We had been dreading the arrival of Jan 10th when we expected we would be paying for all the fun we would have had during our Central American sojourn. This payment would have been in the form of a long road trip in excess of 12 hours from San Ignacio to Cancun which now served as the take off point for our return to the US for a second time. We also had to deal with our final border crossing but we were looking forward to that event as well as getting into Mexico, one of our favorite countries, even though we had no exploration plans this time.
There was wild disagreement among various parties on whether there was a direct bus from San Ignacio (actually coming from the border town of Benque) to Chetumal in Mexico. The guidebooks spoke highly of a pre-dawn bus that would skip the detour to Belize City and head straight for the Mexican border. The official at the Cayo Tourist Welcome Center denied the existence of such a bus and advised us to transfer at Belize City. The taxi driver who took us to our Kayak trip the previous day insisted that the direct bus did exist.
We dealt with this confusion in the only way possible, get up at 4:30 am! And walk the 100m to the city centre. A loud talkative elderly man made conversation with everyone who was up and about at that hour. We learnt that the next bus would come at 5:30 and would be headed to Belize City. Once everyone got on board, the old man left the place having run out of company and the morning air was peaceful and quiet again.
Despite being in the tropics it was still a chilly January morning and we wrapped ourselves in our jackets and tried to get some sleep. The arrival in the capital city of Belmopan woke us up in the form of loud music being played on a handheld device of a thoughtless young woman. The city itself was fairly non-existent except for the bus terminal which was a modest building with a couple of parking spots. The maps did not indicate any bypass route but it seemed as if we were on one as we saw no signs of any life or neighborhoods. And that was Belmopan, another world capital under our belts.
The thoughtless young woman must have noticed V placing his hands over his ears with his head down on the seat in front, she reduced the volume a wee bit. After another hour we arrived at the seaside city of Belize City, former capital of Belize before it lost that status owing to a devastating hurricane in the 60s. It had the look of a Caribbean island but was otherwise quite unremarkable. Our driver pointed at the Albion bus parked in the terminal as our escape to Mexico and we boarded and found seats. V was sent out on a mission to find us some hot beverage and found one in the terminal that served coffee.
A bizarre conversation followed:
V: You have coffee?
Shop (picks up a plastic spoon and offers it to V silently)
V: No, I want coffee!
Shop (shakes the spoon and hands it to V and nods)
V (accepting the spoon): What do I do now?
Shop (gestures left)
V (spots a metal container and plastic cups, picks up a cup and dispenses - hot water!): Er, this is hot water!
Shop (gestures left)
V: (Gets around and enters the area behind the counter...Instant coffee sachets in a box. Another plastic container with sugar. And another with dairy creamer. And as The Dude would have said - the spoon tied it all together!): Sorry, woke up early, brain is a bit slow today! (pays B$2 for the two coffees and walks back to bus with two steaming cups. M reacts like she was being presented the Nectar of the Gods and steaming too!)
The bus is full as it departs and is then filled further with all standing room fully occupied causing some anxiety for us about our bags which we had placed in the last row when we boarded. Belize City proved to have a much larger reach and it started looking better near the airport area with landscaping on the traffic islands.
As we approached a police checkpost the conductor suddenly motioned all standees to squat but this proved to be in vain as the police decided to step inside for a look and spotted the illegal standees. The driver and conductor were summoned outside to be fed papers and after a 10 minute delay they returned and continued without looking too put off.
M was mentally reviewing through the schedule of ADO departures (Mexican bus company which we had loyally patronized during our three week trip in 2006) from Chetumal to Cancun. If we made good time and reached Chetumal by 10:30 am we may just be able to hop onto the 10:30 bus and get to Cancun well before dinner time. The next departure was 12:30 and then it was hourly thereafter.
We had not reckoned with the super-slow operation of this Chetumal bound bus as it would stop for anyone remotely interested in the bus on the highway. There was a big detour into Orange Walk Town as it stopped at the bus terminal for a few minutes and also drove past every street picking up people.
We passed the 10:30 milestone and were still inside Belize. After passing the town of Corozal we were finally headed for the last stretch in Belize and hopefully a quick border crossing and then the brief 5km ride into Chetumal in Mexico. We eventually saw the Belizean flag on the border and the exit procedure was brief. We exchanged our last Belizean money for a bottle of water before the bus crossed the Hondo River into Mexico.
The Mexican side of the border made us feel like we were entering a first world country after a couple of weeks in the third world. However, we still had a massive queue in front of us with only one official at work. The Albion staff came into the building and told us that they were returning to Belize and that we should just take the next Albion bus into Chetumal. This was apparently normal operating procedure and that we would not be expected to pay as we already paid the company. We had no choice but to nod.
