"THE NUMBER 1 MAGAZINE ON TRAVEL, LIFE, AND RETIREMENT ON THE CARIBBEAN COAST"
Volume II, No. 4
ON-LINE TEXT EDITION
COPYRIGHT 1995 BY LAN SLUDER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Traditional magazine edition with maps and photos also available. Contact Belize First for details.
regularly pull in for the night to sleep in their vehicle. The facilities are adequate, and cold beer and roasted chicken are available 24 hours. We made Tampico just after dawn, refueled at a shiny new Pemex station, and were back on the road with Poza Rica, between Tampico and Veracruz, our next bench mark.
Never letting the fuel gauge go below one-half, we stopped at two more Pemex stations before making Veracruz about 9 p.m. Rule of thumb: When you see a Pemex, stop and fuel up. They are far enough apart so that it pays to be safe and keep the tank full. The newer ones have excellent facilities as well as American-style convenience stores.
Coming into Veracruz at night from the north has become a nightmare over the past few years. Road construction is in full swing and four lanes become one with little warning and not a barrier in sight. Typically, excavation is going on several levels leaving no shoulder, pavement variations being marked by only stink pots billowing thick petroleum fumes into the night air. Once you get into the traffic, which starts about 25 miles out of the city, you are committed. To leave the traveled surface is literally to abandon your vehicle for a burro, or worse.
Try to just south of Veracruz for your next stop. The coast is dotted with bar-restaurant- hotels where you can find accommodations for two easily in the US$20 range. [Editor's note: Prices may be lower now, given the decline in the value of the peso.]
About two and a half hours down the road you'll find the town of San Andres Tuxla, a cigar aficionado's dream-come-true. On this bad mountain road with no guard rail can be found a classic fabrica de puros where we spent a few minutes watching the hand- rolling techniques of the local artisans. My partner and I selected a box each of Ejecutivos Maduro for the road, and we were off.
About ten miles outside of San Andres Tuxla is a brightly painted yellow muffler shop. They have an arc welder there and can fix just about anything that is leaking, cracked or otherwise ruptured. The punishment our vehicle was taking resulted in various exhaust system malfunctions, and this was the place to get the whole thing tightened up. Eight hours and two cigars later we made Villahermosa, and two hours more brought us to Zapata.
Our charge across Mexico for the Belize promised land came to an abrupt halt exactly 13 miles down Highway 186 from Palenque Junction. On the right hand side of the highway just beyond the side road to Zapata is the last service station, restaurant, or for that matter any commercial enterprise, until you reach the Pemex 87 miles down the road in the village of Manatel. There are 113 worrisome miles to Escarcega from Zapata. We were aware there had been recent campesino unrest of a violent nature along this very stretch of road. Once you get to Escarcega it is a 154- mile straight run through a low-growth jungle to Chetumal with nowhere, and I mean nowhere, to pull off. By all means, this is a part of the journey you should make by daylight, and find out in advance the current political situation for the region. A less- adventurous, and much longer, route would be to continue on Highway 180 along the coast, going farther north in the Yucat‡n peninsula before driving southward again.
At about 7:30 p.m. the evening of our third day, my partner and I found ourselves examining our map at a table in the service station cum restaurant at the turn-off road to Zapata, debating whether to sleep in the truck or make a midnight run for Escarcega. Enter Ramon Villanieva, proprietor and raconteur extraordinaire. This young Spaniard entered with a drink in his hand, greeted the employees and regular customers, then turned his eye to us. "You don't think you are going anywhere tonight, do you ?" he asked me in Spanish. "I thought we might make Belize before sunrise," I replied in jest. He came to our table, informed us that the frequency of road blocks and robberies had gone up due to recent political unrest, and that we would do best to let him be our guide to Zapata for the evening, and leave in the morning. Our gracious host told us we were the first foreigners he had the opportunity to visit with in two years. There was no way we could turn down the invitation.
We followed Ramon into town, stopping for a moment to admire the bronze statue of Emiliano Zapata on horseback, rifle blazing. I have lived across the street from the statue of Paul Revere in Boston, and studied my college texts in the public gardens where George Washington sits tall above a stately steed, but neither of these statues is as awe-inspiring as this particular revolutionary tribute.
I could not help but be reminded of a young Marlon Brando playing the impetuous Emiliano in the 1950s classic, Viva Zapata. "Fantastic," I said to Ramon. "You know, he's my hero," I said. "Zapata?" questioned my host. "No," I replied, "Marlon Brando".
