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#469547 - 08/04/13 12:08 PM How to Cross the Guatemala – Belize Border
Marty Offline

The time had come.

That time every digital nomad at first loves, because it feels exciting and new… until later it becomes one more inconvenience in a long list of gripes.  It was…

Tourist visa renewal time!

In Guatemala, you can renew your visa at the 90-day mark without leaving the country.  After your visa is renewed, you can take your passport to SAT’s Custom’s office and extend your vehicle’s permit as well.

At six months, or 180-days, one HAS TO leave the country.  Rule also applies to whatever foreign vehicle you’ve brought with you, because its Temporary Import stamp has to match your passport.

My options for renewal were a) Costa Rica, b) Mexico, and c) Belize.

Option a, Mexico, was a no-go because that meant importing my car again.  This requires a hefty credit card deposit (refundable), and purchase of insurance.  Plus I’d already been to Mexico.

Option b, Costa Rica, requires crossing at least 2 countries, Honduras and Nicaragua.  Add El Salvador to the list if you feel you haven’t filed enough government paperwork in your life.

The reasons you have to cross all these countries to get to Costa Rica are because:

1)  You have to for geographical reasons (unless you have Marty MacFly’s flying car from Back to the Future), and…

2)  Because Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador have joined Guatemala in the CA-4 Border Agreement pact.

This agreement makes it easier for residents of these countries to do business and move within each other’s borders.  But this also means that, for visa purposes, you and your car are in the same “zone.”  A visa stamp from these countries does not qualify as a valid “exit.”

Option c, Belize, made the most sense because it meant there was only one border to cross and unlike Mexico, no credit card deposit required.  Belize also requires vehicle insurance.

Plus, we wanted to see the Caribbean beaches again, since black sand beaches in Guatemala do not quite cut it.

On the Way to Belize

First stop was to drop off our beloved (and mischievous) French Poodle with a caretaker.  Importing pets into Belize is somewhat costly, and the length of the stay did not justify the cost and paperwork hassle.

Check out TacoGirl‘s instructions for importing your pet into Belize, either overland, or because you’re considering Belize as a long-term destination.

Belize - Guatemala Border (1)

The roads were in great condition, for the most part, and the weather was as nice as could be.

Occasionally, there were stretches were you’d see many stands selling the same products for a couple of miles.  This particular stretch was noted for the sale of grape juice.  Another stretch featured cane juice.

Belize - Guatemala Border (2)

It took about 4 hours, from Guatemala City, to reach the turnoff for Peten (Tikal) and the Belizean border.  From the turnoff, it was about 35 minutes to Rio Dulce, a cool little town next to Lake Izabal and home to the largest bridge in Central America.

Belize - Guatemala Border (3)

The bridge offered great views of the lake on one side, and the river on the other.  According to the US Coast Guard, this inlet is the safest place in continental America to store a boat and protect it from an incoming hurricane.

Belize - Guatemala Border (4)

The main road goes right through town.  Fairly crowded and busy, the main attractions are on the riverbank (hotels, restaurants, etc).

On our way back from Belize, we took a detour at this junction to visit scenic Castillo San Felipe.  Stay tuned, as this place deserves its own post.

Belize - Guatemala Border (5)

From Rio Dulce, it takes about 3 hours to reach Flores, the base of expeditions into Tikal and other archaeological attractions in the Peten Department.

Belize - Guatemala Border (6)

If heading straight into Tikal, there’s no need to go to Flores (Santa Elena), which is about 20 minutes from the turnoff you see below.  Tikal is about 30 minutes away from the turnoff.

I highly recommend you visit Flores, at least for a day.  Well worth it.

Belize - Guatemala Border (7)

From the turnoff above, we headed towards Tikal, which is on the same road that leads to the border.  The road is not crowded and it’s mostly in good condition, except for a dirt/gravel stretch that I can only imagine turns awful when it rains.

Belize - Guatemala Border (8)

From Flores to Melchor de Mencos, where the crossing into Belize is located, it’s about 1 1/2 hours.

Belize - Guatemala Border (9)

I told you the road was not crowded…

Belize - Guatemala Border (10)

Belize - Guatemala Border (11)

Crossing From Guatemala Into Belize

Melchor de Mencos is a sleepy little town and your last chance for a decent meal until you reach San Ignacio, Belize.  Just continue straight ahead towards the border crossing post.

Note:  Bring copies of all your documents (passport, latest visa stamps, vehicle paperwork, etc).  I failed to make copies of the last permit extension permit for my vehicle, which meant I had to scramble and find a place to make a copy.

There is a little “copy shack” right next to the border office, in case you need any document copies.  Since we attempted to cross over on a Saturday afternoon, the office was “closed”.  I say “closed” because the guy was just sitting there, window open, surfing the net.  He refused to get up to make a copy because the office was “closed”, and directed me to an unnamed office located just before the bridge crossing.

We walked back, over the short bridge, and found the office, which was also just about to close.  For reference, it’s the tiny, dark-yellow, one-story building to the right you see below.

If you haven’t filled up your car’s gas tank, this is your last chance.  Gas is way more expensive in the Belizean side.

