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Waiting on the water taxi
Friday was our 27th wedding anniversary, so we decided we'd splurge on a dinner at Red Ginger at the Phoenix.  We had stayed at the Phoenix on our very first trip to San Pedro in celebration of our 25th anniversary and had our anniversary dinner at Red Ginger then, so it seemed fitting to go back again two years later.  Given all the rain lately and puddly roads, we even splurged on the water taxi instead of taking our bikes.  This meant that I could actually wear a dress and not arrive at the restaurant sweating and messy! 

The restaurant was just as attractive and classy as we remembered, and the food every bit as good -- and a visual treat as well.  I enjoyed a couple of glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, a rare treat as pricey as wine is here in San Pedro.   Since it was our anniversary, they even gave us one of our desserts on the house.  Thanks Red Ginger!  

Our waiter told us he'd done some wedding photography in the past, so we were happy to have him to take our photo together. 

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Celebrating 27 years!
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Complimentary plantain chips and spicy chipotle aioli came with the meal
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Barry's black bean soup -- he stirred it a bit before he remembered to take a photo
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I got the special - Grouper with Asian Peanut sauce. Seriously good!
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Barry had cheese enchiladas, which came with a lovely large side salad
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This is the same table we sat at two years ago
We shared a molten chocolate cake and caramel apple cheesecake for dessert.  Very decadent!
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A delightful dinner and evening!
 
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Lots of leaves blew down overnight
Following the deluge of rain I blogged about earlier and then several beautiful, bright days, stormy weather returned with a vengeance yesterday and early this morning.  There was actually more wind than rain overnight.  I woke up in the wee hours and heard all kinds of banging around outside that I now realize was wind knocking stuff around.  The San Pedro Weather station clocked a 36 mph gust overnight.

Thanks to a break in the rain, we were able to get out for a beach walk to survey the aftermath.  Sammy (also known as Cannelo or "the Grand Caribe dog") came along with us.  Paisley was taking her morning nap indoors so didn't venture out. 
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Smiling Sammy
Fortunately, it wasn't too bad -- mostly a lot more palm fronds down than the day before.  We moved a few of them out of the way as they were right in the beach trail where we (and many others) ride bikes and walk.
The Kama Lounge took a bit of a hit as their tent was pretty badly damaged.
Our pool guy is going to be busy cleaning the pool today too -- lots of leaves blew in.
Looks like more rain is on the way....
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Pretty conch shell submerged in the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea
Here's hoping El Sol puts in an appearance before too long so we can be enjoying this view again very soon.
 
Today was our day to renew our 30-day tourist visa, so we had to venture to town again, despite the messy road we blogged about yesterday and yet another 2/3" of rain overnight.  Fortunately, today was absolutely gorgeous, with wall-to-wall blue skies, sunshine, and just a few puffy white clouds. The Immigration office in San Pedro normally opens in the morning at 8 or 9 o'clock (we've never been there too early, so I am not sure), closes for lunch from 12 to 1pm, I believe, and then opens again until 3:30 pm.  We arrived at a few minutes after 10.   
We saw a few folks waiting on the balcony outside the office, but that's not unusual, because it's a tiny office, and when it's full, sometimes people wait outside.  But much to our surprise, the doors were locked up tight.  And there was nothing posted on the doors indicating that the office was closed today.
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What's going on here?
The couple that was waiting outside told us that they were supposed to be open in "a while".  Hmmmmm.  How long is "a while"?  We had a few other errands to run, so decided to go ahead and do those, in case "a while" meant an hour or so.  

As we were leaving, the couple we had been talking to came down the stairs and told us that someone had just come out of an office and said that it would be opening at 11 o'clock -- they were having a meeting.  Aha!  We laughed about how they didn't post anything on the door to let us poor waiting folks know when they'd be opening.  We took off on our bikes and hit the Maria's fruit and vegetable stand (seems like we are there almost every day) for a few more items, then the bank.  By the time we were finished there, it was 10:48, so not too much longer to wait.  

We pedaled back to the Immigration office, locked up our bikes, and waited on the second-story balcony outside.  Fortunately, there was a great breeze, and as I mentioned, it was a beautiful day.  We got to watch the goings-on at the San Pedro airstrip as we waited, as well as all the golf carts, bikes, pedestrians, and taxi cabs passing by on the street down below.  Here's our view from the balcony:
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The recently repaved runway looks good!
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Here's where we pay our tourist visa fee each month
After we'd been waiting a few minutes, the couple we'd been talking to before showed back up.  Turns out that they are from the nearby island of Caye Caulker and read our blog.  So if you're reading this, guys, hello!  They were picking up their self-employment permits today.

