[Aka Border Crossings, Hostels, Fees, Fun, Visa Renewal and Transportation!]
Many expats, including myself, like to spend a lot of time here in Honduras because we love it, maybe a little more than the government would like. So, because of that, I have to make the occasional “Visa Renewal Run” to one of the “non C4” countries (Belize, Costa Rica or Panama). Belize is the closest of the three, so it’s off to Belize for me!
And so it begins, up at 5:20am Monday morning to catch the 6:20am Utila Princess Ferry to La Ceiba. Just a short walk of ten minutes from my hotel. The sky is clear, the sunrise spectacular, and the water as flat as bathwater. All the while, in my head thinking easy ride, easy ride, bra (no that’s not a typo, just the typical greeting, such as “Hey bra great party last night!). So, no big surprise, easy boat ride to La Ceiba. Fifty short minutes later, approaching La Ceiba, the mountains are so clear it looks like you could reach out and touch Pico Bonito, the second tallest mountain in Honduras.
I am met with a rep from Rooney’s Shuttle Service for my $50 USD direct ride to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Because of the taxi union rules, we take a taxi to a local International Burger Chain, (left unnamed as I don’t think they need the free advertisement) to meet the shuttle. Here is where a little planning beforehand comes in handy. You never know with these kind of shuttles what, when and where you will have the opportunity to eat. So, unlike my fellow passengers, I had my egg salad sandwich on brown while other people had to eat the burger place’s crappy… (I don’t think I need to say more.) About an hour later, we load eight of us into the shuttle and proceed back to the ferry to pick up two more people (not really sure how that worked out, but trying to swim upstream in Central America will only frustrate you and give you a headache, so just go with the flow)! We depart La Ceiba promptly at 9:30am. Off like a herd of turtles. All in all, an uneventful ride with some great scenery and a couple of bathroom stops.
We arrive at the Honduras/Guatemala border in a fairly timely fashion at 3:20 pm to a gargantuan building that has eight of the 10 service windows open, to my pleasant surprise. All 10 of us are whisked through the immigration process in less than 10 minutes, with a small exception, me, of course.
I hand my passport to the immigration agent who examines it with a stern look and says there is a problem. He proceeds to tell me I have been in the country one month too long but on further examination, a little help from me, and some finger counting, he realizes that this is not the case. Woo Hoo! Dodged a bullet there! (I was imagining me running across the border, immigration officers shooting at me and doing The Matrix thing!) Land exits in Honduras have no fee whatsoever, unlike the $40 USD to exit the country by plane. BTW here is where you want to exchange your Lempiras (Honduran currency) for Quetzals (Guatemalan currency) as you will get the best rate at the border because of the competition between money changers. (See below for approximate exchange rates.)
With exit stamped passport in hand, we head for the Guatemalan immigration office, which requires us to get back into the shuttle and drive about one mile down the road. We arrive at what I think is the next bathroom/food stop, a small little building about 16 feet by 10 feet, and we all pile out one more time. The Visa renewal group is in a pretty jovial mood, as this is the second time we have been out of the shuttle in 10 minutes and all joking around.
Then I realize this place is the immigration for Guatemala. Only two offices and four immigration people. One office is open and one closed. We all line up at the open office and begin the process. I, of course, am taking pictures of the hand painted immigration sign, when the other office opens abruptly. Myself and two others are ushered in and told to close the door behind us by a very serious looking officer, obviously the Jefe (big boss man in Spanish). Of course the movie music starts to play in my head, “Dunt dunt daaa” but fear not dear readers, the only reason we are asked to close the door is to keep the air-conditioning in. Again, this is a very painless entrance to Guatemala, less than ten minutes, no entrance fee, a couple of more pictures with the immigration officers and away we go again.
Still discussing, as one woman put it, “the most darling immigration office ever” we head off on the final leg of the shuttle journey to Puerto Barrios, about an hour down the road.
Pulling in to the port town it’s as typical as it gets for any medium sized Central American town, sprawling with very few buildings over three stories. When we arrive at the passenger port, the very common place scammers are there trying to get you to take there “friends” boat which will be faster and less wet to Livingston, this writer’s final destination for the day. Push pass these guys and go straight to the Asotransmart office which is right there by the water and pay your 35 Quetzales for the passage to Livingston. As it happens it was only a 15 minute wait for the boat. These are well maintained 28 foot skiff’s with a 200 hp power outboard motor and a back up 40 hp also. If you are not familiar with boat terms these are a decent sized, fast and reliable boats for the job at hand which is a 30 minute ocean ride.
