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BELIZE ROAD WATCH


Update on Road Conditions in Belize

By LAN SLUDER
Editor & Publisher, Belize First Magazine

The roads in Belize continue to get better and better. Sure, there still are sections of washboarded dirt that will shake your fillings out, but more roads are now paved and even the gravel or limestone byways seem to be scraped more frequently. A few roads, such as the newly completed Hummingbird Highway, and resurfaced sections of the Western Highway are very good indeed, among the best in all of Central America and the equal of any rural road in the U.S. or Canada. We have to remember that not too many years ago the Western Highway was unpaved, the Hummingbird was a nightmare of potholes, the Old Northern Highway was a jungle of tire-stabbing asphalt chunks, and not even Belize City had stop lights.

Signage, too is improving, being better than in most of Mexico or the rest of Central America. Most critical turns and junctions are marked. Many roads have mile markers -- though road work on the Southern Highway and elsewhere means many markers are missing. Around Belize City, new signage helps visitors navigate to key destinations such as the city centre or the internati onal airport. Still, you'll be miles ahead with a good map. The ITMB Travelle 's Reference Map of Belize was last updated in 1998 and is generally accurate. Invaluable is Emory King's Driver's Guide to Beautiful Belize, a mile-by-mile guide updated annually. The new 2000 edition is a doozy!

Main Roads

NORTHERN HIGHWAY This 85-mile route is a very good two-lane black-topped from Belize City to Corozal Town and then a few miles to the border with Mexico at Chetumal. The only thing that will slow you down are a few "sleeping policemen" in villages, the main drag through Orange Walk Town, slow-moving trucks when the sugar cane harvest is going on in late winter through late spring, and a toll-booth at the bridge over New River (BZ 75 cents). Your first glimpse of the azure waters of Corozal Bay are a highlight of this route.
Overall Road Condition: Very Good
Paved Section: 100%
Gas Availability: Excellent -- there are many gas stations including a few new ones open 24 hours

OLD NORTHERN HIGHWAY If you want to see Altun Ha ruins, you'll have to drive at least part of this 41-mile arc to the east of the New Northern Highway. Under the British, this highway was paved, and at last the Belize government is patching the remaining blacktop. The section south of Maskall village is better than the section north. Most sections are narrow and some are dirt. The 2-mile access road to Altun Ha is not paved.
Overall Road Condition: Fair
Paved Section: 70%
Gas Availability: None

WESTERN HIGHWAY The 78-mile road takes you from Belize City quickly past Hattieville, the Belize Zoo, the capital of Belmopan, the "twin cities" of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, and then on the Benque Viejo road to the Guatemala border. Just past San Ignacio, you hit "cottage country," where a number of excellent lodges including Chaa Creek and duPlooy's offer cold beer and a soft bed under quiet Central American skies. The Western Highway is still in pretty good condition, and some sections have been resurfaced recently. More topes are popping up as the road passes villages.
Overall Road Condition: Very Good to Excellent
Paved Section: 100%
Gas Availability: Good

HUMMINGBIRD HIGHWAY This 56-mile highway stretches from the Western Highway at Belmopan to Dangriga. The Hummingbird dips and swoops through some of the most beautiful territory in Belize. This was once a very bad road. Now it is in superb condition, with only a couple of bridges still under construction. Take a break at the Blue Hole, where a swim in the truly blue water is refreshing (a guard will watch your car, so don't worry) or at Five Blues National Park. Technically, the road is called the Hummingbird for only about 33 miles from the Western Highway to the village of Middlesex, and then it is known as the Stann Creek Valley Road. The section into Dangriga town is fully paved.
Overall Road Condition: Excellent
Paved Section: 100%
Gas Availability: Fair to Poor -- best to gas up at Belmopan or near Dangriga

COASTAL HIGHWAY This 36-mile gravel road, connecting Democracia near Mile 30 of Western Highway with the Stann Creek Valley Road near Melinda, is also known as the Manatee Highway or the "Shortcut."? It does save time on trips to Dangriga or Placencia from Belize City. However, the road is washboarded in places and is dusty in dry weather. During heavy rains, bridges occasionally wash out. It is far less scenic than the Hummingbird.
Overall Road Condition: Fair
Paved Section: 0%
Gas Availability: Poor -- gas up in Dangriga or on the Western Highway