At about 11:10, the Immigration office door finally opened.  Fortunately, the employees all seemed to be in really good moods.  Either their meeting was really productive, or the refreshments included some rum punch!  It was good to see them smiling, though; it certainly made our visit there more pleasant. 
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At last, the door opens!
As they say, when in Belize, you have to live on island time and be flexible!
 
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Sunday, May 13: The last day of dry season?
In retrospect, the dramatic halo around the sun on May 13th must have signaled the start of rainy season, and an early one at that.  Rainy season usually stretches from June through December in Belize; although this year, we had a wet January, and May has been very wet as well.  It has rained nearly every day or night since that rainbow around the moon appeared, twice nearly 3" in less than 24 hours.  Last night it rained nearly 3" in less than 12 hours!

Today we had to ride our bikes to town to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables as we were completely out, and Tuesday is normally a day that the boats come from the mainland loaded down with fresh produce.  We knew the road north of the bridge, which is unpaved and sandy, would be a real mess after the heavy rains last night, as it was already in poor shape from the past week and a half of on-and-off rain.  Fortunately we can ride part of the way on the beach, but in some places, there is no choice but to ride on the road.  Thought you might like to come along and see what a ride into town is like during rainy season....
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Here is what our bikes look like down here; fenders help, but they still stay messy
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Mr. Raymond hauling trash from Grand Caribe to town
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Tourists and locals riding by Reef Village -- no beach option here
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I'm riding on one of the better stretches of road past Reef Village
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Approaching the Paradise Theater and Sir Barry Bowen bridge
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I'm negotiating around the puddles large and small
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Main paved roads in town are fine, but side roads are messy!
In town we shopped at two fruit stands and got a great haul:  small bananas, papaya, mangoes, avocados, starfruit, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli.  Barry is hauling it all back in his bike baskets (one of the smartest things we brought to Belize).  Good thing he didn't fall in any of these puddles!
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Barry negotiating puddles by Reef Village and the Cloisters
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A threatening sky once again to the north as we rode home along the beach
When we got back to our condo, we had just enough time for a quick pool-down before the rains started up again!
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Storm coming our way
 
I get this question a lot, especially from folks who are considering retiring or moving to Belize in the future, and I always tell people "it depends".  Because it does, and because it's almost an impossible question to answer since everyone's lifestyles are different.  I refuse to be tied down to a number, or even a range, because there are so many variables.  Here are some of them:  

1. Which part of Belize do you live in?  Ambergris Caye/San Pedro is the most expensive place to live in the country in part because it is an island, so goods have to be shipped in via boat or air; and in part because it's the most popular tourist destination in the country, so prices on many items are elevated knowing that folks on vacation will pay more for what they need and want here.  Vacation budgets tend to be quite a bit more lavish than those of people living in a place full-time.  I'm going to talk only about our costs of living here on the island.  Groceries and some other items will be less costly in other parts of Belize.  

2. What type of housing will you have?  Another factor that is highly variable is housing.  You can rent a small apartment or very basic house here on the island for as little as $300 USD per month, but that's not going get you much.  You can also pay a couple of thousand dollars a month for a swanky beach-front home.  Or, if, like us, you own a condo or home outright, your actual monthly housing expenses may be lower.  We have a monthly HOA fee, common grounds fee (our portion of the lighting and other electrical for the grounds and pool here), yearly property taxes, and yearly insurance on the building and items inside our condo.

3. How energy-thrifty are you, what type of appliances do you have, and how much do you run the air-conditioning?  Electricity is another item that can be all over the map.  Electricity is expensive here.  We have an American-style washer and dryer, a dishwasher, and a large refrigerator, so we may use more killowatts than someone living with fewer appliances.  However, all our appliances were new and Energy Star rated when we bought the condo last year, so they are not as expensive to run as some older energy-hogging appliances.  

On the other side of the coin, we use the air conditioning sparingly.  Even when we run it, we set it at an unbelievable 84 degrees!  In the US we used to set it at 78 to 80F, so this just goes to show how acclimated to the heat we have become since living here for eight months.  We do run a dehumidifier overnight as well.  We live in a small space (just under 1000 square feet), which also keeps our energy costs down when we do run the air, as we don't have as large a space to cool.  And being on the first floor, we don't get as much sun heating up our unit as someone in an upper-floor condo or a house.

4. Do you have to pay for your water, and if so, how much do you use?  Water is also a variable and is expensive here if you have to pay for usage.  If you have a cistern, your water cost may be zero.  We are on water meters and charged monthly based on gallons used.  As I mentioned, we do have a clothes washer (albeit a high-efficiency one).  We try to be careful by doing things like taking quick showers and turning off the water in between soaping and rinsing.  We also (and hopefully this is not TMI!) don't flush the toilet after every pee.  And we'll cool off in the pool a couple of times a day when it's hot rather than take multiple showers, though we do shower once a day, of course!

