Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Chalillo Dam

We have lived here for 7 years, been to Caracol countless times, and never bothered to take the turn to get a look at the Chalillo Dam.  

Today, we went to the opening of the Chiquibul Park Visitors' Center, and took the 15 minute detour to drive to a parking area overlooking the dam.  It was smaller than we expected.



Pictures to follow of the new Chiquibul Park Visitors' Center, which is a great addition to the area.  It's on the road to Caracol and Las Cuevas, and provides a great meeting and information point to make the Chiquibul Park more accessible.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Please be patient...

A few times in the past month or so, we have answered inquiries from potential guests, and have exchanged emails to the point where the potential guests want to become future guests, and request an invoice with payment instructions to secure their reservations.  We make sure we get all the information correct, send out the invoice...and never hear from them again.

A few times over the past five-plus years of being in business, we have had guests contact us after we have sent out the reservation invoice to tell us that their plans have changed and they won't be able to stay with us after all.  We completely understand that...something comes up at work, you realize that plane tickets are three times what you expected, a family member gets sick, or whatever.  But lately, the potential/future guests just disappear, and I find it hard to believe that we are suddenly encountering flocks of rude people; instead, I suspect that our emails are not getting through for some reason - probably spam filters - and the potential guests think that we have neglected to respond.

So, if you are trying to book a room with us and this happens to you, please send us another email.  As anybody who has stayed with us can tell you, we always respond within 24 hours, and usually in much less time than that.  We do want to share the Moonracer Farm experience with you and help you plan your vacation in Belize!

While I am on the topic of reservations, please allow me to explain why we have our reservation policy, since we have had a number of people lately decide not to stay with us because they don't understand why we require a reservation deposit.  We are a two-room lodge in the jungle, off grid, 45 minutes from town.  This means that we can't store large quantities of a variety of foods, waiting for people to show up, simply because we don't have the refrigeration capacity.  Plus, a lot of what our guests like about us is that we correspond prior to your visit to find out what you want to do, and get everything set up for you in advance.  We will accept drive-ups if we have the room and enough suitable food, but we can't guarantee it, and we certainly can't guarantee that we will be able to set up tours at the last minute.  And, we require the room charge as a reservation deposit (but not food, tours, or transfers) because we only have two rooms, so if people say they are going to come and then change their minds at the last minute, chances are we have turned away other guests and have just lost a significant amount of income, and we still have to pay the staff and have still purchased food.  And, if we have arranged any tours, we have already paid for the tours out of our pockets in advance.  We have a lot to lose if somebody has us reserve a room for them and then doesn't show, where future guests have nothing to lose if they intend to stay with us anyway since presumably they plan to pay us.  If you would like to discuss this, please feel free to contact us, although we cannot afford to waive this reservation policy.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cortes Tree 2014

Every year we take pictures if this beautiful Cortes tree, which blooms for about 3 days and then spreads its beautiful yellow flowers over the cabin and the yard.  This year, we are in Florida, so Julio gets the photo credits.







Friday, February 21, 2014

Bush bridge building pictures

Here are some pictures of Tom and the guys building a bush bridge.  This is the kind if thing we are doing now that we are not full time at Moonracer Farm. The only non-jungle material they used was some old zinc that had been pulled off of one of the roofs because it was full of holes.  I think the pictures are pretty self explanatory, but let us know if you have any questions.

















Thursday, February 20, 2014

El Progresso Graduation 2013

Another thing Tom did during our blog hiatus was speak at the El Progresso/7 Miles Primary School graduation in June 2013.  We have been involved with the school for a number of years, helping however we can, but Tom was nonetheless hugely honored when Mr. Cano, the principal, contacted him in the beginning of June and asked if he would be the graduation speaker.  Tom of course said yes, and immediately started thinking about his speech, which was on the graduating class theme of “Education is the tool that empowers us to be successful in life.”  Since we truly believe this, it wasn’t a difficult topic to address, but Tom gave himself the added challenge of speaking in both English and Spanish.

 

Although English is Belize’s official language, 7 Miles is a town made up of mainly Central American immigrants, and even though school is supposed to be taught in English, many of the parents of the students speak only Spanish.  Since the graduation is for the families as well as the students, Tom felt that it would be respectful to speak so the families could understand the message.  And, Tom’s Spanish is good enough that he felt like he could do it.



 

The effort was appreciated by everyone, and one of our mainly Spanish speaking friends who had a daughter in the graduating class said that if Tom had been in Spanish class, he would have earned a solid “B.”  It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly understandable, and even the representative from the Ministry of Education remarked it was quite well done.  Of course for the next few days Tom would randomly blurt out, “I should have said … this way instead of that,” but overall even Tom was happy with the delivery, and especially with the reception of his effort.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice Winner Again!

We just found out that we are a TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice winner for 2014, which makes this our third year in a row!  We are #3 in the top 10 B&Bs in all of Belize.  

We owe a big thank you to Julio and Janeth for keeping our level of service so high, and an even bigger thank you to all of our guests who have posted great TripAdvisor reviews for us.  We are delighted to do business with all of you!

Here is the link to the award listing:

http://www.tripadvisor.com/TravelersChoice-Hotels-cInnsBB-g291959#3

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Brrr....

We are supposed to have guests at Moonracer Farm right now, but we don't because they couldn't make their flights with all the travel disruptions due to the weather right now.  So, they are stuck in Atlanta, where it's pretty chilly, but at least they can be inside.


But, that might be a good thing, since it's also pretty chilly here, especially when we can't really close windows and get cozy.  They were supposed to go to ATM today, but it is closed due to flooding, so they are rescheduled for Thursday when, with any luck, they will be here and ATM will be open.  And maybe it will be a little warmer.

