ROAD WATCH

DRIVING IN BELIZE:  AN UPDATE ON ALL THE ROADS

BY LAN SLUDER


Updated March 2007

The roads in Belize are getting better and better. Sure, there still are sections of wash-boarded dirt that will shake your fillings out, but more roads are now paved and even the gravel or limestone byways seem to be scraped more frequently. A few roads, such as the Southern Highway and Hummingbird Highway, are very good indeed, among the best in all of Central America and the equal of any rural road in the U.S. or Canada. Not too many years ago the Western Highway was unpaved, the Hummingbird was a nightmare of potholes, the Old Northern Highway was a jungle of tire-stabbing asphalt chunks, the Southern Highway was a mud trap, and not even Belize City had stop lights.

Signage, too, is improving, being better than in most of Mexico or the rest of Central America. Most critical turns and junctions are marked. Many roads have mile markers — though roadwork on the Southern Highway and elsewhere means many markers are missing. Around Belize City, San Ignacio and elsewhere, new signage helps visitors navigate to key destinations such as the international airport or the Mountain Pine Ridge.

Main Roads

NORTHERN HIGHWAY This 85-mile route is a very good two-lane black-topped from Belize City to Corozal Town and then a few miles to the border with Mexico at Chetumal. The worst section is in the northern “suburbs” of Belize City. The only thing that will slow you down are a few “sleeping policemen” in villages and slow-moving trucks when the sugar cane harvest is going on in late winter through late spring, and a tollbooth at the bridge over New River (BZE 75 cents). There is now a handy paved by-pass around Orange Walk Town. Your first glimpse of the azure waters of Corozal Bay is a highlight of the end of this route.

Overall Road Condition: Very Good
(except section near Belize City)

Paved Section: 100%

Gas Availability: Excellent — there are many gas stations including a few new ones open 24 hours

 

WESTERN HIGHWAY The 78-mile road takes you from Belize City quickly past Hattieville, the Belize Zoo, the capital of Belmopan, the “twin towns” of San Ignacio and Santa Elena and then on the Benque Road to the Guatemala border. Just past San Ignacio, you hit “cottage country,” where a number of excellent lodges offer cold beer and a soft bed under quiet Central American skies. The Western Highway is still in pretty good condition, and some sections have been resurfaced. More topes (speed bumps) are popping up as the road passes villages. However, the shoulders are narrow, and the limestone marl used on parts of this road can be very slick after rains, and there's a big sign warning of the number of deaths on this road in the past 10 years --"240 killed and 1,478 injured."

Overall Road Condition: Good to Very Good

Paved Section: 100%

Gas Availability: Good to Excellent

 

HUMMINGBIRD HIGHWAY This 56-mile highway stretches from the Western Highway at Belmopan to Dangriga. The Hummingbird dips and swoops through some of the most beautiful territory in Belize. This was once a very bad road. Now it is in very condition, with only a couple of bridges that are still one-lane. Take a break at the Blue Hole, where a swim in the truly blue water is refreshing. Technically, the road is called the Hummingbird for only about 33 miles from the Western Highway to the village of Middlesex, and then it is known as the Stann Creek Valley Road, but everybody calls it the Hummingbird all the way.

Overall Road Condition: Excellent

Paved Section: 100%

Gas Availability: Poor — best to gas up at Belmopan or near Dangriga

 

SOUTHERN HIGHWAY The Southern Highway, long known as the worst major road in Belize, is now the best in Belize. The 100-mile road is all paved except for a 9-mile section between Golden Stream and Big Falls, which the government promises to pave “soon.” The scenery, save for views of the Maya Mountains at about the halfway point, is unexceptional.

Overall Road Condition: Excellent
(except unpaved 9-mile section, Fair)

Paved Section: 91%

Gas Availability: Fair — best to gas up in Dangriga or near PG; in a pinch, there’s gas in Independence and on the Placencia peninsula.

 

BELIZE CITY The roads and streets of Belize City confuse many visitors. Some streets are not signed, and some are little more than narrow, one-way alleys. Streets abruptly terminate at Haulover Creek, and you have to find a bridge to get from one side to the other. Taxis, bicycles and pedestrians dart in and out of traffic. However, things are getting better. New roundabouts on the Northern Highway have improved traffic flow, though the section of the Northern Highway near Belize City is still in need of resurfacing, and new signage has popped up on main routes. Most streets are paved. Belize City is so up-to-date these days it even has a rush hour and traffic jams.

Overall Road Condition: Fair to Good

Paved Section: 95%

Gas Availability: Excellent — modern gas stations have everything that U.S. stations have including convenience stores, except that you don’t have to pump your own gas.