Boat tip, the further back in the boat you sit the less bumpy the ride will be! That being the said, I asked the Captain if I could ride with him at the very back of the boat to which he replied “Ya bra get your a** down here”. After a whole day over land it felt really good to have the sea air in my nose and the light spray of saltwater on my face. The day was coming to a close as I was being treated to just as spectacular a sunset as the sunrise was this morning.
Livingston, oh Livingston how I love thee, you decadent unbalanced town. I say this with only love in my heart. It felt so much like my love Utila, that I thought I was in some sort of time warp as I started my journey in the same kind of place that I ended it today. We arrive to a small group of cars and one Tuk Tuk, a small three wheeled Taxi, think of a trike covered in a giant egg and there you have it a Tuk Tuk. I push pass the salesman for this hotel or that, as I have had a recommendation from a friend Heather Graham of Casa Gutemala, for a place to stay called Casa De La Iguana. A short two minute ride and I arrive to a really cool place that is set in a large courtyard with a small restaurant/bar and a few other buildings that
house the dorms, private rooms with shared bath and private rooms with bath. Where I will be staying for the night is not my primary interest, at the moment it’s an ice cold Gallo, the local beer! I am not disappointed the beer is just as cold as I wanted it to be and I am asked if I want to get on the list for dinner, which of course I do! Food, cold beer, atmosphere and the right people running Casa De La Iguana, big shout out to Emily, Teleah, Alice, Martin, Jeus and Jessica who made my one night stay a lot of fun, belly filling and mentally stimulating. I had my choice of the Piña Colada room or the Tom Collins room, I’m sure you can figure out which one I chose. Not the quietest place but the beds were good and the room basic but clean, for a hostel type place.
Up early at 7:20am to be on the 8:30am boat to Punta Gorda, Belize. You have to go to the immigration office to get your exit stamp, which costs 80 Quetzals, again very easy and painless. The office is just up the hill from the main dock on the left, when you get there you will see what I mean. I wander down to the dock and grab a coffee and head for the boat (Instant Folgers with powdered creamer, easily the worst coffee I have had that doesn’t come out of a vending machine) for 5 Quetzals. Pay the nice lady at the kiosk 200 Q, which you call the currency if you don’t want to sound like a “Tourist”, and board the boat ( an identical boat to the one I took to Livingston). One hour and Five minutes later we pull in to the dock in Punta Gorda, Belize.
The immigration is again easy as Sunday morning (sung by Lionel Richie). The only thing they really seemed worried about was if you were bringing in any beer as they fiercely protect the national beer companies territory which is called Belikin and a fine beer it is! As a side note they had the coolest sign I have ever seen at any government office which read “Please kindly stand behind the red line and wait for your turn.” it was so polite and human like I almost forgot that I was in immigration! I asked the officer at the exit where I could find a bank, as there were no money changers there, and about accommodations. He was very helpful, directed me to the nearest bank and gave me a few different options for places to stay.
Under a crystal blue sky with not a cloud in it, I arrive at the bank where the security guard asked me if he could help and directed me to the right line, after about 30 seconds of waiting the guard ask what currency I needed to change and said “oh no sir we don’t do that here” and directed me to The Grace Hotel and Restaurant as the only place in town to change Lempiras to Belize dollars. Here is where I suggest you bring USD to exchange as I was charged 15% to change my money.
The Grace is 80 Belize a night, so it’s off to Nature’s Way Hostel. About 3/4 of the way there I ask if I am going the right way and in answer to my question the nice man starts shouting down the street “Lisa, Lisa”. Turns out the daughter of the owners of Nature’s Way was right there on the street and took me the rest of the way. Good thing too as the sign was a tiny little thing that you could easily miss. I was shown to my private room with shared bath for 40 Belize ($20 USD) a night. A special shout out to William “Chet” Schmitt, from Nature’s Way who went out of his way to make me feel like a friend and not just another customer! A nap, a shower and a change of clothes later I hit the mean streets of Punta Gorda (insert the theme to Shaft).
