22. Orange Walk
Our entrance into Central America wasn't as smooth as we had hoped. From Tulum, Mexico it was a three hour first-class bus ride to Chetumal, a taxi to the second class bus terminal, then an old, no-frills bus over the border into Belize. This bus was supposed to take us all the way to our destination, Orange Walk. During the journey we befriended an American and a German, both guys around our age traveling solo in the region. The American had completed this crossing several times and warned us not to pay the “tourist tax” at the border. This fee was included on all flights coming into Mexico, and we were told it was a scam to make tourists pay again when they left overland. I wish we had just paid the stupid tax.
We turned up to the border and pleaded our case to the officials, showing them our flight tickets into Mexico. The officials stated that they needed to see an itemized receipt from the airline showing that we had paid the tourist tax. Of course none of us had this – I’m not even sure that it exists. Following the lead of the American, we argued our point and refused to pay. Eventually the official accepted our departure cards, returned our passports and let us get back on the bus.
The bus then drove us to the border control on the Belize side. They must have been warned we were coming. They took one look at our passports and said there was no exit stamp from Mexico, so they could not let us enter Belize. This meant we needed to return to the Mexican border, via taxi, to get the stamp. At this point our bus left without us, knowing full well what was going on. That was a wasted fare. We walked into the Mexican immigration and explained our situation to a new officer. Only then did we realise that we had been taken to a different border crossing. Of course they couldn’t stamp our passports as they didn’t have our departure cards, so it was another taxi ride to the correct checkpoint. After a lot more discussion, plus some warnings about not doing it again, we finally received our stamp and could legally exit Mexico.
At the same time we left Mexico we found a local family who were also heading to Belize. They let us jump in the back of their pickup for the short ride to the Belize border control, saving us another taxi fare. No problems this time getting into Belize. After a 20 minute wait we caught a collectivo to Corozal before boarding a bus to Orange Walk, where we should have been hours ago. That's the last time we take advice from people we just meet on buses.
Finally got that Belize stamp.
We weren’t in the greatest mood after this ordeal but our spirits soared once we discovered that English is the official language of Belize! While our Spanish had grown exponentially over the last month, it was nice to know we could communicate a lot more now. Finding hotels, asking for directions and understanding the history behind the tourist attractions were actually possible. The days of being an ignorant tourist were (temporarily) behind us.
The town of Orange Walk lay in stark contrast to Mexico. The countryside was flat, roads were barely paved, development was sporadic and it felt as though money hadn’t seen the outback towns for a while. Houses were colourful and architecturally-beautiful, but extremely run-down. Accommodation was hard to find and more expensive than we were used to, but free water, bananas and pastries made up for the extra cost. People on the street were friendly and many stopped to say “Hi” – I guess they didn’t see many tourists. The only restaurant we could find open was a Chinese one (which turned out to be fantastic). We didn’t see any other gringos in town.
The only reason to visit Orange Walk is to see the Mayan ruins at Lamanai. Our tour started with a boat ride out to see spider monkeys, who were adorable. It is much nicer to see the animals in their natural environment, rather than cooped up in a cage. Most of them were swinging freely between the trees, but evidently they were used to visitors and happily came down to take fruit out of our hands. We also saw a variety of birds (again, me and birds are not on a first name basis) and the rum distillery (because that's what you expect to see on a trip to an archaeological site). I wondered if there were tours inside this distillery.
In our assigned group we were shuffled from one ruin to the next, all of which we could climb on (take that Chichen Itza). Our guide was great, making up for the not-quite-so-impressive ruins. He pointed out howler monkeys and let us taste heaps of herbs and spices in the gardens. It turns out that fresh allspice makes your tongue go numb.
On the boat trip back we joined up with another tour group that had alcohol as part of their package (we weren't even given the option - clearly we chose the wrong tour group). These tourists were staying out on the islands, and I guess liquor was used as a way to make the trip seem shorter. Being the friendly people that they are, the local tour guides weren't going to let us miss out. So it was an hour of non-stop rum punch action, which was quite alcoholic and thankfully not as sweet as it looked. I think I'm going to like Belize.
Proud of their rum in Orange Walk.