Belize - Guatemala Border (12)

Belize - Guatemala Border (13)

There’s a Q10 fee to cross the bridge by car (yep, we got a receipt).  This is collected by an attendant at the post below.

Belize - Guatemala Border (14)

Before crossing, park your car right behind the orange barricade and head over to the big building you see in the forefront.  Get your passport stamped first (right side of the counter), then head to the other side of the counter to get your vehicle’s paperwork straightened out.

Belize - Guatemala Border (15)

Guatemalan Vehicle Permit Options

Note:  Turns out there are two procedures Customs can do for your vehicle, which I wasn’t informed about until I tried to re-enter Guatemala.  You can:

a)  Cancel your vehicle’s Guatemala permit:  More time-consuming option.  This procedure effectively checks the vehicle out of the country.  Upon reentering Guatemala, you can reapply and be granted a new import sticker, with a new 90-day visa clock.

b)  Request temporary leave:  They will “stop the clock” on your current permit, and restart it when you re-enter the country.

Option b is fine if you have plenty of time left before your vehicle’s permit expires and plan to leave the CA-4 area never to return again (or at least not quickly).  In my case, since I’ll be in Guatemala at least until the end of the year, it was best for me to cancel the permit and restart my vehicle’s permit clock.

But since nobody said anything about this, they simply just “stopped the clock”.  When I returned, they restarted the clock.

They didn’t reveal this until I pointed out that my permit was just extended for a week (the time left for visa expiration during my last stay in Guatemala) and not the full 90-days.  By then, according to them, it was too late to cancel the permit and start over, since they’re only allowed to do one “permit procedure” on a vehicle, per day.

Thankfully, I still had left with slightly over a week’s time on my permit, which extended my permit for the time I was out of the country.  Later, after I returned from the trip, I was able to extend my vehicle’s permit again for the full 90-days at the Custom’s office in Guatemala City.

There was NO FEE for any of the vehicle’s import paperwork into or out of Guatemala.

Once I got my vehicle’s exit paperwork straightened out, and having changed some of my Guatemalan money into Belizean currency from the guys roaming around at the Custom’s office, it was time to head into Belize.

I had to drive through the car-wash look-alike contraption, which sprays insecticide on your vehicle.  For the honor, you get to pay a $10BZ fee or Q40 (they accept both currencies).

You can either park in the dirt lot before you cross over and pay the fee at the small building next to the Insect-O-Killer (right side in the pic below), or drive through, park on the Belizean side, and walk back to the small building.

Someone will chase you down and remind you if you “forget” to pay.  I know this from experience.  And yup, you get a receipt for this too.

Belize - Guatemala Border (16)

Find a parking spot (right side), and walk over to the main building to join the queue get your passport stamped.

Belize - Guatemala Border (17)

Keystone Cops

Belizean Customs are not complicated, although my experience was not a particularly pleasant one.

First, you have to fill out a small form (name, place of stay, purpose of visit, etc), like the one they give you on airplanes, for each person in your party, even children.

After we presented our forms, we were directed to a small office in the middle of the building, which I later found out were the offices for Customs’ officials.  Most people are waved through, stamped passport in hand.

After waiting in a hall to enter (no chairs, cold A/C at least), we were invited to walk into the office.

What followed was a literal Keystone Cops routine.

The Customs’ official asked us about the purpose of the visit (sightseeing), and proceeded to accuse me of trying to smuggle my wife and child (both Guatemalan), into Mexico and later, the US.  I smiled and assured him this was not so.

The official walked out of the room, closed the door, and conferred with the other officials about what I had said and what to ask us next.  I mean, the walls were paper-thin and they stood right on the other side of the door.

The official came back, grilled me some more about the length of my stay, and walked out.  Official does the same “what do I ask them?” routine.

Then, he walks back in and accuses me of trying to visit Belize just to renew my Guatemalan visa (so???) and informs me that they do not like that at all.

Sure, because dragging one’s family into their country and spending a lot of money is SO harmful to Belize’s economy, right?

He walks back, talks some more with the other guys, then comes back in.  And I swear this is exactly what happened next:

The official thanks me for my honesty and how forthright I was with him (huh???).  He also tells me that there was no need for me to go further into Belize, since they had a “service” they provided for people “just like me” (double-huh???).

With this service, he continued, they could just stamp my passport and I could return to Guatemala again, without any problems.  I “thanked” him for the offer, but I informed him that I was determined to check out Belize, despite his dogged efforts I did not do so.

Whether this was just a ploy to get some money from me or get me to say I just wanted a visa stamp, I’m still not sure.

My refusal to accept his “offer” seems to have ticked him off and he asked me how long I was going to stay in Belize.  I told him I was thinking about 5-days to maybe a week.

He proceeded to scribble a note and indicate we be given permission only for 5-days, after which point the visa would expire (it’s customary to get 90-days).  Lord forbid I enjoyed Belize and wanted to stay a few extra days and spend some more money in his country.

