Our last night in Bacalar we still had no idea how exactly we were going to make our way down to the town of Orange Walk in Belize the next morning.
The twice daily ADO bus didn't fit our schedule so we figured we could catch a bus from Chetumal but were unsure of the details. I talked to one man who lives in Chetumal and he said to get a micro bus to Santa Elena or the Zona Libre (the border) and get a bus from there. But my friend wanted nothing to do with that vague of a plan so the search was on for more specific information.
After searching forums, travel sites, bus companies, I finally felt I conquered the information gap when I found more than one post online that said not only could we get a Belizean bus from the old ADO terminal in Chetumal that would take us all the way through the border and onward into Belize, but that a colectivo from Bacalar to Chetumal would stop at that same terminal. Win!
So off we went to the park to get a colectivo (which is a small shared taxi rather than a van). After much discussion with some women in the park and the taxi driver, here's what we learned:
1) If we wanted a micro bus instead of the shared taxi out of Bacalar, it would take a $20 peso taxi to get from where we were to where the micro buses leave Bacalar (not worth it for us).
2) A few months ago, Mexico made requirements that public transportation vehicles from Belize meet certain safety standards and also carry insurance in order to enter Mexico and hence run from Chetumal. So now the buses don't go any further than the Belize border.
So the process is this. Depending on if you are closer to the micro buses or shared taxis, get a ride on either of those to Santa Elena. Our colectivo was going to Chetumal so he dropped us off at the intersection turnoff to St Elena ($45 pesos per person) where we then caught a micro bus ($7 pesos). The micro bus will drop you right at the border/immigration. You could also get a private taxi from Bacalar for somewhere around $200.
Go to the kiosk on the right. That is Mexican immigration where you will exit the country.
Now is when you test your skills (and luck!) to see if they make you pay the $533 peso exit fee. If you flew into Mexico, it's likely that your 180 day tourist card was included in your airfare and is itemized under taxes and fees. Bring a printout of this to show the officer. That or if you crossed over land like I did in San Diego, you get 7 days free in Mexico. Whether or not you have to pay will be more up to the mood of the immigration officer than the actual law.
They tried to charge me but I politely pointed out that I was exactly within the 7 days of my overland tourist card. He agreed and stamped my passport. My friend was not as fortunate since she didn't have her itemized plane ticket.
So you've made it out of Mexico. You must now go straight across the bridge over the Hondo River, and turn right at the bottom (a casino, yes a casino, will be on your left).
If you go straight into the Zona Libre, a very nice guard will call you by your first name from his wooden shack (yes this really happened!) and tell you must go to the right.
There you will see some old schoolbuses parked and waiting to go down into Belize. There is a small shop there to get a cold drink but there are really no other facilites available such as somewhere to get Belizean dollars. But the shop and the bus will accept pesos.
You have two choices. You can walk about 10 minutes ahead to the Belize immigration building (the people by the buses can point it out), get your paperwork done, officially enter the country, then wait until the bus pulls into the lot on the other side. Or you can wait with the bus until it departs, ride it up to immigration, get your paperwork done, officially enter the country, then get back on the bus in the lot on the other side. Everyone must exit the bus (with luggage) to go through immigration regardless of citizenship. Just try not to take too long with your tourist entry since you will hold up everyone else who is now waiting for you on the bus. Expect to be sharing your bus with mainly locals, possibly a tourist or two, and quite a few Mennonites.
We left Bacalar at 11:30 (10:30 Belize time), got over the bridge to wait for the 12:00 bus, and were through Belize immigration and back on the bus at 12:25. Arrived in Orange Walk at 2pm for a total of 3 1/2 hours.