[See the rundown of Visa Run #1: Miami Beach here.]
On the long list of things I say and then never do, ‘leave Roatan permanently before being forced into visa runs’ was close to the top. I have my Honduran residency – so these are trips that could be used as visa runs. One day I’ll write a post about it. Today is not that day, so please don’t ask. Short version: you need an immigration lawyer and lots of time + money.
I’ve spoken quite a bit on the blog about visa runs/residency/etc. and there has been a definite trend by immigration authorities here pushing people to residency…or never coming back here. If it’s your first time visiting Roatan, you’ll probably be given a standard 90 day visitor visa (or as I just found out recently, 30 days if you’re traveling on an Irish passport…?). If you started doing these visa runs to get out of the country every 90 days, staying out 72 hours (or more) and then coming back, following the legal procedures to enter and exit the country… well, surprise. Immigration is catching onto visa runs, and they aren’t particularly pleased about it for whatever reason….even though you’re technically doing what you’re supposed to. If you’ve got lots of entries and exits every 90 days, the officials are now issuing anywhere from 10-30 day visas instead of 90. Classic Honduran move, but they’re within their rights (the visitor visa is UP TO 90 days, they don’t HAVE to give you 90). So now, of course, lots of longer-term visitors are saying ‘forget it’ to Roatan and going other places without the hassle. Goodbye money into the economy! But some people are biting the bullet, emptying their wallet and getting their residency. There are other benefits to having residency too (like legally being able to work), but I’ll get into that in another post.
Anyway! This visa run!
Guys, I did the cheapest and easiest one I could do – Ambergris Caye, a beautiful (kind of Roatan-ish, to be honest) island off the coast of Belize. I decided to make it a bit of a vacation as I had just finished quite a few months of high-pressure stuff going on and needed a break. I went for a week.
So, flights – I went from Roatan to Belize City to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye in an hour and 15 minutes on TropicAir. They fly daily in high season and 3-4 times a week in low season from Roatan straight to Belize City, and every hour a plane goes from Belize City to Ambergris Caye, so really easy connections. I was the ONLY PERSON ON THE PLANE and they still went. It was awesome. Tiny planes! Cost: $400 round trip, plus the $40 departure tax leaving Honduras and a $30 departure tax leaving Belize.
For accommodation, I stayed in two different places that came recommended to me, so that I could check them out for this post. Most people doing visa runs are going to want to be doing them as cheaply as possible, so I visited two low-budget options: Hostel La Vista and Pedro’s Hotel.
Hostel La Vista was a fantastic find – massive thanks to my friend Tonya who suggested it – and has the best location in San Pedro, right by the town square. Owner and hostess Maria is a Texas transplant with Belizean heritage (ask her about her grandfather, who originally owned the land the hostel is on!) who knows exactly what backpackers need in a hostel: clean rooms, fast wifi throughout, chill lounge areas, kitchenettes in the rooms plus an awesome outdoor kitchen, A/C, choice of dorm or private room, and super affordable prices (dorms start at $15 and private rooms at $50). Match that with one of the most gracious and fun hosts in town, and you’ve got Hostel La Vista. I had an absolute blast staying here, and will definitely stay again on my next visit. A full spotlight of this place is posted here!
Pedro’s Hotel is part of the sprawling Pedro’s complex, including the hotel and Pedro’s Inn (the backpacker dorms), as well as a popular bar and two (!) swimming pools. I was lucky enough to stay in their newly-built private ‘deluxe’ rooms, which come with extras like cable tv on the flat-screen TVs in the rooms, wifi in the rooms (the rest of the complex offers wifi in the common areas and bar), in-room safes, and a king size bed. A/C was included but took a while to cool down. I really liked the large walk-in shower in the bathroom and amazing water pressure in the shower (this is something basically to-die-for in Central America). I had a nice view overlooking the pools. There is a range of options here though, from the backpacker dorms ($12.50/night) to the regular hotel rooms ($55/night) to the deluxe rooms ($70/night).
Pedro’s is known more as a large party hostel, but it was strangely quiet while I was there – maybe it was slow season? I visited the first week in May. I didn’t mind it being quiet as a) I am old and b) I had already made friends at Hostel La Vista so I wasn’t really in desperate need of new friends to explore San Pedro with. I think at other times of the year it must be a lot more bustling. The staff were all really friendly and eager to help me with anything I asked of them.
