After 3 months in Mexico it was time to make my way to my next adventure: Guatemala. The most well known border crossing from Mexico is from the south, leaving San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, with lots of straightforward shuttle options to take you straight to the city of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala. However, having already visited San Cristobal and then chossing to fly back what would have been a 20-hour bus ride to spend a month and a half on the beaches of Tulum, the plan had changed. I would be crossing the border from the east leaving from the city of Chetumal, which lies just north of the border of Belize, and heading to the Guatemalan town Flores, the common launch point to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
I had gone to Playa del Carmen for a couple of nights after leaving Tulum to meet up with G, who had been in Mexico City for the week. We took a bus to Chetumal and stayed for the night. We had hunted for days online and asked around for information on the border crossing –were there shuttle options? do you have to stop in Belize or can you take a bus straight to Flores? was Chetumal the ideal place to leave from?– and found little information online clarifying our questions. We arrived early in the evening in Chetumal from Playa after a 5-hour bus ride and, immediately after dropping our bags off at our Airbnb, headed back to the bus station to figure out our travel plans for the next morning. Based on the lack of updated information available online and the roundabout way we went about configuring all of the different pieces of information we received while piecing together our trip at the last minute, I thought it would be helpful for anyone in the same position in the future to put together a guide to help them on their way across the border a little better.
Part One: The Options
We first went to the ADO station in Chetumal and asked a man sitting behind a tour guide desk what our options were for getting to Flores. We of course chose only one of the three so I cannot give absolutely every detail about the other two, but the three options go as follows:
Option 1: The Cheap-O Way
If you have plenty of time, little money and your wits about you, you can take Option 1 to make your way across the border. In hindsight I may have chosen this option. My main concern and motivation for taking an organized shuttle came from the stories I had heard about potential issues and difficulties crossing the border. However, the actual crossing of the border(s) ended up being a total blink-and-you’ll-miss-it experience. So while this option may be trickier in reality, I wouldn’t advise against it from where I stand currently.
Chicken buses leave from the Nuevo Mercado in Chetumal frequently heading to Belize City and should cost you about $10 USD. Chicken buses, being buses for locals, stop frequently, doubling what should normally be about a 4 hour trip. The buses leave you in the Belize City bus station, and from there you can take another bus to the Guatemalan border. You want to make sure to arrive in Belize City as early as possible as there are no buses crossing the border in the evenings and you would need to stay overnight if you miss them. Once you cross the Guatemalan border, directly across the border you will then change to yet another bus to arrive in Flores.
Estimated cost: approximately less than $30, not including border fees.
Estimated travel time: anywhere from 12 hours to two days, depending on how well you manage your time.
Pros: Cheapest options! And it will give you I’ll-sleep-on-the-street-rather-than-pay-$5-more hardcore backpacker points.
Cons: You could easily find yourself lost, confused, and stuck in Belize City for the night (NOT a fun experience from what I have heard!). Particularly difficult if you don’t speak any Spanish (except in Belize which is a primarily English-speaking country).
Option 2: The ADO Station Option
The second option I am calling the ADO station option not because the bus is a part of the ADO bus conglomerate that dominates Mexican transportation, but because this no-name transportation option to Flores leaves from outside the Chetumal ADO station. Due to the limited and apparently misleading information given to us at the tour desk my knowledge about this option is limited. This option operates as a shuttle that will take you to Flores, though I am unsure as to whether you will have to stop in Belize City or go straight to Flores, although based on my experience I am fairly certain you will have to stop in Belize City. The mini-van was described as relatively basic, having only air conditioning and not much more. It leaves from the ADO station in Chetumal at 7:30 in the morning, meaning you have a better chance of arriving in Flores while it is still light out.
Estimated Cost: $700MX (~$40USD), not including border fees.
Estimated Travel Time: Approximately 9-10 hours, depending on a variety of factors (border crossings, traffic, etc).
Pros: Slightly cheaper than Option 3, more straightforward than Option 1.
Cons: Less facilities (a.k.a no wifi, air conditioning, etc.). There may be more to add to this list but as I did not take choose this option, I can’t say.
Option 3: The Marlin Espadas Option (a.k.a. The option I went with, for better or worse)
As this was the option I went with to get my border crossing on, I can give you a more in-depth review and explanation. This option, which was also spelled out to us by the tour guide desk at the ADO station, is run by the tour company Marlin Espadas, which run shuttle buses to a few other places in the region. The Marlin Espadas office, when we looked it up on Google, tells you it is on Av. Machuxac between Av. Del Magistero and Nizuc on the other side of town from the ADO station, but when we arrived there was nothing there except an empty building. If you walk east for about 20 blocks down Av. Machuxac you will eventually hit their offices. When we arrived we were guided to a room where we attempted to book our tickets for the following morning. Because we had neglected to bring our passports the very uninterested woman advised us to book online once we arrived back to where we were staying. They arranged for a car to come pick us up the next morning at 9am, a half hour before we were scheduled to depart, which was included in the ticket cost. When we arrived home and attempted to book our tickets online, frustratingly, no passport information was needed to book.
