Rear View Mirror: Belize Travel Tips & Observations After 2.5 Months in the Country

We spent a total of 78 days traveling 1,540 miles through just about every inch of Belize during our little road trip. This is an impressive feat since you can drive from the northernmost point to the southernmost point in this tiny country in just 286 miles. Our travels in Belize took us to Belize Citybird watching in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area (just one of the places where we saw tons of the amazing birds in Belize), Ambergris Cay, to Hopkins to look for whale sharks, way out to Turneffe Atoll and all the way down to Punta Gorda.  We saw Mayan ruins and  jaguar sanctuaries, went on cave adventures and enjoyed dive sites from border to border. Here’s a short list of top Belize travel tips plus some observations to get you started right.

  • Belize is the size of New Hampshire with the population of Anchorage.
  • The tonic water is lavender colored–except when it’s not.
  • Skype is mostly blocked for reasons we never figured out.
  • The two main cigarette brands are Colonial and Independence, an interesting irony in a country which received its independence from Great Britain in 1981.
  • Hardly anyone smokes.
  • The country is a very rich melting pot. You can sit in a 15 table restaurant and see Garufinas, Menonites, expats from around the world, Ladinos and sundry travelers all in one (mostly congenial) place.
  • There are, essentially, only four main paved roads in the country.
  • The paved roads are in great shape, hardly trafficked and have very few speed bumps.
  • Speed bumps are commonly called “sleeping policemen.”
  • You almost never see a cop except in Belize City.
  • Most non-tourist-based business (and even a few of those) close between 12 and 1:30,  including government offices, banks and post offices.
  • You can easily and instantly extend your visa for an additional 30 days at immigration offices in Belize City, Punta Gorda,  Belmopan or Dangriga for BZ$50 (US$25) per visa. NOTE that your extension time starts from the day you extend, not from the end of your current visa.
  • English is the official language of Belize (though Spanish is encroaching fast).
  • There’s no tricky currency conversion to master since the exchange rate is pegged at two Belize dollars for every 1 US dollar.
  • Belizeans can’t help but smile back.
  • The dominant radio station is called Love FM and the DJs are extremely fond of Lionel Ritchie and the Pointer Sisters and any song about love–interspersed with Jamaican dub reggae and Madonna. But mostly Lionel Ritchie…
  • There are WAY more animals than people in nature-rich Belize. Get a grip on the Beasts of Belize and where to see them in the newspaper story we published on the subject.

Read more about travel in Belize.

 

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Top 10 Reasons to Go to Mexico (a retrospective)

Before arriving in Mexico during our ongoing Trans-Americas Journey we estimated that we’d spend about eight months in the country. By the time we finally tore ourselves away we’d spent 18 months driving 24,737 miles through 29 of the 31 states in Mexico. We recently went back through all 177 of the posts we put up about Mexico on our travel blog and compiled this list of the Top 10 Reasons to Go to Mexico complete with links back to our original words and pictures on the subject.

We road tripped through Mexico because that’s what we do. However, no matter how you explore Mexico you’ll be glad you did because…

 

#1…the beach is just the beginning

It’s easy to get the impression that Mexico is one long, white sandy beach peppered with frosty cold Coronas and festively-colored hammocks. And there’s plenty of that. However, the great big pleasant surprise about Mexico is its geographic diversity.

Yes, tanning is an outdoor activity but you can have even more fun in Mexico if you venture off the beaten beach.

The north offers expansive deserts. The vast central area of the country is downright mountainous (the capital, Mexico City, is at 7,350 feet or 2,240 meters). One of the largest canyon systems in the world is in Mexico along with enormous volcanoes, meandering caves, impressive waterfalls and tumbling rivers.

Here’s proof.

 

Copper Canyon, Chihuahua state

This series of six interlocking canyons in northern Mexico is both larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. We know because we spent a month exploring the area on the Copper Canyon train, in our truck and on foot from Cusarare to El Fuerte. We camped on the rim of the Sinfarosa area of the Copper Canyon, enjoyed the area’s massive Basaseachi Waterfall and generally got a sense of the indigenous Tarahumara (who, we learned in the canyon, actually prefer to be called Raramuri) and the gorgeous world they fled into to escape the enslaving Spanish.