5. How much do you spend on food, and what kinds of things do you buy?  Do you eat a lot of local foods or do you buy a lot of imported items?  Are you a junk food lover?  These things can be very expensive.  I've seen boxes of US-made cereals selling for as much as $24 BZD -- that is $12 US!!  We avoid these and eat mostly oatmeal with fresh fruit for breakfast.  Do you eat red meat?  Chicken is very reasonable here, as are eggs; but beef, pork, and sausage are higher.  We eat little meat, shop heavily at the local fruit and vegetable stands, buy sales and bargains when we find them, buy brands with Spanish labels, stay out of the pricier grocery stores geared more for tourists (although we do make an exception for the Greenhouse), and cook most of our meals at home.  We occasionally splurge, but in general we eat simply.  Beans are a staple of our menu, and we make our bean/vegetable tacos or burritos often.  We also do not buy wine by the bottle here, as we used to.  As much as I love wine, wine on the island is so overpriced that I just refuse to buy it.  I will occasionally have a glass in a restaurant (especially if there is happy-hour pricing!) but other than that, we drink mostly local rum and Belikin.  If you like imported liquors, you'll also pay a lot more.  Have your friends bring your selections from the duty-free shop at the international airport, and you'll save a lot.

6. The lifestyle stuff:  How much do you eat out?  Go to bars?  Take an excursion involving a guide?  Plan to do a lot of traveling?  Go diving?  All of these things will raise the monthly budget.  We don't eat out very often, though we enjoy it when we do.  We rarely go to bars or take guided excursions.  We do travel frequently and frugally on our own around the country, taking ferries and chicken buses rather than flying or renting a car (expensive here).  We don't dive.  I'm not including any travel expenses in our sample expense sheet below, since we don't necessarily do it every month, and it is an entirely discretionary line item.  But if you like to travel, you'll want to allow for it in your planning, as the costs do add up, even when traveling frugally.  And of course there are trips back to your home country to visit family that need to be accounted for.  

7. Do you own a golf cart, a car, or a boat?  If so, you'll need to factor in the high cost of gasoline here as well as maintenance.  Salty air and sand do a real number on vehicles.  Not to mention the potholes that develop during rainy season on the unpaved roads!  We ride bicycles exclusively so save a lot in this category.  We do have to have occasional bike maintenance (for example, I have had both my wheels rebuilt with stainless steel spokes since the non-stainless ones were rusting out), but these repairs are dirt cheap here compared to in the US.

8. What kind of media plans do you have?  Internet costs can be very high in Belize, and you may also have expenses for a cell phone, telephone land line, and cable TV.  We are fortunate in that our HOA fees cover our shared DSL line, our land line, and our monthly cable TV expenses.  The only additional out-of-pocket expense we have in this category is for our Smart cell phone prepaid plan.  I normally purchase $50 BZD ($25 US) of credit per quarter; you may spend more or less.  

9. Are you a permanent resident, on the QRP program, or staying with a tourist visa?  If you decide to apply for the QRP (Qualified Retirement Program) before moving to Belize, you'll incur your expenses up front, but you won't have a monthly tourist visa stamp to purchase.  But if you don't go QRP, even if you decide to apply for permanent residency, you'll need to pay for a tourist visa stamp monthly until your residency application is approved after 1+ year of living in Belize full-time.  The tourist visa stamp will run you $50 BZD ($25 US) for each of the first six months you are here, then doubles to $100 BZD ($50 US) thereafter.  In order to "reset" to the lower fee, you need to leave the country for over a month, from what we were told at the Immigration office, and if you do that, you can't apply for permanent residency for another year, if you want to do that.  

10. Do you carry health insurance or have recurring medical or Rx expenses?  If you carry health insurance, obviously your plan will determine your cost.  Many expats decide to self-insure or have retiree medical plans back in the US so do not carry additional insurance.  We do not have any retiree medical coverage so chose a catastrophic plan from BUPA International.  We pay premiums twice a year but will show 1/12th of the cost per month.  We don't take any ongoing prescription medications, but if you do, don't forget to factor those costs in.

11. Do you use a mail-forwarding service?  If so, there will be a monthly expense associated with that.  We do use a service, although we get so little mail now (since they throw out all the junk!) that we only rarely have to have mail shipped to us here in Belize.  Some mail we have shipped to a family member in the US who scans in things for us to see.  This keeps our shipping costs very low.

An example monthly expense sheet.

So, with all that said, here's an example of our expenditures for a typical month.  Taking all of the comments I've made on our lifestyle choices, you can decide how your costs would compare. 

