, nobody knows for sure, he became filthy rich.  And acquired the title of Baron.  And changed his last name to Bliss.

 

After making his huge fortune, Double B fell ill, became paralyzed, and retired from… something.  Since England is too cold and overcast 362 days of the year, he thought better than to stick around and be miserable AND cold.

 

The Baron bought a yacht, loaded his wheelchair on it, and set out to enjoy a life of fishing in the islands near the Caribbean Sea.  He lived in the Bahamas for about 5 years, after which time he got sick of the people there and set out to Trinidad.

 

Shortly after arriving to Trinidad, he had a bad meal, became ill with food poisoning, and left that island too.  After a brief stopover in Jamaica, he came over to British Honduras, what is now Belize, at the request of his friend, the Attorney General.

 

Bliss set anchor in Belize’s harbor and for two months, just bobbed there, never once setting foot on Belize.  He was only near Belize for two months because he promptly fell ill and died.

 

But not before absolutely falling in love with the Belizean people and donating almost his entire fortune, about $2 Million dollars, to the Belizean people.  I guess Belizeans were very enthusiastic wavers to have made such an impression from ashore.

 

In any case, Bliss left a very detailed will specifying on what the money could be used.  For one, no American could ever touch the money or be a trustee and no funds could go towards building churches, dance halls, or schools.  No explanation was given.

 

For the Baron’s generosity, March 9th is now known as Baron Bliss Day in Belize.  A day in which everyone is reminded that there’s a pile of money sitting in a trust fund which no one is allowed to know the balance except the Trustees.

 

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The ride offered a welcome respite from the oppressive heat at the dock.

 

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We arrived to Caye Caulker without incident.

 

Caye Caulker is much sleepier than it’s big, much more commercialized sister, Ambergris Caye.  Caulker is loved by its authentic, beachy feel.

 

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The streets of Caulker are hard-packed sand, and most everybody moves around on foot, bicycles, and golf carts.

 

Since the weather was great, and we had only packed clothes for two days, we opted not to take the golf cart taxi.  The hotel was located a mostly pleasant 10-15 minute walk from the dock.

 

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At last, we arrived at Colinda Cabanas, a completely remodeled property on the quieter side of Caulker.

 

We were assigned the cabana right behind the main office (good WiFi signal!)

 

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The rooms were super-clean and lovely.

 

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Beaches in Belize

 

Something I mentioned before is the peculiarity of Belize’s beaches.

 

The first 100-200 feet of beachfront water are covered by government-protected sea-grass.  If you’re not squeamish, then it won’t bother you.  But there are fish, crabs, and other sea creatures living in the midst of said sea-grass.  Once you get beyond it, the beach floor is sandy and not deep at all.

 

What most hotels do is build long piers that stretch from the property and out past the sea-grass.  Below is the long pier belonging to the hotel we stayed in.

 

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Right next to Colinda is Ignacio’s, a well-known, if somewhat rundown option for budget travelers.

 

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Their cabins were cute, though I couldn’t get a peek at one on the inside.

 

Their pier is nowhere as well-constructed as Colinda’s.  Nor did I see anyone coming or going from the place the whole time we were there.

 

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These chairs saw use as observation points for the beautiful skies at night, which were filled with stars.

 

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We made use of the free snorkel gear provided by Colinda (first-come, first-served).

 

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It was a great, low-cost way to introduce my daughter to snorkeling.

 

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For dinner, we strolled into the part of town were the restaurants were.  Dinner was great, and after some stargazing, we retired to bed.

 

The next morning, it was time to explore the island a little further.  We dodged some crazy iguanas (not really… they’re super-shy and will scamper off at the first sign you’re moving towards them), and grabbed a couple bikes to hit the town.

 

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Doing The Split

 

At the end of the island, there’s a sandy beach in a place calles “The Split”.  It is so-called because the island was literally split in half by a passing hurricane in 1961.

 

 

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There’s a nice area by The Split to sit, relax, and have some ice cream.

 

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Collecting seashells was a favorite activity.

 

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The beach is further protected from the waves, making it a popular spot for children.

 

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This would be an interesting place to have lunch.

 

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Even though The Split is a family-friendly zone, boats do pass through there.  Sometimes with fatal consequences.

 

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I wasn’t sure if the boat was an actual restaurant or not.  It seemed like it was, although no one was on it as far as I could see.

 

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At last, we found the white-sand beaches we originally came looking for.

