BACKPACKERS GUIDE BELIZE & GUATEMALA
I spent almost three months in Mexico during the summer of 2012, just before returning to London to watch the Summer Olympics. For the majority of the time I was living in Mexico City, before I decided to fly down to Yucatán to spend a few days at the sea. I hung out with a great bunch of Argentinians that were living in Playa Del Carmen. Marcos was one of them, and we decided to go on a spontaneous road-trip to Belize and Guatemala.
We bought a one-way bus ticket that would take us from Playa Del Carmen to Belize City overnight. There was no need to reserve, or book in advance. We literally just turned up at the station, bought our tickets and a couple of minutes later, we would find ourselves inside the bus. After around 10 hours and no sleep, we arrived in Belize City. There is not much to see in this place, so that we to decided to head straight to pier. Yet, I was curious to walk around to explore. However, as soon as I stepped on the street, I was shouted at by one of the locals that I should not walk around the streets with the camera in my hand. I thanked him for his advice, took a couple of quick snapshots, and returned to the pier. I do not remember the exact prices for specific parts of the trip, like transport, hotels, food, etc. but from what I remember, in European terms, it was all pretty cheap.
We hopped aboard the water taxi, which took us directly to Caye Caulker, which is a tiny Caribbean island. It only takes 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other. On the tip of the island is a beach bar, called Lazy Lizard. This is the place to go. Enjoy a cooled beer, listen to some reggae music, enjoy the views across the ocean, and embrace the wind blowing in your face. Depending on your time, I would definitely recommend spending a few days there, and using such to relax and disconnect. However, due to our tight schedule, after a few hours, we sailed over to its bigger neighbor island, named Ambergris Caye. We arrived in San Pedro, which is home to around 10.000 people and the biggest town on the caye. We booked a room at Ruby’s Hotel, which is not far from the pier, before setting out to wander around. You should definitely stop by The Rum, Cigar & Coffee House to pick up a few delights for the night. The so-called “Pantiripa”, in other words Panty Ripper, is the local’s favorite and consists of coconut rum and pineapple juice. It is mighty sweet, but tastes all right.
At the beginning of the night, we hung out at Ruby’s and enjoyed the "Pantiripa" with a few other fellow travellers. Once the drinks were finished, we went to the main square, where we got hooked into a conversation with a number of locals. Though all they want is to sell drugs, it was good to hang out with the gang and the stories they told us were priceless. Just make sure that you do not get caught up between two different groups of dealers, since that may heat up the situation a little. It happened to us, when we were at Palapa for another round of drinks, and though it felt a bit uncomfortable, nothing happened. Aside from the little discussion, Palapa is a cool spot to watch the sunset and enjoy an ice-cold Belikin beer. It is a wooden shed that sits on stilts a few meters out in the water.
When you are visiting San Pedro you have to go diving. Saying that, unfortunately, we did not, due to a lack of time. However, San Pedro is not far away from the infamous Great Blue Hole, which some of you may have seen from aerial photos. Whilst the latter is definitely the most famous spot, I have been told that the actual dive is pretty boring, as you are literally diving down on the side of a wall. Apparently there are a number of better and cheaper options available. Just go to one of the dive shops around and ask for their packages on offer.
In the morning we took the water taxi from San Pedro back to the mainland. Once we arrived back at the pier, we were waiting for our bus, which was supposed to take us from Belize City to Flores in Guatemala. The bus tickets can be bought at the pier, as well as in tourist shops on Ambergris Caye in San Pedro. For what ever reason, our bus never arrived, so we ended being put into a taxi. Though it felt slightly odd, we had no choice other than to trust the guys, as well as the taxi driver to bring us safely to the Guatemalan boarder. I sat in the front seat and realized that the entire windscreen had a crack running from the top right across to the bottom left, which did not make the entire situation feel more comforting, in fact it made even more dodgy. Anyways, we were driving through villages, past Asian research centers and through the countryside, until we eventually reached the boarderline line. We hopped out off the car and were greeted by a number of men holding and waving stacks of cash to exchange money. They are probably ripping you off, so just exchange a few notes, and find a proper place in Flores. Also, be aware that you have to pay a few dollars to the boarder patrol. Though, officially it is free to enter, I would not recommend to start arguing with the men, whose pump guns are almost the size of their own body.