The 12:30 milestone passed just as we were nearing the head of the queue. In a scene straight out of Lucky Jim, we found the official exasperatingly detail oriented and seemed to take his work a bit too seriously. While he processed some passports within seconds, he would take particular care to conduct detailed interviews with some parties and process the intelligence received from their answers with a grave air and only stamp their passports after considerable thought.
We joined our Albion alumni association at 12:45 and found no sign of any bus from that company. There was another bus parked but it was empty and the driver nowhere in sight. We got our bags through the customs X-ray and pressed a mysterious blue button (only one per family please) after we collected our bags. A couple from the Albion group told us that they did not get to press that blue button.
With no sign of Albion, we decided to look for alternatives (maybe a taxi?) and were joined by a 20-something Canadian who had been on the bus with us. As we made our way towards the border post, the customs officials came outside and prevented us and gestured for us to look the other way among the long line of cars coming from Belize. These officials were very solicitous and showed genuine concern for our need to get into Mexico and even demanded to know where the driver of the empty bus was.
The few taxis among the long line were either full or asked for exorbitant amounts to get to Chetumal. A driver of a full taxi told us that he would drop his passengers off and come back. While we appreciated his intent we saw that this would take too long to materialize. Desperate to get out we started walking towards Mexico again. The customs officials stopped us again and shook their heads. We then realized that this was a “vehicles-only” border crossing and pedestrians were prohibited. We also realized that it was a first world high speed freeway on the Mexican side and not particularly safe for pedestrians.
The customs official came to our rescue by talking to the driver of a private pick-up truck and convincing him to just transport us across. He reluctantly agreed and the three of us hopped on the back of the truck. We were flagged pasts the border post and the driver pulled over and we hopped off. We had been instructed to cross the freeway carefully and get to the other side and flag down a passing taxi. We saw a graveyard of junked cars on the side of the freeway (presumably confiscated by the customs officials?). Traffic was light and we carefully hopped across the freeway to the other side and within minutes were in a taxi having agreed to the driver’s very reasonable fare to get us to the ADO terminal for Cancun bound buses.
We still had a half hour for the 2:30 bus and we experienced the thrill of booking yet another ADO ticket with its very modern ticket windows and visual seat map that allowed us to pick our seats. As is the standard in ADO, the boarding areas, checked-in baggage counters were reminiscent of airports. The shops inside the terminal only had snacks and fruits, so V ran out to a taco stall and got some vegetarian tacos (advertised as such on the menu!) - never mind that they were heated on the same hot plate with other fleshy parts. We were now in a world far removed from the Guatemalan CA-1 chicken bus rides. We spotted a couple from the Albion on a bus adjacent to us at the traffic light and wondered how they had made the crossing from Columbia to Panama (we had heard of this during our wait at the customs office). The ADO bus got onto the highway and the road felt like a smooth glass surface as we glided at 100 kph.
The bus stopped at Bacalar and we saw that the other bus with the couple had stopped there as well. M quickly jumped off and spoke to them about their trip. It appeared that they were getting off at Bacalar before eventually moving onto Cancun and Cuba! If President Obama’s Cuban initiatives bear fruit, we may soon be visiting that country legally!
You can’t get more uneventful than on a ADO bus on a straight stretch of highway with multiple lanes and law-abiding traffic. This part of Mexico is far removed from the other extremes of the country. The only anxiety in our minds was that our airport hotel was right on the freeway some 15km short of Cancun. We spoke to the driver who was reluctant to make an unscheduled stop for us(understandably so since the company had a reputation to protect and the fact that our bags were stowed in the luggage compartment ruled out the possibility). So we endured the annoyance of watching the hotel go by. But we got some delicious savory and sweet crepes inside the Cancun bus terminal before riding on a taxi back to the airport for our last night on the road.
One more alarm clock event to catch our 7am non-stop United flight to San Francisco the next morning. As it happened on the Houston-Tegucigalpa leg, one of us got a complimentary upgrade to first class. M insisted that V should enjoy it on the return leg since she got to ride first class on the onward leg. It turned out that the first class breakfast was meager and V had to sheepishly troop down the aisle of the 737 to request M for the coveted packet of ginger biscuits!
Photo Album: Belize to Mexico
Nice trip and nice blogging once again. Especially interesting for me as I know absolutely nothing about the places you went to. Back home and back to the usual place of life I guess - you guys must be very busy taking 15 days after return to complete the travelogue !
I get on to the road in a week's time. Will blog in the same place as last time - hope to see you there. From , on Jan 25, 2015 at 08:44AM
Thank you Ramesh! Your last trip took you up and west, so guessing you may be headed east / northeast this time. Will wait to find out. Eagerly looking forward to your blog updates. From, on Jan 25, 2015 at 05:53PM