 

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After getting thoroughly sunburned, we returned to our cabana and stopped by a bakery.  They had super-delicious cinnamon rolls, which were so good, I didn’t have time to take a pic before they had disappeared.

 

Change of Plans

 

We had heard that Tropical Storm Ernesto, later turned Hurricane Ernesto, would be coming our way soon.  Which was a bummer, as we intended to continue on to Ambergris Caye the next morning.

 

In the end, we decided to just head back home the next morning, away from the storm, and avoid a potentially nasty situation.

 

The sky was ominously dark, even though it made for great pics.

 

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We were out on the pier barely five minutes, when it started raining.  Lightly at first.

 

We decided to head back inside.

 

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What followed next was a hellacious thunderstorm that lasted nearly all night.  Rain was so hard, and lightning so loud, I was almost positive the cabanas right behind ours were getting zapped with bolts.  I’ll never forget that night.

 

Heading For The Hills

 

The next morning, we decided to catch the first boat out at 7am.  Turns out we weren’t the only ones with that idea, as there were people there at 6:30a.m. already in line.

 

It seemed not everyone was ready to be potentially stranded in Caulker with a possible hurricane heading that way.

 

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By 7:00 a.m., the line stretched half-way out to the pier.

 

By 7:30 a.m., the line was almost all the way out to the shore, and Police made an appearance.  The first boat was late and some people thought they had the right to be the first ones off the island, regardless of their original time of arrival and place in line.

 

A little bit of light shoulder-shoving and jockeying for position ensued, which only grew more tense when the first boat arrived, near capacity, from Ambergris Caye.

 

A few children were let on the boat first, which led early risers to loudly grumble that they were in line first, children and women be damned.

 

That’s when a worker from the boat company made the announcement that there would be enough boats coming for everybody and that no one should panic or be alarmed.  People calmed down somewhat, though I’m sure that those at the back of the line were not exactly reassured.

 

Thankfully, the second boat came by 15 minutes later, much emptier than the first.  By virtue of being early-risers also, we were near the front of the line and were able to leave Caye Caulker.

 

Other passenger that made it onto the boat seemed relieved to be getting off the island as well.

 

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On the way back, I wondered how the “house”??? below would fare during a storm.

 

I later found out that winds and heavy rains did not leave a lasting damage.

 

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I was disappointed I couldn’t see more of Belize and had to cut my visit short.

 

But I saw enough of it to make me come back for more.

Things to Do in San Ignacio, Belize: How a Delay Led to a Great Trip

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Sometimes, when it seems like things are going from bad to worst, all you gotta do is hang in there for a bit until the sun comes out again.

 

After barely being allowed into Belize, we were able to get to the insurance office on time. At 3:00p.m. we were still harboring hopes that we’d be able to get down to Belize City in time to catch the 4:30p.m. Water Taxi to Caye Caulker.

 

“So, Insurance Guy, how far are we from Belize city?”

 

Insurance Guy, who looked suspiciously Guatemalan, responded in perfect Belizean-accented English:

 

Oh, about 2… maybe 2 and a half hours.”

 

Our hopes dashed, I mentally made a note to check the wireless signal on my Guatemalan Tigo modem when the vehicle’s paperwork was complete.

 

After meeting the all-Black crew manning the Customs’ entry port, I assumed, like an idiot, that the guy was a Guatemalan guy that lived across the border. So, I asked Insurance Guy where he was from.

 

“I’m from Belize,” he cheerfully replied.

 

Instead of just nodding and smiling politely, I put on my surprised face (I told you I was an idiot) and asked him:

 

“Reeeeally???”

 

…in a tone that probably sounded something like “I don’t believe you! Show me your birth certificate!”

 

Insurance Guy was slightly ticked off, but I credit him for smiling and politely responding through semi-clenched teeth:

 

“Of course I am… I was born here.”

 

Luckily, he was almost done with my vehicle’s papers, so I thanked him and high-tailed it out of there.

 

The Cold War

 

Listening to people who looked perfectly Guatemalan speak in a Belizean-accented English was something that took some getting used to. My first instinct was always to address them in Spanish, and when they gave me that “Whatcha talking ’bout, Willis?” look, I knew to immediately switch to English.

 

Turns out that Belize was, in fact, part of Guatemala not that long ago. To this day, there are still skirmishes between the two sides and disputes as to what land belongs to whom. And yes, I’m grossly exaggerating the “Cold War” part on the sub-headline.