A perk of Pedro’s that counteracts it’s one drawback (I found the location to be a bit out of the way and a HOT walk into the main part of town) is that you have full use of the facilities at its beachfront sister property, Caribbean Villas. I spent a Sunday Funday there tanning on the dock and enjoying some beachside drinks with a dip in the pool. It’s also a bit of a walk from Pedro’s but just ask at the front desk and there’s a guy there with a golf cart who will take you over for free!
I also checked out the other popular hostel, The Sandbar, and one of the owners showed me around so that I could take photos for this post. I didn’t stay here, but talked to lots of people who did, and they all gave it two thumbs up. I thought it was adorable. I looooved the view from the little balconies on the private rooms ($60/night for a triple), and they have dorms for $15/night (they are 10-bed dorms but they are huge, with privacy curtains on the beds). It’s a little farther down the main strip but not as far out as Pedro’s, and The Sandbar has the bonus of being beachfront… amazing ocean views, but as with almost everywhere in San Pedro, this is not the kind of beach you’ll want to swim from. There’s turtle grass everywhere and a lot of boats zipping around. Bonus for The Sandbar – my favorite dive shop, Reef Adventures, is right out front. See my review further down.
Accommodation costs: I received a media discount at both hotels so that I could include them in this post (thanks guys!), but if you wanted to do it cheaply you could stay in the dorms at either place for $15 or less a night which I think is a great deal.
Food + drinks – wow, I was overwhelmed with all the options of GOOD food on the island. I find the vast majority of restaurants on Roatan not that great, with terrible service, mediocre food, and really high prices for what you get. Not to mention it’s the same 30 restaurants over and over and over, so it was really fun for me to get to try some new places. I usually ate out twice a day, and didn’t really go for super budget food (check out the El Salvadorean places on Back Street – the lagoon side – for mega-cheap pupusas!) and still managed to keep my food and drink costs under $40 a day. I could have done it for much less, but hey, I was on vacation! I also made several trips to the little organic grocery store to fill the gaping hole that having no Whole Foods has left in my life.
Belize Chocolate Company
Maria steered me here one day and it quickly became a daily habit to get a chocolate coffee, plus I just HAD to try out all the different flavors of chocolates they had on offer! Delicious. Major bonus: the inside is air-conditioned!
Estel’s Dine By the Sea
I had several great breakfasts at this laid-back beachfront place, all hovering around $8-10 with unlimited coffee. Loved the sand floor on the indoor part of the restaurant. Really nice servers who took great care of me while I was dining solo. Get the fry jacks!
Blue Water Grill
The first good sushi I’ve had in the Caribbean, and only cost me around $25. Absolutely fantastic menu and decor inside this massive restaurant on the beach. It felt high-end without accompanying prices. Loved it. So sad my phone died as we sat down and I had forgotten my camera, so I don’t have any pictures from my delicious sushi! I went here as a treat on my last night in San Pedro, and wished I would have come earlier – I wanted one of everything on their dinner menu (note: prices on this menu are in BZD, not USD – its 2BZD-1USD – all other prices in this post are in USD).
Hurricane’s Ceviche Bar + Grill
I went to this ceviche bar every single day, and devoured an entire plate of ceviche ($12.50-$15) to myself each day washed down with a Belikin beer. (The staff seemed pretty impressed that I finished it solo, but guys, I’m a champion when it comes to food. Just ask Alex about my excellent eating abilities.) I liked the grouper the best, but I did manage to try every single one on the menu (like, in the name of research, guys). Hurricane’s had super friendly staff that interacted with me just enough to not feel weird about eating alone, but weren’t overbearing. By the third day they knew me by name and when they saw me strolling down the beach towards them, they had my beer ready on the table by the time I sat down. Me likey.