 

 

Cenotes, Yucatan state

When the ceiling of a cave falls in and the cave fills with crystal-clear fresh water it’s called a cenote. They’re gorgeous oasis perfect for snorkeling and even scuba diving, as we found out when we jumped into Dos Ojos Cenote in southern Mexico for one of the most other-worldly scuba dives of our lives.  In the town of Cuzamá (near Merida) you can rent a horse-drawn cart to pull you along a small-gauge railway track (originally used to transport harvested sisal) around a long circuit that includes stops for swims at three dramatic cenotes.  Up the adrenaline factor by joining the locals and swinging into the water off massive descending tree roots, Tarzan style.

 

Laguna Media Luna, San Luis Potosi state

Speaking of other-worldly dives, how about diving in a crystal clear, constantly warm, spring-fed, fresh water lake at 3,200 feet (975 meters)? You can do it in Laguna Media Luna in central Mexico.

 

Lagos de Montebelo, Chiapas state

You can’t dive into them, but the collection of brilliantly colored  lakes (turquoise, jade, aquamarine) that make up the Lagos de Montebello region in southern Mexico is stunning and includes one of the closest things to a US-style national park road in all of Mexico.

 

 

Cacahuamilpa Caves, Guerrero state

We’ve ventured inside a lot of caves on the Trans-Americas Journey but none were as surprisingly awesome as the massive Cacahuamilpa Caves in the Parque Nacional Grutas Cacahuamilpa in central Mexico. One of the largest cave systems in the world, it has two rivers running through it, impressive rock formations and no nasty bat poop smell. Honest.

 

Nevado de Toluca, Mexico state

The active Toluca Volcano in central Mexico (just 50 miles from Mexico City) is the fourth highest peak in the country. At 15, 34 feet  (4,680 meters) it’s a weather-beaten, rugged corner of the country most visitors don’t visit. We did, though the summit eluded us…

 

Rio Antigua, Veracruz state

White water rafting in Mexico was born in the Jacolmulco region of Veracruz state in the central/southern part of the country and the area continues to offer watery thrills.

 

Bernal Monolith, Queretarro state

At 1,150 feet (350 meters) this giant hunk of free-standing rock in central Mexico is the fourth tallest monolith in the world (or third tallest, depending on who you ask) after Mount Augustus, the Rock of Gilbraltar and Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio. Smack in the middle of the oldest wine region in The Americas.

 

 

 

 

#2…you’ll become a better cook (and a better eater)

Since leaving Mexico not a day goes by that we don’t long for the amazing food we ate there. There just is no beating the food you get in Mexico. Whether you have $1 or $100 to spend on a meal you’re gonna get good eats. Here are a few appetizers.

 

– Making mole poblano at the cooking school at Mesones Sacristia hotel in Puebla

– The tempting tacos of Mexico City

– Why everyone should mix lemon sorbet and cheap red wine like they do in Queretaro

– The best ice cream in the land (and that’s saying something)

 

 

#3…you’ll finally learn how to drink good tequila (and mezcal)

Tequila is a passion in Mexico–a delicious, fascinating, artisanal passion. To be called tequila the stuff must be made from blue agave from specific regions in Mexico including the town of Tequila (near Guadalajara) where large producers and small producers rub shoulders. Tequila can also be produced in the Los Altos region. Yes we visited both areas. What’s your point?

Tequila may be “the drink of Mexico” but in the foodie state of Oaxaca (birthplace of mole, tlayudas and much more) a community of small batch mezcal makers is quietly at work on a tasty revolution.

Forget shots. Start sipping.

 

 

#4…you’ll really appreciate a good cup of coffee

A visit to the coffee plantations in the Ruta de Cafe in Chiapas is a tasty education in the economics of coffee, how to brew a perfect cup and a glimpse at impressively innovative organic farming methods that are changing the way coffee is grown. It doesn’t hurt that many of the plantations now have gorgeous hotels and spas on site too.

 

 

#5…they’ve got animals all over the place

 

Monarchs on the march
Monarch butterflies know Mexico is a great place to go. Every year, between November and March, hundreds of millions of monarchs somehow navigate their way to the exact same areas of central Mexico—some flying 5,000 miles or more from where they were born in Canada and the northern US. Scientists say they’re drawn to Mexico’s fir trees, but can’t provide a more complete explanation than that. Once the butterflies arrive, they rest and eat then mate like crazy before attempting the return flight home. And you can stop by and check them out.

 

Flamingos galore
In the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site in Yucatan state, we sawthousands of long-legged, pink stunners as they gorged on the shrimp that thrive in this unique super-salty estuary.

