The country used to have Texaco, Shell and Esso service stations, with a total of around 50 stations in the country. Not any more. The gas stations were re-branded as Puma and Uno in 2012 after the government pushed out the old brands in favor of Puma-Trafigura oil interests and began to import fuel from Venezuela. The deal has most folks puzzled as fuel prices went up instead of down.
Unleaded gas is widely available in Belize, at about US$6.50 a gallon. Leaded is a few cents less, and diesel about as expensive as leaded – go figure that one out(though in some areas such as Punta Gorda, Toledo it is more expensive.) 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. Local gas stations accept BZ 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 local mile-denominated roads. You occasionally see a speed limit sign, but there is little if any traffic law enforcement. Local drivers, to be charitable, are not always the best in the world. Sleeping Policemen is the local name for speed-breaker bumps 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.
Unlike in some other countries in the region where shaking down gringos in rental cars is a small industry, in Belize you will usually not be pulled over for phony traffic offenses, and if you are stopped at a checkpoint, which often happens, it is rare but not unheard that you will be asked for a bribe. Shakedowns of tourists by cops however are a new phenomenon but still not common. Just answer the questions, if any, show your license or passport and visitor entry card, and you’ll be on your way, with a friendly smile and wave from the police. Of recent, the escalating crime in Belize means that rolling police checkpoints have increased. The police will invariably ask for your driver’s license and check your vehicle windshield license sticker. This is more of a pretext to strike up a conversation and try and and determine if you are transporting drugs or doing something illicit.
Belize drivers are as well-trained as their cousins in the U.S., and driving after drinking is unfortunately common. 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 an hour or more and never see another car. Be prepared: Bring water, a flash-light and other basic supplies, and a cell phone, just in case. In an emerging economy such as 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. Belize has draconian drug and guns laws. If your passenger has so much as stick of pot, EVERYONE including innocent passengers and the driver will spend the night in the piss house – that is the accepted Belize designation for the police holding cell.
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. Jaguars and snakes, yes; people, no. Still, after dark it’s hard to see potholes, cyclists and topes – that is Spanish for sleeping policemen.
Unusual Driving Practices
Locals basically drive like Americans or Europeans. There are a few practices that may be unfamiliar to foreign drivers. One is the left turn. Some Belizeans usually (not always) signal right and pull to the right when turning left across traffic, waiting for vehicles behind them to pass.
Best Vehicles To Drive
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 here 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 larger four-wheel drive, such as an Isuzu Trooper, Toyota 4runner, Jeep Cherokee or Ford Explorer. These 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$90 to $125. day or more in most cases — and they drink gas. The Suzuki Jimmy, Vitara or Sidekick are common rental vehicles, and they do a good day’s work at a decent price. But be aware – the cheap and tiny Japanese rentals often come without air bags and other safety features.
Tips on Rental Cars
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 break-down on a deserted road here is not like a break- down 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 100,000 to 150,000 miles on it (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. But since these tires are more expensive, many rentals run inexpensive passenger car tires, which may not stand up to heavy off-road use. 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.
• Ask what will happen if you have a break-down somewhere in the boondocks. Major companies, such as Budget, 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$10 to $15 per day in here, 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.
– Lan Sluder is editor and publisher of BELIZE FIRST. Sluder also helped update the Belize section of the Fodor’s Belize & Guatemala 2014 guidebook.