I had the hardest time deciding what to get when I came here for lunch with Carrie. I ended up with an amazing (and massive) burrito, and washed it down with an excellent detox green juice. I have it in my notes that I spent $32 here including a tip, which was one of my more expensive meals but it is right on the beach with a fantastic menu, and there are other things on the menu to order that are less expensive. I hear the ceviche is good here too, but I got my daily fill over at Hurricane’s. My favorite part of this meal was Carrie’s friend, the legendary Coconut Leo (see his tree acrobatics here), showing up and putting coconut oil in my hair – he was putting it in Carrie’s dreads and decided I needed some too!
I did most of my drinking at Hostel La Vista, Secret Beach (see below), on docks, and a BBQ at a chef’s house, so that cut costs on drinking considerably. We tried going out one night to Fidos (don’t act like a tourist – it’s pronounced FEE-dohs) and another bar that I forget the name of, but everything was dead. Just the time of year I guess. It’s the same on Roatan.
What did I do for entertainment? Well, first of all, I went diving of course!
When I was in San Pedro in 2013 while I was on a yacht, we went diving with the biggest dive shop I’ve seen, Amigos del Mar, and I was less than impressed. The boats chummed the water so that sharks would show up and then they followed the divers overhead continuing to chum so the sharks were near us for the whole dive. I HATE THIS. I put the blame on divers for this, I’m sorry – but if you have to alter a shark’s natural behavior just so that you get to see it on the dive, that’s really fucked up. That is not the way the ocean works. There’s lots of other stuff to see on dives. If you want to see sharks, pay the big bucks to dive where you can see them in their natural state in places like the Galapagos. In the Caribbean, sharks live down at 200+ft and we might get really lucky once in awhile if they pass us in transit. They do NOT follow divers and dive boats in large groups on every single dive as part of their normal behavior.
I decided to give Amigos del Mar another shot this time as I had heard good things around town about them. Funnily enough, I ended up on the exact same boat with the same captain and divemaster (Rene and Tony) as I had in 2013. While they were nice and gave a decent enough briefing (although the captain does the briefing for the divemaster, which is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen… I’m not actually sure if Tony can speak? I thought maybe just his English wasn’t great but the captain did a Spanish briefing too for a Mexican couple on board… weird), they have clearly been doing this a long time and it really seems to be more of just a job than a passion. The Mexican couple and I were left by ourselves to chat with no interaction from the staff at all other than giving directions. Maybe I’m being too harsh in my assessment, but I do this for a living too and I always make an effort to chat with my divers, engage them and talk about where they are from, what they’d like to see on the dive, etc. As soon as we got in, the captain started throwing sardines in on top of us and the sharks were everywhere, even after I had specifically asked him not to do it. UGH. Underwater, Tony is calm and assists people if they have trouble, but just shakes his shaker to point out sharks that everyone can already clearly see. Not a single other thing was pointed out on either of my two dives. The reef was in about the same condition it was in 2013. I wasn’t over the moon about anything on these dives.
One thing that I like about Amigos del Mar is their fruit spread that they put out between dives – tons of fruit and coconut. I paid $80 for two dives including gear, and left a $20 tip for Rene and Tony (tip your divemasters people!!) so $100 total for a morning of diving here.
The next day, I was walking along the beach and a guy yelled at me from Reef Adventures dive shop – “hey girl, you wanna go diving?” – and I walked over to chat…as you do when a random guy hollers at you. After about two seconds (and verifying that their boat would not be throwing chum for sharks), I had agreed to go diving with him… can you blame me? Check out Russell ‘The Rasta Divemasta’:
Maria and I went out the next morning for a 1-tank dive with Russell and what a different experience. We were with a group of four experienced divers, plus one newer diver who had all been out with Russell all week and were raving about him. I can be kind of biased (I can’t help it!) so I waited to see what would happen. Well, Russell turned around as soon as the boat left the dock, introduced the captain and gave Maria and I nearly the exact same thorough briefing that I give to my divers, including the “don’t touch the coral, watch your fins, don’t put your hands on it or it can die, don’t chase the turtles” part! It was EXCELLENT. After ensuring we knew what we were doing, he got right in the middle of all of us and was joking around with everyone, telling stories and talking about the dive site we were going to. I was so impressed. On the dive, he led us through a beautiful lush site at a nice slow pace, pointed out all kinds of stuff to us including turtles and some smaller macro stuff, and true to his word – no chumming for sharks. After we got out, Russell passed around water and pineapple and chatted to us about the dive.