 

 

 

 

Cave of swallows
Every morning thousands of swifts fly up and out of their home inside a 1,220 foot deep pit called the Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cave of Swallows) in San Luis Potosí state. The birds burst out into the world and spend the day feeding before returning home in the evening. Yes, we have video.

 

Abyss of the parrots
The Sima de las Cotorras (Abyss of the Parrots) in Chiapas state is another feathery find as hundreds of parrots squawk their way out of an almost perfectly round  sinkhole that’s 525 feet (160 meters) wide and 460 feet (140 meters) deep.

 

Scarlet macaws and howler monkeys
Centro Ecoturistico Las Guacamayas is a sanctuary for the flamboyant namesake birds (guacamayas is Spanish for scarlet macaws) and a haven for other jungle finds like howler monkeys. You’ve got to hear it to believe it…

 

 

 

 

Jaguarte!
Fine. We never actually saw a wild jaguar in Mexico (in fact, we’ve never seen a wild jaguar at all despite much trying). But we did see an impressive installation of 25 life-size jaguars decorated by 25 different artists when we were in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. We’re counting it as a partial sighting…

 

#6…you won’t believe how great the hotels are

We’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels in Mexico from quirky boutique properties to flawless all-inclusive resorts. Here are just a few of our most memorable Mexican stays.

Maison Couturier

Verana: A hippie-chic hilltop retreat outside Puerto Vallarta (as published in Afar)

Maison Couturier: French farmhouse charm in Veracruz

Clarum 101: Guadalajara’s hidden hipster

Casa de Mita: Your Punta Mita beach home, only  WAY better

Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort:Riviera Maya all-inclusive-ness, perfected

Grand Velas Room

Casa del Atrio: The best arty b&b bargain in the laid back (but happening) town of Queretaro (as published in National Geographic Traveler)

Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal: A Mayanist infuses his passion into the first boutique hotel on the doorstep of the Palenque archaeological site

Boca Chica: Elvis was here, sushi by the seashore and a dose of retro Acapulco

 

 

#7…when the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 you’ll have an idea why

Uxmal-Cuadrángulo de las Monjas-Nunnery Quadrangle-detail

We don’t know exactly how many Mayan archaeological sites there are in Mexico. We do know that we visited 54 of them–from stars like Palenque and Chichen Itza to little-visited WAY off the beaten path digs. To save you from trolling our blog endlessly in search of each of our posts about these sites we (thoughtfully) compiled all of them into this handy alphabetized list of archaeological sites we visited with links back to our original posts about them. Now you can really get serious about planning your vacation in the Mundo Maya before the Mayan calendar mysteriously ends on December 21, 2012.

 

 

#8…you’ll never watch US-style rodeo the same way again

Rodeo was invented in Mexico, specifically in the Lagos de Moreno area of Jalisco which is still a hotbed of horsemanship. Lagos is where we spent many blissful days riding from hacienda to hacienda (often over stretches of the original Camino Real), watching amazing horse trainers at work, cheering along with the crowd at charreadas (Mexican rodeos), taking part in branding day and learning how to ride like a charro (Mexican cowboy). Sort of.

 

 

 

 

#9…the cultures (and culture) will floor you

Mexico is a huge country and every region has produced distinct cultures including like the Aztecs and the Lacandon, who cling to existence with less than 1,000 members. Vibrant (literally) cultures remain strongest in Chiapas where many different traditions in clothing, food and customs exist in and around San Cristóbal de las Casas.

For culture of another kind, you can’t beat the museums of Mexico City where you can see everything from ancient Olmec heads carved out of enormous boulders to the most modern of modern art. We’re from New York City and we were floored by the museums here.

 

 

#10…you’ll have a clue what you’re talking about when the issue of tourist safety in Mexico comes up (again)

For the record: after 18 months of independent overland travel driving nearly 25,000 miles through 29 of the country’s 31 states we can report, first hand, that we have never seen or sensed any threat or danger of any kind at any point anywhere in Mexico. Period.

Want to see where we wandered? You can see all 177 of our posts from Mexico displayed geographically on this map.

Learn more about travel in Mexico.

