Budget-traveling from Belize to Mexico is an eight-hour affair, and whether it’s worth doing it that way also depends on your patience, your ability to stomach choppy seas, and the weather.
The three ways to get to Mexico from Belize are:
- by plane
- by overnight bus from Belize City to Cancun, with the Mexican bus line “ADO” leaving from the Queen Square Market I’m told (which lands you in Playa del Carmen at 4 a.m. or Cancun at about 6 a.m.); or
- if you’re leaving from one of the Cayes, first by water taxi to Chetumal (2 hours), followed by a five-to-seven hour ADO bus ride, depending on your final destination in Mexico. For example, it’s 4.5 hours from Chetumal to Playa del Carmen.
Buying the Water Taxi Ticket to Chetumal
The day before leaving for Mexico, the lady at the San Pedro Belize Express Water Taxi office in Caye Caulker warned me. The boat leaves at 7 o’clock sharp, so make sure you show up on time, she said.
I purchased my round trip ticket to Chetumal and lucky for me I knew my passport number by heart. You’re supposed to bring your passport along when you get your ticket, so you can >> be registered on the SPBE’s log of folks leaving Belize.
The round trip ticket (and next time I’m only getting a one-way – see later in the story) cost me US $ 65 or $130 Belizean Dollars. Then I had to pay a separate US $5 (BZD $10) docking fee.
Oh, and then I was told to expect another US $ 3.75 (or BZD $7.50) fee when going through immigration in San Pedro – a mandatory stop when heading to Mexico from the Cayes.
Total so far: US $73.75 or BZD $147.5 from Caye Caulker.
Leaving Caye Caulker at Sunrise
When I showed up in the morning, close to 6:30 a.m., there was no one in sight on the streets of Caye Caulker – just me and the pigeons.
I was hoping to catch a nice sunrise before leaving and it was worth it. I wasn’t the only one taking it all in.
The Boat Ride to Chetumal
When we boarded the water taxi, the photographer in me sat at the front of the boat. The SPBE now has these nice two-seater boats (three-seaters too, which are horribly cramped), and with only 15 passengers there was plenty of space up front. But most people sat in the back and I thought, what a shame, they’re totally missing out on the views.
We got to San Pedro about 30 minutes later (we left at 7:25 by the way, not 7 sharp). Immigration in San Pedro was pretty quick – this is where you pay that extra BZD $7.50 – and we were back on the boat within 15 minutes.
Off to Chetumal, Mexico – a two-hour boat ride. Everything was looking great. The staff started passing out customs forms for Mexico and even offering to change money into Mexican pesos (which I recommend for taxi and bus fare purposes once in Mexico. Look up the exchange rate before you leave Belize).
All was well when about 15 minutes later, the weather started taking a turn for the worse. It looked like it was early evening outside. The crew started closing up the cabin windows and doo. It wasn’t long before I was now bouncing off my seat against my will. Once, twice…three times… my stomach was starting to turn. How did I not even think of this possibility – rough seas!
I looked at my watch – another hour and a half to go of this?! I guess everyone else took the safe route by sitting in the back (now I get it). But still, claustrophobia trumps sea sickness. I did move back one row and it was slightly better. But I remember thinking – never again! I’d rather fly. Or, I’ll check the weather next time.
Arriving in Chetumal
Just short of two hours we arrived in Chetumal, and were greeted by the Mexican police (or army? Those machine guns were a tad intimidating).
We had to line up our bags in the middle, on the ground and step back from them. The dogs came along, sniffing away back and forth. (Not quite how I like to be welcomed in another country, but necessary evil I guess.)
After we were given the all clear, we walked all the way up to the front, for immigration. We had only filled out a customs form, for some reason the immigration form was only given to us at the office. Altogether, another 45 minutes went by.
Relieved after getting my stamp, I went outside to the line of taxis… until I realized, I forgot my hand luggage! The water taxi folks had taken so long to bring the luggage up front that I almost forgot. Turns out it was a blessing in disguise – because when I went back is also when the shuttle drivers showed up. They were offering shared rides to the ADO Bus Terminal (where you can catch buses to Cancun and Playa del Carmen).
I shared the taxi shuttle with two couples and paid 20 pesos (US $2). They paid 25 pesos each. If I’d taken the outside private taxi, my fare would’ve nicely quadrupled.
The ride from the water taxi terminal to the bus terminal was quite long – about 15 minutes – so it’s definitely not walking distance.
Mexico’s ADO Bus Line
When we got to the ADO station, I was impressed. It looked like one of those bus or train stations in Europe, nice seating areas, lots of little shops and digital departure screens and gate announcements. We ran to the ticket counter, with only 5 minutes to make the 10:30am bus headed towards Cancun.
There were a few seats left. The ticket cost me 240 pesos (about US $20) one-way.
The beauty of ADO – besides the clean buses and leaving right on time – is that all the seats are assigned. No hustling or shoving from anyone to get on. The A/C was on a little too high for my taste – but luckily I had my cardigan with me.
