Our mission was simple: we wanted to visit the Mayan Ruins in Tikal. We only had a short window of time to accomplish this goal. While it is possible to take public transit, it would include several bus transfers. We decided that the fastest and easiest way to visit was by car. There is no direct route from the Yucatan to Tikal (or Guatemala). This means you have to drive through Belize and into Guatemala from the North.
More borders, more problems. According to google maps, the driving time from Playa del Carmen to Tikal is only 9 hours. This doesn’t take into account any of the stops. There will be gas breaks, lunch breaks, and border crossings. This gave us a rough estimate for distances. You should give yourself much more time than 9-hours each direction. There are many great things to stop and do along the way. If we had more time, we would have included other stops. Our mission was focused on one destination, the Mayan Ruins of Tikal.
Tikal was an important city in the Mayan world. Today it is one of the most popular Mayan Ruins for people to learn about this rich history.
There are many other great Mayan Ruins to see along the way. We have seen Muyil and Tulum, while Chachoben and Lamanai are on our bucket list. We should had scheduled in at least one more day to see some of the other sites. In reality, this is a trip designed for 7 days or more … we were quite rushed for time, but now we know.
There were many great places in Belize that we skipped over as well. Belize is most famous for its costal destinations making it worthy of it’s own dedicated trip. Orange Walk has a really awesome Rum Distillery called Cuello’s that we stopped at. It’s possible to arrange a tour for a visit, best set up in the nearby town as we found out. We just showed up at the front door and were lucky someone was willing to show us around.
Sadly, we pretty much drove straight through Belize in order to accomplish our bucket list goal. We have promised ourselves we will go back again soon. Today we’re focused on how to rent a car in Mexico and drive it to Tikal.
Planning our trip to Tikal
There is a lot to see along the way, so if you have the leisure of time, make sure to plan a few stops. In Mexico, you should stop in Tulum and Bacalar. Both of these cities could take up a few days of your time. Belize we could easily give yourself a full week to explore the mainland. Give yourself even more time if you want to visit the coastal areas. This is where the world-class scuba and snorkeling spots are.
Taking a car from Mexico to Belize isn’t too difficult, but you have to be careful which company you choose to rent from. There are many different car rental companies in Playa del Carmen and Cancun (Mexico). From the research we did, there are only two that will issue a permit to take a car internationally.
This is very important. To rent a car and drive it into Belize without much problem, there are some steps you need to take. First, you have to get special international permission (which is free). You will need to purchase separate insurance in Belize while taking it further into Guatemala requires a few extra steps.
Guatemala is where things get a little bit tricky. Firstly, you will need to pay for a special permit that allows you to take the car across the border. Then, you will need photocopies of everything. Finally, you will also need to bring a lot of patience with you to deal with the borders.
Make sure to get up early on the day you visit Tikal. The gates open at 6am. If the weather is nice, try to make it for sunrise. We stayed in El Remate – 40 minutes from the ruins – which gave us a head start before the larger groups of tourists arrived around 10 or 11am. In the morning, we had the ruins pretty much to ourselves. Nearby, the town of Flores is a little bit bigger, but it adds about 40 minutes to your drive in the morning.
The reward is worth it!
We just recently did this exact trip (February 2018). With a little bit of planning, this can be done fairly easily. While trying to research this, we also found there wasn’t a lot of other help. This is why we decided to share our account. This is our experience of renting a car in Mexico and driving it to Tikal and back again.
I would definitely recommend giving yourself a week or more to do this trip. We skipped out on a lot of things in Belize. After our brief introduction to the country, we wish we had given ourselves more time. We did this trip in only 4 days.
- VERY IMPORTANT! Another reason to give yourself more than a week. If you leave Mexico by land for less than 7 days on a tourist visa, it might not be possible to come back and obtain the standard 6-month visa. If you are planning on staying in Mexico longer, then you might have problems. More on that below…
How to rent a car in Mexico and drive it to Tikal.
Here is a rundown of how we rented a car in Mexico and drove it to Guatemala and back again.
What to do before you go:
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 Car Rental, and the process was fairly easy. The cost for this was about $190 USD.
