Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A trip to Spanish Lookout

Here are some random pictures taken yesterday while driving from Moonracer Farm to Spanish Lookout, a Mennonite community where we do some of our shopping.

01 – Driving down the Western Highway, one of the 4 major roads here in Belize.

02 – The army base at Central Farm.

03 – Cows in a field, these are not like the cows we were used to in the US.

04 – Road to the ferry to cross the river to get to Spanish Lookout. The ferry can take 3 cars at a time, and takes about 15 minutes for a round trip. If there are more than 6 cars in front of you it is faster to go back out to the Western Highway, head east, and cross the river on a low bridge. More miles but faster.

05 – The trees here host so many other plants and animals each tree is like an entire ecosystem.

06 – On the hand crank ferry crossing the river. We were lucky, the ferry was on our side of the river with no cars on it when we pulled up; that rarely happens. We started across with just our vehicle on the ferry but ended up going back to pick up another vehicle that pulled up just after we left the shore.

07 – Our destination, the other side of the river.

08 – View of the Belize River from the ferry.

09 – Typical transportation in Spanish Lookout.

10 – Caribbean Tire where we have purchased new “sneakers” for Tinkerbell.

11 – Back end of Tinkerbell in the Farmers Trading Center parking lot – FTC is a cooperative in Spanish Lookout.

12 – FTC new hardware department and checkout section.

13 – Hillside Welding Center where Tinkerbell periodically goes to get rejuvenated.

14 – The Esso gas station in Spanish Lookout where we normally buy fuel.

15 – Another tire store in Spanish Lookout. We think there are over 5 tire centers in Spanish Lookout, not sure how they all stay busy enough and support buildings like these.

16 – Looking south down Center Road in Spanish Lookout, we live in those mountains.

17 – Houses for sale. They put these houses on trailers and truck them just about anywhere in the country. We live in a house made by this company.

18 – Universal Hardware – they sell all sorts of hardware, large machines, mowers, generators, appliances, etc.

19 – Guys riding in the back of a truck to weight down the lumber so it doesn’t slide out.

20 – The bar in the town of Duck Run I. There towns called Duck Run II, and Duck Run III as well.

21 – A typical house outside Spanish Lookout.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Another Adventure – Mexican Style!

(Tom writing this entry)

This is a summary of the trip with the costs if you don’t want to read all the other fluff.

Approximate Cost US$ (MX$ - pesos) Time Description
Go – MRF to Orlando, FL Leave MRF on Feb 7, arrive Orlando, FL Feb 8, 2010
Free 6:30am Leave MRF with Marjie & Chuck
9:30am Arrive in Orange Walk
$2 9:45am Bus to Belize Mexico Border on Belizean bus
11:00am Arrive at Belize Border
$0 ($17.75 for non residents) Exit fee from Belize
$22 (MX$262) 11:30am Entrance fee to Mexico
$6 (MX$70) 11:45am Cab from Mexico border to ADO bus terminal in Chetumal
$20 (MX$214) 12:30pm ADO from Chetumal to Playa Del Carmen
$38 (MX$400) 5:00pm Hotel room in Playa Del Carmen
$13 (MX$150) Dinner at local restaurant
$9 (MX$106) 9:00am Bus to Cancun airport from Playa Del Carmen
$20 (MX$200) Food in Cancun airport
$380 1:45pm Flight to Miami/Orlando

RETURN – Orlando, FL to MRF Leave Orlando, FL Feb 12, arrive MRF Feb 13, 2010
1:00pm Depart from Heathrow, FL for Orlando Airport
11:30pm Arrive in Cancun airport
$13 (MX$150) 11:45pm Depart airport in collectivo for ADO bus station in Cancun
$24 (MX$265) 12:30am Depart ADO station for Chetumal
$9 (MX$100) 6:15am Depart Chetumal for Mexico/Belize
(avoid MX$200 exit fee – not a legal exit fee if you all ready paid MX$262 to enter) 6:30am Cross into Belize
$20 9:30am Depart Belize City for Guatemala frontier
$15 12:30pm Depart Guatemala frontier in taxi for San Ignacio
1:00pm Arrive in San Ignacio – Marge to transfer me back to MRF!