 

According to an expat I talked to, racial tensions exist between the Latino and Black communities, though I never had the chance to broach the subject with an actual Belizean person.

 

Something that I did notice when I left Belize, was the curious workplace division between Belizean Customs Officers. Both times I passed through Customs, I noticed that on the Belizean entry side, the entire crew were Black officials, while on the exit side, the post was Latino-manned. Whether this was just random coincidence on both days I passed through, I do not know. Just something that caught my eye.

 

Landing on the Nest

 

After successfully connecting to the Internet from the Insurance office parking lot, we looked for options on where to stay in San Ignacio Belize. This town, I later learned, is a nice base for expeditions into nearby Mayan sites and other exciting outdoor-type stuff.

 

Since we were only spending the night, I chose to go to Parrot’s Nest, a lodge in the Belizean jungle. I thought it’d be pretty cool to stay in a jungle. That and I read it had a tree-house, and  I wanted  my little girl has wanted for the longest to stay in a tree-house to see what it was like.

 

The directions were not clear on the website, so I just scribbled the address and decided to wing it and show up without reservations in place. Turns out it was super easy to get to the lodge.

 

As soon as we made our decision and hit the road, the rain stopped, and everything cleared up. Fifteen minutes later, we were in San Ignacio.

 

Heading to the Jungle

 

 

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San Ignacio proper is not very big, and while a bit confusing at first because of road construction, I found my bearings quickly.

 

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We asked one of the construction workers for Bullet Tree Falls Road, which leads to the part of town where Parrot’s Nest is located, somewhere out in… Bullet Tree Falls. The road was easy to find and led almost straight out from the town’s center.

 

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It was a pleasant, if somewhat long drive, about 3-4 miles, out of San Ignacio’s town center. I mean, it was a “jungle” I was heading to, so I should’ve known it wasn’t going to be located next to the town’s Kwik-e Mart.

 

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After fumbling for directions, I found the dirt road that led deep into the jungle…

 

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After dodging a jaguar and a pack of wild howler monkeys (not really), we arrived at the lodge. Marcus, the friendly owner greeted us. Well, the friendly dogs did first, to be honest.

 

Marcus showed us around the property and the various tree-houses. According to Marcus, this lodge had the first ones available to the public in Belize.

 

We couldn’t stay in the one below, since it was designed for two people. Or one of me.

 

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The Macal Mopan River (thanks Cayo Scoop for the correction!) runs right behind the lodge. After doing a snack run to the supermarket in Bullet Tree, we returned as quickly as we could, peeling off layers of clothing en route as we jumped into the river to cool off.

 

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The water was refreshingly cool, and we spent the last part of the afternoon relaxing in the river’s slow-moving current.

 

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We had a filling, community-style dinner, during which all guest sat in the dining room and ate together, swapping travel stories and itineraries.

 

After dinner, on the way to our tree-house, we ran across thousands, if not millions of leaf-cutter ants, crawling their way back to their colony. It was pretty amazing to watch a live Discovery Channel documentary.

 

And on that note, we called it a night and went to bed happy.

 

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After a good night’s sleep, it was time for breakfast.

 

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After breakfast, we took one last look at the river…

 

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…and I snapped some pics of the local wildlife.

 

It is actually a lot harder to do this when you don’t have a telephoto lens to take care of business from a distance that does not scare away the butterflies.

 

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We could’ve easily hung out for two more days at the lodge. It was a great place to relax and enjoy nature (the nightly firefly show is great to watch).

 

But, since we were doing the typical tourist tour, it was time to go and hit the road to make it to Caye Caulker on time.

 

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We hit Burns Street, San Ignacio’s main shopping street, and had lunch at Mr. Greedy’s, a nice pizza place.

 

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We crossed Hawthorne Bridge on the way out of town.

 

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Highways are in great shape, and it was a scenic trip most of the way down to Belize City.

 

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Houses of Belize

 

Something you immediately notice upon entering Belize are the colors of the residences. If you’re from the USA and ever wondered whatever happens to all those always-on-sale-at-50-percent-off cans of loud, garish paint, I have a theory about where they end up.

 

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Houses of Belize

 

Houses of Belize

 

Houses of Belize

 

Even the Police Department gets in on the action.

 

Belize Police

 

Houses of Belize

 

The house below was the cutest one I saw in my entire trek through Belize.

 

Houses of Belize

 

Houses of Belize

 

Houses of Belize

 

Houses of Belize

 

The buses actually on the road were few and far between. Maybe the fact that it was Sunday had something to do with it.

