*Updated Jan, 2017
“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a f@@king tourist.” ― Guillermo del Toro
In long term travel, as in life, one thing is certain and that is that your plans will not always go as planned. Sometimes you make changes deliberately but sometimes it is forced upon you by circumstance. I used to spend hours creating a travel itinerary and would get stressed out by any alteration but now I see them as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience. On this occasion such changes led us on a journey from Belize to Mexico where we would visit Merida and Valladolid, two places that we loved and may not have seen had we stuck with our first itinerary.
Our original itinerary was also a journey from Belize to Mexico but it took us by bus from Belize City to Playa Del Carmen. Here we were to move into an apartment which was to be our home for two months. Due to the high season we had decided to book accommodation ahead of time rather that wait until on the ground as we’d done in Puerto Vallarta.
We found a place through Elizabeth at Renting Playa Del Carmen but it wouldn’t be available until March 17th which meant we now had almost three weeks to kill with very little travel budget as we’d been planning on taking a travel break as of March 1st. Tip: Staying put it in a longer term accommodation is generally much cheaper than hopping around from hotel to hotel. To top it off this all came to light while we were in Belize which is not the most economical place to extend your stay. In other words we had to formulate a new plan which would take us to a more budget friendly location to wait out the 17 days.
Newly Laid Plans
We considered going back to Guatemala and spending some time in Livingston which is a cool reggae infused Caribbean town but that meant backtracking and spending more on transportation. We then looked at hostels and Airbnb for Tulum but that lovely little town is actually pretty pricey and was also quite booked up. So Tulum was off the list. I then remembered that our Puerto Vallarta friends, Bob and Gerry, had mentioned how much they liked Merida and when we looked at hostel options we found that we could stay fairly cheaply. Plus there was a direct bus from Belize City and also from Merida to Playa Del Carmen.
There was our answer. Once we had made the decision it was just a matter of planning the transportation and accommodation. Our new plans were set in a matter of hours with little stress or effort. That is until we got to the Belize City bus station. As I mentioned before Belize City is not a place you want to spend a lot of time as it is busy and dirty and has one of the highest crime rates in Central America. There’s also the fact that as with most cities the bus depot is in one of the least desirable areas and attracts all sorts of ‘colorful’ (and not in a good way) characters.
Top Tips for Journey from Belize to Mexico
Tip #1: ADO is the bus line that runs the route from Belize City to Mexico. Unfortunately you can’t buy tickets online and you also can’t buy them in Caye Caulker. You have to purchase them at the Belize City bus station at a small ticket booth which opens at 5:30pm daily. You can also purchase tickets days in advance if getting to the station before your departure day is an option for you. There are two routes to Mexico and both are overnight buses. The Yucatan route which leaves daily at 7:30pm or the Merida route which leaves daily at 7pm. If you’re going to Merida you won’t have a problem getting a ticket last minute but be warned that the bus to the Yucatan (Cancun, Playa Del Carmen etc.) generally does fill up so you’ll want to be at the station and in line by 5pm to ensure a ticket.
We took the 3pm ferry from Caye Caulker ($25 Belizean each) and then a short, cheap taxi ride got us to the bus depot about 4:20pm. The depot was crowded but the ADO booth was fairly easy to spot due to the group of backpacking Gringos huddled around it. This is when the bit of stress I mentioned kicked in. It turns out that you can only pay cash for the bus tickets and we had made a determined effort to spend all but a few Belizean dollars before arriving at the station.
Oh and there is no ATM machine at the ADO station…probably for very good reason judging by the aforementioned colorful characters seemingly looking for an opportunity to rip off unsuspecting tourists. This meant that we had to venture out into the streets of Belize City hauling our 150 lbs of luggage to find a working ATM and get back to the station by 5pm (hopefully without incident). I made a rather snap decision and left Nathan at the station to guard the luggage while fending off a very drunk Belizean while I hopped into a taxi in search of an ATM. Ok in hindsight I will admit that Nathan was right to admonish me later for splitting up but the thought of hauling luggage all over the city seemed like a worse idea at the time.
Luckily my good judge of character and my fairy bubble protected me. I was escorted by a lovely Belizean taxi driver who even stood guard outside the ATM booth and got me back to the station unscathed by 4:40. The funny thing was that after our mad panic to get money and be back by 5pm we were the only people to board the bus to Merida other than a lovely couple of retired UN employees from Austria. We were able to spread out and take up two seats each which made it possible to catch a few hours of sleep before arriving in Merida at 4am.
Tip #2: In March, 2014 tickets to Merida or Cancun were $84 Belizean. You have to pay $19 BZE at the station (you can also pay in USD but they give a crappy exchange rate) and the balance of $64 BZE (you can also pay in Pesos) is payable when you cross the Mexican border. You will also need to pay an exit fee of about $37 BZE at the border so keep some cash for that. The ticket seller at the bus station will have Pesos if you want to sell your Belizean dollars. Also be prepared for three stops part way through the journey…first to pay the Belize exit tax, then to pass through Mexican customs with your luggage and finally to pay the balance of your bus ticket. All of this is completed by about midnight so you can then try to get some sleep before arriving at your destination.