I had to go the US last week to get a few things that we desperately needed. Some electronic items had broken while using them here so we priced them out here in Belize and also in the US. Based on the prices here and the travel costs to the US, we found that the savings on these items would more than pay for the trip to the US. Marge and I looked at our schedule and we determined that I should go up as soon as possible since we had a lot of guests scheduled over the next couple of months and we wouldn’t get much of a break before May.

So, on February 3rd I booked tickets on Travelocity flying on Mexicana Airlines. It was a bit of a challenge just booking the tickets online though. The week before we were looking into the flights and I had found that the airfares from Belize to Orlando, FL that were posted as a special by the Belize Tourism Board were US$149 (quite a bargain) end up being around US$780 round trip including all the taxes and departure fees. For a quick trip up to the States, this seemed a bit high so I started looking into the costs to fly out of Cancun, Mexico.

In late January I found that I could fly round trip from Cancun to Orlando for a total of about US$300. Marge and I then researched the travel to/from Cancun from here and decided that for about another US$100 each way and an extra travel day before and after the flights, it was worth saving about US$300 overall. The other advantages to traveling through Cancun were the added knowledge of doing the trip to the US in this way and I also like traveling in Mexico and Central America trying to get by with my rudimentary Spanish, learning about the life and culture of the local people.

When I booked the tickets on Travelocity on February 3rd though, I was working on getting the cheapest flights from Cancun to Orlando. I picked my flights and the cost was coming to around US$380 (it had gone up about $80 in a week, the price for delaying a booking). However, when I got the final screen to pay the cost jumped up to over US$800! That’s too high, I could fly out of Belize City for that much money, so I started again. I picked the same flights and it initially was listed at US$380. Again, I got the final screen to pay and the price jumped to over US$800. I tried this a couple more times picking different flights and every time I got to the payment screen the price jumped from US$380 to over US$800 or it said that the flights were no longer available. I decided to try it one more time and it finally came through at the US$380 but they automatically tacked on travel insurance for US$40. So, I had to go back, remove the insurance and luckily the price did not jump again when I got to the payment screen.

Now I had my tickets, it was Wednesday afternoon and my flight was on Sunday from Cancun at 1:45pm, I had to plan on my journey to get to the airport on time. I also had to find some items on the internet to get shipped to my parents’ house in time for me to pick them up before I returned home to Belize. I spent most of Thursday on the computer lining everything up and researching connections, costs, ordering things on eBay, watching the eBay auctions, etc; a hectic day on the computer trying to get everything done. On Friday I went to town to get some supplies for Marge before I left and make sure that all was set here with the electrical and water systems for a week.

Here’s how the trip went, and as it all turned out, I was VERY lucky on a number of the connections that I made and I would not count on being so lucky next time I make this trip.

From Moonracer Farm to Cancun:
We have friends, Marjie and Chuck, living on our property who had to go up north to Orange Walk on Saturday so that Marjie could shoe some horses. This worked out great for me since they were leaving first thing in the morning and I could ride along with them. We left Saturday morning around 6:30am and arrived in Orange Walk at around 9:30am. I walked over to the bus station and inquired about a bus going to Corozal and hoped on one leaving about 10 minutes later. Not only was this bus going to Corozal, it was going all the way to Chetumal, Mexico! Lucky break for me on the timing and that it was going all the way across the border for BZ$4/US$2.

The bus arrived at the border at 11:00am, all passengers got off the bus and we went through immigration in Belize. I did not have to pay the exit fee of about BZ$37.50/US$18.75 since I have a residency stamp. (Note: I exchanged BZ$400 for MX$2360 at the rate of 5.90 since I was not sure if I would be able to get to an ATM before the bus terminal to get cash, the cheapest way to exchange money in Mexico.) We all reboarded the bus again and rode to Mexican immigration. Everyone else on the bus was going to Chetumal to go shopping and I was the only person that had to pay entry into Mexico since I was going to leave Mexico from Cancun. The entrance fee was MX$262 (that is how they write pesos in Mexico), approximately US$22, you have to pay in pesos though. Since I was taking so long the bus left for Chetumal without me, which was ok since I could catch a cab to the bus station without a problem for MX$70 (about US$6).