NOTE:  This sample monthly expenditure tally does not include every expense we might incur in some months but not others.  For example: clothing, medical/dental checkups or service, vet visits for Paisley, charitable contributions, gifts, and as I mentioned above, travel (either locally or to visit family back in the US).  If you are trying to determine how much it would cost you to live in Belize, you will need to budget for these expenses as well, if they apply to you.  We also have no children, so we obviously have no child or school expenses.  Because none of these items is included, this expense sheet is a little on the low side of our actual expenses to live in San Pedro.  This would be a "bare bones" month for us with very few extras.
Category
Housing (HOA fee & Common Grounds)
Electricity
Water
1/12 of property taxes and insurance
Groceries
Eating out
Cell phone 
1/12 of health insurance premiums
Mail-Forwarding service
Miscellaneous household expenses (dog food, toiletries, cleaning products, tourist visa renewals,
weekly yoga class, etc. Somewhat variable per month but always needed.) 
GRAND TOTAL
Expense (in US dollars - double for Belize dollars)
$ 300
$ 150
$  80
$ 200
$ 500
$ 150
$  10
$ 280
$  25
$ 275

$ 1970  per month
I hope this blog entry helps just a bit with this question of cost of living here in San Pedro, at least for this couple.  I actually didn't know our exact expenses until we wrote this entry, so it was eye-opening for me as well!
 
Sorry for the lack of blogging recently.  It's been really hot and sunny, and we haven't done anything all that adventurous lately.  We spend more time indoors hiding from the sun, but we do still ride our bikes into town most mornings to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and a few groceries.  

Yesterday Maria gave us some interesting little fruits to try out.  They look like tiny little round limes that are kinda dried out and past prime.  I'd heard of a small round fruit called craboo that is much beloved by locals, but after reading that it stinks and doesn't taste too good if you weren't raised on it, I wasn't too keen to try it.  However, after googling, I determined that these little fruits were not craboo at all -- they are genip, also known as waya.  Here's the web page that confirmed their identity:  San Pedro Sweet Treats: Genip/Waya.
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Genip fruit by a wedding ring for sizing
They are about the size of a grape.  The thin skin is brittle, like limes gone way too dry, but easier to peel.  Inside is a soft, orange fruit that is quite delicious!  It tasted to this Southern gal a lot like a scuppernong grape; and like a scuppernong, you have to suck the pulp off to get the juicy flavor, which seems to have a hint of cantaloupe and maybe mango in there too.  Unlike a scuppernong, there is only one large pit rather than several small seeds.  
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Inside of Genip fruit
For your trouble, you don't get a whole lot of fruit from this small gem, but what you do get is so good, this has to be my favorite new fruit we've tried since moving here.  If only the genip was the size of a mango!

I also wanted to share a few photos from our veranda recently.  With the wall-to-wall sunshine, the sea has been exceptionally turquoise, and there have been some colorful sights right outside our screen doors.  It's always a pleasure to look out and see scenes like this:
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Kiteboarder -- we get quite a few of these coming by. This was the prettiest kite I'd seen.
Or this:
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Parasailer -- this is the first one I remember seeing up this way
And then of course we had the "supermoon" recently, which was stunning rising right over the Caribbean Sea out our doors.
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Early in the evening on Saturday, May 5
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A couple of nights later -- not quite full but very orange and dramatic just after rising
 
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Chetumal waterfront
Recently our good friends and fellow bloggers Bill and Debra (http://takingbelize.blogspot.com/) invited us to join them on a day trip to Chetumal, just over the border in Mexico.  Chetumal is known as a good place to shop for those of us living in Belize, as there is a better variety of goods available, and prices are much lower than those in Belize.  And of course there's the wonderful Mexican beer that is illegal in Belize.  'Nuff said!  So even though we'd already booked our reservations in Crooked Tree for the very next day, we didn't want to pass up a great opportunity.  It was certainly an interesting day but not without a few snafus.

The first problem was entirely my fault.  We'd planned to take the water taxi from Grand Caribe to town instead of walking since we needed to catch such an early ferry to Chetumal (7:30 am).  All the southbound water taxis go past Grand Caribe's dock at 40 minutes after the hour, except one.  I didn't pay attention and was thinking the first taxi of the day would pass at 6:40 am.  So, there we were, out on the dock at 6:35 am -- quite early for us to be up and about -- and my heart sunk when I saw the posted schedule and realized that the early ferry would have passed by at around 6:25 am, not 6:40.

We had no real choice than to start walking the two miles to the ferry terminal, as we figured a land cab might not even make it up to Grand Caribe in time to get us there.  So walk we did, and it was already sweltering, especially at the fast pace we were having to keep.  We were hoping that maybe a golf cart would go by and offer us a lift, but the only one we saw was just ahead of us on the road.  If we'd been one minute earlier getting to the road, we might have been in luck, but as it was, we weren't passed by a single vehicle before we reached the bridge into town -- guess it was just too early.