The day before we left Belize we had booked a hostel in Merida online through Hostelworld. There are some really good options in Merida and it was a toss-up for us between Nomadas Hostel and Hostal Zocalo. They both had great reviews, were located in the desirable Centro historico and cost about $20 per night for a private room. Nomadas had the bonus of a pool but Zocalo was in a gorgeous building right on the Plaza Grande with its beautiful park square framed by lovely Colonial buildings. In the end we decided on Zocalo for three nights with the intention of switching to Nomadas for another two or three nights. However this never happened.
*Update Jan 2017: Zocalo can no longer be booked on Hostelworld or on any other booking site as far as we could find. They are however listing rooms on Airbnb.
There were taxis waiting at the Merida bus station so we said goodbye to our Austrian friends and drove to Plaza Grande. It was not even 5 am at this point but the city already had signs of life, especially in the park square. We were unable to rouse anyone at the hostel so we set down our luggage in the alcove at the entrance and watched as the night turned to dawn and the city really came alive.
It was Sunday morning and as is true in most of Mexico, Sundays are a day for locals of all ages to relax and play. On the coast they will spend the day at the beach and the evening strolling the malecon but in the city they will visit the squares and parks enjoying live music, dancing and tasty Mexican treats. Merida is no exception to this Sunday funday tradition and as it turns out the Plaza Grande is the center of attention.
Here they set up booths of food and drink, stages for musicians and shows and close the roads around the square for walking and outdoor restaurant seating. The activity of the vendors setting up their carts and the city workers closing off the streets provided some entertainment while we waited for the night watch at the hostel (who we could hear snoring loudly) to wake up and let us in.
When we were finally buzzed in to the hostel we climbed the winding marble staircase to the second level where we were greeted by a sleepy young man who didn’t seem thrilled to have been woken up. We were led through a lovely open kitchen and down another set of stairs to our room. We had requested a private bathroom but when we saw the room itself we weren’t overly thrilled. Although it was quite spacious and very clean and comfortable it had no windows which is something of a must for us. Plus in all fairness as we waited out front we had already been eyeing the rooms overlooking the plaza which had lovely little balconies.
Luckily for us there was a balcony room available at an even cheaper price but it had no private bath. We took it anyway…the chance to have a balcony overlooking the plaza was worth the sacrifice of a shared bathroom. We loved our little balcony room and the entire hostel itself so much that we ended up spending six nights there and didn’t even go to see Nomadas. We did however speak to other travelers who had stayed at Nomadas and said it was equally as nice as Zocalo, other than the fabulous Zocalo breakfast. For us though Zocalo was perfect.
The place itself is bright and spacious with marble floors, wrought iron railings, plenty of sofas, chairs and tables and a fabulous community kitchen that is open to the fresh air on three sides. The kitchen is in fact the center of everything at Zocalo. Breakfast (which is included) is served at a huge communal table and it is fabulous. There are huge bowls of at least three different types of fresh fruit, platters of bread, boxes of cereals, jams, syrups and peanut butter and to Nathans delight there are also delicious made to order omelets.
The rest of the day the communal table is a place to sit and chat and get to know your fellow travelers or spread out with your maps and tablets to work on your travel plans. In the evening the same table will be the gathering place for those guests who chose to make their own meals to enjoy and often share with fellow travelers. Our wonderful hosts even donated a huge chunk of fresh parmesan and a bag of pasta to our dinner one night.
Day Trips from Merida
There is also a resident travel guide on hand who creates his own variety of tours to nearby sights at a fraction of the cost of the larger tour companies. We took advantage of a great nature tour to the area of Celestun for at a great price which included viewing flamingos and pelicans in their natural habitat, boating through mangroves, swimming in a cenote and visiting salt flats. We even collected pure sea salt to bring home which we are still using in our cooking. It was a good day but for us I think the highlight was lunch which was at a small restaurant in a tiny town that had the best seafood we’ve had to date at a super low price.
Tip #3: If you are looking for a tour that takes you to the top visited sites then you will probably want to go with a larger tour company but keep in mind the cost will be about triple. The small private tours through the Hostel Zocalo don’t visit the larger sites but rather go to quieter, less known areas which offer similar but maybe less impressive attractions. However if you’re on a budget like us or prefer to go somewhere less crowded these Zocalo tours are a good option and well worth the small amount of Pesos.
Good to Know
- I believe ADO bus lines are the best, if not the only, option for land transportation from Belize to Mexico and although their website isn’t the most user friendly you can get some info there.
- For budget accommodation you definitely can’t go wrong with Hostel Zocalo or, from what we’ve heard from other travelers, Nomadas Hostel.
- If hotels are more what you’re looking for there is a pretty good range from budget to luxury. Either way we suggest trying Hotels Combined to search for options as they have an extensive list of accommodations and show prices from all booking providers.
- Finally if you want more of a private residence accommodation or if you want to specifically book Zocolo check out Airbnb. If you are new to Airbnb and book online using our special link you will receive a $35 credit (amount may change at certain times).
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Until then don’t forget to Live, Dream and Discover!