By the way, Mexico goes on daylight savings time like the US (not sure if the dates are exactly the same) and Belize stays on Central America time WITHOUT switching to daylight savings time, so you have to be careful when crossing the border to make connections!

I caught the cab and got to the bus station in Chetumal at noon and paid MX$214 (about US$20) for a ticket on an ADO bus to Playa Del Carmen (PDC), about 1 hour south of the Cancun airport. Online we had found that the hotels and food appeared to be much cheaper than in Cancun and if I stayed in the center of Cancun, the bus ride was about 45 minutes the next morning. The bus left Chetumal at 12:30pm and I arrived in PDC at the station at 5:00pm.

The ADO buses in Mexico are great to ride, they feel like you are getting into a commercial jet at the airport. Everyone gets an assigned seat when they purchase their ticket, and they have comfortable reclining seats like on planes except you have MORE leg room. There are shelves over the seats to put your carryon bags and you can check larger bags for traveling under the bus, like in a plane. The bus is air conditioned and during the day they play movies for you to watch for free – I got to see “Enchanted” in Spanish!

I passed most of the ride talking with a very nice Mexican woman who sat next to me about life in Mexico. She was very patient with me, she spoke slowly, clearly and repeated words as necessary to help me understand everything she was saying. She was happy that I could speak some Spanish and said that for only working on it for 2 years I was doing well; I was not grammatically correct all the time but she could understand everything that I was trying to say!

After arriving in PDC I went to the ticket counter and bought my bus ticket for the next morning to Cancun. The ticket was MX$106 (about US$9), left the terminal at 9:00am, and would get me to the airport at 10:00am, perfect timing for my 1:45pm flight to Miami.

I walked out of the bus station to find a hotel for the night, not wanting to spend much for just passing through. Right out of the bus terminal was a hotel called Steffen’s Casa Blanca so I walked around to the back side of the block, found a room for MX$400 (about US$38), dropped my one bag with my meager travel supplies, and went in search of a good local dinner. I found a nice local restaurant on Ave 30 that had great food, I filled myself and had a beer for a total of MX$150 (US$13). I then decided that I should get a little exercise and go for a walk since the next day I would be cooped up traveling again so I wandered down to the tourist strip to just see the shops and restaurants. I was a bit surprised to find that it was Super Bowl Sunday, we are completely out of touch sports now since we live in the jungle and don’t follow any of it in the news.

I had a good night’s sleep, woke up early Monday morning, went for a stroll on the beach (which was pretty empty, probably due to a bit of Super Bowl aftereffects), got on the 9:00am bus and got to the Cancun airport right on time. I checked in, and double checked on the entry and exit fees for Mexican immigration. The airline clerks directed me to the immigration desk where I found out the following: Every time you enter and exit Mexico there is a fee of MX$262 which you pay only once, either on arrival or departure, but when you leave you have to show your receipt for payment in order to prove you paid upon entry, if you don’t have your receipt, you have to pay on your way out. Airlines include the fee in your plane ticket and you need to make sure you get a receipt when you arrive in Mexico.

At the airport I figured I would catch lunch before getting on my flight to Miami. What a shock – chips and a soda cost US$10, a single slice of pizza and a small soda also cost US$10! I decided I had to eat, but wow, I couldn’t stick around Cancun for too long at that rate!

I had uneventful flights from Cancun to Miami and then to Orlando where my parents picked me up. Great to see Mom & Dad again, I hadn’t seen them since August, 2009, about 7 months ago.

My stay in Orlando was a bit hectic since I had 3 days to fulfill my list before leaving on Friday. My parents took me out shopping and I got just about everything accomplished, including some quality time visiting with Mom & Dad. I got phone calls in to all my brothers and just a couple of friends, there really wasn’t enough time to do all the calling and visiting that I wanted to. Also, the weather was down right COLD! It got down into the 40s, I had to buy a pair of long pants so that I wouldn’t freeze – we haven’t seen less than around 50 since living in Belize.

From Cancun to Moonracer Farm:
My return trip started on Friday at 1:00pm when my parents left their home with me to take me to the airport. The weather was lousy, mid 40s and raining, not a pleasant sunny day in Florida.