Things always work out for the best in Belize!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 Community Activities Catchup

In addition to working on the business and hosting weddings during our blog hiatus, we continued to work on some community projects, with the help of our guests.  What we think was the most important of these was helping to get the Community Internet Center set up in the Village of 7 Miles.  The village had received a grant for the purchase and set up of a Hughesnet satellite system and the solar system necessary to run the satellite, some computers, and lights in the building in a village without electricity.  The village then had to provide a suitable space, the computers, and the monthly internet subscription.

Front view of old library before internet center started

Old library collection of books before internet center started
When the project started, Julio was still the chairman of the village, so we were fully aware of the obstacles and difficulties in getting this project moving, even with the generous donation of the satellite and solar.  Julio and the village council decided to use half of the existing library for the internet center.  However, before the organization donating the satellite and solar would start installing any of the equipment, they wanted the building to be secure.  This happened right around this time last year, and we were explaining the difficulty to our guests, a family from California.  After they left, we were surprised by a very generous check arriving in the mail, with the funds earmarked for security bars for the windows.  We turned the check over to the town, who ordered the bars, which were made to order fairly quickly.  The bars were picked up and installed, and the satellite and solar equipment were delivered and installed in the spring.
Inside old library, back wall before cleanup
The public still couldn't use the internet center because the town did not have the funds to purchase computers.  The specs for the computers ended up being fairly specific; laptops were needed rather than desktops because of the power issues with the solar system, but tablets wouldn't work because the machines needed to be connected via cables rather than wifi because limited bandwidth made wifi impractical because use needs to be strictly controlled in the center.  Again, we shared these frustrations with a couple of our guests, and in fairly short order after the guests went home, they contacted us and asked if they could donate old laptops.  The answer they received was of course an enthusiastic "Yes!" and we arranged the logistics of getting the laptops to Belize, which involved having guests we hadn't even met yet take delivery in the US and carry them to Belize when they arrived on their vacations.  Hooray for our guests!

Inside view of side door of old library before cleanup

Inside view of front door of old library before cleanup
Julio and Tom built tables and desks for the center, then Tom cleaned up the laptops and collected a couple of others, one of our old ones and one some friends who left Belize had left with us in case we found anybody who could use it, and the internet center had four laptops.  The next hurdle was to get the Hughesnet service turned on, which turned out to be more complicated than expected.  The monthly fee offered by the company who had installed everything was considerably higher than what we pay for the same plan at Moonracer Farm, so Tom did some investigating and found that not only are the new plans more expensive, but they are based on newer equipment, and what was installed in the Internet Center is the older equipment, the same as what we have at Moonracer.  Tom then discovered that current subscriptions could be transferred, and with the help of Harry from the Computer Ranch, we were able to transfer the subscription of a customer in Belmopan who was changing to BTL's DSL.  The plan matched the equipment, and  was about $40US a month less than the original proposed plan.

The next step was to make sure everything worked together, and open the center.  Although this doesn't sound tremendously complicated, consider that this internet center was being opened in a village that doesn't even have electricity, so very few people have any computer experience, or experience in running this type of business, which, although it is a service for the village, still needs to be run like a business to make enough money each month to pay Hughesnet and do maintenance.  And, because of how long it had taken to get all the pieces put together, the opening wasn't happening until summer when the kids were out of school, and students were supposed to be the major customers.  Tom went to lots of meetings to figure out how to manage and staff the center, mostly because he has the experience to help get this sort of effort up and running, but also because the Hughesnet monthly bill has to be paid with a US credit card...which we have, unlike the Belizean citizens of the village, so it behooved us to make sure the center at least made enough money to pay the monthly bill.

Inside El Progresso Internet Center

While I would like to say that the internet center opened and the villagers flocked in to use it, that hasn't been the case.  The people who are using it love it, and it is giving villagers who didn't have access to computers an opportunity to use and learn about computers and the internet.  When school started again in September, students found it useful.  However, it has been difficult to find enough qualified people willing to staff it, so opening hours have been limited, and many villagers gave up trying to figure out when it was open and when it was closed, and didn't even try to go.  Then something happened with the electrical system and blew out the inverter, and it took time to get that fixed, and whatever momentum it had thudded to a stop.  We're now in the middle of the Christmas holiday break for students, so they don't need it for their schoolwork, so it is getting very little use.  The monthly bill is still being paid from village funds, but neither the village nor we have unlimited funds to continue to pay for something that isn't being used, so at this point it's possible that it will just be shut down if business doesn't pick up when the students are back in school.

Front view of El Progresso Internet Center
We find this very discouraging on a number of levels.  Many individuals and organizations contributed a lot of both effort and money to get this project off the ground.  And, the village needs it, both for the students and to give everybody an opportunity to improve their computer skills.  We don't understand why qualified people in the village don't step up and volunteer to staff it, since it would get more use if it was open more than three evenings a week...if the staff shows up on the posted opening hours.  We understand that people are busy, and many are intimidated by the technology, and that although we see this as a very beneficial thing for the village, many of the villagers understandably just don't see the value; they've never needed it before, so why is it a "need" now?  Perhaps the most discouraging thing is that we can't figure out how to get the project moving since the village has to want it, and it appears that most people just don't see it as a priority.  Perhaps, this is just another case of our first world values not applying in a developing country...but how can the country develop if the people can't or won't use the tools given to them to advance?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

During our blog break...

...a few special things happened at Moonracer Farm.

Perhaps the most special was the reception for the wedding of our friends Angel and Lorena.  Angel is the caretaker for our neighbors, Aspen, Tatiana, and Todd.  He is also a good friend of Julio, and has become our good friend too.  He and Lorena decided to get married near the beginning of the year, but weren't sure when they could afford to hold the wedding, and they wanted to have a nice wedding and reception for their families and friends.  Here, it is usually up to the bridal couple to host the reception, and they don't depend on their parents to do it for them.  Tom, Julio, and I put our heads together and brainstormed on ways we could help Angel and Lorena.