Laid back would be an understatement, if you were to grade this town like a hospital patient’s state of consciousness, I would grade it at slightly over comatose! Even the town clock, in the center, was ambiguous about the time, showing four different times on all four faces! So I loved it, after all the hustle and bustle of the trip, it was just what I needed. A special shout out to William “Chet” Schmitt,
from Nature’s Way who went out of his way to make me feel like a friend and not just another customer! So, because of previously mentioned money difficulties, I did very little in PG but read, nap and get some very needed down time. I devised a plan to get a free meal at the Hostel by offering to cook for everybody, if they bought the food. I took over the kitchen that night with the help of all who would be partaking and made an Indian style curry, which turned out to be a little bit of a cooking lesson for my prep chefs. This was fine for me as I love to cook and share, what I know with others. Good meal, great conversation, more than a little rum and a lot of laughs later, we all retired.
OK here goes, the whirl wind return! I had decided to make the return run as cheaply as possible, for the purpose of this article and out of necessity (being pretty much broke). Up at 7am to get the 9:30 am boat to Puerto Barrios. A quick coffee and out the door I go. As I walked through town I spotted a place selling breakfast burritos, 5 Belize ($2.50 USD), and this thing is a monster being a foot long and about 5 inches around, great for the trip ahead! Time to get to immigration and also get my boat ticket 100 Belize ($50 USD). As I approach immigration I see some of my fellow hostel mates and they direct me to a guy (yes just “a guy” standing on the road) who sells the boat tickets. We all head into immigration and pay our 40 Belize ($20 USD) exit fee. A short wait for the boat and off to Puerto Barrios.
An hour later we pull in and head for Guatemala immigration (a block up the street). Bonus, it costs nothing! Up the road further and catch a “directo” local shuttle to the border 70 Q (travel tip; it is never direct), they circle the block picking up more people until we are stuffed, an hour later the Guatemala border crossing, again easy as pie and cost nothing. We, scratch that, I get back on and continue to the Honduras border.
I am looking around for the buses, which I was told would be there, but I see none. Honduras border costs 65 L. to enter, where I am sternly told I have no more than 90 days. I have forgotten to have my reading glasses ready, which are buried in my backpack, so I ask the nice immigration officer to fill in my visa for me. As he is doing this, a couple from Guatemala comes up and is asked where they are going in Honduras, by the immigration officer, and they say Puerto Cortes. Bingo, I asked very nicely, in my bad Spanish, if I might catch a ride with them which they say yes to!!!!! Fantastic, leather seats, air con and they drop me a block from the shuttle I need to take to get to San Pedro Sula! BTW bus is suppose to cost 70 L. to Puerto Cortes from the border. Shuttle to San Pedro Sula 52 L. I arrive at the big bus terminal at 3pm and start to look for a bus to La Ceiba. Remember; trying to do the budget thing so I go with Diana Express and this time ask if it is an express bus, not direct! Asked four different employees and was told by all of them yes express to La Ceiba ( Cost 114 L. ). I will NEVER and I repeat NEVER take this bus again, 30 plus stops including a half an hour or so stop at a crappy restaurant, at which we couldn’t be more likely to get robbed unless we had a flashing neon sign saying please rob us (I stood in the dark away from the bus just in case). We left San Pedro Sula at 4pm and arrived in La Ceiba at 9:30pm (travel tip; stick with Hedman Alas when they say express they mean it). Take a taxi (30 L.) to The Iberia Hotel (500 L.). Crash hard as it was a long, long day. Did I mention I will NEVER EVER take a Diana bus again!
Up at 8am grab a coffee and off the dock to catch the Utila Princess (500L.). Taxi to my house 30L., seeing my wife 0 L. and sleeping in my own bed, priceless!!! All in all a good trip but thinking I might try to arrange a boat to Placencia, Belize “directo” next time! Remember it’s not all about the destination, there are good times, great places and amazing people to see, meet and experience along the way.
Written and experienced by,
The Not So Much Backpacker, Backpacker.
Editors Note: This entire Visa Renewal Run thing is absolutely ridiculous, just add up the cost of this trip…. ALL of that money could have stayed in the Honduran Economy.
This issue has been ongoing for way too long.
Even Volunteers that work with International NGO’s in the country of Honduras, and YES that includes those with USAID have to go through this process.
Congress please do something about this. You are costing the Honduran Economy money for absolutely no good reason.
Come up with a different way to confirm how long people stay here and if they want to stay, charge a fee and put it in the tax collected piggy bank.