I called Bill on our cell phone and told him where we were.  Plan B was that if we missed the 7:30 ferry, we'd walk around to the other ferry terminal on the lagoon side of Ambergris Caye and take the more expensive 8am boat instead.  Fortunately, we did make it to the ferry terminal in time (though drenched with sweat) to fill out our exit paperwork and board the boat.  And in actuality, the boat didn't leave the dock until 8 am after all.  It's very possible that they post a 30 minute earlier departure to make sure that passengers are there in time to fill out the paperwork.
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Walking to town -- quickly
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Ferry schedule
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Whew...we made it, and my hair was dripping wet!
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Barry on the ferry (that rhymes!)
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Debra and Bill looking calm, cool, and collected
On the trip over, we were able to exchange some Belize dollars for Mexican pesos.  100 pesos is roughly equivalent to $7-8 US dollars, depending on the exchange rate you get.  In this case, the boat took a "cut".  As usual, you pay for convenience.
It was a very bumpy ride as the wind was coming from the north, the direction we were traveling, so we were bouncing up and down in the hard seats.  We finally figured out that if we sat on the life preservers under the seats in front of us, we could keep from wrecking our backs, but it was definitely uncomfortable.  Note to self:  Make sure to check the wind direction before heading to Mexico on the ferry again.

On the boat we filled out our entry papers for Mexico, which were all in Spanish.  Fortunately, one of the ferry employees was available to assist.  The audio-only Spanish lessons we'd been taking didn't quite prepare us for everything on the form, but with his help, we got it done.
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Our first look at Chetumal out the tinted ferry window -- the water was the most gorgeous clear blue
Upon exiting the boat, we were instructed to put our backpacks out in a line so the drug-sniffing dog could give them the once over.  Much to our surprise, Barry's pack was the one the canine focused on.  Then we remembered he had some yummy homemade snack bars (containing peanut butter) inside.  No wonder!  To prove he had nothing stronger than peanut butter bars on him, he had to unpack his bag for the authorities wielding impressive machine guns, then was waved on his way.  We were not frisked or searched in any way, nor did we have to go through a metal detector.
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Barry's pack was the red one to the far right -- already pulled out of line
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I was relieved that we made it through step 1 on Mexican soil
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Our ferry and Chetumal in the background
Little did we know that we would have to fill out yet another form once our bags were checked.  I guess one form was for Immigration and one for Customs.  Barry and I were so slow filling out our form that one of the attendants grabbed them and did most of it for us.  I guess there was another ferry coming right behind us, and they wanted us out of the way by then. 
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Working on the all-Spanish form
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Bill (in green) and other visitors waiting in line to check in
Finally we were all checked through and on our way.  This was Bill and Debra's second trip to Chetumal, so it was great to go with them since they knew the ropes.  They brought rolling suitcases along to load up with all their purchases.  We didn't do that since we knew they would be hard to haul on the ever-crowded water taxis in San Pedro.  We had our small backpacks and figured we could carry shopping bags for any purchases that wouldn't fit into them.
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Emily, Debra, and Bill
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Clock Tower from afar
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Clock Tower close up
Our first destination was Sam's Club -- yep, just like back in the US of A.  Debra and Bill knew that we could walk there, so off we went, taking in the sights along the way, including this charming dinghy dock.
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It was a gorgeous day for walking now that we could go a bit slower than our earlier hustle to San Pedro town
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Chetumal is the capital of the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico
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More dinghies
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Sam's Club right across the "Avenida"
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Even if you don't speak Spanish, pictures are universal
One very interesting thing about the ladies' room here: all the toilet seats had been removed!  Needless to say, that was a shock and not so pleasant.  
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Sam's Club looks much like in the US, but most everything is in Spanish
Barry and I are not Sam's Club members, but Debra had just renewed her membership.  We found a really nice package of two "extra firm" bed pillows, which they bought for us, and we paid them back.  The pillows that came with our condo furniture were way too flat and squishy, so this was a great purchase.  I been hoping to find a foam mattress topper as well, but came up empty handed on that one.  Bill and Debra bought food items, batteries, and refilled some prescriptions at the pharmacy.
Next on the agenda was catching a cab over to the "American Style" mall for additional shopping.  I should mention that with daylight savings time being active in Mexico (but never in Belize), we would have one less hour than typical for a trip to Chetumal.  So instead of our boat leaving at 3pm, it would leave at 2pm.  This meant that we were in a bit of a rush the entire time we were there.  
Our taxi driver drove like a maniac, fast, weaving, and passing on the right. Then again, it seemed like everyone else on the roads was driving the same way.  This is definitely a place I would not want to drive.  