Tom, Alex, and Ramon, Angel's father, string up the broilers.
Our first decision was whether or not we could host the reception.  It depended on a few things, including whether or not we still owned the property, whether or not we had guests booked on the day of the wedding, and whether or not we could get help getting the place ready, holding the party, and cleaning up.  The wedding was in the beginning of May and we didn't start planning until March, so we just decided that if we got an offer for the property, we wouldn't close until after the wedding, and if we had any inquiries for guests, we would just say we were booked for the day of the wedding and a couple of days on either side.  No problem!
Everybody worked together and we butchered and dressed 60 chickens.

It was also  no problem to get all the help we needed.  Both Angel and Lorena have big families and lots of friends, and everybody helped.  We raised 60 broilers for the wedding feast, and a couple of days before the wedding, a whole truckload of people pulled in to butcher the chickens.

We plugged a small chest freezer into Todd and Tatiana's solar wired house, and chilled the chickens for a couple of days before the wedding.


The day before the wedding, half the town of 7 Miles showed up to decorate, and plenty of people came back the morning of the wedding for the final touches, including setting up the cake and gift tables.

Ramon decorates the palapa, with Janeth's supervision.
Tom and Angel take a break so Tom can explain how the wedding toast should be done.

Assistant chefs in the kitchen making tubs of coleslaw.




Edwin, the chef, cooking on the fogon.

Angel's brother, a chef at the Coppola resorts, put together a cooking team, and they moved into the Moonracer kitchen to prepare the wedding feast while Tom and I, who were honored to be Angel and Lorena's padrinos, went to the wedding in the village.  Some other friends put together the sound system, and a group formed to man the bar, serving soft drinks from coolers in the yard.


Angel and his father, taking a break before heading to the wedding.
The wedding party and family were served in our dining area in the palapa, and all of the guests ate on benches set up around the grounds, which looked lovely.  Angel's brother said they served over 300 dinners, and everybody had a good time.  The party didn't break up until well after dark.
Finishing touches on the cake, with Angel and Julio in the background.

Benches set up so everybody can find a place to sit and eat.

Aspen and Tatiana delivering Lorena to the church.

Angel waiting in the church for Lorena's arrival.

Tom holding the mic for Angel to say his vows.

Listening attentively to the pastor after Lorena and Angel have "tied the knot."

We all had to sign the license.  Tom and I were padrinos, or godparents, who witnessed the marriage.

The wedding party outside the church after the wedding.

Lorena and Angel entering the reception under the arch.  Tom and Ramon helped release the confetti.

Tom, Lorena, Angel, Marge

Happy groom!

The next day, most of the male members of Angel's and Lorena's family were at our house by 9AM, and by noon, everything was cleaned up, and besides having the grounds look a little neater than usual, it was difficult to tell that we'd even had a party.

Angel and Lorena now both live next door to Moonracer Farm, and sometimes join Julio and Janeth and our guests for dinner.  If you meet them while at Moonracer, make sure to tell them you saw some of their wedding pictures!

Friday, December 13, 2013

It's been a while...

...in fact, just under a year, since we last posted on this blog.  We have a number of excuses, but basically one very good reason.  Let me explain...

When Tom and I returned from our three-month trip to the US last fall, our good friends who own a very large tract of land in the Mountain Pine Ridge offered us the job of managing their conservation project.  For us, this was the dream job, doing something meaningful for the environment and for the future.  The only unfortunate thing with the job offer was that we realized right up front that we would not be able to continue to put the same amount of effort into running Moonracer Farm as we had so successfully been doing for the past five or so years.

Our first plan was to put the whole kit and kaboodle, property and business, up for sale, and to continue to run the inn until it sold, and then move on to the conservation project.  When we didn't have any good sale prospects in six months, we decided that it was time to move on to Plan B.  Plan B was to train Julio and Janeth to run the business, which was a very agreeable prospect for them since they both always really enjoyed interacting with our guests, and Janeth is a great cook.  So, we planned to move to the new job in August, and we spent the early part of the summer training Julio and Janeth to take over the operation at Moonracer, while Tom and I planned to continue with the administrative side, handling reservations and finances.

Tom and I did in fact move to the new job in August, and Julio and Janeth and their family have been running Moonracer Farm with enormous guest approval ratings, as can be seen on our TripAdvisor page, where the excellent reviews have continued since the transition.  Tom and I miss interacting with our guests in person beyond a meal or a transfer, but our guests love interacting with Belizeans who can give them a firsthand account of what it is like to grow up and live and work and go to school in Belize...and they get REAL and delicious Belizean food from Janeth!



This transitional phase has been working well enough for everybody that when our year-long FSBO ads on the internet expired about six weeks ago, we thought long and hard about just taking the property and business off the market and running it like we have been since this summer.  It works for our guests, because they love staying with the Ruanos as their hosts.  It works for Julio and Janeth and their family, because they are doing work that they like, meeting a lot of people that they like, making a good living, and getting great job experience, no matter what happens in the future.  It works for us because we are still involved with our guests and the business, and the business is supporting itself, plus some, which is a bonus for us.  However, the Ruanos have not yet worked through a high season, when we know that we usually have long runs of work without a break, sometimes almost two months, and we are not sure of the impact this will have on the Ruano family and their family, church, and social obligations in town.  Right now, we can fill in for them if we need to, but we can't do that indefinitely.  And, as this conservation project becomes more absorbing, we're not sure if we can continue to put the same amount of time and energy into the inn business.  We are probably good for a year or two, but we know that things change, and we're not sure we can commit to the long haul.

