Our Road Trip to Tikal

Travel Journal #2.

We have wanted to visit the ruins at Tikal for a long time now. It was one of the most important cities in the Mayan world and the temples and structures that remain today are some of the best. The tallest structure at Tikal is 65 meters tall – the temple of the two-headed snake – which reaches high above the jungle canopy below. It is also one of the few Mayan pyramids you can still climb to the top.

This is also the location used in the first Star Wars movie to represent Yavin base – where Luke Skywalker and a small group of fighters attack and – spoiler alert – destroy the first Death Star.

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The temples of Tikal towering over the jungle canopy below. 2018.

During the peak of the Mayan empire – which stretched across the Central American jungle centered in modern-day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and parts of northern Honduras and El Salvador. Tikal was one of the most important cities during the golden age of the Mayans.

Today we are leaving on a 4-day road trip to visit the ruins. According to google maps, it is a 9-hour drive; but of course, we will have to cross two borders to get there.

We will be leaving from Playa del Carmen, Mexico this afternoon and heading towards the Belize border. While it might be possible to make this drive in one day, we will try and split up the journey and spend some time in Belize.

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Google Map “suggested” route.

How to rent a car in Mexico and drive it to Guatemala:

To rent a car, and take it across the border into Guatemala*, you need to get special permission. There are supposedly only two companies that will allow this. The one we used is America Rental car, and the process was fairly easy. The cost for this was about $190 USD. Without this, you can only travel to Belize.

Once inside Belize, there is a separate car insurance you have to purchase (approx. $30) that you must display inside your window while you are in the country. When leaving Belize, there is an exit tax (about $20) that you must pay. Since you have to drive through Belize twice to get to Guatemala and back, it is likely that you have to pay this twice.

It is very important to have photocopies of everything when arriving in Guatemala. The “Poder” – the document that gives you the “power” to take a rental car out of the country – your passport, and drivers license. Just make copies of everything, just in case.

Also, when you arrive in Mexico, don’t forget to keep the little piece of paper that you are given at customs – also known as the FMM. When you leave the country, they will ask for it back. If not, you will definitely have to pay someone at the border.

  • * Insurance for Guatemala is not covered, so make sure to be careful. It’s recommended using a credit card with good travel insurance. And more importantly, just don’t get into an accident.

For a more detailed account of our experience renting a car and driving to Guatemala, read about it here, How to rent a car in Mexico and drive it to Tikal (Guatemala).

 

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Cenote Azul in Bacalar. 2018.

Itinerary:

  • Day One:  Playa del Carmen, Mexico to Bacalar, Mexico
    (4-hour drive)We are planning to leave around 4pm and will drive directly to the border. We would like to wake up at Bacalar for sunrise in order to get an early start to the day.
    • If you were to leave Playa del Carmen early you would be able to see the Tulum ruins in the morning or even better, leave the day before and spend the entire day in Bacalar.
    • Spend the night in Bacalar, Mexico

  • Day Two: Bacalar, Mexico to Flores, Guatemala
    (5.5 hours driving + unknown at 2 borders)This is the drive through Belize day, with two borders and a country between us and Guatemala our destination. We will probably stop for lunch in Orange Walk (There is a great distillery here called Cuello’s and tours can be arranged) and/or drive straight to San Ignacio and visit the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich before crossing into Guatemala.
    • If we had an extra day or two, we would spend one night in central Belize and visit the Crooked Tree Wildlife Reserve or the impressive Mayan ruins at Lamanai.
    • Spend the night in Flores, Guatemala.

  • Day Three: Flores, Guatemala to Corozal, Belize
    (6-hour drive + unknown at 2 borders)We want to wake up early so we can arrive at Tikal around 6am when it opens to watch the sunrise.
    • Our goal is to visit the ruins for a few hours in the morning and drive back to Corozal – close to the Mexico Border – on the same day.
    • Where we spend the night will depend on the two borders we have to cross.
    • Spend the night in either Corozal, Belize or Bacalar, Mexico

  • Day Four: Corozal, Belize to Playa del Carmen, Mexico
    (3-4 hours of driving)We cross the border early and head straight for Bacalar, spending the morning and afternoon exploring. There are several things to do, Cenote Azul,
    • Alternatively, you could very easily instead go to Tulum for sunset (or even better, both!). If you were hunting for some “off the beaten track” ruins, there are two along this route; the Cacchoben ruins north of Bacalar and the Muyil ruins just south of Tulum.
    • We will be back in Playa del Carmen in the evening.

 

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Cuello’s Rum Distillery in Orange Walk, Belize. 2018.

Planning vs Reality:

With the itinerary, we kept things mostly as planned. We stayed in El Remate, Guatemala instead of Flores because it allowed us to sleep closer to the Tikal ruins. We woke up early for sunrise, but since the weather was cloudy and rainy, we took our time and had breakfast. The best part of the ruins was being there early, as there were no tour groups that early. Things started to get busy by 10 or 11 am.

The border between Mexico and Belize came mostly as advertised. Crossing into Belize the first time might be something best done during the day, as I am not sure what time the insurance office is open. But we had no major issues going in and out. Coming back into Belize the next day and leaving the next morning was simple. All the borders are open 24 hours a day.

The one exception to this was when we were returning to Mexico, we found an interesting change to the visa situation. I’m not sure if we were being asked for a bribe, or if the rules have recently been changed, we ran into one MAJOR problem. In the past, lots of tourists have done “border runs” to Belize to renew a 6-month tourist visa. You go out and then come back in.

But apparently, this is changed; if you leave Mexico by boat or land, you have to stay out of the country for 7 days before coming back.

  • Mexican Tourist Visa. If you are in Mexico on a 6-month visa and plan to undertake this trip, you must stay outside of Mexico for 7 days to renew it. When we came back after 4 days we were told that the only visa they could issue at a land border was the 7-day visa. I was forced to take a 2 day trip to Miami a few days later to renew my visa.

The Border between Guatemala and Belize was where we ran into the most problems, but it was mostly a case of bad luck. One of the problems could have been solved by a little planning before the trip.

  • Photocopies of everything! When you arrive in Guatemala the first time, you need to be there at or before 10pm in order to get a sticker for your window. This was about $20 but had to be paid in local currency. They also require photocopies of everything to take your car inside the country. Since we had none of these things, we were forced to take a taxi into town (a 3-minute drive which very easily could have been done on foot). We were there at 9:30pm, we didn’t want to take any chances wandering around and running out of time. If you cross the bridge and stay on the main road, there is a gas station with an ATM.
  • Expect the unexpected. We left Tikal in the afternoon and went straight for the border. About 10 km before arriving at the border, we were held up for 6 hours by a worker’s strike. They had barricaded the road and were making demands to the Government for improved roads in the North. This, of course, changed our plans, as we didn’t cross the border back into Belize until almost midnight. We had to drive through the night in order to keep our pace. On the plus side, we saved the cost of a hotel for the night.

 

Overall, this trip was absolutely amazing, and something I would recommend anyone doing. Trying to do this in 4 days was too much, and based on the whole Mexican visa thing, I would recommend doing this trip over 7 or 8 days.

Spend some extra time in Flores or El Remate exploring the Lake. Give yourself a few extra days in Belize too, because it looks like a beautiful country. We thought a full day in San Ignacio would be good too. There are plenty of nature reserves and Mayan ruins in the area worthy of your time. And of course, Belize is best known for its reefs and islands, with some of the worlds best scuba diving and snorkeling. So maybe head over to the coast and treat yourself.

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