SOUTHERN HIGHWAY The Southern Highway, long known as the worst major road in Belize, is getting better, although it will be a long time before it's a pleasure to drive the entire 100-mile stretch. The section from Punta Gorda to just beyond Big Falls, about 25 miles, is now paved and in excellent condition. Road crews are working fast and furiously -- well, more or less -- on several other sections. Paving on a section from Dangriga to Big Creek has begun. Between the far north and far southern tips, however, much of the road is just as it was -- muddy after rains (occasionally even 4-wheel drives get stuck) and blindingly dusty the rest of the time. The scenery, except for views of the Maya Mountains at about the halfway point, is unexceptional. Due to the road work, some road signs and most mile markers are missing.
Overall Road Condition: Poor to Excellent
Paved Section: 25% (near P.G.)
Gas Availability: Fair to Poor -- best to gas up in Dangriga or near PG; in a pinch, there's gas in Independence and Placencia.

BELIZE CITY The roads and streets of Belize City confuse many visitors. Many streets are not signed, and some are little more than narrow, one-way alleys. Streets abruptly terminate at Haulover Creek, and you have to find a bridge to get from one side to the other. Taxis, bicycles and pedestrians dart in and out of traffic. However, things are getting better. New roundabo uts on the Northern Highway have improved traffic flow, and new signage has popped up on main routes. Most streets are paved. Belize City is so up-to-date these days it even has a rush hour and traffic jams.
Overall Road Condition: Fair to Excellent
Paved Section: 95%
Gas Availability: Excellent -- modern gas stations have everything that U.S. stations have including convenience stores, except that you don't to pump your own gas.

Other Important Roads
ROAD TO CONSEJO This level 8-mile stretch takes you from Corozal Town to the Chetumal Bay, where there is a Belize customs station.
Overall Road Condition: Fair
Paved Section: 0%
Gas Availability: None

ROAD TO SHIPSTERN Once past the paved section near Orange Walk Town, this road just goes on and on, over rough, washboarded limestone. It's about 40 miles to Sarteneja village and Shipstern, but it will seem like twice that. A redeeming feature of this road is Progresso Lagoon, the quintessential tropical lagoon. If you want to go to Cerros instead of Shipstern, you start the same way, but about 12 1/2 miles from Orange Walk Town, and 6 1/2 miles past the village of San Estevan, you go straight instead of turning right; this takes you to Progresso, Copper Bank and Cerros. The road can be tricky after heavy rains.
Overall Road Condition: Fair to Poor
Paved Section: 15%
Gas Availability: Fair

ROAD TO CHAN CHICH AND GALLON JUG From Orange Walk Town, it's about a three-hour, 68-mile drive to Chan Chich, the stupendous Barry Bowen lodge. Along the way, on a road that varies from a poor rubble road to an excellent paved road at Gallon Jug, you'll pass a number of villages, some farms, the Mennonite settlement of Blue Creek (where you can also take spend time as a hard-working, paying volunteer at a major Maya archeological site) and plenty of jungle. As you cross the Programme for Belize preserve and Bowen land (you'll have to stop at two guard houses), you'll almost certainly see a variety of wildlife, including Belize's two species of deer and the oscellated turkey. At San Felipe village, about 23 miles from Orange Walk Town, you can turn on a dirt road to the Lamanai ruins and Lamanai Outpost Lodge, about 13 miles from San Felipe. This road is now passable year-round.
Overall Road Condition: Mostly Fair to Poor, with some Good to Very Good sections
Paved Section: 15%
Gas Availability: Fair (gas up at the Linda Vista "shopping center" at Blue Creek, run by Mennonites)

BURRELL BOOM You have two choices to get to Burrell Boom, Bermudian Landing and the Baboon (Black Howler Monkey) Sanctuary: Turn off the New Northern Highway at about Mile 13, or off the Western Highway at Mile 15.5. The Road to the Boom also functions as a short-cut if going between points on the North ern and Western highways, eliminating the need to drive through Belize City. It's a downer, though, to drive past the Hattieville Ramada, one of the most depressing prisons anywhere.
Overall Road Condition: Fair
Paved Section: 5%
Gas Availability: Fair

ROAD TO SPANISH LOOKOUT AREA This part of Cayo will remind you a bit of the Midwest, with spiffy Mennonite farms. The roads are mostly gravel and better-maintained than average. (Note: In theory it is possible to get to Chan Chich from Cayo via this route, a much shorter route. But access involves crossing private lands, not presently open to the public.)
Overall Road Condition: Fair
Paved Section: 5%
Gas Availability: Fair