Here are some of the sights we saw during the 10-minute taxi ride to the mall.
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Beer store!
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Domino's Pizza sign and guy riding a bike without a helmet on a very busy Avenida (scary)
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Haven't seen one of these for awhile (there are none in Belize)
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Chevrolet and Office Depot sign
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Very similar to a mall in the US, no?
Here are some shots from inside the mall.  We were headed to Chedraui, a department/grocery store along the lines of Wal-Mart.
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And here we are!
We did find one mattress topper here, but it didn't seem to be of nice quality nor very thick, so we passed.  We were able to score some of the other things on our shopping list, like a salad spinner and plastic cover for reheating plates in the microwave.  Such simple items, but I'd been unable to find either of them in San Pedro.  It was our understanding that each person could bring one liter of booze into Belize duty-free, so Barry and I chose a nice tequila (on sale, no less) and Triple Sec, both of which are very expensive in Belize.  Can you say margaritas, baby?
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The bakery was tempting, but we managed to escape with nary a pastry
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Chedraui
Bill and Debra were buying a lot of food here, so we told them we'd meet them at the food court, and Barry and I headed on down.  We had hoped to go to a decent Mexican restaurant while we were in Chetumal, but as I mentioned before, we were on a tight schedule, so the food court it would be.  Fortunately, there was a taqueria there that ended up having yummy made-to-order tacos.  I was able to order from the Spanish menu, pay, and get my change from the cashier who spoke only Spanish.  The tacos were less than $1.50 US each, a great deal.  Barry went in search of another money exchange to make sure we had enough pesos for both of us to have lunch and drinks.
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The food court, very similar to a US-styled one
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Yep, even a McDonald's and Panda Express
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Here is the taqueria where I ordered two "chicken fajita" tacos.
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They were absolutely delish -- I added fresh salsa and guacamole on top
Barry was able to get some more money changed, so I went back and ordered cuatro (4) of the same tacos for him.
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Change dollars for pesos here
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Barry loading up with condiments
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Barry's "chicken fajita" tacos
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Debra and Bill couldn't resist the lure of the Golden Arches
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But I say, when in Mexico, eat tacos!
Thanks to one of the best Belize bloggers around, Rebecca (http://www.sanpedroscoop.com/), we knew there was a little casino in the mall that served Mexican beer for cheap.  So our final trick was to find it and grab a Corona or two before we caught a cab back to the ferry.  Time was getting really tight by now, so we had to make tracks.  Amazingly, we found it and managed to chug down a couple of beers in record time.  Beers were only about $1 US, maybe $1.25, if I recall correctly.  No problema.  It was great to drink a beer other than Belikin for a change.
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We had to put the cameras away after a casino bouncer told us photos weren't allowed -- too late!
We were able to find a taxi quickly when we left the mall, but the guy didn't know where the water taxi terminal was!  Or maybe he just didn't understand our garbled Spanglish?  In any event, he ended up taking us to the bus terminal.  By this time we were really worried about missing our ferry.  We kept saying "Rapido, Rapido" and "taxi agua" (water).  Barry was sitting in the front seat and was able to help the most with directions:  "cerca de Sam's Club" (near Sam's Club).  We were getting a bit frantic, and it felt like we were on an episode of The Amazing Race.

Finally, we made it to the right place and paid our fare (taxis are cheap, cheap, cheap in Chetumal!)  While Debra and Bill were checking their suitcases, Barry and I proceeded to Immigration to check out of Mexico.  The Immigration officer just shook his head when he saw our papers.  He told us we were supposed to have paid a $25 US exit fee (per person) at a local bank.  What?!  We had done our research ahead of time and knew that there was NO exit fee for folks staying for less than seven days and returning to their country of origin.  We tried to reason with the officer, but he would have none of it.  When Bill and Debra arrived, they were told the same thing.  One of the ferry employees was there trying to expedite things as we were now past time for the boat to leave.  He agreed that we should not have to pay the exit fee, but his hands were tied.  

Finally we were told to walk over to a bank, pay the fee, and come back with the receipt.  The ferry worker said "Hurry" as we hustled off.  A local was going with us to show us where the bank was.  I was wondering if this was all some elaborate scam that they were all in on together.  Even the local agreed we should not have to pay.  It was really sickening.  We've all read and heard immigration horror stories, but no one expects it will ever happen to them.  

As we walked down the road, the ferry worker came calling after us.  There was no time for us to get to the bank, and a young lady working with the Immigration officer could take our money and get us our receipts "later" (ummm, right...).  So, we had no choice.  We turned around and headed back to the immigration office.  I waited outside while Barry did our business.  He came back out with our passports and quickly hustled me down towards the boat as quickly as possible, leaving Bill and Debra behind to check out.  I thought he was acting a little strangely, but I didn't understand -- I figured he was just pissed off, as we all were.

