What’s the fastest way to get from Caye Caulker to Flores? A few days ago I made the journey from the island of Caye Caulker Belize to the island town of Flores, Guatemala. The first leg of the cross-country trip was a 50-minute boat ride from the little island to mainland Belize City ($20 BZD – $10 USD). Although the first water-taxi to Belize City left Caye Caulker at 7:30am, early morning stomach problems forced me to delay an hour for the next boat at 8:30.
Two express shuttles (mini-buses) go daily from the marina in Belize City to Flores. The first bus leaves at 9:30am and the second leaves at 1:00pm. We arrived at the marina in Belize City at about 9:35 but fortunately the bus waits for the 8:30 boat to arrive before leaving. I purchased my bus ticket at the marina when I got off the boat ($50 BZD – $25 USD).
It only took two hours to get from Belize City to the Guatemalan border. Once at the border we got off the bus and entered a building where we met with the Belize immigration. For some odd reason, there were two immigration counters. At the first counter we presented our passports to an attendee and paid the mandatory $37.50 BZD departure tax.
At the second counter two attendees, both chatting intently on their cell phones, checked our passports and departure tax receipts, then gave us the go ahead to walk across the little bridge into Guatemala. Before crossing over, I took advantage of the avaliable duty free shopping and purchased a well needed bottle of cologne and two 1-litre bottles of Absolute vodka ($12 USD each). Unlike Canadian customs which only allows 1 litre of alcohol per passenger,Guatemalan customs allows travelers to enter with a whopping six litres of booze
The Tricky Stuff – Avoiding the scams
Once over the bridge, we were directed to the Guatemalan immigration counter where an officer checked our passports, asked how long we would be staying in Guatemala, and stamped our passports with 90-day stamps. The attendee handed me my passport and said “Viente Quetzel”(20 Quetzal). Fortunately, I had read a few websites and I knew that there was no entrance fee to cross into Guatemala from Belize, so I responded “No tengo Quetzals, voy a pagar cuando salgo” (I don’t have Quetzals, I will pay when I leave). A bit surprised by my response, he muttered “Okay” and signalled me to pass. When I returned to the bus which was already waiting on the Guatemalan side, I asked the others if they had paid a $20 Quetzal entrance fee. A few said they had paid while others like me had also refused to pay the fee. Those who paid the fee went back to the counter and asked the attendees to return the money they had paid. The funny thing is that they were refunded the cash with little to no objection. I may be wrong but I think that there is a semi-official scam going onat the border where Guatemalan immigration officers are making an extra 20 Quetzal from uneducated tourists. When we asked our bus driver if we were required to pay an entrance fee, his response was – “I don’t know, I am just the driver, I don’t know anything about these things”. Really though? How could a person that takes passengers across the border on a daily basis not know the answer to such a simple question?
Two hours later we arrived in Flores and our van pulled into the parking lot of a modern looking shopping plaza (Pizza Hut included) which I assumed would be our final drop-off point. Without warning, a small man with a distinctive scar that stretched from the edge of his mouth to the bast of his ear opened the van door and greeted us with a cheery “Welcome to Guatemala”.
Speaking in quite polished English, he introduced himself as Enrique and told us that he would be giving us information about tours and accommodation around Flores – as part of “the service”. His first recommendation was for us to use the ATM machine in the plaza, since there was only one other notoriously unreliable ATM in town. When we returned to the van Enrique came along for the ride and quickly began his sales pitch about tours to the local attractions, reassuring us that his prices were the most favourable in town. He encouraged us to purchase tickets in advance to avoid disappointment since available spots filled up very quickly. Some passengers purchased tour and shuttle bus tickets from Enrique but I decided to wait until I settled into the hostel.
Although we asked the driver to take us to the popular Los Amigos Hostel, eager Enrique jumped in and told us that he had already called the hostel and only one bed and two hammocks were available (SCAM ALERT). Since we were a group of six, he recommended another hostel, Hospedaje Dona Goya, which was cheap, clean and close to everything. We went to Dona Goya and checked in since is was cheap ($4/night) and we were too tired to go walking through the town in hot afternoon sun looking for alternate accommodation.
Later that evening we decided to go for a walk to check out Los Amigos Hostel, where we had originally planned on staying. At reception we asked if there were any free beds in the hostel and lo and behold, the answer was “Yes”. We had officially been duped by Enrique.
To make things worse, when we checked the prices of tours and shuttle buses offered by the hostel, they were half the price charged by Enrique on the bus. We would eventually learn that Enrique Pop who is actually called “El Negro” around Flores is one of the worst scammers who work with the bus drivers to get to tourists before the hostels do. Since tour companies and hostels pay commissions to independent vendors for referring business, this creates a lucrative opportunity for scammers to make big money by grossly overcharging unsuspecting travelers. Since this seems to be a common problem experienced by many backpackers arriving by bus to Guatemala, I decided to write this post about my experience.