Crossing into Belize
We finally decide that our lack of a plan is the perfect plan for touring belize and make a run for the border. We wake up early, say our goodbyes to Nate/Sarah and Enrique and head south. We stop en route for a final roadside mexican meal and bid our farewell to Mexico and our favorite cuisine. At the border we realize that we possibly should have read a bit more of others’ border crossings and known what to expect. The idea of a border crossing in english just made it seem all too easy.We had been warned not to pick up any of the “mules” as these guys want a lot of money for showing you what to do as you cross the border. Crossing the bridge at the border and trying to snap a photo of the farewell Mexico/welcome Belize signs a few guys run up to the vehicle and start shouting at us. We respond with a polite ‘no gracias’ and continue on, but they change their shouting to full on banging/pounding on the sides of E with clenched fists. We get a little pissed off and pull over before realizing that these guys are actually the mexican immigration trying to collect our tourist visas. oops. Fully checked out, we are now driving more slowly and a bit more trusting...but surprised to not pass any type of checkpoint on the way in. We are now driving by the free zone (picture city several blocks of the duty free shop you see at the airport) and are clearly in Belize but have no paperwork to say so. We see a few shacks with insurance signs and agriculture signs, but nothing looks official so we continue rolling through. Finally we arrive at a gate/line of cars and take a deep breath that we aren't illegally driving around a foreign country (or so we thought).
We pull up to the gate and someone tells us we have to reverse out of the line of traffic, pull over to the arrival hall and go through immigration and customs. Not sure if its simply that our ears have been tuned to spanish for almost 6 months...but the beliziean english seems almost more difficult for us to understand. Inside the hall we check in, register our vehicle and have a nice conversation with the smiling gal behind the desk. What a pleasant welcome to the country as opposed to the stern border patrols we’ve met at the Canada/US and US/Mexico lines. All paperwork in hand/stamps in passport we return to our vehicle, regain our spot in line and approach the gate. They inspect the bus but as they look at our paperwork see that the lady put our registration number where the VIN should appear on the form. Better to find it now than at a checkpoint in the middle of the country, but we are reversing out of the lineup again. One more attempt and we are told the our vehicle needs to be sprayed. They give me directions to the agriculture building as they stop traffic for me to reverse out and i return to the unofficial lean-to that we passed earlier without a second glance. Even after their directions i pass it by and have to return after nearly crossing the border back into mexico.
We roll up to the gate fully expecting them to just wave us through but the guy (same guy who was in the bus with karma not more than 20 minutes ago) realizes we have a dog and says we will have to reverse out of the line and come inside to deal with the paperwork. Really?
Inside Jen learns that the paperwork we have filled out isn’t a form but merely the application for a form which was supposed to be faxed in 7-10 days ahead to get the official form. This little mistake apparently means we have illegally smuggled a dog across the border, an offense which (at his discretion) can yield a $100-4000BLZ fine. The problem now becomes that we have been in mexico for almost 6 months and are less than trusting when someone tells us we owe money. We ask many questions and ask for a better deal but the guy gets clearly offended as tells us “this isn’t mexico guys, and i’m not bargaining with you. the laws the law’”. We discuss simply returning to mexico to file our paperwork and wait but agree to pay the lower fine and be on our way. Aggravated, we dump our veggies out on his desk and return to our vehicle..this time passing through the gate without issue.
We are so ruffled by our rocky border experience that we are 20 minutes down the road and about to roll into Corozal town before realizing that we left without stopping at the next inadequately signed building to get our (mandatory) vehicle insurance. We go back and complete what has to be the longest simple english border crossing known to man...
We backtrack to Corozal, circle quickly around town noticing the stark shift in vernacular from the wooden and thatch/palapa structures in mexico to the tiny concrete boxes here in Belize. We find a little grocery to stock our fridge and leave town excited to be in Belize, and with our new bounty from the store. Prices are a bit higher than mexico but we also had a good selection of meat, veggies and spices to choose from. The young boys who tallied up our damage also double checked the total on separate calculators just to ensure we got a fair deal...how polite.
Not far out of town we immerse deeper and deeper into jungle until stopping to wait in line at our first hand-crank ferry. These are exactly what they sounded like...a wooden barge half the length of the crossing slowly makes its way across the river, the vehicle aboard pulls off and our line of 4 vehicles pulls up the rickety wooden planks onto the barge. Before we even get the handbrake set the boys from the vehicle in front of us have started turning the cable through the crank and we are all moving at a snails’ pace towards the other shore. We get a few minutes to snap photos and chat with the gentleman in front of us (who happens to be from BC but is in belize buying/developing property) and its time to roll off the other side. The ferry is free, simply part of the road and a fun ride that returns smiles to our faces and makes us eager for the road ahead. Another 20 minutes or so and we approach or next crossing. This time the body of water is much larger and the barge smaller. Might have been able to squeeze a second on board, but were the only ones in line so E gets a first class barge alone as i join in and crank with the “captain” of the vessel. This guy must be in great shape and were hoping he gets paid more than the free toll would make us think.
Our roads since departing Corozal have been dirt but in good shape. After our second ferry things start going downhill quickly and we are on easily our worst road of the trip. At one point an attempt was made to put a thin layer of concrete or pavement over this road and the result is a moonscape of steep potholes that are impossible to see before you are upon them, but drop straight down like a crater at least a foot. Our suspension (or lack of) isn’t built for this, and no matter how slow we go down this road we cant help but bottom out on every 5th hole and look back to see if our axle is still in place. I never thought i would be begging for the return of topes, but this drive was a white-knuckled cursefest...and made worse by the fact that we know our departure means backtracking down the same road.
We arrive at Backpackers Paradise, our day’s destination but are surprised that it doesn’t sit on the coast and is merely a campground tucked into the trees. We could have pulled off 2 hours back and had the same setup for $7 less, but make the most of the wifi and the handful of backpackers/world travelers here while we eat our dinner (grilled porkchops smothered in belizean spices paired nicely with belizean rum). Tomorrow i crawl under the bus and see how many parts we lost along the way.