When we got about halfway down the promenade and no one was within earshot, he told me that he didn't pay.  He said there was a lot of confusion in the office, so he just got the stamp and high-tailed it outta there!  I have to give him credit for that bold maneuver; after all, we were in the right, and he was simply trying to avoid being scammed.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out as the young lady working with immigration and the ferry worker ran to catch up with us and said "He says you didn't pay."  Since there were men with machine guns standing near the boat, Barry had no choice but to give them the money.  It was worth a try, right?

Debra and Bill reluctantly paid as well, and we all made it onto the boat without being thrown into a Mexican prison.  We were all angry, though, since we knew we'd been taken.  Another passenger on the ferry approached us and asked if we'd had to pay -- turns out they tried to make her and her husband pay as well, but somehow they got out of it.  She said the officer was extremely rude to them.  Apparently they are pulling this scam on everyone with a US passport, but some manage to get out of it somehow or another.  This couple had been coming from Cancun so possibly had a slightly different situation than ours that he let slide.

Unfortunately, this incident ended the trip on a bad note.  At the time I swore I'd never go to Mexico again, but since I've had time to cool down, I now think I'd go -- but not for less than seven days.  If I know I have to pay the fee by law, I certainly don't mind paying it, but I strongly object to government officials taking advantage of visitors (especially those who have just spent good money in their country) and breaking their own laws.  Infuriating! 

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Finally made it back to the water taxi terminal -- I'm still smiling PRE-scam.
The ride back was uneventful (and smooth, with the wind behind us), and the Belizean Immigration and Customs officers were in good moods when we arrived back at the San Pedro dock, so we sailed right through.  We did learn something important, though:  while you are normally allowed 1 liter of alcohol per person coming into Belize, the Customs' officer told us that that does not apply to Chetumal because it is "too close" to Belize.  So it's okay to bring in a bottle from the US, Canada, or even Cancun, but not from Chetumal!  That really surprised me, and I wonder if it's written down in any law book?  I mean, where do they draw the line on where is considered "too close"?  But, she was in good spirits and let us through.  She did say that in some cases they would confiscate the liquor and was giving us a "warning" this time.  Just another reason not to bother with Chetumal again -- I was already tasting those margaritas and would have been so disappointed to have our purchases taken away!

Here is what we came home with:
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Really, really nice pillows. Worth the price of the trip, and only $18 US for the pair!
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Our goodies from Chedraui -- all very reasonably priced
So, as I said in the beginning, it was an "interesting" day with some good and some challenging moments.  I guess travel to a foreign country is always fraught with pitfalls, but there are many rewards as well.  We'll keep traveling, but we've certainly had our eyes opened.
 
The only bus that runs directly from the village of Crooked Tree to Belize City, the Jex bus, comes through at 6:30 am, so we knew it was going to be an early morning by necessity.  Fortunately, as I mentioned before, it's easy to get up early at the lodge, and I managed to pop out of bed just in time to catch the stunning sunrise over the lagoon.  Barry just missed it!
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Crazy beautiful, right?
We quickly dressed and packed our backpacks for the trek back to Ambergris Caye.  I was at the lodge a little before 6 am and caught Angie coming in from a walk.  The coffee was fresh and hot, and we were able to grab a cup (and a banana each for the road) while saying our goodbyes to Angie and Mick and checking out.  Mick offered us a lift down to the bus stop, but our backpacks weren't that heavy, and it was a beautiful morning for a walk, so we declined.
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Leaving the Crooked Tree Lodge
We walked quickly lest we miss the bus, arriving at the stop a few minutes before 6:30 am.  When we got there, we saw some locals gathered, so we knew it hadn't come yet.  And since the roads are unpaved, you can hear vehicles (especially bus-sized) from a long distance, and we hadn't heard a peep.  We ended up waiting about ten minutes and getting in a little last minute birding, of course! 
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At the bus stop
Finally the bus arrived, and we all filed on.  It was already quite crowded, a bit surprising since we thought that Crooked Tree was the start of the route, so apparently more folks from this village take the bus to the city than we realized.  We would be sitting together on the child-sized seat with our backpacks in our lap for the entire way this time.  In fact, the bus continued picking up folks all the way to Belize City, with very few getting off, so eventually it was standing room only.  I suspect a lot of these folks were heading to work or to appointments in the city.
When we got to Belize City, the bus attendant asked where we were heading. They don't get a lot of gringos on this bus line, so she had also taken care of us on the way to Crooked Tree, making sure we got off at the right spot.  We told her that we were taking the ferry to San Pedro, but first were planning a stop at Brodie's (grocery store) to pick up a few things.  We figured the bus would finish the journey at the same place we got on two days earlier, but she told us that they needed to fuel up first, and if we were in a hurry, she'd show us where to get off so that we could walk to Brodie's.  What a nice lady.  We hoped to make the 9 am ferry back to San Pedro, so we didn't want to wait for them to fuel up the bus.  