Other Important Roads

OLD NORTHERN HIGHWAY If you want to see Altun Ha ruins, you’ll have to drive at least part of this 41-mile arc to the east of the New Northern Highway. Under the British, this highway was paved, and at last the Belize government patched some of the remaining blacktop. The section south of Maskall village is better than the section north. Most sections are narrow and some are dirt. The 2-mile access road to Altun Ha is now paved.
In 2007, the Belize government announced it plans to upgrade the Old Northern Highway.

Overall Road Condition: Fair

Paved Section: 70%
(but paved section is narrow, and some is badly potholed)

Gas Availability: None

COASTAL HIGHWAY This 36-mile gravel road, connecting Democracia near Mile 30 of Western Highway with the Stann Creek Valley Road near Melinda, is also known as the Manatee Highway or the “Shortcut.” Despite the name, you get no views of the water or of manatees from the road. It does save time on trips to Dangriga or Placencia from Belize City. However, the road is wash boarded in places and is dusty in dry weather. During heavy rains, bridges occasionally wash out. It is far less scenic than the Hummingbird. It's easy to lose control of your vehicle on the gravel. In fact, some car rental companies forbid renters to drive the road, and others up the amount you're liable for if you do have an accident.

Overall Road Condition: Fair

Paved Section: 0%

Gas Availability: Poor — gas up in Dangriga or on the Western Highway

ROAD TO CONSEJO This level 8-mile stretch takes you from Corozal Town to the Chetumal Bay, where there is a Belize customs station (boats only).

Overall Road Condition: Fair

Paved Section: 0%

Gas Availability: Poor

ROAD TO SHIPSTERN Once past the paved section near Orange Walk Town, this road just goes on and on, over rough, wash-boarded limestone. It’s about 40 miles to Sarteneja village and Shipstern, but it will seem like twice that. A redeeming feature of this road is Progresso Lagoon, the quintessential tropical lagoon. In early 2007, the Belize government said it would upgrade and pave part of this road, from near Orange Walk to San Estevan and then to Progresso, and some work currently (March 2007) is actually underway. If you want to go to Cerros instead of Shipstern, you start the same way, but about 12 1/2 miles from Orange Walk Town, and 6 1/2 miles past the village of San Estevan, you go straight instead of turning right; this takes you to Progresso, Copper Bank and Cerros. The road can be tricky after heavy rains. From Corozal Town, take the hand-pulled ferry across the New River, saving you several hours of driving time.

Overall Road Condition: Fair to Poor

Paved Section: 15%

Gas Availability: Fair

ROAD TO CHAN CHICH AND GALLON JUG From Orange Walk Town, it’s about a three-hour, 68-mile drive to Chan Chich, the stupendous Barry Bowen lodge. Along the way, on a road that varies from a poor rubble road to an excellent paved road at Gallon Jug, you’ll pass a number of villages, some farms, the progressive Mennonite settlement of Blue Creek and plenty of jungle. As you cross the Programme for Belize preserve and Bowen land (you’ll have to stop at two guard houses), you’ll almost certainly see a variety of wildlife, including Belize’s two species of deer and the oscellated turkeys. At San Felipe village, about 23 miles from Orange Walk Town, you can turn on a dirt road to the Lamanai ruins and Lamanai Outpost Lodge, about 13 miles from San Felipe. This road is now passable year-round. An alternate route for the first part of the road to Lamanai and Chan Chich is the unpaved road from just south of Orange Walk Town through the Shipyard area.

Overall Road Condition: Mostly Fair to Poor, with some Good to Very Good sections

Paved Section: 15%

Gas Availability: Fair (gas up at the Linda Vista “shopping center” at Blue Creek, run by Mennonites; closed Sunday)

BURRELL BOOM You have two choices to get to Boom, Bermudian Landing and the Baboon (Black Howler Monkey) Sanctuary: Either turn off the Northern Highway at about Mile 13, or off the Western Highway at Mile 15.5, at the roundabout. The road to the Boom also functions as a shortcut if going between points on the Northern and Western highways, eliminating the need to drive through Belize City. The road is now beautifully paved.

Overall Road Condition: Good to Excellent

Paved Section: 100%

Gas Availability: Fair

ROUTE 30 ROAD TO SPANISH LOOKOUT AREA FROM NEAR GEORGEVILLE This part of Cayo will remind you a bit of the Midwest, with spiffy Mennonite farms. The road from the Southern Highway near Georgeville to Spanish Lookout, signed as “Route 30,” is a good paved road. Other roads are mostly gravel and better maintained than average, with a few paved sections, especially around Spanish Lookout. The road from Central Farm to Spanish Lookout is unpaved and requires crossing the Belize River on a hand-pulled ferry. (Note: In theory it is possible to get to Chan Chich from Cayo via this route, a much shorter route. But access involves crossing private lands, not presently open to the public except with advance permission.)