I proceeded to head back to the visa counter and was given a permission slip that allowed the vehicle to stay in Belize for 5-days.  After I was given the slip, I pulled the car over to the the side of the building for inspection, so they could make sure the VIN on the vehicle was correct.  At which point I was finally given a green light to drive on.

This whole charade lasted over almost two hours, at which point our plans were screwed and we would not make to Belize City in time to catch the last Water Taxi leaving for Caye Caulker, our original destination.

We headed over to the red-roof building pictured below to get mandatory Belize car insurance.

Belize - Guatemala Border (18)

Thankfully, the insurance office was still open (they have an after-hours number in case they’re closed when you arrive).  Insurance coverage for one week set me back 29$BZD, which was reasonable.

Belize - Guatemala Border (19)

Change of Plans

Right as we finished completing insurance paperwork (took about 10 minutes), rain started pouring.  We ran back into the Jeep to munch on chips and drinks while we pondered out options.

Thankfully, my portable modem worked just fine on the Belizean side and I was able to log in and check out hotel options nearby.  This worked out alright, as we ended up staying in the town of San Ignacio, located about 15 minutes away from the border.  San Ignacio is much nicer than Benque, the Belizean town right next to the border.

After the brief downpour, which lasted about 15 minutes, we finally hit the road in our Belizean adventure.

Belize - Guatemala Border (20)

Crossing From Belize Into Guatemala

To exit Belize, all tourists (except Guatemalan tourists) need to pay a $30BZD exit fee at Customs.  There’s an additional $7.50BZD “conservation” fee for everyone, including Guatemalan citizens (excluding Melchor de Mencos residents, which are exempt from all fees).

Before leaving, you need to cancel your Belizean Temporary Permit (no fee).  Your car also gets sprayed by the Insect-O-Killer, on the way out of Belize.  Oddly enough, the fee is ~18Q, much cheaper, for the same service (receipt included).

As far as I could tell, it’s the same machine, spraying the same chemicals (though I suspect it’s just water).

Our time in Belize was very enjoyable (even the Customs’ officials on the Exit side of Belize were much friendlier).

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#469569 - 08/04/13 09:07 PM Re: How to Cross the Guatemala – Belize Border [Re: Marty]
Lan Sluder/Belize First Offline
Great report and loved the photos! Brings back so many memories. One small thing: initial entry into Belize is for up to 30 days (which can be extended), not 90 as stated by the author.

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#469593 - 08/05/13 02:20 PM Re: How to Cross the Guatemala – Belize Border [Re: Marty]
Waterman Offline
The Keystone Cops routine is just a device to try and get you to bribe them. You run into similar attitudes and BS with many of the Government Agencies in Belize. A smile and patience will generally get the job done the way it should be from the start. Friendly/helpful government employees are the exception not the rule, unfortunately.

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#469624 - 08/05/13 10:09 PM Re: How to Cross the Guatemala – Belize Border [Re: Marty]
Lan Sluder/Belize First Offline
I know that there is corruption and bribery in Belize, and certainly more than there used to be -- 20-some years ago when I first started coming to Belize the country was probably the biggest exception in all of Latin America to the rule of mordida -- but I still find that the typical Belize official, from immigration on entry (land or air) to a bureaucrat in Belmopan to a police officer or BDF soldier at a highway checkpoint, is pretty friendly and easy-going ... by international government standards, anyway. And expectations of bribes at least at the lower levels are still pretty rare.

I still remember one embarrassing moment years ago when I was handing my passport to a Belize immigration officer, and a US$50 bill I had stuck in it for an emergency fell out. The officer just smiled and handed it back to me, didn't say a word. I felt like an idiot.

Of course, one has to do one's part, as a smile and a friendly comment go a long way. I'm sure there are a lot of exceptions, but I've experienced worse ...

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#469652 - 08/06/13 11:57 AM Re: How to Cross the Guatemala – Belize Border [Re: Marty]
Waterman Offline
Lan, you've been here much longer than I. My experiences are mostly limited to San Pedro and Belize City, probably not a representative sample. My wife and I both noticed that the police in Belmopan seemed much happier. I've had to resort to bribery twice and unfortunately I don't trust police or government officials enough to report it. I have been in at least three other situations where police or government officials were obviously waiting for cash to do their jobs. I out waited them. All of this occured in our first two years in the country while we got throught he work permit then permanent residency process. So 5 instances in two years...I've no base line to compare it to except the US, and I left the US for a variety of reasons...none of which included individual bribery!

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#469659 - 08/06/13 12:38 PM Re: How to Cross the Guatemala – Belize Border [Re: Marty]
elbert Offline
I'm having change my statement/position on the mordida also. The past is and today we have an embarrassing amount of corruption coming to the surface. It makes me angry because I love Belize and corruption is like a contagious disease.
On the upside we have a new faction in government to investigate and punish for corruption.
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http://scubalessonsbelize.blogspot.com/

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#469687 - 08/06/13 06:12 PM Re: How to Cross the Guatemala – Belize Border [Re: elbert]
seashell Offline
And how much does it take to buy off the new faction?
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A fish and a bird can fall in love, but where will they build their nest?


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