This document is known as “el Poder”. This translates directly as “the Power”. It will lead to many funny moments when telling the story to your friends in the future. One of the best parts of this trip is essentially asking a complete stranger: “Yo Necesito el poder” which translates to “I need the power!” Sadly, it’s a little more civilized than that, but it’s up to you how you tell the story later.
We rented a car at the Cancun Airport. Two days later went to the office in Playa del Carmen to request the required documents. Make sure you do this at least one or two days in advance. Do not do this on the weekend, because it does take some time to process.
- * 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.
When you arrive in Mexico at the airport, DO NOT lose the little piece of paper they give you as part of the check-in. This is the FMM, and you have to submit it when you leave the country. They will make you an official fine.
Bring Foreign Currency (Border fees & possible bribes):
I would highly recommend bringing USD for this trip. It would be best to have a nice collection of $5, $10 and $20 notes in order to pay for some of the fees at the borders.
Most of the borders are easy if you travel through during the day. Most will have people exchanging money. This is good if you want to swap currencies before or after being in Belize or Guatemala.
Make sure you know the exchange rates. When you’re dealing with multiple currencies, make sure to keep track. Pesos (Mexico), Dollars (Belize and USD) and Queztal (Guatemala) all came into play during this trip. You need to be aware of how much everything is worth, or else you make yourself an easy target to be ripped off.
When we were there – February 2018 – the exchange rates were as follows:
- Mexican Pesos / $10 USD = $185 MXN
- Belizan Dollars / $10 USD = $20 BZD
- Guatemalan Queztal / $10 USD = $73 GTQ
Crossing from Mexico to Belize:
Crossing the border here is easy. The Border that connects Chetumal (in Mexico) with Corazal (in Belize) is open 24 hours. We did this crossing around midday, which was fast and easy.
Between the two borders is a “free zone”. A tax-free shopping area, and most likely somewhere you can take out cash. We came prepared with USD, which was accepted at the border. Another big perk is that Belize is a former British Colony, and therefore most people speak fluent English. This includes the border guards.
In Belize, they have “porters” who work at the border to help people with everything. They don’t officially work for the border but will help you in exchange for a tip. We gave our guy $10 USD. This, of course, isn’t necessary, but when you are crossing for the first time, it gives you all the information you will need when you come back through. By the time we reached our second border, we were experts.
You first have to get your car sprayed. This costs $5 USD per car.
Once you park at the customs building, everyone goes inside with their bags and clears customs one by one. The driver then goes back to the car and crosses alone, and picks everyone up at the other side. Sometimes there is a $15 USD car fee, but it might not always be charged depending on who is working. Expect to pay it. We did.
Once inside Belize, there is a separate car insurance you have to purchase – approx. $30 USD depending how many days you get it for – that you must display inside your window while you are in the country. We purchased 3 days of insurance.
It is easy to find. Once you leave the border zone, head straight along the road. It is ahead and to the right. I am not sure how late the office to get insurance is open so it would be best to cross during the day.
Payphone in Corozal, Belize. 2018.
Going from Belize to Guatemala:
When leaving Belize, there is an exit tax of $40 Belize Dollars per person (about $20 USD) 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 – again on the way back through.
Between Belize and Guatemala, you have to get your car sprayed again. This one costs about $3.
It is 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. You will need to spend 160 Queztal (about $21 USD) to get a sticker for your car (which has to be returned when you come back).
When we crossed, we did not have photocopies or local currency, and we had to take a taxi into town (which, in retrospect could have been done in a 15-minute walk) to go to the ATM and then a nearby photocopy place. It was around 9:30pm, and we had a 10pm deadline, so it was probably a good idea. Much like the Belize border, there are locals there to help out stranded tourists.
Tikal Ruins. 2018.
Crossing from Guatemala to Belize:
To return the sticker for your car, it might be necessary to be there between 6am and 10pm.
When we crossed, the road leading to the border had been barricaded by a protest, so we were held up for almost 7 hours. We arrived at the border around 11pm, but we think they stayed open late knowing the road had been opened up and a lot of traffic would be coming through. Under normal circumstances, I imagine it’s important to come back during normal hours. There was no exit fee for leaving Guatemala.
