Dive aficionados get starry-eyed when they hear Belize, with the world’s second-largest barrier reef stretching along its coast, and the Great Blue Hole attracting experienced divers from around the world. If you are not one of them, don’t fret. Despite its compact size, the only English-speaking country in Central America has a lot more to offer than great dive sites.
We entered Belize via its land border with Mexico (between Chetumal on the Mexican side and Corozal on the Belizean side). And the border crossing was certainly an interesting one. When we bought our shuttle tickets at the Marlin Espadas office in Chetumal, both the ticket agent and the bus driver mentioned the need to pay the Mexican Tourist tax (Derecho No Inmigrante).
For those not in the know, let me explain: Mexico charges every tourist an exit fee. This exit fee is generally included in your ticket if you entered the country by air. I say generally because it is not included in some charter airline tickets to keep the costs artificially low. No one knows exactly how much it is, but the current rate seems to be USD25-30 per person. We entered the country on an Interjet flight and knew we had already paid for it (as per confirmation from the airline).
However, when we entered the immigration building on the Mexican side, the first thing we were asked (in perfect English) was: How do you want to pay for your exit fee [in MXN or USD]? Knowing that we had already paid for it, Paul immediately responded (without a shadow of a doubt in his voice): We don’t. We already paid for it, and we have proof, pulling out our Interjet receipt. The officer briefly showed his colleague the receipt and then stamped our passports without further discussion. Everyone else on our bus (about 15 people) were charged USD30 per person even though the majority would have already paid it upon entry.
We are happy to pay whatever we genuinely owe, but the scam at the border between Mexico and Belize has been going on for years (if not decades), and we are tired of supporting any form of corruption (no matter where it occurs).
So, while there is no guarantee that you won’t be charged, here is how you can (at least try to) avoid the scam too:
- Your confirmation from the airline must show the Mexican tourist tax (recognisable via a UK code: for example, Derecho No Inmigrante – UK).
- If your receipt or tax invoice does not, contact your airline immediately upon ticket purchase and ask them to send you an itemised receipt that shows the Mexican tourist tax on it (Interjet, for example only provides itemised receipts during the month of purchase plus two days of the following month).
- If you can’t get an itemised receipt from your airline, but you know it has been included in the ticket price, you may want to try DIY Travel HQ‘s method (as a last resort). BTW, do not bother to pay the Mexican tourist tax at a Bank. We have heard of cases where the border officials did not accept the Bank receipt either (and people were effectively charged thrice).
- Finally, you need a physical copy of your receipt as the immigration agents keep the receipts. A German girl in the queue in front of us had an itemised receipt on her tablet. They did not accept it and made her pay anyway.
Continuing our journey south, the north-eastern part of Belize between Corozal and Belize City had a distinctly Caribbean feel to it, very different to Mexico. There were a lot more black people, and the way people talked reminded us of Jamaica. Belize City has such a bad reputation, but during the day, as we walked from the water taxi parking lot (where the shuttle had dropped us off) to the centre of town where the chicken buses (repurposed US school buses) leave, we found it to be like any other small town in the Caribbean, and the local people friendly and welcoming.
What did we get up to?
With our three week addition of Mexico, we had to reduce our time in Belize. Compared with its neighbours, Belize also happens to be expensive, so we decided to only stay a week. Many people head to the islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker or south to Placencia, Hopkins and other coastal villages. Given we had spent three months in the Caribbean, we chose to explore the interior of Belize instead, spending two nights each in Bermudian Landing and the capital Belmopan, and three nights in San Ignacio.
Bermudian Landing is about 1 1/2 hours north-west of Belize City. The wide-spread village got its name from the days when the Belize river was the only way to travel inland. These days, you can take a bus from Belize City.
We had chosen to go to Bermudian Landing to get up close and personal with Black Howler Monkeys. The Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS) – the locals used to call the howlers baboons – is a voluntary association of local landowners who have pledged to retain habitat along the Belize River and their property borders so that the monkeys can thrive. The project started in the 1980s, and the monkeys have recovered from only a few hundred to several thousand now. We stayed at the Nature Resort which shares the driveway with the CBS visitor centre. While nowhere advertised on its website, the Nature Resort offers tours (for example, an evening canoe tour to spot crocodiles for USD60 per person, a morning canoe tour for USD30 per person and a brief dusk walk to spot howler monkeys). We did the morning tour. While nice to travel quietly along the river, we would not do it again, purely for the fact that it started too late (at 0800h). You are exposed to full sunlight for 2 1/2 hours (we went straight to bed after the tour as it was too much for us despite drinking lots of water and wearing hats). It is also too hot for most animals by that time, so we only saw a group of howler monkeys right at the beginning, a few birds and insects, but no crocodiles or other animals. A start at dawn (between 0500h and 0530h) that finishes just before breakfast would make more sense (in our opinion). So if you do it, it may be worth asking for an earlier start.
