Note: Apologies for the late Travel Friday post. Dealt with family medical issues yesterday. Regular posting schedule continues for next week.
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 car deposit was 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 would not warrant the expense 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.
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 numerous stands selling the same products for a couple miles. This particular stretch was noted for the sale of grape juice. Another stretch featured cane juice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If heading straight into Tikal, there’s no need to go to 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.
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.
From Flores to Melchor de Mencos, where the crossing into Belize is located, it’s about 1 1/2 hours.
I told you the road was not crowded…
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 onto 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.
There’s a 10Q fee to cross the bridge by car (yep, we got a receipt). This is collected by an attendant at the post below.
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.
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 reenter 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 reenter 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 40Q (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.
Find a parking spot (right side), and walk over to the main building to join the queue get your passport stamped.
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 remain 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 obtain mandatory Belize car insurance.
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.
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.
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).
I’ll tell you all about it next Friday :)