We planned a visit to Caye Caulker to break up our journey between Tulum and southern Guatemala. This small island off the coast of Belize is absolutely beautiful. While I’m so glad we made the effort to visit, getting there from Mexico was a bit of a process. Even after much pre-planning, the details felt pretty murky.
For anyone planning the same journey, here’s a step-by-step guide to get from Tulum to Caye Caulker.
Tulum, Mexico ⇨ Caye Caulker, Belize
Step One: Bus
First, you need to get from Tulum to Chetumal. We traveled via ADO bus, leaving Tulum at 8:30 AM and arriving in Chetumal around noon. ($~13 USD each) I’m not going to lie, this bus wasn’t very comfortable, and it smelled pretty funky. (Our buses in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala really ran the gamut from enjoyable to questionable.) On the plus side, it ran on time and was basically empty.
Step Two: Taxi
After arriving at the bus station in Chetumal, we paid 50 pesos (~$2.66 USD) for a taxi ride to the ferry port. The journey is 3.5km/2.2 miles.
We arrived at the ferry port at 12:30 and our boat was scheduled for 3:30. While this time cushion may seem excessive, the ferry only runs between Chetumal and Caye Caulker one time every other day. We definitely didn’t want to miss it!
Step Three: Checking In
There are two ferry companies at the port. We checked in with our provider (Belize Water Taxi) and were given two immigration forms to fill out along with a boarding pass. We were able to “check” our bags with a staff member.
A big plus: the port has free WiFi. There’s also a small convenience store, though it was inexplicably closed for the majority of our wait time.
You can book your ferry tickets in advance here. According to the website, they should be purchased at least 72 hours before your travel date. A one-way ticket between Chetumal and Caye Caulker costs $55 USD.
Step Four: Mexican Customs
Knowing the border crossing might be tricky, we did a lot of research before our trip. The results were helpful, but a little unclear. I’m sure this is because the process changes often and people have different experiences.
Firstly, you’ll receive a Forma Migratoria Múltiple, or FMM, when you enter Mexico. You’ll have to present this tourist card to Immigration when you leave the country, so don’t head straight to the recycling bin with it!
Next, be prepared so that you can avoid doubly paying the Mexican Tourism Tax, also known as the Derecho de No Migrante.
Basically, Immigration charges a tax upon exiting the country that applies to all tourists. If you fly into Mexico, you’ve already paid this fee as part of your airline ticket. To avoid having to pay it again, simply bring a copy of your itemized airline receipt with you. It will prove to the Immigration official that you’ve already taken care of this fee.
The ferry website noted the tax as 336 pesos ($16.80 USD at that time), but when we arrived at the port, it was actually 500 pesos ($25 USD). In the end, having our itemized receipt with us saved $50 between the two of us. This is no small amount of money to budget travelers. (It also equates to many, many tacos!)
If you don’t have an airline receipt with you or if you arrived in Mexico by land, you might have to visit an ATM to ensure you have enough cash to pay the tax. If the ATM right at the ferry port is out of order, they will direct you to the closest one.
After everyone has gone through Customs, there will be more waiting. Shortly before the boat leaves, everyone moves their bags into the center of the waiting room and border officials bring drug sniffing dogs through to inspect everything.
Step 5: On the Boat
We had a lot of Mexican pesos leftover as we weren’t sure if we’d have to pay the Tourism Tax or not. Luckily, the ferry crew will exchange them for you on the boat with no extra fee, so we were able to stock up on Belizean currency right off the bat. This was a lovely surprise!
The ferry is small (not a large vehicle ferry that you might be picturing) but there was enough room for everyone to sit comfortably. I started out at the back of the boat, but the engines were so loud I ended up moving inside partway through.
The ride isn’t short: It takes an hour and forty minutes to get to San Pedro for Belizean customs, then another 30 minutes to complete the journey to Caye Caulker.
Step 6: Belizean Customs
When we arrived at San Pedro, everyone got off of the boat, retrieved their luggage, and went through Customs (again). Unfortunately the line was excruciatingly slow; the exhaustion and tension was noticeable throughout our fellow passengers, some having started their journey long before Tulum.
You’ll need to pay a “Belizean Usage Fee” of $2.50 BZD or $1.25 USD when you arrive. Throughout Belize there is a direct, universally utilized exchange rate of $1USD = $2 BZD, so you can use either currency interchangeably.
After everyone made it through the line, those staying in San Pedro continued on their way, and those heading to Caye Caulker reboarded the boat for the final step of the journey.
Step 7: Hello, Caye Caulker!
Almost twelve hours after leaving Tulum, our ferry docked in Caye Caulker. In a funny turn of events, Dan and I didn’t realize that there’s a time change between Mexico and Belize, and we’d actually gained an hour. We therefore thought we had arrived an hour later than expected, but had actually arrived on time.
In the end, it was a big day with two lengthy Customs processes, and part of me was wondering why we put ourselves through it. Luckily, as soon as we hopped onto the back of our golf cart cab in Caye Caulker and began to experience the relaxed and colorful atmosphere of the island, the stress melted away almost instantly.
The alternative method to get from Tulum to Caye Caulker involves a combination of buses from Tulum to Belize City and then a ferry from Belize City to Caye Caulker. We read that taking the ferry from Chetumal was a big time saver, although it’s hard to say if that’s really true. Regardless, I would recommend our route to fellow travelers; just be aware that it’s a bit draining! Have a book and some snacks at the ready, and keep these bright and beautiful Caye Caulker images in mind as your reward!
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