Chetumal is at the midpoint between Mexico and Central America where converge the more exotic of two geographic regions and cultures. Chetumal city practically sits at the border with English-speaking Belize, formerly British Honduras. Highway 307 links Chetumal with Cancún (5 hours approximately driving time) and with other points on The Maya Riviera.
Its name comes from Chaktemal by way of chakte’: the Maya name for “red tree” or “bad tree” depending on various interpretations. The Chakte Kok tree, scientific name Sickingia Salvadorensis, grows abundantly in the cradle of Maya civilization – Belize, Guatemala and southern Mexico. The wood is a beautiful mahogany color when cut, but rapidly oxidizes to a dull brown color, reason why perhaps the Maya called it bad wood. Chaktemal means Place of abundant chakte’. Modern historians now believe that the original Chaktemal was on the other side of the Rio Hondo, in present day Belize.
Highway 186 stretches to Escárcega and continues on to the state of Campeche. To reach Chetumal from Merida, the capital of Yucatan, take highway 184 to Felipe Carillo Puerto, and then highway 307. There are direct flights to Chetumal from Mexico City, Cancún, Cozumel and Merida; and ADO bus connections to Belize. From Belize travelers can reach the western border of Guatemala and from there to Flores (Tikal), and points further inland in Guatemala.
In Quintana Roo important historical events took place in our modern history, starting with the Spanish Conquest and ending with the definitive dissolution of the Maya Empire. Southern Mexico begins in a landscape of tropical rainforest on the coast – land of the jaguar, monkeys and exotic birds.
The City of Chetumal is relatively young. It was established a little over a century ago. At that time it featured many small English-style wooden houses due to the British influence of neighboring Belize and the were very unique in the region. Later came commercial success to the city, as it was a Free Zone for over 20 years and distributed imports at economical prices. Chetumal had no marine port but used the port of Belize City to trans ship and import vast quantities of cargo destined for the Yucatan and points in the Mexican interior. This provided a valuable source of income to Belize for many years. This however came to an end when Belizean politicians decided to substantially increase demurrage charges on Mexican trans shipments of cargo. Mexico then decided to build its own deep water port at Merida cutting off the trade from Belize.
Thanks to its new found wealth Chetumal City evolved into the state capital. The city fathers of Chetumal then decided to take the city out of merely a commercial center into its place as the gateway to the Maya world. Numerous Maya sites have been excavated and tourist areas developed to make the city and its environs an attractive tourist destination. Thousands of expatriates have taken up residence enjoying the sunny Mexican first world lifestyle and low cost of living.
It’s local history is replete with heroes of the Mexican revolution and those who fought for the rights of the landless and disposed. The city is adorned with various monuments in honor of these heroes. The whims of the nature, the distance and relative isolation in its early history can be considered stumbling blocks that slowed down the development of Chetumal, but the will, hard work and discipline of its founders have borne fruit.
Chetumal continues rapid expansion – its population already rivals that of the entire country of Belize, which in contrast, appears to have atrophied in an endemic state of underdevelopment. Chetumal City has several malls including the requisite Wallmart, Sam’s Club and McDonald’s, a busy downtown commercial shopping area, and a sprawling commercial zone anchored by the new and old markets. Several museums, hospitals, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs cater to the needs of any visitor or prospective resident seeking big city amenities.
The Border With Belize And The Corozal Free Zone
Any visitor crossing over the border from Mexico to Belize is immediately struck by the sharp downturn in commercial activity, the forlorn looking officers at the dilapidated Belize immigration and customs buildings, the mud or dust (depending on the season) on the “highways”, the encroaching jungle and litter on the byways, and a general sense of having fallen into a truly Third World outpost which is what Belize really is.
The culture shock on the Belize side is tempered somewhat by a ratty “Free Zone” run by Hindu, Chinese, Mexican and Belizean businessmen. Starting at dawn and running well into the night, hundreds of visitors in private vehicles, buses, scooters and motorized rickshaws swarm this center of free commerce in a mad crush of traffic and pedestrians, open air barbecues, swirling dust and honking horns.
The zone is a sprawling bazaar of duty free alcohol, perfumes, cigarettes, and knock-off designer clothes, ladies handbags and footwear run by Indian and Chinese merchants. Thronged mainly by Mexicans seeking deals and thrills, the Corozal Free Zone’s saving grace is a couple casinos that cater to Chetumal gamblers (there are no casinos in Chetumal) and those seeking to gawk at Russian dancing girls or have the company of imported cocktail hostesses from Colombia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
A lady blogger from Ambergris Caye recently summed up the Corozal Free Zone: “Most of the merchandise seemed to have been shipped in on the reject barge from some cheap Chinese manufacturer. Or maybe it was the stuff that just couldn’t sell at US $1 Stores. Everything just looks…well…slightly off. From perfume, computer equipment, purses to sneakers, I wouldn’t trust one thing to be real in this place.”
Chetumal bills itself as the front door from Central America to Mexico, capital of Quintana Roo, and cradle of the Mestizo race. In reality, neighboring Corozal in Belize is the cradle of the Mestizo founded by Gonzalo Guerrero. But Chetumal is truly a cultural center whose byways take to you to visit well-kept archaeological zones full of magic and colorful communities. You can sail the gorgeous Chetumal Bay, motor down the Rio Hondo river that forms the border with Belize, visit the historic Fort at Bacalar with perhaps the most beautiful lagoon in the region and tour the fishing and tourist center at Xcalak. You will find Mahahual a short distance from Chetumal, offering gorgeous white sandy beaches. Although Mahahual is a cruise ship destination, is big enough to find secluded areas not thronged by the cruise ship crowds which are in town only a couple days per week in season.
Chetumal is a modern, clean and well maintained city. Wide streets, excellent traffic management and all modern city facilities make anything in Belize pale by comparison. Founded by sailors, the boulevard that runs the length of the city is longest of all the Yucatan Peninsula. You can run, stroll or tour this peaceful area by bicycle enjoying the many cafes, restaurants, parks and the fresh sea breeze and exceptional landscape. The Malecon takes on an air of romance as the sun sets, a time for lovers to walk the manicured gardens in the Government Palace area. A time for families to enjoy a walk in the park and partake of musical bands doing their regular public performances, enjoy snacks from street vendors or attend the one of the many seasonal carnival rides and fairs that are common in this part of the city.