Ambergris Caye is a fantastic place to visit: warm water, friendly people, white sand beaches and delicious food. You can go out on a catamaran to see nurse sharks and humongous manta rays, go diving in the coral reef, go fishing, sample the delicious cuisine, or just lie on the beach and do nothing. There are water taxis zipping around all day and night, so getting from one end to the other is not just easy, it’s fun!
While getting around the Caye isn’t too hard, getting there is another story! If you’re not flying in from Belize City (on little planes that are rather pricey), you have to take a ferry from Chetumal, Mexico, if you are coming from the north, or Belize City if you are coming from the south. We were coming from Mexico, so that’s the route we took, and we’ll share our experience with you.
From Cancun or Playa del Carmen, you can drive or take the ADO bus to Chetumal. We recommend the bus, so you don’t have to leave your rental car sitting somewhere, or pay a one-way fee to the rental companies. And you can’t drive most Mexican rental cars into Belize, so don’t even think about that.
The ADO bus is pretty easy, just find the area at the Cancun airport and buy your ticket on the spot. You can also start from any town on the coast of Quintana Roo, like Playa del Carmen or Tulum. We recommend you take a day at both towns to enjoy their charms, as well as the area around Bacalar Lagoon (see our post: A Day on Bacalar Lagoon).
When you get to Chetumal, grab a taxi out front to get down to the pier (called the Muelle Fiscal). There are two piers, so be sure your driver knows you want that pier, and that you are going to Belize (Belice in Spanish). It’s about 15 or 20 minutes from the bus to the pier.
Get there early! Can’t stress this one enough. They only run one time per day from Chetumal. If they sell out, you’re stuck overnight until then next day’s boat run. They leave every day at 3pm, but they start loading before that, and the line forms before noon. We recommend getting there before noon and buying your tickets. They’ll give you a number, which will hold your place in line and then you can go grab lunch in Chetumal while you wait.
There are two water taxi companies, and they take turns doing the Chetumal to San Pedro run, with an optional continuation to Caulker Caye:
San Pedro Water Taxi: http://www.sanpedrowatertaxi.com/
Belize Water Taxi: http://www.belizewatertaxi.com/schedule
Don’t buy your tickets ahead of time, even if you’re someone who always buys tickets ahead of time. You might get tickets for the wrong company on the day you arrive. And there’s no guarantee anything they post online is recent, or they didn’t change their mind last month about who does even days and who does odd days. We found the San Pedro Water Taxi slightly more comfortable, if you do get a choice.
After you get checked in and they start loading your luggage on the boat, you’ll go through Mexican immigration and give them your tourist visa card, and get exit stamped. Then it’s boat loading time. It’s not the most spacious ferry we’ve ever been on, but it’s reasonably clean and well run. They also pack the boat with merchandise or food for import to Belize.
If you can, get a spot in the middle to the back of the boat, as the boat will hit waves hard as it speeds across the bay to Ambergris Caye, and people in the front were flying up and down a few feet every time. It’s a very bumpy ride so bring anti-nausea medicine if you are prone to seasickness. It’s also important to note that there is no restroom on these ferries and it’s a 90 minute crossing. There are restrooms at the terminal before you get on the boat. We had pretty decent weather, but if it’s really stormy, you might want to postpone your trip for a day.
After about 90 minutes, you’ll arrive in San Pedro, the main town of Ambergris Caye, and unload on the dock there. Belizean customs will process you in the order you bought your ticket in Chetumal. We were the only boat going through customs, but it still took an hour. Fortunately (or perhaps suspiciously?) there’s a snack shack selling food and drink while you wait. Hmmm….
Belize fixes the exchange rate at $2 Belizean to $1 USD, so everyone takes US dollars interchangeably with Belizean dollars, even customs.
For the return trip, you must pay the Belizean tourist tax IN CASH, in addition to paying for your boat ticket. You’ll need about $10 or 20 USD per person 12 and older. There are ATMs in San Pedro, near the waterfront (on the opposite side of town from the boat pier). The customs agent will remind you when you arrive what the cost will be when you leave.
And when you arrive back in Chetumal, you must pay another fee to the Mexican government to enter, about 300 pesos per person (adults and children). We recommend stashing those pesos before you leave Mexico, as the money changers that greet you cheerily in Chetumal will give you a lousy exchange rate.
Hopefully this was a helpful guide to getting from Cancun to Ambergris Caye. It’s well worth the extra effort, as the Caye is gorgeous, there’s so much to do there, and the people are warm and friendly. It’s more of a Caribbean island atmosphere than Mexico, and everyone speaks English, so it’s easy to get around and communicate for Americans.