After our visit to Bacalar we had a brief stay in the Mexican border town of Chetumal before we crossed over into Belize. It was both our first land border crossing and our first experience of ‘chicken buses’ – thankfully both went fairly smoothly!
A ‘chicken bus’ is the casual English term for the buses that transport goods and people between communities in many Latin American countries. These buses start out life as American school buses which, once they have reached the end of their use in the States, are auctioned off to Latin American countries and decorated to suit the tastes of the individual bus drivers. The reason they are called chicken buses is that you may well end up sitting next to one – when it comes to these buses, anything goes!
After some frustrating online searches and visiting a few different bus terminals in Chetumal (a lot of the information online is out of date, and the location of the main ADO bus station has recently moved), we eventually found out that we needed to go to Nuevo Mercado to catch a bus across the border. Once there we clambered aboard the bus and fortunately were able to squeeze our big backpacks into the luggage racks above our heads (a luxury that would not be afforded to us on future journeys), and after a short wait the bus set off.
A quick note on luggage – we read on a number of blogs and websites that it is generally advised to keep all of your luggage with you at all times when travelling by bus. Drivers will offer to put your bag in the back of the bus for you, but because this is often used as an entry and exit point en route the safety of your luggage can’t be guaranteed. Wherever possible we put our big bags in the racks above our heads, and if there are no luggage racks we put them on our laps or between our feet. This doesn’t make for the most comfortable journey, but at least you know your bag can’t go AWOL.
Once at the Mexico/Belize border, everyone got off the bus and queued to exit the country. As a tourist, on leaving the country you are required to pay an “exit tax” – usually around 900 pesos/£45 – however if you flew into the country this fee is included in your airfare. Unfortunately for us though, despite the fact that our flight into Mexico was recorded on our immigration documents, we still needed to have a full breakdown of taxes and fees from our airline in order for the Mexican border official to waive our fee – so we ended up having to pay. A lesson learnt if we travel to Mexico again in the future!
After we went through immigration again at the Belizean border it was just a short drive to Corozal. We stayed at the Sea Breeze Hotel right on the waterfront, which came very highly recommended in our guide book and online. It is quite a nice place, and the owner is very friendly and helpful, but you can tell it has been let go a little. We later found out after talking to an American expat that the previous owner of the hotel had died quite recently, and it had lost its way a bit after that. Nevertheless, it was a good place to stay as we had our own room and it was still cheap, so we settled in for a couple of nights.
One thing we noticed very quickly about Corozal: it is full of expats. Seriously. You can’t swing a cat without hitting an expat in that town, and most of them seem to come from the USA. On our second night we visited Scotty’s Bar and Grill, where the clientele was made up exclusively of Americans living in Corozal – all of whom were incredibly friendly and insightful about things to do and see in Belize. It seemed as though most of them had visited Belize for a holiday and fallen so completely in love with it that they decided not to go home – and even after just a few days in the country we could understand why.
The pace of life in Belize is just so relaxed and laid back, and the locals are the most friendly and welcoming of anywhere we’ve been. Back in London, if a stranger shouts after you in the street you can safely assume that a) they are going to hurl some sort of abuse at you, b) they are going to catcall you, or c) they are going to tell you to “smile, love!” (a particular pet peeve of mine). So the first time in Corozal when a man shouted “Hey!” at us and rode over on his bicycle, I was a little wary – until he stopped beside us, gave us a big smile and said “Hey guys, welcome to Belize! Hope you have a great time here!” and pedalled away. Since then we have had similar encounters almost every day – Belizeans seem genuinely pleased to see people visiting their country and are always keen to welcome newcomers.
After a couple of lazy days in Corozal we hopped on our second chicken bus and made our way to Orange Walk, where we spent a night before travelling over to Caye Caulker, an island off the coast. In Orange Walk we met the most incredible family who had been travelling together for the last 18 months, and showed no signs of slowing down any time soon. They were from California, and the parents told us that they had spent a year travelling and camping around the USA, before spending 6 months in Mexico and then heading down into Belize to travel around Central and South America. We guessed the kids ages to be around 11, 8 and 4 – and we assumed the parents must have been home schooling them. We were struck by what an incredible journey they were taking together as a family – and what a great way to see the world!