So, instead of splitting our non-conservation project energy on running Moonracer Farm and selling Moonracer Farm, we have decided to let a professional handle the sale while we focus on continuing to run the business.  The good thing for potential guests and potential buyers is that we are planning to sell the whole package, and Julio and Janeth are willing to continue to manage the lodge for new owners.  So, if you are considering booking a stay at Moonracer but are worried that we will sell and you will lose your reservation, rest assured because we are sure that anybody willing to pay for the property and the business - which is all that we will accept at this point since everything is running so well - will want to continue to run the business as it is going.  And, if you are interested in buying the business, you will not be cast loose in a sea of confusion, but will have experienced managers on site, and we have enough invested in the business that we will continue to make ourselves available since we are living only a few miles up the road.

A whole lot of thought, effort, and decision have just been condensed into a few paragraphs.  If you have questions, for us or the Ruanos, please feel free to contact us through our Moonracer Farm business website's Contact Us page.  We will be happy to talk to you!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012 - Merry Christmas

We wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Our world down here in Belize did not end on December 21, 2012; quite the opposite, we are still loving our life in the jungle.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cayo, Belize to Heathrow, FL, via Guatemala and Mexico


This entry covers our whole trip from our home in Cayo, Belize, to Tom’s parents’ home in Heathrow, FL.  I wrote the blog posts as we traveled, so you may have to keep track of what day “today” is when I mention it…but it will make you feel like you are really there.  Tom is working on another blog post detailing mileage, tolls, and other travel details, but this will give you the nitty-gritty on the trip.  Please email us if you are thinking of making this trip and have any questions.  Overall, we hope people get the message that as far as we are concerned, all of the horror stories about traveling through Mexico are just that – stories.  We had no problems whatsoever, and in fact found everybody to be very nice and helpful.  It probably helps that we are both able to speak some Spanish, which saved a lot of confusion, and that we were just traveling as tourists without any extra baggage, but we didn’t have one scary moment and thoroughly enjoyed our trip off the beaten path.



Day 1:  Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Cayo, Belize to El Ceibo, Guatemala



Ready to go!  In our driveway at home in Belize
This morning we started our 2012 Summer Adventure, a round trip from our home in Belize through Guatemala and Mexico, into the USA and on to Florida, where we plan to begin a month plus drive up the East Coast to visit family and friends, many of whom we haven’t seen since we moved to Belize over five years ago.  We’ve been planning this trip for months, doing all the research and paperwork so things will go as smoothly as possible.  We have insurance for the vehicle in Mexico and the US, all sorts of spare parts in case of a breakdown on the truck, Tom got extra pages in his passport, and we have all the papers we need so Jalis and Nock can freely cross the borders.  We have lots and lots of copies of everything, and we’ve done enough research and asked enough questions that we think we know what to expect as we head north.



Getting off the ferry, leaving Spanish Lookout...on the road!
This morning started smoothly enough.  We were full last night, so we got up and made breakfast for our guests.  We had done all of our packing yesterday, so this morning all we had to do for ourselves was eat, shower, and load the car.  We said goodbye to our guests, and were in the car at 9:57AM, three minutes ahead of our planned departure.  Tom, Julio, and I were all shaking our heads because Jalis, who never goes in the car because it’s too hot here, jumped right in like he knew he was part of the adventure.  Julio made him get out to say goodbye and pose for pictures, and as soon as he let him go, he jumped back in.  Nock, knowing the drill, was ready to get in and go. We had only one minor hitch, which we discovered yesterday; Tom found that one of the spare car parts was wrong, so instead of heading straight for the border, we took a small detour to Spanish Lookout to exchange the part.  That done, we headed back to the Western Highway, and figured that detour only set us back an hour.



We hit the Guatemala border almost exactly at noon.  Tom had obtained a 90-day vehicle permit when he took Julio and his family to Tikal a few weeks ago, so with that already done, we got ourselves, the car, and the dogs across the border in less than 30 minutes.  Why, you may be asking, are we going to Guatemala?  When we started talking to people about our drive, a few different people mentioned that there is a “new” border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico.  By taking this crossing, instead of doing the usual route of going east to Belize City then north to Corozol/Chetumal, then west and south through Mexico before finally heading north, we could head due west and then start to head north immediately in Mexico.  This crossing, called El Ceibo, was opened in 2009, and we couldn’t find much information about it online.  It’s not on most of the maps, and even the supposedly up-to-date Google Map and MapQuest maps don’t show it, unless you start asking for directions from town to town along the way; a simple “Flores to El Ceibo” query doesn’t do it.  But, living as close as we do to the Guatemala border, we started asking people we know who travel in Guatemala about it, and we found a number of people who have done it, and all recommended it.  We got the town-to-town directions from local people, and entered Guatemala without a map, only knowing which series of towns we were supposed to go through.



We’ve done the route from Melchor to Flores a number of times, so that was no problem.  Once we headed out the south side of San Benito, things got a little less clear.  There were signs to La Libertad before Santa Elena/Flores, but once we got into Santa Elena and San Benito, there were only a few signs, and they were very vague.  So, we just followed traffic, and when the traffic started to thin out we stopped and Tom asked if we were on the right road.  We weren’t; Tom was told to backtrack and take the next exit off a circle we had just passed.  We took the next exit, still weren’t sure we were right, and stopped and asked again.  Sure enough, we had to take the next “next exit,” which then put us on the right road.  We made it through San Francisco, then took another wrong turn before getting to La Libertad, which was corrected by again asking directions.  At this point I noticed that Tom seems to have a knack for asking directions at the right time, before we get too far off track.  The turn to El Naranjo was pretty clearly marked, but just to make sure, Tom stopped and checked; that time we were right.  To further complicate things, torrential rain started just as we got out of San Benito, so we were driving unfamiliar roads in terrible conditions.  I was very glad that Tom had decided to get new tires for the car before we left!