 

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Overlanding Through Belize? Leave Your Car With Dave

 

At last, we arrived at Ladyville, where we met Dave, owner of EdgarsMiniStorage. We left the car locked at Dave’s place while we spent a couple days at the Cayes.

 

Dave charged me only $10BZD per day to store the car, and gave us a ride to the Water Taxi dock for $30BZD each way. A good option, since there are no public garages in Belize City. You can reach Dave at e-mail address edgarsministorage_1@yahoo.com, or phone number 00-501-602-4513.

 

Another option is to leave your car at the airport, in their unsecured parking lot, for $19BZD a day.

 

After dropping off the car, it was off to the docks to purchase tickets and wait for the Water Taxi to depart at the scheduled time.

 

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It was super hot, but we consoled ourselves knowing that paradise awaited just a 45-minute boat ride away.

 

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How To Cross The Guatemala – Belize Border

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The time had come – that time every digital nomad at first loves because it feels exciting and new… until later it becomes one more inconvenience in a long list of gripes.  It was…

Tourist visa renewal time!

In Guatemala, you can renew your visa at the 90-day mark without leaving the country. After your visa is renewed, you can take your passport to SAT’s Custom’s office and extend your vehicle’s permit as well.

At six months or 180-days, one HAS TO leave the country. The rule also applies to whatever foreign vehicle you’ve brought with you because its Temporary Import stamp has to match your passport.

My options for renewal were a) Costa Rica, b) Mexico, and c) Belize.

 

Option a) Mexico, was a no-go because that meant importing my car again.  This requires a hefty credit card deposit (refundable), and purchase of insurance.  Plus I’d already been to Mexico.

Option b) Costa Rica, requires crossing at least 2 countries, Honduras and Nicaragua. Add El Salvador to the list if you feel you haven’t filed enough government paperwork in your life.

The reasons you have to cross all these countries to get to Costa Rica are because:

1)  You have to for geographical reasons (unless you have Marty McFly’s flying car from Back to the Future), and…

2)  Because Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador have joined Guatemala in the CA-4 Border Agreement pact.

This agreement makes it easier for residents of these countries to do business and move within each other’s borders.  But this also means that, for visa purposes, you and your car are in the same “zone.”  A visa stamp from these countries does not qualify as a valid “exit.”

Option c) Belize, made the most sense because it meant there was only one border to cross and unlike Mexico, no credit card deposit required.  Belize also requires vehicle insurance.

Plus, we wanted to see the Caribbean beaches again, since black sand beaches in Guatemala do not quite cut it.

On the Way to Belize

First stop was to drop off our beloved (and mischievous) French Poodle with a caretaker.  Importing pets into Belize is somewhat costly, and the length of the stay did not justify the cost and paperwork hassle.

Check out TacoGirl‘s instructions for importing your pet into Belize, either overland or because you’re considering Belize as a long-term destination.heading to Belize

Ready to hit the road

The roads were in great condition, for the most part, and the weather was as nice as could be.

Occasionally, there were stretches where you’d see many stands selling the same products for a couple of miles.  This particular stretch was noted for the sale of grape juice.  Another stretch featured cane juice.

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Homemade grape juice

It took about 4 hours, from Guatemala City, to reach the turnoff for Peten (Tikal) and the Belizean border.  From the turnoff, it was about 35 minutes to Rio Dulce, a cool little town next to Lake Izabal and home to the largest bridge in Central America.

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Crossing the long Rio Dulce Bridge

The bridge offered great views of the lake on one side, and the river on the other.  According to the US Coast Guard, this inlet is the safest place in continental America to store a boat and protect it from an incoming hurricane.

Rio Dulce river

Rio Dulce

The main road goes right through town.  Fairly crowded and busy, the main attractions are on the riverbank (hotels, restaurants, etc).

On our way back from Belize, we took a detour at this junction to visit scenic Castillo San Felipe.  Stay tuned, as this place deserves its own post.

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The main road through Rio Dulce

From Rio Dulce, it takes about 3 hours to reach Flores, the base of expeditions into Tikal and other archaeological attractions in the Peten Department.

Road to Peten Guatemala

Highway to Peten

If heading straight into Tikal, there’s no need to go to Flores (Santa Elena), which is about 20 minutes from the turnoff you see below.  Tikal is about 30 minutes away from the turnoff.

I highly recommend you visit Flores, at least for a day.  Well worth it.

