It is hard to believe but Sarah and I have already been back in Mexico for 6 months. And because tourist visas here only last for 6 months, this means we had to leave the country and come back in to get another 6 months. The perfect excuse to take our new car for a proper road test. Farewell Mexico, hello Belize. *At the end I do a run down of crossing the borders with a car, click here to go straight there.
I had heard a lot of things about Belize, and not much of it good. Sure everyone talks about the islands and how great they are for diving, but Belize itself gets a pretty bad rap. I like to think that I have the ability to appreciate the small things when it comes to new cultures and countries, and often Sarah and I manage to wander around a new environment appreciative of the nuances which make it a new environment. And this is how it started in Belize.
The first thing I noticed and which took me by surprise is just how different Belize is from Mexico. I mean the two of them are separated by an imaginary line, so surely they would be almost identical, especially near the border? This could not be further from the truth. Aside form the sudden use of English over Spanish as the primary language, Belize has a true Caribbean feel which is not as readily noticeable in Mexico.
By Caribbean I don’t mean there are more coconut trees and the beaches are better (the opposite seems true actually), but that the people seem more in line with what Hollywood movies suggest the Caribbean is about. Locals talk with the accent you expect in the Caribbean, things seem very raw and slow, houses are a spread-out wooden affair that seem to be a slight gust away from toppling over, and the food seems to consist of chicken, rice and beans (aside from the really bad Chinese food).
I must mention that I did not see all of Belize and my experience is made up only of a border crossing and a couple days in the nearby towns of Corazol and Orange Walk. Corazol is a place I wanted to love but lost the passion for very quickly. However if reports are to be believed my experience here is pretty typical of the rest of Belize.
Where are all the Mexicans, and stuff?
Our first day in Corazol was not bad, it had been awhile since we experienced that feeling of travel again and so to see something new had with it an excitement we had both missed a little bit. We drove passed houses and people that looked drastically different from those of Mexico. One of the first things you notice is that suddenly the most common ethnicity changes. One step over the border and Mexicans become black people (I know some think this is a less than PC way of describing people of a darker complexion, but they are not African, I am African. And yes I know they are not black, but I am not white, who gives a shit? Grow a pair and lets continue), Chinese people, and some other bits and pieces not easily identifiable.
The second thing you notice is how different the “architecture” is. As I said before most houses seem to have been built a hundred years ago and on the verge of falling over. Whereas in Playa all the houses seem to have had construction started (and stopped, although people live in them, a lot of places seem only half finished) in the last ten.
Perspective is a funny thing. Coming from Australia you get this sense that things are a little bit behind in Mexico. Technology, media and just things in general seem less abundant. And then you go to Belize and Mexico seems like a country from the future.
So here we are in Corazol, Belize. We quickly find a spot to stay as it is getting dark and to be honest, the dusty almost deserted town is a bit intimidating with what are either hobos or unfortunately dressed people who are either drunk, or sorely lacking in co-ordination. For about $25 a night we bunk down in “The Sea Breeze Hotel” and go out looking for dinner.
The owner of The Sea Breeze tells us to try out ‘Jam Rock’ because it has a breeze and it is along the waters edge. Because the town is tiny we find it with ease and settle in for an early dinner. Stewed chicken, rice and beans. The meal is delicious and we start to feel good about our foray into another country. After dinner we take a short drive around and soak up the new environment that is Belize.
Back home we shower and put on the telly (thank god for Duck Dynasty). It is hot, and we chose not to pay an extra $10 US for aircon (a luxury I have come to rely on in Playa). The stickiness of our evening becomes apparent and we open all the windows and pray for a breeze. Although it does cool down later, the night is a sticky and uncomfortable one and we wake in the morning tired and craving our comfy apartment in Playa del Carmen.
We get breakfast made at the hotel for about $5 US each and then go out exploring, mainly because the car has aircon and I am tired of sweating. Alas, aside form a few overpriced tours there is not a hell of a lot to see around Corazol. Being cheap and not wanting to drop $100 US we decide not to go on a boat tour. That, and we can’t be bothered.
So we spend the day looking around Corazol, and it quickly becomes apparent that the town is not our cup of tea. It seems in fact that the town is not even the people living there’s cup of tea. There is a strange feeling of despondency and “who gives a fuckness” about the place. The shops are hobbled together in dying buildings and house products of the lowest possible quality, and very few of those. Through the day the waters edge plays host to people getting slowly inebriated and everyone else seems to be doing very little, and not particularly enjoying it.
Not many people smile at you, and those that do ask for money. There is a feeling here which perhaps is of our fabricating or limited insight, but it is a feeling of giving up. Like people have just come here to wait out the rest of their lives. I am sure it is not like that for all and my statements may be an unfair blanket of judgement. But it is how I felt, and the reason why after just two days (despite originally planning four or five) we decide enough is enough and make plans to leave as soon as possible.
The Chinese Connection
Our meal on the second day is at a Chinese place across the road from Jam Rock and is shockingly bad for the princely sum of $20 US. We later go back to Jam Rock for dinner and are disappointed to find that they seem to be trying less because the meal is very underwhelming, despite being the same thing we ordered the day before. At this point we are tired of paying almost double for bad food and not even being able to get a decent sweet from one of the crappy Chinese corner shops sprinkled around the area, because all they have to offer are generic no name branded stuff which tastes like chemicals (yeah I know, first world problems). “Oh Lord what hell hath thy unleashed upon Belize?!”