Countryside in western Peten, Guatemala between La Libertad and El Naranjo
It took us about an hour and a half to get from Melchor to Flores, and then another hour to get to La Libertad and on the road to El Naranjo.  At La Libertad, Tom asked how far to El Naranjo and was told about three and a half hours.  With the bad driving conditions, we weren’t sure we would even do it that quickly, and Tom was getting a little worried about not getting to a good stopping point in either Guatemala or Mexico before dark.  I told him not to worry since there was no point to it, and we had no way to tell how far along the route we were.  I wasn’t too worried, since despite the rain I was enjoying the incredible scenery; the western part of Guatemala’s Peten region is stunning, with lots of hills and limestone formations, and with the rain it is very, very green.



Almost to El Naranjo, sign for the road to the El Ceibo border
We finally hit a military road block, where they asked for our documentation and wanted to see what we had packed.  We showed them everything they wanted to see, and they sent us on our way, telling us that the border was only about 20 minutes away, which meant we’d hit the border right around 5PM.  We had been told the border was open until 6PM, so we entertained brief hopes of getting into Mexico, but when we got there, just before 5, we found that while the Guatemala side was open, the Mexico side closed at 5. 

Track to the hotel where we stayed at the El Ceibo border
We changed some money so we don’t have to do that tomorrow, and the guys at the border sent us to a small hotel, coincidentally called El Ceibo, just a short distance from the border.  For $150Q we have a very large room with two beds, the owner is making us dinner, and the dogs are welcome. 

El Ceibo hotel.  7 units, electricity only provided by generator in the evening - just like home!
The electricity was supposed to be turned on at 6, and at 6:40 it’s still not on, but it’s not completely dark yet.  And if we don’t get electricity, we have water, food, a bathroom, and beds to sleep in, so we are fine. 

El Ceibo shanty town on the Guatemala side
The guys at the border said the Guatemala side opens at 6AM and the Mexico side at 7AM, but the people here at the hotel say it’s really 8AM in Guatemala and 9AM in Mexico…so we’re planning to head up there some time fairly early in the morning and cross as soon as possible.  We’re told Villahermosa is only about three and a half hours from here, so by crossing Guatemala, we figure we will have saved about five hours of driving by doing this route rather than going through Chetumal, Mexico at Belize’s northern border.



Day 2:  Thursday, July 19, 2012:
El Ceibo, Guatemala/Tabasco, Mexico to Cosamaloapan, Mexico

Approaching the gate to the free zone on the Guatemala side
Thursday morning we were awakened early by the roosters, guinea hens, dogs, and pigs vocally prowling the shanty border town.  We showered, dressed, ate, repacked the car, and loaded up the dogs right around 7:30AM and headed to the border so we could be near the front of the line to cross into Mexico when the border opened at 8AM.  Fortunately, it had stopped raining overnight so packing wasn’t too difficult.  We were near the front of the line.  In fact, we were the first car in line, in a line of one.  Nobody else was there to cross the border when the gate was opened at 8AM.



In the free zone on the Guatemala side.  Immigration buildings to the left.
The border on the Guatemala side is a bunch of trailers and sheds.  Tom found one that said something about Immigration, so he got out with our passports and all of our papers to find out what we had to do to exit Guatemala.  He was a little worried, because when he had mentioned what we were doing to the guys at the gate the evening before, they had told him that he would be required to turn in our vehicle permit to exit the country, which we didn’t want to do because it’s supposed to be good until the middle of October, and we were planning to use it to drive back through Guatemala on our way home.  But we needn’t have worried; the man who checked Tom out told him where to go to make sure the vehicle was okay to exit, and while the people at this western border crossing hadn’t seen one of the 90 day permits before, they were happy with its authenticity (which is good, since it’s real) and allowed Tom to take the vehicle.  All of this took about a half hour, and then I had to go get my passport stamped out of Guatemala.  When I went in, the official was standing on the steps chatting, and he greeted me with “Buenos dias, Margarita.”  I figured he and Tom had been chatting, but I didn’t know Tom told him my name, although when I went in and found out how chatty and friendly the man was, I wasn’t surprised it took Tom as long as it did.  When we exit Guatemala at Melchor, we hand our passports to the official, the official finds the page where we were checked in, and stamps us out; the whole procedure takes about 30 seconds.  This man looked through my passport, chatted and smiled, offered me a cup of coffee, and when I declined saying I preferred tea, he told me about his favorite kind of Guatemalan tea and gave me two teabags for later.  Then we chatted some more, and he leafed through my passport, scanned it a few times, fiddled with his stamp. stamped the passport, leafed through it a few more times,  chatted some more, and finally handed it back and told me to have a nice trip.  All told, it took me about 15 minutes to get my passport stamped, and in the whole 45 minutes that it took Tom and me to check out of Guatemala, two big trucks went through.  So much for the long line, and most of the time was spent visiting with the apparently lonely border officials.



Heading into the Mexico side of the free zone
We drove through the gate to the Mexican side of the border and pulled over in front of the Immigration building where they spray cars entering the country.  The Immigration buildings on the Mexican side are one trailer near the road for checking people through, and a large concrete building for everything else, and lots of pavement and sidewalks – much fancier than the Guatemala side. 

Immigration on the Mexico side
A woman came to the curb to meet us, and Tom got out with his folder of documents.  She had me roll up the window and had Tom step away from the vehicle so they could spray it, and then she started talking to Tom about what we were doing.  She saw the dogs and asked for their papers, which we had.  However, she also wanted a record of their worming, which I never write down.  Fortunately I have a pack of their pills for August with “August 15” written in Sharpey on the back, and when I gave her those and explained that I had just given them their July pills on the 15th, and had these for the next month, she was happy – but, she still wanted me to put their worming record in their health folders, and then she sent the updated folders with their Belize vet certificate and the vaccination certificates off to the big building with another official, who printed out official Mexican papers for them.