Turn off to Tikal Guatemala

Turn off towards Tikal, Peten

From the turnoff above, we headed towards Tikal, which is on the same road that leads to the border.  The road is not crowded and it’s mostly in good condition, except for a dirt/gravel stretch that I can only imagine turns awful when it rains.

 

Roadside stand in Peten

Coconut water for sale

From Flores to Melchor de Mencos, where the crossing into Belize is located, it’s about 1 1/2 hours.

 

Turn off to Melchor de Mencos

Stay on the right…

I told you the road was not crowded…

 

Road to the Guatemala Belize border

Horses on the road

Entrance to Melchor de Mencos

Arriving in Melchor de Mencos

Crossing From Guatemala Into Belize

Melchor de Mencos is a sleepy little town and your last chance for a decent meal until you reach San Ignacio, Belize.  Just continue straight ahead towards the border crossing post.

Note:  Bring copies of all your documents (passport, latest visa stamps, vehicle paperwork, etc).  I failed to make copies of the last permit extension permit for my vehicle, which meant I had to scramble and find a place to make a copy.

There is a little “copy shack” right next to the border office, in case you need any document copies.  Since we attempted to cross over on a Saturday afternoon, the office was “closed”.  I say “closed” because the guy was just sitting there, window open, surfing the net.  He refused to get up to make a copy because the office was “closed”, and directed me to an unnamed office located just before the bridge crossing.

We walked back, over the short bridge, and found the office, which was also just about to close.  For reference, it’s the tiny, dark-yellow, one-story building to the right you see below.

If you haven’t filled up your car’s gas tank, this is your last chance.  Gas is way more expensive on the Belizean side.

Guatemala Belize border

Before crossing the bridge to Belize

Tikal Belize sign

Make your move…

There’s a Q10 fee to cross the bridge by car (yep, we got a receipt).  This is collected by an attendant at the post below.

Belize - Guatemala bridge tollbooth

Tollbooth

Before crossing, park your car right behind the orange barricade and head over to the big building you see in the forefront.  Get your passport stamped first (right side of the counter), then head to the other side of the counter to get your vehicle’s paperwork straightened out.

 

Guatemala - Belize border crossing

Border crossing

Guatemalan Vehicle Permit Options

Note:  Turns out there are two procedures Customs can do for your vehicle, which I wasn’t informed about until I tried to re-enter Guatemala.  You can:

a)  Cancel your vehicle’s Guatemala permit:  More time-consuming option.  This procedure effectively checks the vehicle out of the country.  Upon reentering Guatemala, you can reapply and be granted a new import sticker, with a new 90-day visa clock.

b)  Request temporary leave:  They will “stop the clock” on your current permit, and restart it when you re-enter the country.

Option b is fine if you have plenty of time left before your vehicle’s permit expires and plan to leave the CA-4 area never to return again (or at least not quickly).  In my case, since I’ll be in Guatemala at least until the end of the year, it was best for me to cancel the permit and restart my vehicle’s permit clock.

But since nobody said anything about this, they simply just “stopped the clock”.  When I returned, they restarted the clock.

They didn’t reveal this until I pointed out that my permit was just extended for a week (the time left for visa expiration during my last stay in Guatemala) and not the full 90-days.  By then, according to them, it was too late to cancel the permit and start over, since they’re only allowed to do one “permit procedure” on a vehicle, per day.

Thankfully, I still had left with slightly over a week’s time on my permit, which extended my permit for the time I was out of the country.  Later, after I returned from the trip, I was able to extend my vehicle’s permit again for the full 90-days at the Custom’s office in Guatemala City.

There was NO FEE for any of the vehicle’s import paperwork into or out of Guatemala.

Once I got my vehicle’s exit paperwork straightened out, I changed some of my Guatemalan money into Belizean currency.

I had to drive through the car-wash look-alike contraption, which sprays insecticide on your vehicle.  For the honor, you get to pay a $10BZ fee or Q40 (they accept both currencies).

You can either park in the dirt lot before you cross over and pay the fee at the small building next to the Insect-O-Killer (right side in the pic below), or drive through, park on the Belizean side, and walk back to the small building.

Someone will chase you down and remind you if you “forget” to pay.  I know this from experience.  And yup, you get a receipt for this too.

car spray station in Belize

Your car will be sprayed with something

Find a parking spot (right side), and walk over to the main building to join the queue get your passport stamped.