[All dive photos are by Maria from Hostel La Vista! My camera has gone to GoPro heaven.]
I was thrilled with my diving at Reef Adventures with Russell and wish I had gone there in the first place. I hope more dive shops in San Pedro will follow that example. Normally, a 1-tank dive runs $55 plus gear here, but the shop manager was kind enough to give me a dive pro discount on the price, and I left a hefty tip as they had earned it – so I spent $70 total here. I also loved that they had weight-integrated BCDs… I hate weight belts! Huge kudos to Reef Adventures!
What else did I do for entertainment? Well, Maria was a fantastic hostess and took me along to all sorts of stuff. One of my favorites was an outing to Secret Beach, which isn’t so secret if you live in San Pedro because everyone seems to know it. It’s way up on the north end of the island so we rented golf carts to get there, which was a lot of fun for me (although my passengers both declared me a ‘shit’ golf cart driver…I heartily disagree). Secret Beach was beautiful and we munched on snacks and drank ALL the rum punch:
The Secret Beach outing cost $20 for my share of the golf cart rental, plus $20 in beer and snacks. Definitely worth the trip.
One of my favorite things to do in San Pedro was WALK. I roamed the beach and the streets for literally HOURS each day by myself. I never get to do this on Roatan, for a couple reasons. One, the town I live in has one street, and it’s one mile long. That’s it. There’s no stretch of beach to walk on that’s longer than about 100 yards. San Pedro is a much bigger town and has three main streets (Front, Middle and Back) that are all longgggg and I spent an hour winding through them each day. The beach also goes for miles and miles and you can walk the entire thing. Two, it’s too fucking hot here. San Pedro benefits from being a completely flat island (unlike Roatan, which is a peaked island with a high ridge running along the center), which means it gets way more wind than we do here. So even though it was hot and sunny, I could walk for 3-4 hours a day and not break a sweat thanks to the glorious sea breeze. And y’all know how much I fucking hate sweating. I HATE IT.
I found the locals in San Pedro to be extremely friendly if you politely greet them when you pass (this is a Caribbean thing… it’s kind of rude to walk by people without saying ‘good morning’, etc. – it’s the same here). I did not experience any of the disgusting catcalling and whistling that I get on Roatan. I walked around in peace and it was absolutely lovely. It was also nice to be able to speak English everywhere. I’m working on my Spanish because I need it on Roatan, but it was a nice break to just be able to speak your own language and not stress about trying to communicate. A fixed easy exchange rate of 2BZD-1USD was helpful as well, since on Roatan ours is changing all the time and is now hovering around 22LPS-1USD. Try calculating that in your head all day.
All in all, this was a fantastic place for a visa run and I would go again in a heartbeat. It’s really easy to get to from Roatan and can be done for a reasonable price. I spent a lot more money than I technically needed to, because I went for a week (you have to stay out for 4 days for a visa run) and I treated myself a bit (the daily chocolate + coffee habit was not a necessity…but it sure was good). The total costs (in USD) I have in my notes are:
Flights + transportation: $470
Food, drinks, entertainment + tips: $340
The food/entertainment and accommodation spending would have probably been less than $200 for both if I only would have gone for 4 days, watched my spending (not gone diving!) and stayed in dorm rooms. There are also a lot more things I could have done if I wanted to and had extra money – day trips to the mainland for cave tubing, Mayan ruins or jungle hiking, diving the Blue Hole (been there, done that, hated it), snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, fishing trips, the list goes on.
There really aren’t any many other places you can fly to from Roatan for less than $500 (Guatemala or El Salvador are your only other options, and there is a lot of back-and-forth about whether the CA-4 visa stuff is still in effect, so you run the risk of not being issued a new visa if you go to those countries and come back to Honduras), so I think Ambergris Caye is a good choice. Flights to Belize City are a little less but I wouldn’t want to stay there. I found it kind of gross the last time I was there and is definitely more of a working city than a vacation destination. Ambergris Caye was such a treat and I am counting the days until I can go back again!
|leaving my mark at the sandbar hostel – the pink flag is san pedro, the top yellow flag is roatan!|
Did you find this visa run recap helpful? Have you ever been to Ambergris Caye before? What did I miss?