A movie was playing but I couldn’t be bothered – too exhausted from being up now since 5:30am. The only downers: no Wi-Fi on the bus, my Belize Digicel phone didn’t work in Mexico, and the ADO website for online booking doesn’t work (besides being in Spanish, which lucky for me I speak, it was showing me sold out bus when in fact there was plenty of availability).
Hola, Playa del Carmen!
The bus reached Playa del Carmen – my destination – at noon, right on time (a 4.5 hour ride from Chetumal). Except, it was dark and grey and rainy… the stop was also a weird one. We exited onto a side street, deserted, no taxis and no recognizable part of this town. Turns out this is the second ADO bus station in Playa del Carmen. The other one is right in town. When you head back to Belize via Chetumal, make sure to ask for the ADO station on “Avenida 20 y Calle 12.”
Slowly though, one taxi came at a time… and I got in one, completely ignorant of the cost of my ride from there to my hotel, the Grand Mayan, Riviera Maya.
It was a long ride to the hotel – because of the torrential rains. We could barely see anything on the highway.
By the time I finally made it to the hotel, 30 minutes later, the taxi driver and I had become friends, I was practicing my Spanish and he was telling me about the area.
Cost of the taxi (not a shuttle): 240 pesos (I’m pretty sure I got milked here but oh well, I made it safe to my hotel!).
2 water taxis (2.5 hours) + Immigration on both ends (1 hr) + 2 regular taxis (30 mins) + 1 bus (4.5 hrs) =
8.5 hours to get from Caye Caulker to Playa del Carmen.
Arriving at the Grand Mayan
So it turns out, my hotel is half-way between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Maybe if I had researched some more beforehand, I would’ve known that.
There was a massive crowd standing outside the hotel, watching the pouring rain. I started feeling the all-inclusive madness and headed in fast past the crowd into the lobby… only to find it literally flooding. Water pouring through the high-thatch ceilings and dozens of employees sweeping the rain water away from the lobby floor to the outside.
I waited for my family to come in from New York, Toronto and Washington DC. I knew that with those rains, it could be a while. The lobby was full of guests – just waiting for the rain to die down. Except it wasn’t.
And when you’re stuck for two hours in a hotel lobby, you start talking to other guests or they start talking to you. It’s inevitable. Couples, for the most part. But then there was one who was more of the “traveler” kind – J, from San Diego, a thirty-something doctor who was also there to link up with his family from New York. He’d missed Christmas at home and that was the compromise. Sure sounded familiar!
We talked about travel, and how I get to spend my winters overseas. Then I commented that I was starving and hadn’t eaten all day (advice: bring lunch for the bus ride!). There was no food anywhere near the hotel reception, only water bottles. He said that when his family arrives, I could have one of his mom’s chicken and artichoke sandwiches if I wanted. His family always travels with food – they’re Italian Americans, he says. I thought it was hilarious – the things people do when they travel. I save every bit of space and overweight luggage fee for clothes.
Two hours later, everyone showed up and we checked in. I had forgotten all about my hunger. Until a seven-year old girl came to me at the front desk and said “this is for you, from J.” I looked at her, then at the ziplock with the sandwich in it, and thanked her. Then I looked up and saw J, waving from the other side of the lobby.
Pure acts of kindness; this is part of why I love travel – it reminds me that there are so many more good people out there than bad.
Mexico I like you, but I like Belize more
Okay, when I say Mexico I mean the Quintana Roo region. It felt so much more developed than even five years ago, especially the Playa area. I’m not sure I’ll be back here for a while. It did, however, remind me how much more I appreciate Belize. We have tourists but it’s just not as heavy and overbearing, and there are no masses and masses of monstrously huge hotels along the highway. No constant attempts to swindle or charge me for every little thing (even at the hotel). And that’s fine by me.
My favorite part of our time in Mexico: a day in Tulum. The beach alone was worth the one–hour ride from Playa del Carmen.
Sometimes, Slow Travel is Overrated
I normally love slow travel across countries. I live for that stuff. It allows you to see and experience things along the way – new sights, foods, activities. But there really wasn’t much to this route – unless you’re in it for shopping in Chetumal, which I hear many Belizeans do. But maybe there’s a lot more to Chetumal – anyone?
Otherwise, the long journey was fairly smooth. The worse part was coming back – with all sorts of small hassles, like an additional 294 pesos as an exit fee (I was only in Mexico 3 days! Plus, the immigration officer didn’t even give me back all my change – nice), the taxi driver who tried to swindle me by claiming 250 pesos for a ride to the water taxi terminal when really it was just 20, the immigration officer in San Pedro who decided to only extend my stamp by 2 weeks instead of a month (thanks, lady! for the record I wasn’t hitting the border for a free extension) and the long wait in San Pedro for the next boat to Caye Caulker (there was no immediate re-boarding).
If I ever take this route again, through Chetumal, I would look into San Pedro Water Jets coming back, another water taxi company that left way before we did to head back to Belize.
But honestly, I think the next time I ever have to go to Mexico from Belize, I’d fly instead or even look into hiring a driver.
Total cost of trip from Caye Caulker to Playa del Carmen and back (water taxis, road taxis and buses): US $150.