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How To Have a Mexican Road Trip

We don’t mean to toot our own horn (get it? road trip? horn?), but we’ve pretty much become experts on driving in Mexico. That’s what happens when you spend 18 months driving 24,737 miles thoroughly exploring 29 of the country’s 31 states (Monterey and Tamulipas, we’ll get you on the way back up). Here are our top travel tips about how to have a Mexican road trip so you can make the most of your own driving adventure in Mexico. We sure wish we’d known this stuff before we left…

1. Fuel is cheaper in Mexico than it is in the US

During our travels we paid an average of US$2.40 per gallon for diesel for our truck when fuel was cheaper and the exchange rate was stronger than it is now. Still, fuel costs remain below the US average. As of June 24, 2011 (calculated at the current exchange rate 11.81 pesos = US$1):

Magna (regular unleaded) was 9.24 pesos/liter  =  US$2.96/gallon;

Premium was 10.34 pesos/liter  =  US$3.31/gallon;

Diesel was 9.60 pesos/liter  =  US$3.08/gallon.  NOTE: there is virtually no ultra low sulfur diesel available in Mexico, but PEMEX has announced future plans to refine ULSD in the future.

Here’s a good place to find current fuel prices in Mexico.

2. There is only one gas station chain in Mexico

It’s called Pemex and it’s owned by the Mexican government which sets fuel prices for the entire country (though fuel can be a touch pricier near the US border and a touch cheaper in the free-trade zones in the southern border areas with Belize and Guatemala). This means you don’t have to waste time (and fuel) driving all over creation comparing prices at the Shell and the Exxon and the BP. What you see is what you get so just pull in and fill up.

3. All gas stations are full service in Mexico

Learn to say “Por favor, lavar mi parabrisas” and they’ll clean your windshield too. We generally give the guy (and, occasionally, the girl) a couple of pesos for the effort. Another good gas station phrase to know: “Acceptan tarjetas de crédito?” (Do you accept credit cards?). Even if they say yes, ask them to run a charge through for the amount of gas you want before you pump. We’ve been left paying for a big fill-up in cash after the local Bancomer bank refused to process our credit card which the attendant said the station accepted.

4. You can use a GPS in Mexico–sort of

Magellan makes a GPS device that includes data for Mexican roads. It’s called the Roadmate 1470 and we used it throughout the country. Even so, it’s a bit tricky to use in small towns or in remote areas where data is thin and it can be confusing finding specific streets because name abbreviations are so often used. Sometimes it can be even more confusing in cities that can have dozens of variations of the same street name.Still, our Magellan did help us get oriented in big cities which is very helpful.

5. Better yet, buy a Guia Roji

Available at most big book stores in Mexico and at some big gas stations, the Guia Roji is the Rand McNally atlas for Mexico and still the best source of roadway and city maps plus it has a relatively accurate chart that will help you calculate what the tolls will cost if you choose to take the country’s pay highways instead of the network of free roads (see below).

 

 

6. Pay  Highway vs. Free Roads…

Pay highway PROS:

  • wide and well paved
  • usually bypass towns and villages
  • virtually unenforced speed limit
  • fastest way between two points–often 2-3 times faster than the free road route
  • you’ll often have the whole road to yourself
  • drivers on pay highways are automatically covered by limited insurance that covers civil liability, medical payments and funeral expenses (this does NOT satisfy your requirement to have Mexican insurance, however–see below)
  • pay highways are patrolled by the Green Angels, an amazing fleet of bright green tow trucks driven by mechanics ready to fix what’s broken free of charge (see below)

Pay highway CONS:

  • tolls can add up — the 178 mile pay (286 km) road between Puebla and Veracruz costs US$28 in tolls. That’s more than a peso per kilometer, and you could spend more than US$350 in tolls driving from one end of the country to the other
  • since pay highways bypass towns and villages you don’t see much of real Mexico–driving on a pay highway is virtually the same as driving on a US interstate

Free road PROS:

  • no tolls
  • since they pass through towns and villages you see Mexican life as you travel

Free road CONS:

  • can be 2-3 times slower than the pay highway route
  • often narrow roads that connect towns and cities which become slow moving main streets through each town and city along the way before turning back into a “highway” out of town
  • lots of topes (speedbumps, see below)
  • cheaper trucking companies use the free roads too, so there are often big trucks on small roads

You can get a detailed driving route with pay highway times and tolls from Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation. This is a particularly great tool for planning routes between cities.

7. The Green Angels make AAA look like a racket

Any driver on any road in Mexico can call the Green Angels and a bright green truck driven by bilingual mechanics will show up (8 am to 6 pm) ready to fix what’s broken for the price of the parts/fuel/oil (tips are appreciated). Green Angels patrol the pay highways, but if you don’t see one when you need one you just dial 078 and they’ll come to you.