While I was updating their books, she spied my saddle bag containing my good Stubben jumping saddle that I am bringing to the US in hopes of getting it repaired.  She had Tom get it out of the car and out of its bag, and then she had the man fumigate it, which involves hosing it down with bug spray.  I hadn’t been paying attention while I was doing the dog papers, and I was horrified when I looked over my shoulder and saw my saddle sitting on the pavement being hosed with insecticide.  Tom said the man really didn’t want to spray it, but the woman insisted, so he had no choice.  And, once I realized what was happening, I decided to be philosophical about it, since the saddle was filthy from sitting in my tack room for about two years since it broke, and I figure if the saddle repairer tells me the leather is in bad shape, I can blame the Mexican fumigation rather than my lack of care.  Plus, the saddle completely self-destructed, so I’m not even sure it can be repaired, and in any case it was already done when I realized what was happening so I couldn’t do anything anyway.



How Jalis rides, with his head in my lap, although he later claimed the back seat where he had more room.
When the dogs, the car, and my saddle were done, Tom and I had to go sit down with the immigration official.  Like the man on the Guatemala side, this gentleman chatted with us, practiced pronouncing our names, talked to us about the scenery, and took his time flipping through and scanning and stamping our passports before giving us our passports, our 180 day visas, and one piece of paper with our exit tax on it, which he told us we had to take to a bank to pay before trying to leave the country.  While we were in his office, we looked at a clock, which was an hour ahead of our watches.  We asked if that was the correct time, and the man explained that it was since Mexico observes Daylight Savings Time, which Guatemala and Belize don’t, which explains why the Mexican border opens an hour later than Guatemala…it’s really the same time, but the clocks are an hour different.  We then drove to the big building, where I sat in the car with Nock and Jalis while Tom went in to get a permit to drive the vehicle in Mexico.  This took about another half hour while Tom talked to the man who handles vehicles and got all the details on that.  He ended up giving the vehicle a 180 day permit as well, so that is good for both the north- and the southbound trips.  This cost $49US for the permit, plus $400US cash duty bond so we don’t sell the truck in Mexico.  We could have paid this with a credit card, but we had been told this crossing didn’t have a credit card machine, so we were prepared with the cash.  Tom also found out that this gentleman, Luis, is the only official who handles vehicles, and he doesn’t work on Mondays.  So, we now know that we shouldn’t try to cross out of Mexico on a Monday on our return trip, because we won’t be able to turn in our permit and get our $400US back.  While Tom was taking care of the vehicle, I was in it with our hysterical dogs, who were having a fit because our vehicle was sniffed by a drug dog.  It did no good whatsoever for me to explain to them that they shouldn’t bark at that dog, who actually had a useful skill and a job, unlike the two of them.



Heading out of the free zone and into Tabasco, Mexico
When Tom came out with the vehicle permit, we thought we were ready to get on the road, but we drove about a half mile into Mexico and were stopped at a military checkpoint where we had to get us and the dogs out of the car so the soldiers could search the car.  We had sort of wondered why that hadn’t happened at the border, but then realized that they do this as people are driving away.  We pulled away from the checkpoint at 11:15AM, two and a quarter hours after entering the free zone to stamp out of Guatemala.  It took this long despite being easy and trouble free mostly, we think, because this border is so little used that the officials on both sides just like the company, and like to make sure they do their jobs thoroughly and correctly. 
Everybody was extremely nice and helpful, and we drove into Mexico with 180 day visas for us and the vehicle, official documents for the dogs, a fumigated vehicle and saddle, and two extra Guatemalan teabags to try next time I can get some boiling water.



Beautiful countryside in Tabasco, Mexico
We spent the rest of the day driving.  The landscape in Mexico’s state of Tabasco is beautiful, with dramatic hills, green fields, and lots of livestock.  Until Villahermosa, most of the roads are two lane country highways, so that, combined with numerous checkpoints (all of which where we were briefly questioned and then waved through) and sporadic road construction made for slow going.  Plus, we stopped for lunch south of Villahermosa at a roadside place where a lot of work trucks were parked, figuring the food must be good with all the workmen there.  The food was good, and perhaps even better than good, but it took over an hour for us to order, eat, and get out of there.  We were the only white people in the place and I was the only woman, and as near as we can figure, we think most of the men were on the road construction crews, and they were just taking a long lunch break with lots of Sol beer, staying out of the sun for the hot part of the day.



We hit Villahermosa around 4:30, almost exactly at the 3.5 hour mark as we had been told, and felt like we were back in civilization:  4 lane highway, lots of cars, stores, gas stations, and people everywhere.  When we had originally talked about the drive, we had hoped to get over the border early and get at least close to Veracruz on our second day of driving.  However, with our 11:15 border departure time, we knew we weren’t going to make it to Veracruz.  But, we also realized that with the time change and the fact that we were moving northwest, we were going to have a later sunset, so we decided to try to get a few more hours of driving in during the daylight, with firm instructions to ourselves to follow our own rules and get off the road by dark.  We made it to the next large town, Acayucan, around 6PM, when it was still quite light, so we decided to keep going.  Our decision was helped by the fact that at this point we were on the cuota, or toll, roads, which are very well traveled 4-lane highways with more limited access than the “libre” roads, although it’s still not limited access by US standards.  The next exit, Cosamaloapan, was a good distance away, and we began to get a little nervous as it started getting dark, but we’d made our choice and kept at it.  We were also racing a very large rain cloud, flickering with lightening, and since we had spent part of the afternoon again driving through torrential rain, we really wanted to avoid that at dusk.  Around 8PM, with the sun down and dusk settling quickly, we saw the signs for the exit and decided to get off – still just ahead of the storm.  We stopped at a hotel right on the highway, but they didn’t take dogs.  They directed us into the town, which we found wasn’t much of a town, but we did find a motel that took dogs.  It was one of those “no-tell-motels,” with a garage with a curtain next to the room so customers can drive in and their cars can’t be seen.  Despite that, the room was fairly nice and clean, not to mentioned air conditioned.  We also liked the garage because it didn’t matter if it rained for getting our stuff in and out of the room, and we could back the tailgate of the truck right up to the wall so nobody could get into our barrels at night.  And, the manager called out to the local taco place for us, and showed up at our room with a bag of tacos and a few beers for us, so we were happy.  So, despite the rubber pad on the bed, the bed sized mirror at the foot of the bed, and the sheets that didn’t quite fit, we slept quite well.