I tried to get my second bag that I had now (from all my shopping) onto the plane as a carryon but the airline clerk said it was too big so I checked it, hoping that it would make the connection and be in Cancun with me so that I wouldn’t have to spend a day waiting for it when I got there. I got to the line for security to get to the gates and it was all backed up, what a mess. We sure don’t miss the crowds. It took about 45 minutes to get to the gate, but enough time before the flight.

On the return trip I had to fly from Orlando to Mexico City then to Cancun, about 5.5 hours in the air versus 2.5 hours in the air on the way to Orlando. Not a big deal to me, but it seems like a lot of extra flying to get to Cancun. The flights were pretty much on time and immigration in Mexico City was not a problem. I got my receipt from immigration so that I would not have to pay to exit the country by land when crossing the border at Chetumal. Food in the Mexico City airport was not quite as expensive as in Cancun but I decided that I would just get a fruit juice, MX$17 (about US$1.50), and eat granola bars that my Mom packed up for me to snack on during my trip.

My flight from Mexico City to Cancun was a little late but they made up the time in the air and we landed at about 11:30pm. I got off the plane, picked up my checked bag (thankfully it was there so I didn’t have to overnight in Cancun) and went through customs which was just walk by the person at the gate and hand them your customs form.

Earlier I had looked up online for buses heading from Cancun to Chetumal and found that there was a 12:15am, 12:30am, and 4:00am. The only trick was, the buses left from the city of Cancun, about 45 minutes from the airport. So, I got on the first collectivo (a van that carries other passengers), paid MX$150 (about US$13) to get to the center of the city and prayed that I got there in time to catch the 12:30 bus. We stopped at 2 resorts on the way and I was watching the time on the clock on the dashboard tick by. We got near the center Cancun, traffic got heavier, but I had no idea how far the bus station was. There were 2 other people in the van and I wasn’t sure what our next stop was. As we came around a circle I saw that bus station all lit up, it was 12:26 – was I going to make it? We pulled up in front, I jumped out quickly, tipped the driver, grabbed my bag and trotted over to the ticket counter, bought my ticket direct to Chetumal, MX$265 (about US$24), just in time to make the 12:30, I think I bought the last seat on the bus. How lucky!!!!

Again, the ADO bus was great; comfortable and smooth, but the a/c was very cold and everyone was wrapped up in blankets and towels. Not knowing it was going to be this cold, I just had a long sleeved shirt to put on. I tried to sleep during the trip but the bus was pretty loud with snoring and I am usually a light sleeper anyway, so I dozed a bit but didn’t really get to sleep. The ride was uneventful and very quiet and we arrived in Chetumal at 6:00am. I got off, got my checked bag from under the bus, and went into the terminal to get information about a bus to Belize.
As I was standing in line waiting my turn I was looking around at the signs for any information on transport to Belize and couldn’t find anything. A gentleman approached me as I was looking around and asked me in Spanish where I was going – Belize, I replied. He said vamos (let’s go) and I looked a little shocked. He pointed to a bus in the terminal parking and said that was his bus and he was going to Belize City. Again, what luck on my part, only 5 minutes in the station and I was getting on a bus that would take me all the way to Belize City where I could then hop a bus or two more and get home!

I paid for my ticket to Belize City, MX$100 (about US$9) handed my bigger bag to the driver that was loading larger luggage on the roof, got in the bus (a smaller bus this time, pretty comfortable but not like the luxury of the large ADO buses), settled in the back seat, and we were off for the Mexico/Belize border.

At the Mexican side, we all got out and went to immigration. We didn’t have to go through customs to leave, we just had to get stamped out of Mexico. I have been through the Chetumal border a number of times before and know that if the Mexicans can take advantage of you, they will. Since it was about 6:30am there were only 1 or 2 officials in the offices and we lined up to all get stamped out. I was mid way in line and up front someone was having difficulty since the guy at the window wanted MX$200 for an exit fee. The guy didn’t have it so had to go to an ATM to get the money. A couple of other people ahead of me had the same problem and they went to get money as well. My turn came, the guy wanted MX$200 from me as well. I explained to him in Spanish that he could look at my receipt, see that I paid the MX$262 all ready and I didn’t have to pay. He said, yes, you have to pay, everyone had to pay. I argued with him in Spanish and told him no, I all ready paid, I know the law and you are just cheating people out of MX$200 and putting it in your pocket since all the others have receipts all ready. He then asked me where I lived, and I told him Belize, and I wasn’t going to pay him. He finally said, since you live in Belize, you get to exit for free – what a scam! (So, anyone reading this, beware, this scam happens all the time and if you don’t speak Spanish, they just stonewall you and most people figure, what the heck, it is less than US$20 so who cares, but for each person, this is equivalent to over 1 full day of pay for them!).