Ramon took us on a evening tour of the village, which is about 12 blocks long and eight blocks wide, laid out around a town square. To be sure, the beer is cheap and the locals are thrilled to meet travelers. Everywhere Ramon took us, we were received as honored guests, including Zapata's premier night club which was featuring a floor show of scantly clad local women covered in body paint dancing to Madonna.
We spent the evening at Hotel Ramos on Avenida Chiapas Esq., Sibiquina, which I suspect Ramon owns as well. For US$25, our room had two queen-size beds, air conditioning, telephone and a huge bathroom with hot water. Secure parking was provided behind locked doors in a court yard behind the building. A small restaurant can be found on the ground floor, serving breakfast at 7 a.m. However, we were gone before the restaurant opened. Fueled up, rested and truly delighted by the hospitality, we left Zapata for that last long and lonely stretch of road to Belize.
By 11:00 a.m. on the fourth day we were enjoying our first Belikin in Belize, watching the surf come in. We made it to Belize City in three and one-half days. We had spent about 12 hours for repairs and another 12 hours to rest and eat. With no mechanical difficulties, we would have been well with in the three-day target, but then again, we might have spent another day in Zapata.
RAFAEL STUMBO'S RECOMMENDED TRIP PREPARATIONS
If you plan to make a trip of this nature for either fun or profit at anything more than a leisurely pace, I suggest the following:
- Do a tune-up before you leave, including wires, distributor cap and rotor
- Bring the old parts with you as spares
- Service front and real differentials, transfer case and transmission
- Check your spare tire -- bring two if space allows, and a few cans of Fix-a-Flat won't hurt either
- Pack a comprehensive tool box including anything that might be unique to your vehicle such as fuses and fuel filters
- Carry a heavy-duty nylon tow line
- Bring several of fuel additive, an oil filter and oil, break/clutch fluid, and antifreeze/coolant
- Bring eight five-gallon plastic bottles of drinking water, and several cans of tuna fish.
Interview by LAN SLUDER
Lynn Williams, his wife, Warrene Williams, and 10-year-old daughter Whitney, of Asheville, North Carolina, did a five-week driving trip to Mexico and Belize in February and March 1995. They spent time in Mexico City, the Yucat‡n and elsewhere in Mexico, and in Belize, where they stayed at Chan Chich Lodge in Orange Walk District.
The Williamses traveled in a Jeep Cherokee with about 65,000 miles on it. Lynn Williams is an experienced world traveler, having done overland trips in various parts of the world, including a London- Singapore overlander in the 1950s. Here's his perspective on driving to and in Belize.
Q: How did you find the roads in Mexico this trip?
A: Mostly very good. Coming back, I did Mexico City-San Antonio, Texas, in one day. New highways with 120 kilometer speed limits made it easy (I cruised at 130) as there are now autopista de cuotas (toll roads) almost the entire way from Villahermosa in the Yucatan to the border. There are stretches being built around Campeche, some open, and there is the Cancun- Mˇrida cuota. The tolls were not bad with the peso at 7 to the dollar. They would otherwise have been high.
I took the cuota all the way back, when I could, leaving Cancun on a Sunday afternoon, reaching Campeche Sunday night, Monday to Villahermosa (got stuck in a political demonstration which blocked the roads for a day), Tuesday snuck around the demonstrators on back roads (thank heavens for the jeep) and bribed the workers to drive the unopened 45-D from Villahermosa to 150D to Mexico City - - saved hours and hours, and the new cuota is good -- just two short stretches that they are still working on. My map from AAA showed it as "under construction" Probably will be "under construction" for years. The cops and the workers have a deal -- they block the highway with oil barrels and then tell you it can't be driven. When I expressed my great desire to pay them for the privilege of driving the 120-mile new stretch which is unopened, they took the money and rolled the barrels aside.
Going down to Belize, I boogied off the cuotas and took the libres. It did make a big difference in time coming back on the toll roads, saving days of driving, at my guess.
I drove Cancun-Chetumal, Villahermosa-Chetumal, and Chetumal- Merida up the middle of the Yucat‡n. All roads are fine, no problems, all surfaced.
Travelers going south in Mexico should be aware that there are different agricultural districts in Mexico, different tax districts, etc., and that frequently on crossing borders from one state to another there will be searches of the vehicle. Usually the fruit and veggies questions, sometimes about alcohol and tobacco (I always say I use neither and don't have them along -- obviously to me the police are looking for a free bottle of booze). I only had the one real rough search on the edge of Chiapas, but we got through it all right and the cops helped me repack the Jeep. They didn't seem like ordinary cops. More like military police.