Day 3:  Friday, July 20, 2012
Cosamaloapan, Mexico to Tampico, Mexico

The next morning Tom, worrying about the drive, was awake at 4AM and decided we should get up and get on the road.  I don’t move too quickly in the morning, so by the time I claimed my 10 more minutes of sleep and we were both washed, packed, snacked and ready to go out the door, it was shortly after 5AM.  We then found that we were locked in, which was reassuring for the night, but which caused me to think less than charitable thoughts about Tom for making me get up and then sit in the car and wait for the manager to arrive to open the gate.  Tom was convinced that the manager had to be on the premises, so he tooted the horn, hoping it would wake the manager if he was there, and not the other guests.  Fortunately for Tom, it worked, and the manager came out of one of the rooms and unlocked the gate for us at about 5:15.  We made our way back to the cuota road, went through the toll, and got stopped at a gamma scan which took another 10 minutes before all the big trucks, which were the only other vehicles on the road at that time, got through and we were on our way to Veracruz.



While we didn’t want to drive on secondary roads at night, driving on the cuota in the pre-dawn was actually pleasant – no traffic, no construction, no road blocks (after the gamma ray block) – so we made really good time and we cruised through Veracruz around 7AM.  After Veracruz, the good driving ended. 

Gulf of Mexico from secondary highway 180 north of Veracruz
With no more cuota roads, we were on the secondary highway that makes its way up the Costa Esmeralda, through lots of small towns with lots of traffic, construction, and checkpoint stops.  When we pulled out of Veracruz, we thought that if we pushed it, took only a short lunch stop, and just kept driving it might be possible to make the Texas border at Brownsville by dark, or close enough to dark that we wouldn’t be putting ourselves in any danger. 

Bridge into Tampico
However, after lots of slow driving, we pulled into Tampico at about 2:30, and realized we had to get to the bank to pay our exit fees so we could get out of Mexico since we weren’t sure if there was a bank at the border, and we were told we had to pay prior to leaving Mexico.  We jumped off the road running through Tampico and headed for downtown, looking for a bank.  After stopping to ask directions a couple of times (again, always at the most opportune time when the next corner was the turn we wanted), we finally found a bank.  Tom parked somewhat illegally – it was a yellow curb but there were other vehicles there with their flashers on, and we weren’t blocking traffic – and jumped out to run in the bank while I waited with the dogs and the vehicle.  And waited, and waited, and waited, for about 45 minutes.  Banks in Tampico are just like banks anywhere else late on a Friday afternoon, and everybody was trying to get their banking done before the weekend.  Tom also took some time to explain, in Spanish, why we only had one piece of paper for two exit fees, since the very nice man at the Guatemala/Mexico border was apparently supposed to provide one for each of us even though he’d made a point of telling us that we only needed one and all we had to do was tell the bank teller we wanted to pay for two.  It all worked out in the end, and Tom paid both of our exit fees and got two receipts, so we figured we were all set to exit Mexico.



Before we could exit Mexico, we had to figure out how to get out of Tampico, which turned out to be very tricky.  We followed the first directions we got, and ended up looking at the wrong end of a one way road, and by the time we turned and turned again, and again, to try to get back to where we thought we knew where we were, we were lost.  Tom finally asked a delivery man how to get out, and he gave fairly decent directions that got us to the waterfront, which we followed for a while until we didn’t feel like we were going in the right direction any more.  At a light, Tom rolled down his window and asked how to get on the northbound road out of the city, and once again timed it perfectly as the directions were to turn and follow the road at the intersection where we were waiting.  We got ourselves heading in the right direction on that road, and after a few more questionable turns, finally ended up on a road that was heading out of town, and that we both recognized from when we drove to Belize five and a half years ago. 



How Nock spent most of the five days in the car
At this point it was after 5PM, so we abandoned the plan to head for the border and decided to find a place to stay in Tampico.  We remembered a Holiday Inn we had noticed on our last trip, so after a few false starts and turn arounds, we made it to the parking lot, only to find that they don’t take dogs.  Tom told them where we were going and they very firmly said that we shouldn’t plan on doing that stretch of road and getting to the border at night.  After getting that advice not only from other people who do this drive, but also from locals, we were really glad we had decided to stop for the night.  The nice people at the Holiday Inn even called another hotel down the road and found that they would take dogs, so we only had to go about a mile back towards Tampico to the other hotel that turned out to be perfectly fine for the night.  We also found that it was the revamped place where we had pulled in and camped on our way to Belize in January 2007, although they’ve apparently condemned the hotel building they were using at that time, and have fenced off both the hotel and the yard where we parked when we camped.  They’ve now pulled in a bunch of pre-fab metal units, which were just regular hotel rooms on the inside, and were a lot nicer than we expected from the outside.  They also had a nice grass yard where Jalis and Nock could stretch their legs, a diner with decent food, and a grocery store across the road where we could get a bottle of wine to go with dinner.  In addition, they had WiFi, so we were able to check email and post a Facebook note telling everybody we were alive and well after two days of being out of touch in Guatemala and Mexico.  We again went to bed early since Tom decided he liked getting up and driving at 5AM, and after a very long and sometimes stressful day on the road, we zonked out and didn’t move until the 4:15AM alarm.



