With no passenger trains and few people able to afford a car, virtually everyone travels by “chicken bus” in Guatemala. These buses may be decrepit, uncomfortable, fume-filled and overcrowded, but they give you a unique opportunity to mix with ordinary Guatemalans. If you opt only for tourist shuttles, you’ll be missing out on one of the country’s most essential experiences. More comfortable buses – some of them quite fast and luxurious – ply the main highways, but once you leave the central routes and head off on the byways, there’s usually no alternative to a bumpy ride inside a chicken bus or a pick-up truck.
The country’s road system has been substantially upgraded in the last few years, but dirt roads are the norm in some rural areas, where the going can be painfully pedestrian. Fortunately, whatever the pace of your journey, you’ll always have the spectacular Guatemalan countryside to wonder at.
Buses are cheap, convenient, and can be wildly entertaining. For the most part the service is extremely comprehensive, reaching even the smallest of villages.
Guatemala has two classes of bus. Second-class or “chicken buses”, known as camionetas, are the most common and easily distinguished by their trademark clouds of thick, black, noxious fumes and rasping exhausts. Camionetas are old North American school buses, with limited legroom, and the seats and aisles are usually crammed with passengers. The driver always seems to be a moustachioed ladino with an eye for the ladies and a fixation for speed and overtaking on blind corners, while his helper (ayudante) always seems to be overworked and under-age. It’s the ayundante’s job to scramble up to the roof to retrieve your rucksack, collect the fares and bellow out the destination to all. While travel by second-class bus may be uncomfortable, it is never dull, with chickens clucking, music assaulting your eardrums and snack vendors touting for business.
Almost all chicken buses operate out of public bus terminals, often adjacent to the market; between towns you can hail buses and they’ll almost always stop for you – regardless of how many people are already on board.
Tickets are (nearly always) bought on the bus, and whilst they are very cheap, gringos do sometimes get ripped off – try to observe what the locals are paying. Fares cost US$1–1.25 an hour.
The so-called pullman, usually a Greyhound-style bus, is rated as first-class, and tickets can be bought in advance. These “express” services are about 25 percent more expensive than the regular buses – around US$1.50 an hour, though there are some very luxurious, more pricey options. Services vary tremendously: some companies’ buses are double-deckers, with reclining seats and ice-cold air-conditioning, while other operators use decrepit vehicles. Each passenger is allocated a seat and all pullmans are pretty punctual.
Pullmans usually leave from the private offices of the bus company and they only run the main routes, connecting the capital with Río Dulce and Flores/Santa Elena, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, the Mexican border, Chiquimula and Esquipulas, Puerto Barrios, Cobán, Copán and the rest of Central America. Note that tickets are often collected by conductors at the end of the journey, so make sure you don’t lose yours.
Non-tourist minibuses (microbuses) are very common in Guatemala, particularly on paved roads. They usually operate from the main bus station, or use a separate terminal close by. Travel on microbuses costs about US$1.25 per hour.
In remote parts of the country pick-ups (picops) supplement microbus services, and for sheer joy of travel, you can’t beat the open-air views (unless it’s raining!). Passengers are charged about the same (around US$1.25/hr).
Providing fast, nonstop links between the main tourist centres, shuttle buses are very popular in Guatemala. Conveniently, passengers are picked up from their hotels, so you won’t have to lug any heavy bags around. Services are expanding rapidly and now cover virtually everywhere that tourists travel in any number, and it’s usually easy to organize an “especial” service (for a price) if your destination is not on a regular route. At around US$4–5 an hour, shuttles are expensive, but drivers are almost always more cautious than regular bus drivers.
The only scheduled internal flight currently operating in Guatemala is from the capital to Flores. Flights cost US$220–250 return (one-way from US$130) and take fifty minutes (as opposed to some eight hours on the bus). Two airlines, Taca and TAG, offer a total of three daily return flights (see Dolores). Tickets can be bought from virtually any travel agent in the country.
Driving in Guatemala certainly offers unrivalled freedom, though traffic is incessantly heavy in the capital and always busy along the Interamericana and the highway to Puerto Barrios. Be warned that local driving practices can be alarming, including overtaking on blind corners. All the main routes are paved, but beyond this many roads are often extremely rough. Filling stations (gasolineras) are common. Fuel (gasolina) costs US$4.40 per gallon.
Parking and security are an issue, particularly in towns. Always leave your car in a guarded car park and choose a hotel with secure parking. Speed bumps (túmulos) are everywhere, even on main highways.
Local warning signs are also worth getting to know. The most common is placing a branch, which indicates the presence of a broken-down car or a hazard ahead. Derrumbes means landslides, and frene con motor (brake with motor) indicates a steep descent.
Renting a car costs from US$40 a day for a tiny hatchback or around US$70 for a 4WD by the time you’ve added the extras. Always take full-cover insurance and be aware that many companies will make you sign a clause so you are responsible for the first US$1000 of damage in the event of an accident, damage or theft. Local rental companies are listed in the Guide for main towns.
Taking your own car into Guatemala entails a great deal of bureaucracy. You’ll be issued a car permit (usually valid for thirty days) at the border, and there are hefty penalties if you overstay. An insurance policy for Central America is necessary. If you plan to continue further south into Central America, expect to pay for more entry permits.
US, Canadian, EU, Australian and New Zealand driving licences are valid in Mexico and throughout Central America.
Taxis are available in all the main towns, and their rates are fairly low at around US$3 for a short ride (or US$5 in Guatemala City). Outside the capital, metered cabs are non-existent, so it’s essential to fix a price before you set off. Local taxi drivers will almost always be prepared to negotiate a price for an excursion to nearby villages or sites (perhaps US$35 for a half-day or US$60 for a full day). If you can organize a group, this need not be an expensive option.
Three-wheeled Thai tuk-tuks have proliferated throughout Guatemala in the last few years, operating as taxis, buzzing around the streets, Bangkok-style. They are common in most towns, except in Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango. It’s best to fix the fare in advance; a short ride usually costs US$0.75, more in Antigua.
Bicycles are quite common in Guatemala, and cycling has to be one of the most popular sports. You’ll be well received almost anywhere if you travel by bike, and most towns will have a repair shop. Be warned that the main roads include plenty of formidable potholes, and it’s a rare ride that doesn’t involve at least one steep climb – chicken buses will carry bikes on the roof if you can’t face the hills.
You can rent bikes in towns including Antigua, Panajachel and Quetzaltenango; mountain bikes can be rented by the day (about US$8) or week (US$25). For real two-wheel enthusiasts, Maya Mountain Bike Tours and Old Town Outfitters, both in Antigua and The Bike Shop in Quetzaltenango all offer a range of challenging bike trips.
Motorbikes are not that common in Guatemala, and locating parts and mechanical expertise can be tricky. There’s a rental outlet in Panajachel which charges from US$45 a day.
In Petén, there are a number of possible boat routes, including tours around Lago de Petén Itzá from Flores. Several terrific boat trips start in the town of Sayaxché, including the trip to Lago de Petexbatún and Aguateca and along the Río de la Pasión to Ceibal.
Along the Pacific coast, you can explore the mangroves of the Chiquimulilla canal from Monterrico and Paredón.
Guatemala’s most spectacular boat journey is through the Río Dulce gorge, either starting in Lívingston or Río Dulce Town. The pubic boats that cover this route will give you a quick glance at the scenery but you can’t beat a slow cruise; trips are best organized in Livingston. Volcano-framed Lago de Atitlán is another idyllic place to experience by boat: public lanchas connect all the main villages, or you can charter a boat in Panajachel for about US$12 an hour.