Travelers should be prepared for some authority coming up to them and asking "donde viene?" or some such. I always had a ready answer, usually the nearest tourist town, and a copy of Lonely Planet's La Ruta Maya by Tom Brosnahan prominently displayed on the dashboard. Showed them that and told them I was a tourist doing Mexican tourist scenes, had nothing for resale, all my own stuff, and that was that. I never felt threatened at all. Most of the cops were extremely nice to me, and then later to my wife and daughter, or to my daughter when she and I were traveling together.
Q: What's your key advice for people thinking of driving to and in Belize?
A: Anyone who is going to be driving very much in Belize should consider a high road clearance vehicle. VW van, Jeep, or anything else with above-average road clearance. Otherwise, one is restricted to the paved highways. After that, I'd say they need good tires and good tools. Only then would I put in four- wheel drive. It's nice, but it's not absolutely necessary on most roads.
On the other hand, if one is willing to stay on decently surfaced primary and secondary roads, one can do the trip through Mexico and on the main roads in Belize in a family sedan with perhaps just a bit of extra preparation. I do understand that a few of the roads in southern Belize are considered "bad" by locals, and I give that classification great respect. I'd be very careful taking them on.
Q: How would you prepare your vehicle for Belize?
A: The main thing I would suggest are to equip it with six-ply truck tires, slightly oversize, with tubes. I found the four-ply mud/snow tubeless radials to be too fragile for Belizean roads. Were I to do it again -- and I hope to do it next winter -- I would put on six-ply heavy duty truck type tires and if they were tubeless, put in tubes anyway. Carl Franz in The People's Guide to Mexico recommends this. I had missed it the first time I read his book. After leaving Belize, I read his section on auto preparation again, and it was there. A lot of the Belizeans and Americans living in Belize prepare their cars in this way.
Aside from the tires, I'd carry a tank of compressed air. The air pump which runs off the cigarette lighter is too slow. I gave up on reinflating a tire with it and gave away the pump to a man who'd helped me change a tire and was obviously eyeing the pump with desire. I'd get rid of the high-rise hydraulic jack which I had and get a floor jack of the type used in garages, one with the little wheels on it so it can run under the car, and a long handle. Those will lift a car in seconds and are easy to switch from raising to lowering. I'd carry a couple of extra tubes. I would certainly carry a fully mounted second spare tire. That is, the tire would be on its own rim so all I had to do was to mount it on the wheel.
This is pretty much what I had on a London-Singapore drive I did in the 1950s. The Land Rover 109 I had then was so far superior to the Jeep Cherokee I drove on this trip that there really is no comparison. However, the little Cherokee I had was perfectly acceptable if one babied it, and was more comfortable than the Land Rover because of its seats, air conditioning, cruise control, etc. I do think that were I prepping a car for Belize again, I would also consider replacing shocks with extra heavy duty shocks (if it needed new shocks), and I'd consider heavier duty springs if these were available. I bottomed out innumerable times on Belizean roads -- something I never would have done with the Land Rover and its heavier duty suspension. Most American cars, even the "off road" or "utility" vehicles, are compromises which are designed to look tough, but don't deliver the same quality of performance under difficult conditions as do say, the older Land Rovers.
The American expats doing business in Belize seemed pretty realistic about what they expected from their vehicles -- a lot of them were driving high road clearance cars, trucks or vans, had floor jacks, heavy duty truck tires, beefed up suspensions, an extra mounted spare, and some parts and tools along.
Q: What tools would you carry?
First, you need REAL tools. Heavy-duty ones, not the stuff that's sold in auto parts shops. I'd take a large crow bar, a very heavy hammer or small sledge, as well as a tow rope. Again, Carl Franz in The People's Guide to Mexico has a good list. A remote road in Belize or another part of Central America is not the place to find out you were not adequately prepared.
I am sure you gather from this that I'm an absolute fanatic on my preparations -- I'd rather be overprepared than find I lack something critical. I carried all the obvious spare parts, replaced all belts and tubing and clamps before I left and carried the old items as spares, had my alternator tested, and when it wasn't quite up to snuff had it replaced with an extra-heavy-duty alternator. I carried filters, electrical spares, tools, and all the stuff people recommend. I should have carried a floor jack, an extra spare, and heavy-duty tubed tires. That was my single major error. Fortunately, I had enough other stuff with me that I was able to work around that problem and bought another tire in Belize.
Q: Anything else?
A: One thing I'm glad I did was to get a first rate car alarm. Viper is what I bought -- you see the TV ads, about $250 installed. It's worth its weight in gold. The little perimeter alarm kept most people away from the car at all, and the one time someone stuck his hand inside, it cleared the street with the big alarm. I always told anyone nearby that there was an alarm system in the car.