Which brings me to the Chinese connection. Corazol (and the neighboring town of Orange Walk which we drove to) seem to be run by the Chinese! All the shops and most of the restaurants are run by Chinese people and are named accordingly. Imagine my surprise at coming to a Caribbean country and seeing stores with names like “Lings Shop” or “Dragon Tools”. Apparently a lot of Chinese came to Belize around World War 2 to escape the Japanese invasion of China. And then apparently hung around to run Corazol. Personally, I would rather live in China. Below is just a sampling of the unlikely number of Chinese owned shops spread around the place.
Then there are the Mennonites, who dress in Dungarees and straw hats and remind me of the Amish. Which is a strange site to see in a Central American country. It is a strange place, and although I would usually delight in such peculiarities. There is an aggressive almost depressing feeling in this place. By the end of day two we had had enough and decided to leave the following morning and take our chances with not being out of Mexico long enough. We were craving good food, happy people and what even seemed to be the better climate of Mexico. We wanted to go home.
On the third morning I woke up after a terrible nights sleep to our bags already packed and Sarah going to pay our bill. She was as keen to leave as I was. We jumped in our car with the AC blasting and took a not so slow drive back to the border about 20 minutes away. Belize was a disappointment no doubt, but it was also an experience, and as I said at the beginning, we only experienced this one town. Anyways travel is about personal experience and others might see things differently. Just stock up on decent foods before you come, and don’t plan to stay too long and you might be alright.
On our way home we drove through Bacalar (the lake of seven colors is its claim to fame, although really at most it should be called the lake of three colors and four shades of blue), and after realizing that most of the lake front is privately owned and therefore inaccessible, we decided just to go home and chill.
That is when the wheel got a puncture. Luckily across the road from the incident was a guy who fixed tires! The young fella had the tire off, patched, and back on in ten minutes and only wanted about $5 US for the pleasure. We gave him about $8 (100 pesos) and left him with a giant grin on his face. A few hours later we were home and seriously questioning whether we would ever be able to leave our amazing home in Playa del Carmen again.
Just to be clear, it was still an adventure and we had a lot of laughs between us while in Belize. It is just that we are exceptionally comfortable and happy in Playa, and it makes leaving and hitting the road almost seem like work. We have six months before our overland adventure begins, hopefully we get bored or something because at the moment comfort seems to be beating adventure 3 to 1.
Despite what people have said about the border crossing, both directions were fairly easy. I think the border has been rebuilt to some degree and a bit of the previously abundant corruption has been fazed out with new measures put in place. When leaving Mexico we had to pay $300 pesos each (about US$25) which is the visa and entry fee and not an illegal fee as is so often stated (paradoxically charged when you leave as opposed to when you enter). We went to the on-site bank, paid the fee, got a receipt, had our passports stamped and that was it. I think because I had a Mexican plated car I didn’t need to show any documentation for it and they let me drive straight through to the Belize border.
Coming into Belize we alighted the vehicle in the car park just before the border and went into customs. They asked the usual questions like how long do you intend to stay (to which I answered “A few days”, for which I was asked “What do you call a few days?” to which I replied “Three”.) and stamped our passports. At the next desk I showed that I was the owner of my vehicle with the Factura and registration card and they stamped it into the country, no charges. they then sent me back down the road to a little house on stilts which is the Fumigation Station. I went inside and paid $5 US for a man to spray the underside of my car for five seconds, and for that man’s mate to offer me insurance (do not buy from people before you leave the border), and then returned to the border. They checked inside the back of my car and let me through, no further charges.
The fumigation station (very well signed).
The insurance office (well signed, and yet, we drove straight past it).
As you leave the compound there is a white insurance building. Go there, buy the mandatory insurance (we paid about $200 pesos for a week or $18), put the sticker on your window and welcome to Belize. By the way this is the last time anyone will accept anything other than Belize or US dollars, and there are no money changers in Corazol so you will have to draw money once there.
Leaving Belize border and entering Mexico again
As you drive up to the border, pull into the car park and walk into the only building there. First off you will have to pay a charge of about $30 Belize (about $15 US) each, and you will have to pay it in Belize dollars. Fortunately there are some men outside who act as money changers and they are not too much of a rip off. Once paid, if you don’t have a car walk through, get stamped and you have left Belize, breathe a sigh of relief… If you have a car walk through the double doors back to the Belize side, show the guy at the counter your ownership documents and passport, he will stamp you out and you go back to the Belize side, pick up your car and drive it though the border, breathe a sigh of relief – you have left Belize.
Drive along until you reach the Mexican side of the border, park and alight. Walk up to the tiny little office and fill out the form given you. Go inside and show the fella your passport and filled out forms. Even though we had not been out for 72 hours, they did not care (some people say they have tried to make them pay a $1000 pesos because of this, but these guys didn’t care one little bit). They stamped out documents, returned them and off we went. We drove up to an inspection area, guys with guns did a quick check and we were sent on our way. Welcome back to Mexico, thank you little baby Haysoos.
The whole thing was really easy and no bribes were requested. I only hope the other border crossings will be as easy, although I am pretty sure they won’t. Border crossing and road trip test number 2? Pass. Underwhelming, but pass nonetheless. Bring on the big one. I guess…
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