MOUNTAIN PINE RIDGE ROAD TO CARACOL By the route from Georgeville, it is about 46 miles from the Western Highway to the ruins of Caracol. From San Ignacio, the trip is a few miles longer -- this route connects with the Mountain Pine Ridge Road near the village of San Antonio. On a recent visit, the road from San Ignacio was in better shape than the route from Georgeville, but this varies depending on when the roads are scraped. Even in good weather in a good vehicle, don't expect to average more than 20 or 25 mph on this road -- it's a three-hour rough ride to Caracol, even with recent improvements to the road between the Augustine station and Caracol. A reward: I have never seen so many butterflies in Belize as I've seen on this road, and the scenery in many spots is lovely. After a heavy rain, the limestone dirt can be very slick and dangerous, and clay areas even more so. En route, stop for a cold drink or a hot gourmet pizza at Francis Ford Copolla's lodge, Blancaneaux, about 15 miles in from Georgeville.
Overall Road Condition: Fair to Very Poor
Paved Section: 0%
Gas Availability: None

ROAD TO PLACENCIA This 25-mile dirt and gravel road runs from the Southern Highway to the tip of the Placencia peninsula, passing Maya Beach and Seine Bight. To placate real estate developers, who want more sea-front land to sell, a section of the road along the sea has been moved closer to the lagoon.
Overall Road Condition: Fair
Paved Section: 0%
Gas Availability: Fair (one station in Placencia village)

ROAD TO MAYA VILLAGES IN TOLEDO A series of connected roads take you from the Southern Highway near P.G. to the Mayan villages of San Antonio, Santa Cruz and Pueblo Viejo villages, or in other direction, to San Pedro Columbia village, Lubaantun ruins, San Miguel village, and then back to the Southern Highway near the Nim Li Punit ruins.
Overall Road Condition: Fair to Poor
Paved Section: 0%
Gas Availability: Poor (gas up at the junction to the road to San Antonio)

AMBERGRIS CAYE As a visitor, you can't rent a car on the island, although residents seem to be stocking up on pick-ups and cars, crowding out golf carts, bikes and pedestrians on the caye's sandy roads. Two small sections of Coconut Drive, one at the airstrip and the other at Island Supermarket, were paved with cobblestones in 1999. You can rent a golf cart and putt south to near the tip of the island, and north (if the rental company allows its carts to go over the river on the bridge. After rains, these cart paths are rough and muddy, and away from the water if you slow down the mozzies will swarm you.
Overall Road Condition: Fair to Poor
Paved Section: 1%
Gas Availability: Fair (gas is available at the Belize Yacht Club and elsewhere, but most golf carts run on batteries)

PRACTICAL TIPS

Maps
The best general road map to Belize is from ITMB. A new 4th edition was released in 1998. The color, 1:350,000-scale map retails for US$8.95. Even more useful for most travelers is the mile-by-mile Driver's Guide to Beautiful Belize, published annually by the famous Emory King. Although the maps are rough, this 60-page guide is reliable and easy-to-use. The 2000 edition is US$14. Both are available from Equator Travel Publications, 270 Beaverdam Road, Candler, NC 28715, fax 828-667-1717, or e-mail BZEFIRST@aol.com. In North America and Belize, add US$3.75 shipping and handling for the first item, and $2 for each additional one. Outside these areas, add US$8 for the first and $4 for each additional item. It is a good idea to buy these or other maps and guides before arriving in Belize, as they often cost more in Belize or may not be available. While guidebooks to Belize offer excellent on what to see, almost uniformly they are weak in providing maps and driving directions.

Gas Stations
Belize has Texaco, Shell and Esso service stations, with a total of around 70 stations in the country. Unleaded gas is widely available now in Belize, at about US$2.90 a gallon. Leaded is a few cents less, and diesel about a third less. Skilled mechanics are few and far between, although you can get a tire changed almost anywhere. Someone will come out and pump gas for you, and there's no need to tip. Belize gas stations accept Belize or U.S. dollars, but usually not credit cards.

Miles or Kilometers?
Like the U.S., Belize has been slow to accept the metric system. Distances are given in miles, and gas is sold by the U.S. gallon. However, some Japanese-made rental cars have speed and distance shown in kilometers only, a source of confusion on Belize's mile-denominated roads.

Speed Limits
You occasionally see a speed limit sign in Belize, but there is little if any traffic law enforcement. Belize drivers, to be charitable, are not always the best in the world.

Sleeping Policemen
Speed-breaker bumps are used to slow traffic coming into residential areas. In many cases, you'll get no advance warning about the bumps, but expect them as you enter any town or village.