Day 4:  Saturday, July 21, 2012
Tampico, Mexico to Sulphur, LA, USA

Sunrise north of Tampico.  Much better roads than the day before!
We were up and out, and even gassed up, at a little after 5:30AM.  We were upset with Bank of America because two of our Visa cards wouldn’t work at the Pemex although we had called ahead to get the cards approved for use in Mexico, but upon calling Bank of America, Tom found out that the cards are approved, so for some reason the Pemex in Tampico just wouldn’t take them.  Fortunately we had enough pesos, so it was only a minor annoyance and not much of a delay.  After driving around the night before while looking for a hotel, we knew how to get on the road we wanted heading towards Matamoros, and for the first day since we were on the road we made it almost to our destination without having to ask for directions.  We had been dreading the drive because the stretch of highway we had to travel was marked as a secondary road, just like the road up the Costa Esmeralda, and while the map said 7 hours and people we talked to in Tampico said six hours, we weren’t sure how long it would really take.  Plus, we remembered it as something of a goat path.  As it turned out, this stretch of road is in excellent condition with only a few minor construction detours, and we were only waved through one military checkpoint between Tampico and the south side of Matamoros, and we hit the Matamoros town line in just a little over five hours, at about 10:45AM.



Matamoros is a fairly large city, and we were waved through another checkpoint just as we went into the town.  Tom figured they saw our Belize plates, figured we were heading for the border, and if we were carrying anything illegal, we would be caught there.  It took us a while to get through town, and once more for Tom to ask directions at the most opportune time, but the way to the Puerte Internacional (International Bridge) is clearly marked, so we got to the border without undue delay.



At the border, we stopped at the Mexican Immigration office to see what we had to do to get out.  As it turns out, we didn’t have to do anything.  Because our visas are good for 180 days and we are US citizens crossing between the US and Mexico, we can come and go in Mexico as much as we want using the US border, which means we didn’t have to stop and pay in Tampico, not only because we didn’t have to pay to exit to the US, but also because there’s a bank at the immigration office where we could have paid today.  (Note:  when US citizens are southbound, they DO have to pay the Mexican exit fee when going into Belize or Guatemala even if they plan to return to Mexico within 180 days, and will then have to pay it again when returning to the US).  We also found out that the 180 day permit for the vehicle is good to go in and out, so although it took about 20 minutes to get all of that information, all we really had to do to exit Mexico to the US was drive across the bridge to the US customs and immigration booths, where we waited in line for a good hour.  (Note 2:  The car permit is good for 180 days, no matter which border crossing you use, although you have to turn it in at the end of the trip or within 180 days to get your duty bond back, plus if you don’t turn in the permit, you can never bring another vehicle into Mexico until you turn in the permit or pay full duty for the vehicle.  Re the Guatemala permit, we got ours at Melchor and they’d never heard of them at the El Ceibo border, so unless they figure it out, you probably can’t get the 90 day permit for Guatemala there.  Plus, we don’t know if they’ll issue those permits to US cars, or only to cars from neighboring countries.) 



Of course we picked the slow line with the immigration officer who sent every other car he interviewed off to be searched, and of course, with our Belize plates, we had to join the line to be searched.  Everybody was very pleasant, however, and since we know the rules and weren’t carrying anything to cause any questions, the searching didn’t take any more time than the search at the military checkpoint as we entered Mexico.  In the end, getting into the US was way simpler than going into Mexico or Guatemala.  They didn’t want any documentation for the dogs or the vehicle, and since we’re US citizens, they just scanned our passports and didn’t even need to stamp them.  We’re now free to travel in the US for as long as we want, and when we go back to Mexico we should be able to just drive across the border since our visas will still be good, our vehicle’s permit is still good, and Jalis and Nock still have their Mexican travel permits, and we can turn all of that in and pay our exit fees and get back the $400US duty bond on the truck when we exit Mexico to go into Guatemala.  Of course we may have complicated our lives a little by deciding to take two additional dogs back to Belize with us, but that’s another story and we shouldn’t have any problems with them since we know what documentation the dogs need, and these two will have all of it so they can be imported into Belize.  Our total border crossing time from Mexico to the US was about two hours, just like our Guatemala/Mexico crossing, although instead of spending most of the time chatting pleasantly with the officials, we spent most of the time waiting in lines…so much fun to return to civilization.



We got into Brownsville feeling somewhat like we had stepped into another world.  I haven’t been to the US in four years, and while Tom visits once a year, the transition from the Belize jungle to Brownsville, TX, USA is a little shocking, and Mexico wasn’t different enough from Belize to help me acclimate.  We left the border crossing and got on a highway, with wall to wall mall on both sides, with all sorts of stores and restaurants and gas stations and cars and traffic and traffic lights and one way streets and…chaos.  However, we remembered our civilization skills enough to get off the highway, get some much needed lunch and a potty break (which improved my mood remarkably), and to get a prepaid chip for a cell phone, since of course we can’t be proper Americans without having a cell number.  We’re now heading towards Houston, and hope to make it to the Louisana border tonight…and then, on to Florida.



Day 5:  Sunday, July 22, 2012
Sulphur, LA to Heathrow, FL


We made it to Sulphur, LA Saturday night, and then covered 850 miles from Sulphur to Heathrow, FL, on Sunday, arriving just after midnight.  It’s possible to cover way more miles on the US Interstate system than it is on Mexican roads, and Tom and I remembered how we always used to travel as we would fill up the car, take a potty break, walk the dogs, get something to eat, and then drive until we needed to fill up again, which was between four and five hours with our diesel Isuzu D-Max.  We’d been worried about our 3rd world vehicle being too slow on the US highways, and while Tom had it floored most of the time and we weren’t zipping by other vehicles in the next lane like we used to, we weren’t going dangerously slowly and were even able to occasionally pass another vehicle.  But we didn’t have to worry about getting a ticket!



We’re now visiting with Tom’s parents, and we will be here until Sunday, when we will head to GA to visit more family – both the real kind, and the kind that you make when you’re friends for years and years.