So, after a bunch of people going back and forth to get more money, we finally all got back on the bus and headed for the Belize side of the border. We all got out, unloaded all the stuff from the top of the bus, carted it all through immigration and customs, we loaded it all back on the bus again, then off we went to the water taxi terminal in Belize City.

I started talking to some of the people on the bus on the way to the water taxi and found out the bus was going all the way to Flores, Guatemala. When we got to the water taxi, I asked the driver if I could stay on the bus to the other side of Belize and he said sure, for US$20 more. This was a bit steep since a regular bus trip to the Guatemala border would cost about BZ$20/US$10, but for me, the convenience of a nonstop trip with comfortable seats was worth the extra money at this point.

As we left Belize City I got to chatting with a couple from Salvador with their two young kids, 5 and 8 years old, that had gone up to Cancun for a vacation. They had taken a bus from Cancun to Chetumal the previous day, spent the night in Chetumal and then were bussing all the way to Salvador straight on through. I realized the kids were going to get really tired of traveling without much distraction so I pulled out the DVD player I bought in the US (for someone here in Belize), put the Black Beauty DVD in, and let the kids watch the movie for a while. The parents were really glad for the distraction for the kids and I talked with the parents for about an hour about life in Salvador and traveling in Central America by bus with kids.

As we neared the Guatemala border the driver stopped in Santa Elena for people to get off, stretch their legs, and get snacks. I asked the driver if I could get off the bus there since all I had to do then would be to get a cab into San Ignacio, about 2 miles down the road, to meet up with Marge. He understood why I wanted to get out but explained to me that if I was to disembark before the Guatemala border and he got stopped by the police for a random check, and he didn’t have all the passengers that were supposed to be on the bus that he picked up in Mexico, he could get in trouble; the law states that Guatemala buses are allowed to carry passengers from frontier to frontier and only pickup/drop off passengers at the water taxi in Belize City. I then remembered hearing about a bunch of transport problems a couple months previously in the news so I stayed on the bus so that the driver would not run into any problems with the authorities if he was stopped.

We reached the Guatemala border around 12:30pm and I disembarked with everyone else, all the others went on into Guatemala and I just hopped into a taxi at the border for BZ$30/US$15 to go back to San Ignacio. I got to our favorite restaurant, Erva’s, at 1:00pm, 24 hours after leaving my parents house in Orlando, FL. I emailed Marge from an internet cafĂ© that I was in San Igancio then returned to Erva’s for a great chaya burrito and a coke, my first real meal since lunch the day before.

Marge was checking email for the last time at home when I sent the email. A couple of friends had stopped by on Saturday and had asked Marge if she had heard from me. She told them, no, but that just means he is probably busy catching buses so no news is good news. She was right, I had no time to find a way to email her while I was traveling since I was so lucky in all my connections.

When Marge showed up at Erva’s I was relieved to finally be back with my wife and best friend. I love traveling, but I also miss Marge when we are apart. While I was eating we were talking with Germo, our friend and waiter. We are now working on mini vacation plans to travel down to southern Belize with Germo in a few months so that he can visit with his family during his vacation and we can see more of what Belize has to offer.

Orlando via Cancun: I loved the trip and I am glad to be home safe and sound. I would recommend traveling through Cancun only if you have an extra day on either end of your stay here in Belize, are adventurous and don’t mind traveling where you can’t understand everything, and you are confident enough to stand up to officials and tell them they are trying to take advantage of you (like at the border). I would travel this way again to save the money, but if plane fares from Belize City come down, I would not spend the extra time traveling through Mexico unless I was going to stop to tour in Mexico.