Overall Road Condition: Good (Central Farm route Fair)

Paved Section: 80%

Gas Availability: Good (modern stores and gas stations in Spanish Lookout, and gas often is cheaper here than elsewhere in Cayo)

MOUNTAIN PINE RIDGE ROAD TO CARACOL By the route from Georgeville, it is about 46 miles from the Western Highway to the ruins of Caracol. From San Ignacio, via the Cristo Rey Road, the trip is a few miles longer — this route connects with the Mountain Pine Ridge Road near the village of San Antonio. Even in good weather in a good vehicle, don’t expect to average more than about 25 mph on this road — it’s a two-and-a-half hour rough ride to Caracol, even with recent improvements to the road in connection with the Chalillo Dam, including some paving. Currently (early 2007), you will be much better off going to the entrance to the Pine Ridge on the Cristo Rey Road, rather than the Georgeville Road, as the Georgeville Road is unscraped and extremely rough. A reward: the scenery in many spots is lovely. After a heavy rain, the limestone marl or red clay can be very slick and dangerous. En route, stop for a cold drink or a hot gourmet pizza at Francis Ford Copolla’s lodge, Blancaneaux, about 15 miles in from Georgeville, or at Five Sisters.

Overall Road Condition: Good to Poor

Paved Section: 10%

Gas Availability: None

ROAD TO PLACENCIA This is the road people love to hate. The 25-mile mostly dirt and gravel road runs from the Southern Highway to the tip of the Placencia peninsula, passing Maya Beach and Seine Bight. In wet weather, this road can be dicey, to say the least. After heavy rains, the road is occasionally impassable, even with four-wheel drive. Small sections near Placencia and Seine Bight villages and at Cocoplum II development are paved. A Caribbean Development Bank loan to pave the road from the Southern Highway to Seine Bight has been approved, and the word is that paving may actually begin in the late spring or early summer. Some locals say, “We’ll believe it when we see it.”

Overall Road Condition: Fair
to Very Poor

Paved Section: 5%

Gas Availability: Fair (stations in Placencia village and Riversdale)

ROAD TO MAYA VILLAGES IN TOLEDO A series of connected roads take you from the Southern Highway near PG to the Mayan villages of San Antonio, Santa Cruz and Pueblo Viejo villages, or to San Pedro Columbia village, Lubaantun ruins, San Miguel village, and then back to the Southern Highway near the Nim Li Punit ruins. A new road from the "Dump" about 15 miles north of PG to the Guatemala border, plus a new border crossing, is supposedly planned for “sometime in the future.”
Overall Road Condition: Fair to Poor

Paved Section: 2%

Gas Availability: Poor (gas up at the junction to the road to San Antonio)

AMBERGRIS CAYE You can’t rent a car on the island, although residents seem to be stocking up on pickups and cars, crowding out golf carts, bikes and pedestrians on the caye’s sandy roads. Sections of Coconut Drive and Middle (Pescador) streets are paved with concrete cobblestones. Government grants and loans approved in early 2007 promise that Front Street (Barrier Reef Drive) and additional sections of Coconut Drive will be paved with cobblestones soon. You can rent a golf cart and putt south to near the tip of the island, and north to around Mata Chica and even farther. After rains, these cart paths are rough and muddy, and, at times, away from the water the mozzies will swarm you if you slow down. The new bridge over the river channel only takes golf carts, bikes and pedestrians, not cars. The first section of the golf cart path north from the bridge to the growing clusters of condos is among the best – don’t be fooled into thinking the entire northern cart path is this good.

Overall Road Condition: Fair to Very Poor

Paved Section: 5%

Gas Availability: Fair

CAYE CAULKER  The streets in Caye Caulker village are still hard-packed sand. The primary means of transportation are shank's mare, bicycles and golf carts, though a few cars have made their way to the island.

Overall Road Condition: Fair

Paved Section: 0%

Gas Availability: Fair

PRACTICAL TIPS

Maps. The best general road map to Belize is from ITMB. A new 6th edition was released in 2005. The color, 1:250,000-scale map retails for US$10.95. Also useful for most travelers is the mile-by-mile Driver’s Guide to Beautiful Belize, published annually by the famous Emory King. Although the maps are rough, this 8 1/2 x 11" guide is reliable and easy-to-use.


Gas Stations. Belize has Texaco, Shell and Esso service stations, with a total of around 50 stations in the country. Unleaded gas is near US $5 a gallon. Diesel is about a third less. Skilled mechanics are few and far between, although you can get a tire changed almost anywhere. Someone will come out and pump gas for you, and there’s no need to tip. Belize gas stations accept Belize or U.S. dollars, and sometimes credit cards.
Miles or Kilometers? Like the U.S., Belize has been slow to accept the metric system. Distances are given in miles, and gas is sold by the U.S. gallon. However, some Japanese-made rental cars have speed and distance shown in kilometers only, a source of confusion on Belize’s mile-denominated roads.

