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
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.
Walking to town -- quickly
Whew...we made it, and my hair was dripping wet!
Barry on the ferry (that rhymes!)
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.
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.
Barry's pack was the red one to the far right -- already pulled out of line
I was relieved that we made it through step 1 on Mexican soil
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.
Working on the all-Spanish form
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.
Emily, Debra, and Bill
Clock Tower from afar
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.
It was a gorgeous day for walking now that we could go a bit slower than our earlier hustle to San Pedro town
Chetumal is the capital of the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico
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Sam's Club right across the "Avenida"
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.
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.
Domino's Pizza sign and guy riding a bike without a helmet on a very busy Avenida (scary)
Haven't seen one of these for awhile (there are none in Belize)
Chevrolet and Office Depot sign
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.
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?
The bakery was tempting, but we managed to escape with nary a pastry
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.
The food court, very similar to a US-styled one
Yep, even a McDonald's and Panda Express
Here is the taqueria where I ordered two "chicken fajita" tacos.
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.
Change dollars for pesos here
Barry loading up with condiments
Barry's "chicken fajita" tacos
Debra and Bill couldn't resist the lure of the Golden Arches
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.
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!
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:
Really, really nice pillows. Worth the price of the trip, and only $18 US for the pair!
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.