I thoroughly believe the best way to experience any Central American country is to rent a car and drive. (Perhaps that’s the best way to discover any country.) You get a true look at what the day-to-day life is like for the people of that country, you see areas that aren’t built up by tourism, and you get a real taste for the culture.
We are currently on a road trip across Belize. For many tourists to this country, San Pedro and the cayes (pronounced keys) are basically the extent of what they ever see. But if you go inland, you’ll get an entirely different picture of Belizean life.
We decided to rent a car and spend a few days in the Belizean city of San Ignacio. San Ignacio is a town that attracts a little tourism, but not nearly as much as the Belizean islands. It is located in far west Belize, about a 10 minute drive from the Guatemalan border. You won’t find a single chain store, hotel, or restaurant here. The closest thing to anything you would see in America is a Shell gas station. What you will find though is plenty of street vendors cooking and selling food from makeshift huts. Friendly locals sitting outside on front porches and children lounging in the river to escape the heat, as hardly any of the buildings have air conditioning. It is a simpler way of life, but a beautiful one.
We stayed in a locally-owned Eco-friendly lodge with only eight cabanas. When we arrived our rental car was the only one in the parking lot, and it remained that way throughout our entire stay. In speaking with the other guests at our hotel, they all opted for a shuttle service to drive them the 2 hours from the airport to the lodge, and those who ventured off the property primarily did so on excursions booked through a tour company only.
Many of our fellow travelers thought driving in Belize was not a safe option, and they were surprised to find out the couple traveling with the toddler drove across the small country alone.
Is driving in Belize safe?
In our experience, driving in Belize was not at all dangerous, and was much more cost effective than a shuttle. It allowed us to get out whenever we wanted and explore the Mountain Pine Reserve, trek into Guatemala, and do things at our own pace — a necessity when traveling with kids.
Things to know when renting a car and driving in Belize:
If you chose to rent a car and drive in Belize there are a few things that will be helpful to know.
- Crystal Auto Rental: I recommend renting from Crystal as it is the largest car rental agency in Belize and has the largest and newest fleet. Beyond that, they are one of the only ones (if not the only one) in Belize that allows you to take their rental cars into Guatemala. They were quick to respond to emails, very knowledgeable and accommodating. I would recommend declining their insurance as most credit card companies already cover everything. (Check with your credit card first.)
- Gas is expensive and not readily available: A gallon of gas currently (June 2016) costs between $4-5.00 US, but locals tell me it has gotten as high as $8 US! It isn’t cheap. That’s probably why many of the Belizeans ride motorcycles. The good news is the country isn’t very large. You can drive from the Eastern shore to the western border in 2 hours. Driving from north to south will take at least double that, but in comparison to the United States, that is still small. You also won’t find as many gas stations in Belize as you do in the states, so don’t take your chances if your tank is getting low.
- Roads aren’t great.. But aren’t horrible either: The highways are paved and well maintained. Although they are only two lanes (one each direction) you can easily travel 60 miles an hour without any problems, just watch out for the animals and kids in the highway. Some of the more rural roads, especially those in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve are not paved at all and can be quite bumpy. They aren’t impassable, but you will need to take it slow (about 20 miles an hour) so plan for that if driving anywhere other than the city or the highways.
- Stoplights? What are those?: I saw one stoplight the entire time we were in Belize and it was in Belize City. Instead of stoplights, they control the speed and flow of traffic using roundabouts and speed bumps. There are a lot of speed bumps!
- Get a GPS: Roads are not clearly marked, and many of them can be a bit confusing. You will feel like you are on the wrong road a lot, but a GPS navigation system can assure you that you are not. You can rent a GPS from the rental car agencies.
- Driving in the cayes is restricted primarily to golf carts. You can rent a golf car at most of the larger resorts or hotels if you stay at one. On Ambergris Caye, there is a small bridge that connects the town of San Pedro to the rest of the island to the north.Many of the resorts are north of the bridge. There is a $5 US cash fee to cross the bridge into town on a golf cart. You have to pay the same toll to cross it again on your way back. They are probably making a killing off of tourists, but it is a mandatory fee if you rent a golf cart. You can cross the bridge on foot or on a bicycle free of charge. If you are staying in the town of San Pedro, there really isn’t much of a need for a golf cart. You can easily get around on foot or bicycle, which many hotels offer free of charge to their guests.