She instructed us to get off right where a local woman who was also heading towards Brodie's got off, so the local lady said she'd show us the way; we'd never gone there from this direction before.  Walking with a local was great -- no one hassled us, and we didn't get lost.
Finally she pointed us to Brodie's, but peeled off in the other direction herself, so perhaps she was just going near there, not actually there.   
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Brodie's is bigger than the grocery stores in San Pedro and usually has better prices, plus 10% off Friday through Sunday!
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We ate our bananas from the lodge before heading in
We found a good assortment of groceries at Brodie's that just fit into the extra canvas bag we'd brought along for that reason.  We were cutting the time very close to the 9 am ferry; however, so practically had to run to the ferry terminal.  We'd hoped to have time to hit the rest room at the terminal before boarding the boat, but as luck would have it, a field trip's worth of children and their chaperones were lined up in the ladies room, so I had to grin and bear it.  As it turned out, the ferry was late leaving after all (typical in Belize), so I probably could have made it, but fortunately I didn't wet my pants on the boat ride to San Pedro (heehee).

As is also very typical for our travels, we knew we'd be arriving in San Pedro just after the water taxi north would have departed the dock (and with two hours until the next one), so we decided to have brunch at Estel's before picking Paisley up at Pampered Paws.  Thus fortified, we picked her and her stuff up and still had a 45-minute wait for the next water taxi, but it costs quite a bit less than a land taxi, and we couldn't walk the two miles back to Chico Caribe with her and all our gear on such a hot, sunny day.  So we waited.  At least there are benches in the shade, with a nice breeze, and I had a book.  Could have been worse.

As usual, the water taxi was packed, and with all our gear, it was quite an uncomfortable ride, but we made it back safe and sound.  Paisley was glad to be home, though she does great at Pampered Paws.
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Paisley loves retrieving coconuts in the shallow ocean waters

The birds.

Since today's post is a shorter one (for us, anyway!), I'm including photos of some of the many birds we saw during our stay at Crooked Tree.  Each species that was a new one for our life lists, I've followed by an asterisk (*).
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American Coot* -- there were a ton of these on the lagoon
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Groove-Billed Ani*
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Bare-throated Tiger Heron*
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Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks*
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Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
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Roseate Spoonbill
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Dusky-capped Flycatcher
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Ruddy Ground Dove
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Green Heron, juvenile
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Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, fluffy during the rain
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Tropical Kingbird
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Ringed Kingfisher (female)
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Green Kingfisher* (female)
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Limpkin
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Northern Jacana*, a very cool bird we saw a lot of at the lagoon bank
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Northern Jacana - had to include this one too since it had its three juveniles with it. Super cute!
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Osprey
White pelicans are rare in Belize, so the folks at the lodge were excited to see this flock.
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American White Pelicans*
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Clay-colored Robin*
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White-Collared Seedeater (male)
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Snail Kite
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Blue-Gray Tanager -- we saw a lot of these, but they are hard to photograph, moving around frequently
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Caspian Terns*
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Vermillion Flycatcher* (male) -- a stunning bird we saw a lot
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Vermillion Flycatcher* (female)
There were large flocks of these Black Vultures in trees along the road (but not at the lodge, thankfully).  Reminded me places in rural North Carolina where we'd see them on our bike rides.
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Black Vulture
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Magnolia Warbler
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Acrorn Woodpecker -- there were two nesting pairs in this large dead tree at the lodge
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Solitary Sandpiper*
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Jabiru Stork*
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Wood Storks
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Wood Storks
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House Wren
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Double-Crested Cormorant, Snail Kite, White Ibis
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Great Egret, White Ibis, Caspian Terns
We saw a few other species that we were unable to get photos of.  And probably even more we didn't write down.  Here's a list of the ones we did note but didn't get photos of.  All of these were already on our life lists, but we never mind seeing them again!
Rose-Throated Becard (pair)
Chackalacka (audio only)
Social Flycatcher
Great-Tailed Grackle (many)
Great Kiskadee
Green-Breasted Mango
American Redstart
Mangrove Swallow
Blue-Winged Teal 
Golden-Fronted Woodpecker
If you enjoy bird-watching and are in Belize, you owe it to yourself to visit Crooked Tree.  We can highly recommend the Crooked Tree Lodge -- Mick and Angie will treat you right, and you will see more birds than you can imagine.