Dear Lonely Planet,
Why have you lead me astray? You disappointed me this past week at the Mexican/Belizean border crossing. To be fair, this is the first time you’ve been so incredibly misguided, dear Lonely Planet: Central America —you have helped me confidently navigate uncharted waters, until now.
I love you, I nurture you, I pull you out of the depths of my bag when I’m in a pinch, yet you disappoint me at the weirdest times. You have ten different hostel accommodations for random pueblecitos, but yet a mere paragraph about the fairly confusing border crossing between Mexico and Belize via Chetumal.
But also, you know, thank you. You made me realize that travel is about more than a guidebook. Without the right information, I was forced to get creative. And over the years, I’ve realized there’s always a local nearby willing to impart the information you so coyly keep to yourself. I’m learning to rely on you less and less LP, and that’s probably a good thing.
With lukewarm love,
My Border Crossing Debacle
The whole guidebook debate crops up on travel blogs every now and again, and I’ve always been on team “tote a guidebook around.” I nearly always have one somewhere in my backpack, and it often provides key information at opportune times—it helps me unlock a different side to a place that I might not have found without it.
But on the other hand, guidebooks also give travelers a false sense of security as well as take out some of the adventure—and hey, travel, after all, is fundamentally about the adventure and interpersonal connections, right?
Here’s the deal, when I arrived at Chetumal, Mexico, I expected the border crossing to be straightforward, like my guidebook indicated. But I arrived after 4pm and first class busses no longer left the terminal for the border.
There was also no information about what to do at that point.
Picture me now frantically flipping through the Chetumal section of my guidebook. Hmm. The barest mention of another bus terminal.
Perplexed, I looked at the accommodation section of the guidebook with two other Americans who were in the same boat—they stood nearby with the exact same guidebook.
Fast forward a few minutes and were dividing and conquering, each of us hunting down locals and taxi drivers for tips. We came up with nothing. One taxi driver (naturally) wanted us to cab to the border for US $20—instead we asked about the elusive second bus station, he gave us a noncommittal shrug and told use to walk “a couple kilometers in that direction.” And being a fairly rural town, all of these exchanges took place in Spanish, upping the stakes considerably—thankfully my high school Spanish trickled back!
We actually had a grand mini adventure asking locals for more directions along the way. Rather than just following instructions mapped out in a guidebook, we were forced to hunt down a way to cross the border into Belize. Locals always kept us walking the right way, pointing us the “bus station,” and when we arrived at the indicated lot, there was one single, lone, green school bus sitting forlornly in the lot.
We glanced toward it, wondering if this could possibly be the elusive second bus station. As the bus began moving out of the parking lot, our instincts kicked in and we began running across the lot just as the driver leaned out the window to holler at us. “Belize?!” he asked in a quick and questioning manner. As we frantically nodded yes, he rumbled to a stop so we could jog to the doors and haul ourselves onto the last bus of the day crossing the border.
Is this the biggest adventure of my life? No. But it sure was a lot of fun once we had we hunkered down into the seats, high-fived each other, and then jostled with the motion of the school bus all the way to the border. Once there, cash changed hands (there’s a controversial and possibly scammy Mexican exit tax if you’re not prepared), and I have a couple of new stamps in my good ‘ole passport. Twenty minutes later, we had reached our destination and we confidently made our way into Belize without even a second glance at our guidebooks.
I’m still carrying my guidebook, and I know there are times when I will be so glad it’s nearby as I make my way across Central America. In fact, it’s likely that I won’t go guidebook free anytime in the near future, but this reminded me of how fun and freeing it is to just wing it. The world is not so scary a place that every move needs scripting and planning beforehand, sometimes figuring it out along the way is the real adventure.
Quick Tips: Border Crossing from Chetumal, Mexico into Belize (2018)
Let me clarify this border crossing for anyone following the same path—as of 2018 there are three bus stations in Chetumal: the new bus station for ADO and first class buses, the old ADO bus station, and a smaller one that has been essentially bypassed by new bus routing in 2017, El Nuevo Mercado Lazaro Cardinez. This smaller one was a small market with an open lot in front that held the chicken buses, but unless things change, it’s been effectively handicapped by the re-routing.
If you arrive late into Chetumal and you’re heading into Belize, back in 2009, the only non-taxi transport was a local chicken buses from the market to take you across the border. These buses go all the way to Belize City and stop at smaller towns along the way (we got off in Corozal so that we could head to San Pedro/Caye Cualker in the morning). In the years since my first Central American backpacking adventure, things have changed, and they are likely to change even faster than internet information can keep up since it’s a small border crossing. So, go prepared with information on both bus stations and be prepared to solicit information directly from the bus stations. Taxi drivers will selectively share information so you’re seemingly left with no choice but a taxi to the border.
Bus Stops in Chetumal
- NEW ADO terminal: Located on Av. Insugentes at Calle Palermo (close to Plaza Las Americas). This is the main ADO bus terminal for services to other destinations in Mexico, including Cancún, Campeche, Mérida, Valladolid, Xcalak, and more. You will likely arrive here and need to head to the Old ADO terminal.
- OLD ADO terminal: Salvador Novo street near Av. Insurgentes and Av. Belice. Buses into Belize leave from here until at least 5:30 pm, possibly later. Buses to Corozal, Belize City, Orange Walk, and also into Guatemala.
- El Nuevo Mercado Lazaro Cardinez: As of 2017, this market no longer has buses operating services into Belize. If a taxi driver takes you here and tells you that buses are finished for the day, make your way to the Old Ado terminal.
Updated travel advice: This basic wordpress site shares what has to be the most updated information about bus travel in Belize, including frequently updated information about this border crossing. The guy who updates it is also very active in the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum discussions about all things Belize. And Rome2Rio shows regularly updated transportation advice for this passage as well.
Ferry Options to Caye Caulker or San Pedro: If you’re up for it, there is a great water taxi transfer from Chetumal to Caye Caulker or San Pedro. You’ll have to arrive and catch the last one by 3pm, so if you do arrive in time, it’s a great option.
Paying the FMM / Mexican Exit Fee: I have read that there is now a bit of a shakedown at this border, at times. If you arrived by air and are leaving by land, paying this fee gets complicated. Here is the best rundown you’ll find online, and this blogger shares their experience in 2014—note that their bus information is wrong, but their advice on the FMM is good to know.
Onward from the border. Stay the night in Corozal, the closest town to the border, if you’ve made one of the last crossings of the day (this is what I did and then headed by water taxi to San Pedro). Alternately, head to the main bus station (if your bus is not one already heading to Belize city). Southbound buses to Belize City take about four hours and depart from Corozal roughly every half hour from 3 am to 7:15 pm.
If you’re heading through Belize into Guatemala, check out my Guatemala Travel Guide for free advice on the best things to do, see, eat, and insider tips on how to navigate the country.