After a number of hours in the car, and me being thankful that the windscreen did not break, we landed on Guatemalan soil. We had been told by the travel agent in Belize City to look out for a minivan, which would bring us to Flores. To our great surprise, we noted a young man holding a sign that stated “Flores”, who was actually waiting for us. We took our seat and drove towards Flores, which is actually a small town. I am not sure what is there to see in the actual city, but I believe all the backpacking activity takes place on the little peninsula, which sits in the Lago Petén Itzá. The main reason why people come to Flores is to see the ruins of Tikal. They date back thousands of years and are one of the most important remains of Maya culture. Interesting side note: The ruins were part of one of the earlier Star Wars movies.
We found a room at a hostel called Los Estudiantes, which had the cheapest rates in town. We had dropped our bags and went to Captain Tortuga for a pizza, before heading to Los Amigos for a beer. Los Amigos is also a hostel and is known for its Secret Garden. It is great place to hang out and connect with other backpackers. To round up the evening, we moved on to El Café Chilero, which has a nice veranda that is only a few meters away from the lake. Alternatively, Sky Bar is a magnificent rooftop bar.
As I have mentioned before, Tikal is the main attraction around Flores. The typical tourist offer is the “Sunrise Tour”. As the name suggests you are expecting to watch the sunrise from the top of the ruins. In reality, things are slightly different. I am not sure, whether a tour exists that actually allows travellers to watch the sunrise from the temples itself, but I think due to the opening hours of the park, it does not. Also, the tour organizers will probably not mention that before entering the park you must pay an additional entrance fee. So, be aware, ask precisely and make sure that you bring enough cash with you just in case. I suppose it is a bit of scam, however once you walk through the jungle, and eventually sit on top of the ruins, the views will make up for it. It is a breathtaking panorama, when you are starring into the horizon high above the trees.
I am not sure about the situation today, but back in 2012, there was no direct bus from Guatemala to Mexico. Hence, we had to go via Belize to change buses. The bus station in a Tikal is on the mainland, which means that you have to take a Tuk-Tuk from the peninsula to the station. We had bought our bus tickets before in our hostel, but you can also purchase them directly at the station. In our case, the ride back to Belize City turned out being pretty smooth and the bus was comfortable. At the boarder, we hopped off the bus, we got our departure stamp, before continuing the journey to Belize City. Once we had arrived, we had a choice to either wait for over four hours for the modern bus, or get on the local “chicken bus”. The second option would bring us to Chetumal, which is just across the boarder in Mexico. Once we arrived in Chetumal, we would need to change busses one more time, in order to reach our final destiantion Playa Del Carmen.
The “chicken bus” was a former American school bus that pretty much stopped at every village along the way. The backdoor was wide open, people were crammed into the aisle, reggae was playing, hot air was coming through the windows, a chicken was running up and down, and people were hopping on and off the bus. It was a pretty mad ride, but an unique experience. I am not sure after how many hours, but eventually we reached the boarder of Belize. We were told to pay an exit fee, however we did not have enough cash at hand, and a cash machine was not in sight. We scraped together our final US Dollars, Mexican Pesos, Belizean Dollars and Guatemalan Quetzals, and handed them to the lady. She counted the money and told us that it was not enough. After a few minutes of explaining, her supervisor waived us through. Back on Mexican territory, we returned to the "chicken bus" for a short while, before they told us to get off. Without questioning, we followed their command, and walked out, only to realize that we are still a few kilometers away from the bus station. We pulled over the next available taxi, stopped at an ATM to withdraw money and eventually reached the terminal. The bus was overbooked. A young lady had occupied my seat, but instead of moving away, she decided to just smile at me. There was no point asking and accepted the fact that I had around 7 hours of standing ahead of me. Luckily, a few people were getting off along the way, so that I would have enough space to sit, and eventually lie on the floor. After almost 24 hours of non-stop travelling we reached Playa Del Carmen, which marked the end of an unforgettable short road trip to Belize and Guatemala.