Getting back into Belize is easy. I think we were supposed to pay the car entry fee, but no-one asked for or took payment from us, so we saved the $15 USD. This border is open 24 hours a day, so as long as you still have insurance for the country which you purchased on the way in, you are good to go.
Crossing from Belize to Mexico:
We crossed the border in the middle of the night, and both borders were open. We again had to pay the exit fee for Belize ($20 USD) and go through the same procedure. Park the car, everyone goes inside to clear customs and the driver goes back through with the car to pick everyone up.
The Mexican border was also pretty straightforward, but we did run into one major problem. When you leave Mexico by land or by boat, you must stay outside of the country for 7 days before coming back, or else you can only obtain a 7-day visa, instead of the normal 6 months that tourists can get.
This must be a new rule. In the past, many tourists on expiring visas would do a “border run” to Belize and return the same day to add more time to their visas.
I’m not sure if this is legal, but there was a 4000 peso “tax” we could have paid to get in and receive the 6 months, but it might have been a bribe and we didn’t have any currency, so we were all given 7-day visas. It is best not to mess around when it comes to immigration, especially if you are doing nothing wrong.
If you are flying back out from Cancun before the 7 days, you are okay, but if you plan to stay longer in Mexico, you have to take an international flight and return. There is most likely a penalty for going over. It is at least 500 pesos for one day. One of our friends was flying out in 8 days, instead of 7.
As for myself, because I still plan to spend a few months in Mexico, I will be flying to Miami and back this weekend in order to obtain a new 6-month tourist visa. In the end, this 2-night trip will cost me more than the 4000 pesos ($216 USD) that I was asked for at the border.
Again, 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, either as a bribe or an official tax.
Things to watch out for on the road south
Possible scams and other things to look out for
Topes, Topes, Topes! There are speed bumps EVERYWHERE, even along highways. While most of them are marked, this is not always the case. Once you cross the border into Belize, you have entered Central America. Compared to Mexico, you won’t find the same quality of roads in Belize and Guatemala. Watch out for potholes!!
Especially in Mexico, don’t give yourself a reason to get pulled over. Don’t speed if you don’t have to, or at least, don’t be the fastest car in traffic. If you do get pulled over – even if you haven’t done anything wrong – you need to be careful with Police looking for a bribe. If you get pulled over and given a ticket, it is sometimes possible to bargain with the cop and pay in cash. This is a bribe and not an official ticket.
Unfortunately, as a tourist, you are probably a target.
- Pretend that you don’t speak English or Spanish. Ask if they speak French “Parlez vous a Francais?” If he can’t ask for a bribe, you might be able to pull away without much stress.
- One trick is to not hand over original documents, and instead have photocopies of everything, in case they try to hold your driver’s license, passport or insurance hostage.
- Simply ask where to pay the fine. Sometimes they say you will have to follow them to the police station, and imply that you are willing to do so. Sometimes this might scare them off, and they might realize they aren’t getting a bribe. You could escape with a warning.
Watch out at gas stations. A scam to watch out for in Mexico (they actually tried to pull this on us just outside of Tulum on the way south) is to add a few hundred extra pesos onto your gas bill. If you look at the meter and it doesn’t show how many liters you have filled up with, they might be trying to rip you off. Have an idea how much a tank of gas should cost you.
Expect the Unexpected
Expect the unexpected. While we were returning from Guatemala, about 10km from the Belize border, we were held up for 7 hours by a protest that had barricaded the road. We showed up at 6pm, but we talked to other travelers that had been stuck since 1pm in the afternoon. The workers in the area were making demands to the governor for better road conditions in the north of the country. While we didn’t feel unsafe at any time, until we figured out what was going on, things were a little tense. We were stuck and couldn’t go in any direction.
Give yourself extra time in case something comes up. When driving into San Ignacio at midnight, there was only one gas station in town that was open. We could not find a store open to buy any water. Always stock up when you can, and keep your tanks filled as often as possible.
Gas is significantly cheaper in Mexico compared to Belize. Fill up before you cross into Belize and try to make it back to Mexico with a 1/4 tank.
Cenote Azul in Bacalar. 2018.