Belizean customs building

Belizean immigration offices

Keystone Cops

Belizean Customs procedures are not complicated, although my experience was not a particularly pleasant one.

First, you have to fill out a small form (name, place of stay, the purpose of your visit, etc), like the one they give you on airplanes, for each person in your party, including children.

After we presented our forms, we were directed to a small office in the middle of the building, which I later found out were the offices for Customs’ officials.  Most people are waved through, stamped passport in hand.

After waiting in a hall to enter (no chairs, cold A/C at least), we were invited to walk into the office.

What followed was a literal Keystone Cops routine.

The Customs’ official asked us about the purpose of the visit (sightseeing) and proceeded to accuse me of trying to smuggle my wife and child (both Guatemalan), into Mexico and later, the US.  I smiled and assured him this was not so.

The official walked out of the room, closed the door, and conferred with the other officials about what I had said and what to ask us next.  I mean, the walls were paper-thin and they stood right on the other side of the door.

The official came back, grilled me some more about the length of my stay, and walked out. The official does the same “what do I ask them?” routine.

Then, he walks back in and accuses me of trying to visit Belize just to renew my Guatemalan visa (so???) and informs me that they do not like that at all.

Sure, because dragging one’s family into their country and spending a lot of money is SO harmful to Belize’s economy, right?

He walks back, talks some more with the other guys, then comes back in.  And I swear this is exactly what happened next:

The official thanks me for my honesty and how forthright I was with him (huh???).  He also tells me that there was no need for me to go further into Belize since they had a “service” they provided for people “just like me” (double-huh???).

With this service, he continued, they could just stamp my passport and I could return to Guatemala again, without any problems.  I “thanked” him for the offer, but I informed him that I was determined to check out Belize, despite his dogged efforts I did not do so.

Whether this was just a ploy to get some money from me or get me to say I just wanted a visa stamp, I’m still not sure.

My refusal to accept his “offer” seems to have ticked him off and he asked me how long I was going to stay in Belize.  I told him I was thinking about 5-days to maybe a week.

He proceeded to scribble a note and indicate we be given permission only for 5-days, after which point the visa would expire (it’s customary to get 90-days).  Lord forbid I enjoyed Belize and wanted to stay a few extra days and spend some more money in his country.

I proceeded to head back to the visa counter and was given a permission slip that allowed the vehicle to stay in Belize for 5-days.  After I was given the slip, I pulled the car over to the side of the building for inspection, so they could make sure the VIN on the vehicle was correct.  At which point I was finally given a green light to drive on.

This whole charade lasted over almost two hours, at which point our plans were screwed and we would not make it to Belize City in time to catch the last Water Taxi leaving for Caye Caulker, our original destination.

We headed over to the red-roof building pictured below to get mandatory Belize car insurance.insurance building in Belize

Car insurance offices ahead

Thankfully, the insurance office was still open (they have an after-hours number in case they’re closed when you arrive).  Insurance coverage for one week set me back 29$BZD, which was reasonable.

 

Belizean car insurance

Get insurance before driving on

Change of Plans

Right as we finished completing insurance paperwork (took about 10 minutes), rain started pouring.  We ran back into the Jeep to munch on chips and drinks while we pondered our options.

Thankfully, my portable modem worked just fine on the Belizean side and I was able to log in and check out hotel options nearby.  This worked out alright, as we ended up staying in the town of San Ignacio, located about 15 minutes away from the border.  San Ignacio is much nicer than Benque, the Belizean town right next to the border.

After the brief downpour, which lasted about 15 minutes, we finally hit the road in our Belizean adventure.

 

Entering Belize

Welcome to Belize (finally)

Crossing From Belize Into Guatemala

To exit Belize, all tourists (except Guatemalan tourists) need to pay a $30BZD exit fee at Customs.  There’s an additional $7.50BZD “conservation” fee for everyone, including Guatemalan citizens (excluding Melchor de Mencos residents, which are exempt from all fees).

Before leaving, you need to cancel your Belizean Temporary Permit (no fee).  Your car also gets sprayed by the Insect-O-Killer, on the way out of Belize.  Oddly enough, the fee is ~18Q, much cheaper, for the same service (receipt included).

As far as I could tell, it’s the same machine, spraying the same chemicals (though I suspect it’s just water).

Our time in Belize was very enjoyable (even the Customs’ officials on the exit side of Belize were much friendlier).