The next morning we arrived at the offices and paid the $800MX (we paid in US dollars, $40 each). We had been advised that the bus would be equipped with AC, a bathroom and wifi, and had not been told specifically that we would be stopping in Belize City. That morning we found out that because there were only a few people traveling, they were using a smaller bus with fewer amenities. We were also informed that we would have to disembark and switch buses in Belize City before continuing on to Flores, which frustrated not only us but the other passengers who had been told the same apparent untruths. After having some of the free breakfast offered, we boarded the bus and took off.
Arriving at the Mexican border with Belize, everyone on the bus disembarks to show their passports. Anyone who arrived by plane did not have to pay, but anyone who had arrived in Mexico by land had to pay $500MX. We got back on the bus and soon arrived at the Belizean border crossing. We got off the bus and took off all of our possessions to pass through. Other than having to unload all of our heavy bags, the border crossing was quick and painless, not even requiring a bag search and taking very little time as there was no one else there but our small group. Once through we loaded our things back on the bus and took off through Belize towards Belize City, which was several hours of driving through one of the most desolate countries I have seen. As Belize speaks English primarily, everything was in English, and most of the buildings for the entire length of the trip looked desolate and abandoned.
Once we arrived in Belize City, we unboarded at a designated spot for shuttle companies. We unloaded our things again and switched to a full size bus that had a bathroom (which smelled so bad rendering it unusable) and were there for about 45 minutes before taking off again for Guatemala. Once at the Guatemala border you cross through the exit of Belize and the entrance to Guatemala in the same shot, unlike when we left Mexico. Leaving Belize you pay $30BZ ($15USD), then pass through the line and through to another line to have your passport stamped to enter Guatemala. We reboarded our bus to finish the drive to Flores, where they let you off at Green Monkey Hostel on the small island.
Estimated Cost: $800MX (~$45USD), not including border fees.
Estimated Travel Time: Approximately 9-10 hours, depending on a variety of factors (border crossings, traffic, etc).
Pros: If you get the bigger bus unlike we did, perhaps it is a nicer ride than Option 2, although based on our trip I am not sure what benefits we received by paying the extra $100 pesos. Free breakfast and free pickup from your hotel to bring you to the station. Still more straightforward than Option 1.
Cons: We had less facilities (wifi barely worked, no bathroom on the first bus and the bathroom on the second bus was unusable) than we were originally promised. Also the communication prior to leaving was very poor.
Part Two: The Details and Tips
Here I am going to list the details that we wish we had known prior, as well as some recommendations to make your trip easier.
– Chetumal, being right near the border as well as allowing travelers to traverse the main hotspots of the Riviera Maya before leaving the country, is an obvious takeoff spot. However, there may other options that we did not know about. Since we came from Playa del Carmen directly to Chetumal rather than passing through Mahahual and Bacalar first as many do, it may have been nice to have an option that left from Playa/Cancun, assuming the price would have been the same.
– Where to Stay in Chetumal: We stayed in one of the few Airbnb options in town, located very near the ADO station but on the other side of town from the Marlin Espadas station. It was cheap, clean, cozy, pleasant. This was inconvenient as we walked and got lost finding the station to book our tickets because the location on google is incorrect. However, if you have already reserved, it shouldn’t matter where you stay because they send a shuttle bus included in the cost of the ticket to pick you up in the morning. We can also recommend checking out Downtown Hostel.
– THE MARLIN ESPADAS GOOGLE LOCATION IS INCORRECT!! Google tells you it is on Av. Machuxac between Av. Del Magistero and Nizuc on the other side of town from the ADO station, but when we arrived there was nothing there except an empty building. If you walk east for about 20 blocks down Av. Machuxac you will eventually hit their offices.
Fees and Money
The information online and the information given to us by Marlin Espadas made the fees that we would end up paying throughout the trip extremely unclear. Especially as you are crossing into a different country with different currency, it isn’t fun when you take out $1000 pesos extra for border fees only to find out you are not paying that and just spent money to exchange for money you don’t need (this may have happened to some friends we made on the trip). Of course things are always subject to change and you should always have some security money just in case, but here is the best advice I can give from my personal knowledge:
– Carry Mexican pesos AND American dollars (if you already have them). I think we spent a bit less on the bus ticket by paying in American money, we were able to pay for lunch while stopped in Belize (they take American dollars but not Mexican pesos) and I paid for the exit fee in Belize in American dollars (not sure if they take pesos or not, and I certainly did not have the Belizean dollars to pay this).
– Mexican Exit Fee: This was unclear until even after the moment had passed, and if your Spanish is weak it will be even more so. To this day I still cannot tell you why the exit fees are what they are, but they go as follows: Those who had entered Mexico by air (and so had their passport stamped as such) did not have to pay anything to leave the country. Those who entered by land had to pay $500 pesos (~$28USD). Brutal. (Yes this happened to G. Poor G.)
– Belize Entry Fee: $0
– Belize Exit Fee: $30BZ/$15USD
– Guatemalan Entrance Fee: $0
The two most important pieces of advice I can give: have your wits about you, but mostly, get excited! You’re going to Guatemala, a beautiful country filled with fascinating culture, beautiful art, incredible nature, and wonderful people. Enjoy and happy wandering!