We also checked out the CBS visitor centre, which has some displays about the howler monkeys and the project. It was just before 1600h (the centre is officially open until 1700h), and we were greeted by a local woman, who let us know that if we wanted to do a tour to see the monkeys, we would have to be quick as they were closing at 1620h. We quickly screened the displays and then went off with her, into the woods behind the bus stop about 100 metres down the road. She rattled down the same spiel we had already heard in the morning from Russell (the tour guide working with the Nature Resort), essentially talking to herself as she marched ahead of us. At some point we stopped, just to check how long it would take her to notice that we weren’t behind her anymore, and it took her a while. We traipsed around the forest for about 20 minutes with no monkeys in sight, and you could sense her increasing frustration. This was going to be longer than she expected (all she clearly wanted was to head home). She ended up making noises that imitated an alpha male (not pleasant), to get any locally present group to respond. And eventually, they did.
Lonely Planet talks about a one hour guided tour by trained local guides [who…] also impart their knowledge of the many medicinal plants. If this local woman was a trained guide, her training or enthusiasm for providing a great experience to CBS visitors have long waned. We were glad we got another glimpse of the monkeys, and we did give her a tip for her efforts, but our experience was very different to that described by Lonely Planet. Beware.
We had chosen to visit the capital, as it was a good spot to explore the nearby Nohoch Che’en Cave Branch River. If you thought Belize City was the capital, you aren’t wrong. A city built further inland in the 1970s replaced low lying Belize City as the capital as it was struck (and almost destroyed) too many times by hurricanes and associated floods.
Belmopan reminded us a bit of Canberra. Located in the middle of the country, its government and foreign consular buildings are surrounded by neat streets, footpaths and manicured lawns – very different from the other parts of Belize we have travelled through.
We had booked a sunset cave tubing tour with Cave Tubing BZ. Our guide Walter picked us up at 1500h. We stopped briefly at the Cave Tubing BZ headquarters to get our gear (helmets with headlamps and water shoes) before progressing to the National Park entrance. There we picked up our tubes and ventured into the rainforest for a good 30 minutes walk, including three river crossings. Once we entered the water, we first floated through a cave about 800 metres long, and after a short float in the open, we passed through a second cave, double in length compared to the first, with stalagmites and stalactites, and a small waterfall.
It was only the two of us plus Walter, as the park closes to the public at 1600h. Towards the end of our tour, we caught up with the second group of about seven people, but that was it. Given during high season (when the cruise ships anchor outside of Belize City), there are 400-700 visitors a day, it was great to have the park (almost) to ourselves. The water was super clean and had just the right temperature, very pleasant indeed.
The tour cost us USD75 per person (the day tour is cheaper), which included pick up from / drop off at our accommodation in Belmopan, helmets, headlamps, life vests and tubes, and the BZD10 per person park admission. Water shoe hire was an additional USD3 per person. Different (again) to Lonely Planet’s description, the tour does not exit the caves after dark (at least ours did not). It wasn’t a biggy for us, especially as a massive thunderstorm hit as soon as we were back at our hotel, but it’s important to manage expectations.
This town close to the border with Guatemala is actually the country’s second-largest settlement after Belize City. It’s even larger than Belmopan, yet it still feels like a small town. There are noticeably more tourists here, especially backpackers in their 20s and accordingly, you will find a choice of budget accommodation.
San Ignacio is a good base for adventures further afield, such as day trips into the Nature Reserves of the Mayan Mountains with its caves (including Actun Tunichil Muknal), waterfalls and the ancient Maya city of Caracol (still housing the largest man-made structure in Belize). You will need to hire your own transport or join one of the many organised tours.
We chose to stay in San Ignacio, renting a room from our host, to explore two Maya sites in its vicinity.
In our view, this is one of THE most underrated sites. Nestled in the hills above San Ignacio, it is very compact, well-preserved and with a small, but informative museum adjacent to the ticket office. As it isn’t well known, they were hardly any tourists when we visited. It’s jungle setting make it a pleasant place to visit, even on a hot day (though you may want to hire a taxi to take you there as it’s a steep climb without shade).
This Maya site is near the village of San Jose Succotz, about 10km south-west of San Ignacio. We took a chicken bus to/from the river crossing (BZD2 per person). A hand-cranked ferry gets you (and your vehicle) across (free of charge, but tips are appreciated). We crossed on foot, walking the mile or so up to the site within about 20 minutes. The site (and ferry) start operating at 0800h – some guide books and even their website state earlier times. Xunantunich is also quite compact and can be easily explored within 90 minutes. You can climb its structures, including El Castillo, which offers 360-degree views across the river valley and into Guatemala.
It’s always difficult to form an opinion of a whole country when you only spent a week there and only explored parts of it. So, please keep that in mind.
A lot of people had warned us about Belize and how dangerous it was to visit. Well, it never felt dangerous to us. It certainly seemed to be a poorer country than Mexico, with a more derelict infrastructure. But then, you can’t compare the two: Mexico is a huge economy, Belize’s population is only around 390,000.
Belize is definitely an interesting place, with its mishmash of different cultures (from Blacks and Garifunas / Black Caribs to Mayas, Mestizos and Mennonites) and its natural diversity (from the barrier reef and the Caribbean coast to fertile river valleys and the jungle of the Mayan Mountains full of exotic animals, including jaguars). We would have liked to explore more but (at least at this stage) Belize is just a bit too expensive for us.