Travelling to Belize by road from the USA through Mexico

by: Terry Warburton

Click here for larger version Driving to Belize through Mexico had always held a fascination for me, as I enjoy long drives and new places. I had finally made the decision to take one of my vans there, as the rental of small vehicle at $65.00 per day in Belize had started to become an aggravating part of my trips there. Paying $500 to $700 each of my last 8 trips since January of 1996 had convinced me to take my own wheels. I am planning on moving my business there by December of 1998, and having a van there will make things easier.

My vehicle of choice was a 1982 Dodge van, for several reasons. The first is that I had only paid $300 for it and it was in very good condition to start with. Being reasonably mechanical, I took it upon myself to do what I could to prepare it not just for the drive through Mexico, but to provide reliable transportation in Belize. As it was a high mileage vehicle, I completely rebuilt the transmission and replaced the torque converter. I then replaced almost everything that could possibly go wrong with a vehicle. Replaced parts were as follows; starter, alternator, all belts, all hoses, plugs, wires, distributor cap, rotor, thermostat, valve cover gaskets, water pump, timing chain and gears. The radiator was also pulled out and sent to a shop where they flushed it and fixed a small leak.

As I kept all of the parts that were replaced and took them with me, I felt confident that even if something went wrong on the road, I had the tools and parts to replace or repair things. I also took a floor jack and two hydraulic jacks. along with a large selection of tools.

I had decided to take a small 17' travel trailer with me on this trip for two reasons. It would hold a lot of the woodworking tools and items for the house I am building and it would provide a place to stay during construction. The only things I did to it were to replace the bearings and make sure the spare tire was in good shape.

My cousins son , Nick, was coming along as he wished to spend the winter in Belize. I had arranged to fly a Belizean named Earl Green, to Houston where we would meet. He had done the trip a few times before and just having him along made me feel better about this adventure.

We left Orlando on Thursday at 2:30 in the afternoon. I started out driving at 55mph but when everything seemed to be rolling along OK soon I was keeping it at 65mph. We met Earl in Houston at a prearranged hotel, at 6:00pm Friday, had a good meal and slept till 3:00am. With the early start we made it to Brownsville at 10:30. The first stop was at Sanborn's Mexico Insurance Services. They are right on the road into Brownsville at 1245 Expressway 77, Ste A, TX 78520. Their phone number is 956-546-6644. I had phoned ahead and faxed them the info needed, so all the paperwork was ready. They were very helpful and the cost was $47.00 for 5 days of insurance. The next stop was at M.C.Agency, 225 E. 11th ST Ste.#4, Brownsville, TX 78520. Phone and fax is 956-542-2456. The owner, Mario Casanova had been very informative as to what was needed and items not to be imported to Mexico. Again, I had faxed all the vehicle info and a list and value of all items that I would be transporting through Mexico. He had translated it all into Spanish and had all the paperwork ready. There is a three day period that is imposed to be sure the vehicle you have is not stolen, so I was glad I had phoned ahead, so that it had already been checked out.

The final stop was at the actual company that handled Trans-Migration through Mexico. This was half way down the highway to Reynosa where we had to cross. ( If you are only traveling into Mexico and back to the States you can cross at Brownsville.)The fees for both places came to $250.00. I found out later that if you want to spend the time, you could skip using Mario. Personally, I felt his help was worth it. We were crossing on a Saturday and were lucky to get through as this place closed at noon. It was another 16 miles to the actual border crossing. Things there were a little confusing. You stood in line to get a visa ( $10.00 each) and then in another line to get more papers. ( another $20.00 ) There are people standing around that try to get you to go outside the building where they tell you that the driver needs 5 copies of the visa for the next stop point. He hustles you for $2.00 and gets the copies. I don't remember if we needed them or not. After this, you go through and are in Mexico. This took about an hour and a half. We headed back east along a road that had seen better days. I guess it's to prepare you for the rest of the trip. We stopped at the first little restaurant and enjoyed some goat with rice and beans, washed down with a couple of Corona beers. The next stop would be yet another customs check about 10 miles down the road. The officer stamps your papers and asks for $1. I gave him two and they promptly disappeared into his shirt pocket, with a smile.

We had crossed the major hurdle and only had to worry about 1,400 miles of Mexican highway ahead of us, that and Belizean customs.

While at the border, we met another Belizean from Succotz. We chatted and found out he was on his 14th trip so far this year. He was doing what Earl was doing for me, which was to be a guide through Mexico for another dumb Gringo. Next time we saw him he was at the Belize border. Along the way we also met up with David Alpuche from Belmopan, who was also bringing a vehicle back down.

We headed south down hwy 180. This follows the east coast of Mexico, and seemed like the shortest route to Belize. The large farms seemed to have very rich soil and were all under production. The highway was a little rough, but not too bad. We had to drive around 45mph and the trip was starting to look like it would take longer than I had planned. As I had a flight booked back to the States for the day before Thanksgiving, it seemed that driving through the night was going to be our fate. While people had warned me against this, it did not seem a daunting activity. That was until nature added rain and fog to our trip. Lucky for me it was Earls turn to drive, so I closed my eyes and slept for 3 hours. We had 10 extra gallons of gas on board so were not worried about finding a gas station. As it turned out the stations were all open 24 hours. Gas prices were a little higher than in the States, but not as silly as in Belize. We were concerned about gas quality, but it was a non issue, as the van ran fine.