Q: Did you have any trouble crossing the border at Chetumal?
A: Some of the Belize customs officials have an attitude problem. Not helpful at all. I crossed twice. The first time wasn't too bad, although they certainly kept me waiting for an hour or more quite unnecessarily. The second time they had my daughter, Whitney, and me unload the entire Jeep and bring its contents into the shed. Probably 300 pounds worth of stuff. They wouldn't come out and examine them the way they did the first time. When I had all the stuff inside, they just glanced at it, laughed, and then told me to repack the Jeep. One has to keep one's temper and smile a lot. I tried to be as courteous as possible, and allowed both times a couple of extra hours.
The Mexican customs at Chetumal are simple and easy. It just takes a little money. They have a racket going which requires one to have extra copies of all car documents. And there isn't a copier at the border (all right, there is but it will be hard for the average traveler to use it.) I went back to Belize and talked the lieutenant in charge of the customs station into making me copies for free the first time. One takes the extra copies to the window inside the building right by the guards at the frontier -- not the immigration building beyond it -- and then the Mexicans will stamp the EXTRA papers with the required exit stuff. I gave them US$20 to do it because I was in a hurry and it was Sunday, and the proper person "wasn't on duty" and the person who was there, "had to do it on her own responsibility, you understand, this isn't official."
All the while there were pamphlets put out by the Mexican tourist authorities saying that there shouldn't be any nonsense like this. Right. I took my daughter, Whitney, with me the second time so she could see how it was done. She nearly fainted when I pulled out the money to bribe the "police." Worth it to see her face. She was sure we were going to jail. Mexican side both ways took five minutes. They were nice, once they'd been paid a bit.
There is a second little Mexican racket coming into Chetumal from Corozal Town. After crossing the Mexican border, there are the "fumigadores" who want to spray you and the inside of the car. I just laughed and told them I didn't have fruits or vegetables and gave them US$5 and they laughed and waved me through.
Frankly, the Mexican side was easier, with the bribes. The Belize officials didn't seem bribeable, so I didn't try. I was attentive, though, to any indication on their part that they were waiting for a bribe or would take one, and believe me, I've bribed my way through enough cops and border stations around the world that I'd have paid them in a flash.
If one doesn't pay the Mexicans, one can exit -- but one has to surrender all car documents as one does when crossing to the U.S., get the sticker taken off the windshield, and all that good stuff. Then, when re-entering, one has to go through all the formalities again. I suspect 50 pesos would have done it and I overpaid them. They were really running when I laid out that $20 bill and used Carl Franz' phrase, "can we not resolve this problem in some other manner?" Very helpful, that phrase.
Q: What about Belize insurance?
A: The first time I crossed I was allowed to go to Corozal Town without insurance and I bought it there. It was a Sunday morning and no one was selling insurance at the border. I bought two weeks worth, so the next week when I came back, also on a Sunday, and the guy who'd made me unload the Jeep in the hot sun and bring the contents into the shed, asked me if I "had Belizean insurance." I was able to say yes and to show him the policy. He was disappointed but let me go.
Q: You drove to Chan Chich. Did you need four-wheel drive for that part of the trip?
A: I didn't need it to go to Chan Chich. I would STRONGLY suggest high road clearance vehicle, though. I might do it in a family sedan, but the average driver would probably do damage to his car or to the car body. By the way, my daughter adored Chan Chich and the lodge there, and for her and for my wife, Warrene, it was the absolute highlight of the entire trip.
It's about a four hour drive out of Orange Walk Town on a road of which the first half (about 35 miles) is not too bad but unsurfaced. The final 35 miles are poor -- 15 to 20 miles an hour in a Jeep with four-wheel drive. A van with good tires and HIGH road clearance could do it. There are two guard posts with gates on the second half of the road, so permission is required from Chan Chich to come in. The guard posts have two-way radios and call Chan Chich when you show up to see if you have a reservation. We saw a lot of wildlife on the road in and out, particularly towards sunset, and enjoyed the trip. I did lose a tire on the first trip in, but I was perhaps hitting it a bit hard. I took it more slowly later and on the second trip with my wife and daughter, and had no problems. Even at 15 or so mph, I bottomed a half dozen or more times each way -- springs and shocks at max and feeling everything hit the frame of the car with a "whumph." But that may just have been the Jeep.
When you cross the first guard post, they radio the second and to Chan Chich, and when you leave Chan Chich, they radio the guard