Bum Raps and Bad Cops
Unlike in, say, Costa Rica, where shaking down gringos in rental cars is a small industry, in Belize you will not be pulled over for phony traffic offenses, and if you are stopped at a checkpoint, which occasionally happens, no one will promote a bribe. Just answer the questions, show your license or passport and visitor entry card, and you'll be on your way, with a friendly smile and wave from the police.

Safety
In other parts of Central America, macho drivers take blind curves at heart-attack speed. In laid-back Belize, that's not much of a problem. Do watch carefully when passing stopped buses -- kids may suddenly dart around the bus to cross the road. Another big difference in Belize is that outside of settled areas, you may drive for an hour or more and never see another car. On a remote back road, yours may be the only vehicle all day. Be prepared: Bring water, a flash-light and other basic supplies, and maybe a cell phone, just in case. In a poor country like Belize, anyone driving a car is, ipso facto, wealthy. Don't leave valuables in your car, locked or unlocked. In Belize City, it's best to park in a secured lot, or at least in a well-lit area.

Driving at Night
Driving at night in developing countries is seldom a good idea, but in Belize night driving is easier than elsewhere because there are so few people on the roads after dark. Jaguars and snakes, yes; people, no. Still, after dark it's hard to see potholes and topes.

Best Vehicles for Belize
Do you really need four-wheel drive in Belize? On the main thoroughfares such as the Western and Northern Highways, no. In the dry season, even back roads generally are passable without four-wheel drive if you have sufficient road clearance. But four-wheel drive is good insurance, just in case you hit a stretch of soft muck or sand. On every long trip in Belize, usually there are a couple of occasions when four-wheel power comes in handy. After a period of heavy rains, some back roads become quagmires.

The vehicle of choice in Belize is a larger four-wheel drive, such as an Isuzu Trooper, Jeep Cherokee or Ford Explorer. These offer a smoother ride on washboard roads, and the large petrol tank cuts down on the need to stop for gas so frequently. However, rental rates on these large vehicles are high -- US$80 to $110 day or more in most cases -- and they drink gas like fish . The Suzuki Jimny, Vitari or Sidekick are common rental vehicles, and they do a good day's work at a decent price.

Tips on Rental Cars in Belize
Having a rental car is a real plus in Belize. You can go places not easily visited by bus, and while rental prices are not cheap, you may more than pay for the cost of the rental by avoiding high-priced tours. Here are questions to ask and things to check BEFORE driving off in your rental. Keep in mind that a break-down on a deserted road in Belize is not like a break-down in Suburbia, USA.

- Check the mileage on the vehicle you've been assigned. Even "name brand" renters often have high-mileage cars in their fleet. If the mileage seems high, ask for another vehicle.

- Check the tires. Six-ply truck tires or high-quality radials are best for Belize roads. But since these tires are more expensive, many rentals run inexpensive passenger car tires, which may not stand up to heavy off-road use. At the very least, tires should have plenty of tread. Also, check the spare, and be sure you know how to locate and use the jack.

- Ask what will happen if you have a break-down somewhere in the boondocks. Some renters, such as Budget and National, will send a mechanic out to repair the problem. Others may not.

- Determine in advance whether you need to accept Collision Damage Waiver. CDW runs US$10 to $15 per day in Belize, and typically it does not cover the first $500 to $1,000 in damage -- so you have to cough up for a windshield broken by a flying rock, for example. American Express and some other credit cards DO provide primary CDW coverage in Belize, but the catch is that these cards may not cover driving on unpaved roads or in larger 4WD vehicles -- check with your credit card company to be sure.

- In-season especially, make reservations in advance, as rentals can be tight. There's now a car rental row at the international airport, a short stroll from the airport entrance. In the rental strip are Budget, Avis, Jaguar, Crystal and Pancho's, among others. National, Hertz-Safari, Thrifty, Budget, Jabiru, Lewis and a few others also have locations in and around Belize City. Avis has a location at the Municipal Airport. Over the years, I have had the most consistently excellent service from Budget.

**Lan Sluder is editor and publisher of Belize First Magazine, the ad-free, book-format magazine on travel, life and retirement in Belize. Sluder also is updating the new edition of Fodor's Belize & Guatemala guidebook and the Belize section of UpClose Central America, and his articles on Belize have appeared in many publications, including Caribbean Travel & Life and Canada's Globe & Mail.**

Copyright c 2000 Belize First Magazine. All rights reserved.


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