One of the worse things we experienced were the " topes ", these sleeping policemen or speed-bumps were located at virtually every small town on the highway. Taken at a speed of more than 2 mph could lead to major front-end damage. We saw one vehicle with parts of it's front-end on the ground. Not all of these bumps are well marked and after hitting one at 40mph I knew I better not do it again. The travel trailer suffered the most from these nasty things and needed repairs when we got to Belize. The topes were, without doubt the worst part of the trip. Don't take them lightly, just slowly.

We almost had trouble at one gas station when they said they would not accept US money. We had used up our pesos and had no choice. It was 5 in the morning and we were not going to wait for a bank to open. We finally told them to siphon the gas back out or take the money. Logic won the day, and they settled for an exchange rate of 5 pesos to the dollar. The proper rate was 7, but I was in no mood to argue the point, as it was my fault for being short on pesos.

We were stopped several times in routine stops by the Federales. It is a little intimidating to have 15 soldiers with AK47 guns surround the vehicle and look in all the windows. They checked our passports and sent us on our way. For the most part they were always polite and business like. We asked one what they were looking for. His response was " guns ". At no time was our vehicle truly searched, so these stops were of minor concern. I think we were stopped a total of 6 times on the whole trip.

In every large town, we managed to get lost with no idea of what happed to the right road. There is a real lack of good signs to keep you following what should be the main highway through town. In one town the policeman just looked at the big Trans-Migration stickers you must have in the front window and pointed us in the right direction. I guess he could just look at us and see we were lost. In another town a cab driver shouted at us to follow him as he led us out of town and back onto the road south. I gave him $2.00 and he seemed happy. So was I !

At another time everyone we asked sent us in a direction that I thought was not right. When we arrived at the toll booth we knew the next stop was out west in the middle of Mexico. They allowed us to do a U-turn and then another police officer led us to a different ramp. This was going north, but he explained it was the only way to go south. Just do another U-turn after going through the toll booth. Gee !. Why didn't I think of that ? I thanked him and he just put out his hand and said " money ? ". I gave him $5.00 and his eyes lit up. If we had gone through the wrong toll it would have cost more than that in lost time and money.

We finally made it to just this side of Villerhormosa, by 8:00 p.m.. Once again it was raining and Earl was driving. We opted for the first motel we saw, as we had been on the road for 40 hours since leaving Houston. The motel was mistakenly called " The Ritz ". When it was built it probably was, but now was very run down, but clean and they had a restaurant and bar. We left a wake-up call for 3:00am which we thought would get us to the border at a reasonable time. Fortunately Earl woke up at 3:10 and got us up. I went to the lobby to check out and found the security guard asleep on the couch. He woke up and went in the office to wake up the clerk. So much for our wake up call ! But hey, what did I expect for $30.00 ?

The weather finally straightened out a little and we had a nice drive for the final run for Belize. This section of the highway was really good and we could drive 60mph most of the way. We made it to the Mexican side of the border at 11:00am. We were told to pull into a secured area till our paperwork had been cleared. It was not busy with people crossing the border, but it still took an hour for someone to come out and tell us we needed to pay $50.00, in US funds, not pesos or Belize dollars. Hmmm....., I asked for a receipt and he just looked at me and asked how long I would like to wait for one. A Belizean at the border whom Earl knew, told us they were not suppose to charge for looking at your paperwork, but would anyways. By this time I had seen enough of Mexico and reluctantly gave up $50. This guy had been waiting for 5 days to clear a small pick-up truck through Mexican customs. It seems that when he entered Mexico, the secretary mis-typed a number in the vehicle ID. Now at this end, they would not let him out, till they rechecked to see if it was stolen. They did let him through, right behind us.

We drove the 200 feet across into Belize and a sense of relief swept over us. We were home, and glad of it ! It was my bad fortune to be crossing on a day when a lot of people were bringing vehicles across. This slowed down the proceedings as each one had to be looked at and assessed. That would delay us till 6:00pm. All the employees at the Belize border were polite and helpful. A couple of them even apologized for the delay and explained the backlog of vehicles. When it was our turn, I was glad I had taken the time to accurately list all the items that I was bringing and their value. Everything was accepted as written and the duties were $54.00. The van was subject to duties and taxes of 88% of value. The valuation was $1,500 BZ. which seemed reasonable to me. If it had only a 4 cylinder engine the duties are 45%.

We cleared the last hurdles as there is a border broker right there to do the paperwork required. He charged $20.00 US. There is a small insurance agency right there also, and for $50.00 US, I took out 3 months of vehicle insurance. We were free to go and did ! Next stop was Nestors restaurant in Corazol, for dinner and Belikins. After that we drove through Belize city and out to the Belmopan Convention Hotel, where the owner George Sosa had our room waiting. That bed sure looked good !

Synopsis of trip in hindsight:

1- Planning ahead paid off.
2- Should have changed more money into pesos.
3- Should have planned on taking 4 days through Mexico.
4- Would I do it again ? Sure, what the heck !

Notes: While it cost around $500.00 to fly Earl to Houston and pay him for being a guide, I would recommend the use of a guide for anyone's first trip. Earl can be reached through George at the Belmopan Hotel. PH 001-501-8-22130

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