Flores Guatemala: A Tiny Jewel in Lake Peten Itza

Flores Island Guatemala (17)

We picked Flores Guatemala, or more accurately, Flores Island, as our stopping point. Both, when getting ready to cross into Belize, and on our way back. No surprise really, since it’s a charming, scenic island set on Lake Peten Itza. Flores is a popular jumping-off point for those who want to visit the Mayan temples at Tikal National Park (about an hour away) and surrounding areas. For us, it was just a welcome oasis after driving 8+ hours from Antigua Guatemala.

For the most parts, the trip was uneventful. There are a few spots where there’s ongoing road construction (always happening in Guatemala), but nothing too bad. I’ll condense both stays in Flores into one post.

Big Man on Campus

As I followed the signs for Santa Elena, the bigger town right next to Flores, I spotted a “Monument to Elderly Citizens.” It caught my attention because it looked suspiciously like that of Joe Paterno, Penn State’s former coach. Later, I found out that it was the likeness of Manuel Baldizon, runner-up in Guatemala’s last Presidential election.

Baldizon, who talks in the third-person and fashions himself after Clark Kent (seriously… he said that), was born in Flores. His family pretty much owns the city and Baldizon, a Congressman, is set on renaming everything he possibly can after himself.

Flores Island Guatemala (33)

He built the monument below to the Mayans, which is also on the main road to Flores.

Flores Island Guatemala (21)

He owns the one and only mall in Flores (below), the only news channel in the Peten Department, and scores of other businesses in town. If you’re interested ainthe shady dealings in the area, read InsightCrime.org’s interesting report on the subject.

Flores Island Guatemala (32)

Flores Guatemala Island

The island of Flores is reachable from a causeway that joins it to the town of Santa Elena.

Flores Island Guatemala (31)

Flores Island Guatemala (30)

Peten is really humid most of the year and it takes some getting used to. Temperatures are pleasant enough to walk around at sunrise and strolling at sundown is an enjoyable activity.

A new lakeside promenade has been built on the western side of the island, making for a pleasant walk early in the early mornings and late afternoons. Any time in between and you risk sweating your face off.

Flores Island Mirador

Lake Peten Itza Promenade

It takes about 15-20 minutes to circle the island on foot, depending on your pace.

Flores Island Guatemala (20)

Flores Island Promenade Guatemala

Launches are everywhere and will take you to nearby attractions, such as the Petencito Zoo and an archeological museum located on a smaller island right across the water from Flores (below).

Museum Flores Island

Flores Island Guatemala (18)

Flores Island Guatemala (16)

Sunsets are beautiful here and can be enjoyed from the promenade or many of the restaurants facing the western side of the island.

Flores Island Guatemala (28)

Flores Island Guatemala (27)

Flores Island Guatemala (26)

The following morning, we headed to Belize for the next leg of the journey.

Upon returning from Belize, after the hassle of catching a Water Taxi out of Caye Caulker before Hurricane Ernesto hit, dealing with Customs in two countries, it only made sense to spend the night at Flores again and continue to Guatemala the following morning.

Since we had more time this time around, the next morning we were up and running pretty early to do some exploring.

The Streets of Flores Guatemala

Flores cobblestone streets remind me of Antigua Guatemala, although the city itself is about half the size and there’s way less vehicle traffic.

Finding a parking space is nowhere near the hassle it can be in Antigua at times.

Flores Island Guatemala (19)

Flores Island Guatemala

The first day, we had breakfast at Dona Goya’s Restaurant, which had a nice view of the lake and good prices. I also recommend Cool Beans Cafe, another lakeside restaurant that serves a great meal. No charge for the entertainment provided by the young chickens roaming around.

Breakfast at Lake Peten Itza, Flores, Guatemala

Flores Island Guatemala (14)

There are a few docks around the island, from which the locals and tourist alike like to launch into the lake for a swim.

Flores Island Guatemala (12)

Flores Island Guatemala (11)

Flores’ Central Plaza is located at the highest point on the island. So that’s where we started walking towards.

Flores Island Streets, Guatemala
Flores Island, Guatemala
Flores Island Guatemala (8)

Humidity started climbing, which meant all the walking I was going to do, I had better do it fast.

Flores Island Guatemala (24)

The plaza was simple, with the church and government buildings dominating the landscape.

Flores Island Guatemala (25)

A replica of the “Monument to Peace” is here, although it’s a mystery to me whatever happened to the other hand. Vandals most likely.

Flores Island Guatemala (7)

The plaza was named after Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio (below), who was born in Flores.