8. Topes are a bitch

Tope (pronounced toe-pay) is the Spanish word for bump and is used for speed bumps as well. These concrete and rock humps in the road vary in steepness, width and severity but they’re all hellish. In the course of our Trans-Americas Journey, so far, we’ve driven over tens of thousands of them. They are efficient and brutal–especially the ones that are unsigned and sneak up on you before you can slow down. There’s a reason there’s almost always a tire repair shack at or near a tope.

They’re also dreadful for your fuel economy and your shocks–which is part of the reason we upgraded to Bilstein shocks.

By the time we left Mexico we’d come up with two new terms relating to topes (no, they’re not swear words):

nope (pronounced no-pay): What you find when you slow down and reach what you thought was a tope only to discover that it’s not.

rope (pronounced row-pay): A tope made by laying a massive rope across the road. These can be even more brutal than the stone and concrete varieties.

 9. Hoy no circula!

Mexico City’s air quality has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks in part to the innovative hoy no circula (today you can’t drive) rules that designate “no driving” days for all private vehicles in Mexico City and the state of Mexico based on the last number in your license plate. These rules absolutely apply to foreign drivers and it’s important to understand the rules, follow them and be armed with a good working knowledge of the program so you can make your case when a Mexico City cop pulls you over and (wrongly) accuses you of driving on a day or at a time you aren’t supposed to, which has happened to us. Here’s where to get complete hoy no circula rules in English.

You can also apply for a 14 day tourist waiver that exempts you from the hoy no circula rules in Mexico City.

10. Shakedown breakdown

Even armed with full knowledge of Mexican road rules and full compliance with said rules you will probably get pulled over by a cop in Mexico. Despite the fact that the Mexican government has made it illegal for the police to extort drivers for money (that had to be officially spelled out?), it still happens to locals and to foreigners. Soon after arriving in Mexico an expat tipped us off to this trick for getting out of these situations and after being pulled over multiple times in Mexico we can tell you that it works.

A. Act dumb and pretend that you don’t understand much Spanish, why you were stopped or what the cop is asking for. Maybe the cop will get bored and irritated and give up at this point. If he doesn’t…

B. Have the person in the passenger seat (also acting clueless and stupidly kind of excited by this “brush with the natives”) pull out a point and shoot camera and start happily taking pictures of this vacation memory in the making. Smile. Shoot some more.

C. Drive away. Because all cops know that extortion is illegal none of them will want to be photographed in the act. The cop will probably get angry when he sees the camera, but he will also tell you to get the hell out of there and the whole altercation will be over with no money paid, no shouting and no confrontation.

11. Mexicans are not bad drivers (they just have some wacky habits)

Two of the most important Mexican driving habits to understand are as follows:

1. Making two lanes into three lanes. Many two-lane Mexican roads have ample shoulders. This allows for an intricate ballet that involves slower traffic driving primarily on the shoulder allowing faster traffic to pass straddling the center line in an imaginary third lane. Cooperation from all parties is obviously required.

2. A left turn signal does not mean I’m turning left. Usually, it means “it’s clear to pass me.” This leads to some confusion when you really want to make a left hand turn which is accomplished by pulling over to the right of the road and waiting for all traffic behind you to pass, then turning left.

12. Not all Mexican auto insurance is created equal

You must carry Mexican auto liability insurance if you’re going to drive your own car in the country, but the insurer you choose can make a huge difference. A company called Adventure Mexican Insurance Services acts as a brokerage for Mexican auto insurance and it is totally Trans-Americas Journey approved.

They’re based in the U.S. and their 800# is always staffed with English speakers who can help with questions or issues, they offer great rates and they have fixers who can help solve claims problems.

If we’d gone through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services instead of buying direct from stinky old GNP Insurance in the first place, we wouldn’t have gotten so screwed when a taxi ran into us and GNP jerked us around when we made a claim. That’s why when it was time to get a new policy we went right to these guys.

Use this link to purchase your insurance through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services and you won’t pay any more but we’ll get a small commission which will help us put a few more gallons in our gas tank.

 13. You can’t beat a Mexican car wash

They’re cheap (less than 60 pesos, about US$5, for the exterior of our huge truck) and they’re often meticulous. Basically, a team of guys descends on your vehicle with high pressure washers and buckets of suds. No surface is left un-scrubbed, including the wheel wells and undercarriage. The whole thing culminates in a wipe down and polish of all rubber/plastic surfaces including your tires. We’ve had epic washes all over Mexico but the car washes in Mexico City and outside Playa del Carmen stand out. Set aside at least 45 minutes.

They’ll give the same treatment to your interior too for just a few pesos more.

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