Buses and Shuttle Buses
Most travelers get around Guatemala by bus or shuttle bus. The majority of inter- and intracity buses are “chicken buses,” as travelers have dubbed them, recycled U.S. school buses painted in lively colors. Cargo and carry-on baggage often consists of live animals, hence the name. Please be aware that robberies, including pickpocketing and armed hijacking, are increasingly common on these inexpensive public buses serving the interior.
The U.S. State Department Consular Information Sheet cites the death of over 100 bus drivers and passengers in armed robberies in 1996. Chicken buses are also poorly maintained and frequently involved in traffic accidents in which the bus plunges into a ravine or makes a blind pass into a head-on collision. For the intrepid, the chicken bus is still an easy way to see Guatemala and get to virtually any part of the country cheaply.
Tourist shuttle buses plying the main tourist routes, though more expensive, have become increasingly popular for safety reasons and are highly recommended. Additionally, shuttle buses sometimes offer door-to-door service. Recommended shuttle buses are ATITRANS, Turansa, and Grayline Tours.
Also reliable are first-class buses that run between Guatemala City and major cities such as Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Puerto Barrios, Cobán, and Flores. Prices are comparable to shuttle buses, but service is aboard large luxury coaches, often with restrooms and onboard food service.
Pickups and Minivans
Another common form of getting around, particularly in remote rural areas with infrequent bus service is via (roughly) scheduled service aboard pickup trucks. Minivans have also replaced cumbersome chicken buses in many rural areas with poor roads.
Rental cars are plentiful in Guatemala and can be rented in Guatemala City, Panajachel, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, Cobán, and Flores. Some local agencies are also available. There’s nothing like the freedom of having your own wheels when exploring new surroundings. Renting a car allows you to go wherever Guatemala’s roads will take you.
With that in mind, it’s probably best to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The only exception is if you plan to stick to urban areas such as Guatemala City and Antigua or along the Pan-American Highway. A compact car will run you about $300 a week, while a four-wheel-drive vehicle can cost as much as $400–600 a week.
You might find better deals online. It sometimes pays to reserve something through an online booking service and then call around locally to get the best rates and comparison shop. Most cars in Guatemala are stick shift, with automatic transmission often costing a bit more.
If your credit card company doesn’t offer adequate insurance coverage, make sure to purchase additional insurance. Coverage provided by credit cards such as Visa and American Express usually doesn’t apply if you go “off-road,” which you likely will. Coverage varies from one company to the next, but usually excludes personal liability (damage to property or other vehicles) and theft. If you stick to the basic coverage offered by the car rental agency, your credit card will have to cover outrageous deductibles, often in the vicinity of $750–1,500. Purchasing full coverage from the rental agency can run $25 a day and really adds to the final bill, but some find it a small price to pay for peace of mind.
Before leaving the car rental lot, make sure to check the car over, paying attention to every minute detail. Rental agents will go over the car with you and document any scratches, dings, and dents. They’ll inspect it again when you return the vehicle. Any new damage (or previously undocumented damage) might cost you dearly.
Never leave a vehicle parked on the street overnight and never leave personal belongings inside an unattended vehicle.
Taxicabs are available in almost any town or city. In smaller towns, the best way to find a taxi is in the central square, or parque central. In Guatemala City, taxis are available at the Zona 10 hotels, shopping malls, or (as a last resort) can be hailed from street corners. It’s always best to call a cab, as certain city zones get more taxi traffic and not all companies are reliable.
Highly recommended is Taxis Amarillo Express (tel. 2332-1515); you must call for a cab and will need an exact address for pickup. They are one of the only companies to use taxi meters. As a final word of caution, the U.S. Embassy discourages travelers from hailing cabs off the street in Guatemala City.
In smaller towns and villages, you’ll also find the Asian-style tuk-tuks, or motorized rickshaws powered by a motorcycle engine. These offer a lower-cost alternative to standard taxicabs and are great if you’re traveling without luggage over short distances.
If you need to get around for days at a time, it might be worth renting a taxi by the day or week. This is particularly the case in Guatemala City, where there are many neighborhoods tucked into the varied terrain and certainly some places you’ll wish to avoid. Many taxi drivers are willing to negotiate a daily or hourly rate, somewhere in the vicinity of $10 an hour or $75 a day. You can often get a really good deal if you negotiate for multiple days.
Most Guatemalan taxi drivers are friendly and helpful, making great sources of conversation to gauge opinions on issues of daily life for the average Guatemalan. It seems almost everyone has a friend or a friend of a friend who is a taxi driver, and they may be able to recommend someone to you.
I can personally vouch for the services of Yosaray Ramírez (tel. 4159-5152, yosarayramirez777 [at] hotmail [dot] com). Yosaray speaks some English and has lived in the U.S. He is also a great option for trips to Guatemala’s interior.
Though hitchhiking in its traditional form is not widely practiced in Guatemala, a local adaptation exists in remote rural areas where there is limited or nonexistent bus service. People with pickup trucks will often give you a ride in the back of their trucks. The fee is usually nominal, if anything at all.
If you’re driving a rental car, you may be tempted to pick up hitchhikers as local people always appreciate a ride. It’s a catch-22, however, as hitchhikers often don’t know how to exit a vehicle and will sometimes jump from the back of a pickup truck while it’s still in motion. I’ve heard horror stories of villagers suddenly turning on the driver of the vehicle (as if it were his or her fault) for the injured person’s predicament. It’s up to you whether or not to pick up hitchhikers but at least now you know what to expect.
In some areas, getting around by boat is the most practical option. This is particularly the case on the shores of Lake Atitlán, where regular ferry service and small motorboats make their way across the lake from Panajachel to the outlying villages. Boat service is also a major form of transportation in coastal areas, particularly in Izabal department along the Río Dulce, on Lake Izabal, and in coastal areas such as Lívingston and Puerto Barrios. On the Pacific side, motorboats traverse the Canal de Chiquimulilla, which separates the Pacific seaboard from the Guatemalan mainland along much of the coast.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com