Speed Limits. You occasionally see a speed limit sign in Belize, but there is little if any traffic law enforcement. Belize drivers, to be charitable, are not always the best in the world.

Sleeping Policemen. Speed-breaker bumps are used to slow traffic coming into residential areas. In many cases, you’ll get no advance warning about the bumps, but expect them as you enter any town or village.

Check Points. Check points are fairly common, but almost always in the same place, so everybody knows where they are. Unlike in some other countries in the region where shaking down gringos in rental cars is a small industry, in Belize you will not be pulled over for phony traffic offenses, and if you are stopped at a checkpoint, which often happens, no one will promote a bribe. Just answer the questions, if any, and you’ll be on your way, with a friendly smile and wave from the police. If you're a local driver, you must have insurance, or face the consequences, including possibly some time in jail.
Safety. Traffic accidents are now the number one cause of death in Belize. Belize drivers are often not well trained, and driving after drinking is unfortunately common. Seatbelts are required, but many people don’t use them. Watch carefully when passing stopped buses — kids may suddenly dart around the bus to cross the road. Outside of settled areas, you may drive for a half hour or more and never see another car. Be prepared: Bring water, a flashlight and other basic supplies, and a cell phone, just in case. In a poor country like Belize, anyone driving a car is, ipso facto, wealthy. Don’t leave valuables in your car, locked or unlocked. In Belize City, it’s best to park in a secured lot, or at least in a well-lit area. Do not pick up hitchhikers, unless you're sure they're okay.

Driving at Night. Driving at night in developing countries is seldom a good idea, but in Belize night driving is easier than elsewhere because there are so few people on the roads after dark. Foxes and snakes, yes; people, no. Still, after dark it’s hard to see potholes and topes.

Best Vehicles for Belize. Do you really need four-wheel drive in Belize? On the main thoroughfares such as the Western and Northern Highways, no. In the dry season, even back roads generally are passable without four-wheel drive if you have sufficient road clearance. But four-wheel drive is good insurance, just in case you hit a stretch of soft muck or sand. On long trips in Belize, usually there are a couple of occasions when four-wheel power comes in handy. After a period of heavy rains, some back roads become quagmires.

The vehicle of choice in Belize is a four-wheel drive diesel truck with crew cab. A lot of people swear by Toyota HyLux diesels, though these are not commonly available as rentals. Larger vehicles such as the Toyota Prado offer a smoother ride on washboard roads, and the large petrol tank cuts down on the need to stop for gas so frequently. However, rental rates on these large vehicles are high — US$80 to $110 day or more in most cases — and they drink gas. Get a diesel if possible, as mileage is usually good and diesel fuel costs one-third less than gas.

Tips on Rental Cars in Belize
Having a rental car is a real plus in Belize. You can go places not easily visited by bus, and while rental prices are not cheap, you may more than pay for the cost of the rental by avoiding high-priced tours. Here are questions to ask and things to check BEFORE driving off in your rental. Keep in mind that a breakdown on a deserted road in Belize is not like a breakdown in Suburbia, USA.

Check the mileage on the vehicle you’ve been assigned. Even “name brand” renters often have high-mileage cars in their fleet, and local companies almost invariably will give you a car with 50,000 to 100,000 miles on it, or more, (but usually in good mechanical condition.) If the mileage seems high, ask for another vehicle.

Check the tires. Six-ply truck tires or high-quality radials are best for Belize roads. At the very least, tires should have plenty of tread. Also, check the spare, and be sure you know how to locate and use the jack.

Agree on pre-existing dents and scratches. Most car rental agencies will point out existing dents and mark them on your rental agreement form. Walk around the car with the agent to be sure major problems, such as a cracked windshield, is noted on the form. But don’t stress about this, as the rental companies are almost always fair about this and aren’t trying to rip you off.

Ask what will happen if you have a breakdown somewhere in the boondocks. Major companies, such as Budget and Crystal, will send a mechanic out to repair the problem. Others may not.

Don’t be shy about asking for discounts off published rates. During busy times, discounts may not be available, but in the off-season or during slow periods you may be able to negotiate a little on rates.

Determine in advance whether you need to accept Collision Damage Waiver coverage. CDW runs US$12 to $16 per day in Belize, and typically it does not cover the first $500 to $1,000 in damage — so you have to cough up for a windshield broken by a flying rock, for example. American Express and some other credit cards DO provide primary CDW coverage in Belize. But call your card issuer to confirm.

 

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