Flores Island Guatemala (6)

There’s a nice view of the lake from the eastern side of the plaza.

Flores Island Guatemala (5)

The main church is actually a cathedral (Catedral Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios y San Pablo Itzá) and houses an image of the black Christ.

Catedral Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios y San Pablo Itzá

Flores Island Guatemala (3)

Since it was getting late, we headed back to the car to start our long trip back home.

Flores Island Guatemala (2)

We passed the city of Santa Elena on our way out.

Flores Island Guatemala (22)

Flores is a little too remote for my tastes, not to mention hot, so it wouldn’t be on my list of long-term cities in Guatemala. However, I can see how it may be attractive to other expats.

Flores does have an airport with daily flights to Guatemala City, and its relative closeness to the Belizean border makes renewing one’s visa a relatively painless affair. It’s a pretty laid-back town where you can get to know everyone if you really wanted to. I had a good time there and I’m sure I’ll be back to Flores again soon :)

*****

Have you visited Flores?

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4 Reasons Expat Life in Guatemala is Better Than Expat Life in Belize

After having the chance to visit Belize for a few days, I have now gained a new appreciation for my expat life in Guatemala.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun in Belize. In fact, TOO much fun, and I have the (ouch!) sunburns to prove it.

But… After almost a week, I was ready to head back to Guatemala. And boy, I’m I glad to be home.

I’ve written about Belize in the past (see here). It’s a fine destination if you’re a digital nomad who is into diving and other sea-dependent pursuits.

But for me, Guatemala is where I’d be if I had to choose between the two.  Here’s why:

#1 – Way Easier On Your Budget

After growing accustomed to Guatemala’s prices, Belize’s “island” prices blew me away. Everything’s more expensive there. Gas, groceries, clothing… you name it, the cost would be more and in some cases almost double than in Guatemala.

For example, our family of three could eat a decent meal in Guatemala, with drinks, for about $15 USD. The same meal in Belize would be about the equivalent of $25 USD.

Belize is definitely a budget-buster.

#2 – Variety of Climate and Landscapes

While I enjoyed Belize, it is a really small country compared to Guatemala. You can drive the country from end to end (North/South, East/West) in a couple of days if you wanted to. Or one day if you started driving really early.

While it packs a bunch of cool places in a small area, it can’t even begin to touch Guatemala for diversity. Whichever climate you prefer (cold, hot, humid, dry)or landscape (mountains, lakes, seas, valleys) Guatemala has a place for you.

#3 – Big-City Conveniences

While I’m not a huge fan of Guatemala City, I do appreciate it has a lot to offer by the way of modern conveniences (malls, bigger hospitals, IMAX screens, restaurants offering any type of cuisine you can fancy, etc…).

Belize City and the capital, Belmopan, even though they are the largest cities in Belize, are nowhere the metropolis Guatemala City is. To be fair, neither are any of the other capitals in Central America, of which Guatemala City is the largest.

Belize is a small country that relies on tourism for revenue. They don’t seem to attract big investors that want to build larger, better facilities.

I’m thankful those options are available in Guatemala, should I ever wish to visit them.

#4 – The Internet Provider Sucks

UPDATE: I’m happy to take this one of this list! As pointed out by readers Matt and Jason below (thanks, guys!), as of earlier this year, BTL no longer blocks Skype. Hooray!

Belize Telecom (BTL) has a virtual monopoly on Belizean Internet service. Since they also offer telephone service, BTL has taken the extra step of blocking Skype and Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) access to all customers!

There are ways around BTL’s blocks, such as using VPN services, but this only serves to further slow down an already slow Internet connection. Guatemala? No such silly restrictions.

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These are the things I was able to gather from my admittedly short visit to Belize.

However, don’t think that all I have are a negative impression of Belize. The people, for one, are much friendlier and open to conversation than the typically reserved Guatemalan, or so it was in my case. Also, and this is key for many people, there is a lessened feeling of insecurity in most of Belize than there is in Guatemala (Belize City being the exception).

I thoroughly enjoyed Belize’s natural attractions, which I’ll detail on my trip report this Friday. But for the reasons I mentioned above, Guatemala gets my nod as a better place to live long-term, with this warning:

No place is a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for our family may not work for you and vice versa. The point of seeking freedom to slow travel is to find the place that speaks to you.

Photo @ Flickr by Uno Brick

*****

 Have you visited or lived in either country?

I’d love to hear your opinion!