Once you’ve arrived in-country, you’ll find that getting around Guatemala is incredibly cheap. While Guatemala’s hectic forms of public transportation take some getting used to, they are usually quite convenient and always a fascinating experience.
The cheapest and easiest way to travel in Guatemala is by camioneta, or as it’s commonly known in English, the chicken bus – the name refers to the tendency of passengers to transport live poultry on board. Chicken buses are school buses that have broken down or no longer pass emissions standards in the United States. They are purchased at auction and driven to Central America, where they are souped up and decked out with colorful paint jobs, powerful sound systems, and gaudy electronic scrollbars advertising their destinations. See La Camioneta for more information on this exciting travel option.
Camionetas run frequently between almost all possible destinations in Guatemala and offer a convenient, affordable form of transportation for both locals and tourists. An hour-long bus ride will run you around Q10. To understand these low prices, the Guatemalan joke, “How many people can fit on a camioneta? One more!” is very telling. You will probably find yourself sitting three to a seat with an indigenous woman asleep on your left and two drooling children on your right. While this chaotic atmosphere is not for the high-maintenance traveler, if you want to experience the real Guatemala, a camioneta ride is a must. Most major cities have a bus terminal from where buses leave as soon as they fill up. Smaller towns will have a set schedule, and buses tend to leave from the central park.
Every camioneta has a piloto (driver) and an ayudante (helper). While the piloto whips around mountain curves, the ayudante helps passengers with their bags, squirms through packed aisles, and climbs over seats to collect pasaje (fare). Buying tickets in advance is not necessary; simply pay the ayudante when he comes around to collect the fare. Camionetas can be intimidating at first, but don’t worry – pilotos have years of experience driving the same route– so relax, hold on, and enjoy the ride!
Micros and Pickups
The smaller version of the Guatemalan camioneta is known as a micro. A micro is a small shuttle bus with benches inside for passengers and a rack on top for luggage. In an ideal world, around 15 people could comfortably ride in a micro. In Guatemala, you will no doubt find micros stuffed with over 25 people, plus a few more on top. Micros tend to charge the same fares as camionetas heading for the same place, so the choice between the two is a matter of personal preference. Taller travelers and those who easily get carsick tend to prefer the camioneta. Some routes are only covered by micros, and vice versa.
In very rural areas, public transportation is provided by picops, or pickup trucks. Rates are the same as for camionetas and micros, but you’ll be riding in the bed of the truck as opposed to sitting inside. Hail a pickup as if you were hitching a ride and offer to pay when you exit. Very rarely you will be given a free ride, but this is definitely the exception. Let the driver know where to drop you off by tapping on the top of the cab or yelling ‘Baja!’. In general, public transportation is easiest to find in the morning.
First-Class Ground Transportation
Many companies offer private, direct bus service between large cities in Guatemala at a slightly higher rate. Unlike camionetas and micros, these buses have assigned seats and follow a set schedule. While nothing fancy, these Pullman buses are much more comfortable and usually faster, as they don’t stop to let passengers on and off. Many of these companies have their terminals in Guatemala City.
Tourist shuttles might be the fastest and most comfortable way to reach your destination, but they are typically the most expensive as well. More or less every popular tourist destination has shuttle service in one form or another, and if you are rushed on time or don’t mind shelling out the extra bucks, it can make your life a lot simpler and more comfortable. Two of the best shuttle companies around are Atitrans and Turansa.
Cars and Motorcycles
All you need to drive a car in Guatemala is your home country’s driver’s license, but don’t expect this to prepare you for operating a motor vehicle here. Drivers in Guatemala are notoriously aggressive, indiscriminately honk their horns, and won’t hesitate to pass on blind mountain curves. Turn signals are ignored, as are seat belts, speed limits, and laws against drunk driving. The one guideline that seems to be universally respected is that vehicles traveling uphill are given the right of way. Renting a car or motorcycle is a great way to see Guatemala on your own schedule, but be careful if you choose to do so.
Domestic Air Transport
Most major cities in Guatemala have an airport or airstrip, but Guatemala does not yet offer regularly scheduled domestic air transport. However, many visitors take advantage of private flights to save time on the trip between the capital and the island of Flores in Petén. This service makes it possible for travelers on a tight schedule to visit Tikal (see Flying to Mayan Ruins for more info).
Photo Credit: Kombi Rutera