Vans (or shuttles) carry the vast majority of tourists around the country and they are considered the safest way to travel- and the fastest as well unless you use a car.
Assaults on buses and motor vehicles is a persistent problem on Guatemala's roads. Assailants are often armed. In Guatemala City as of mid December 2012 80 drivers have been slain- a significant improvement from 2009 when at least 170 drivers were assassinated by hoodlums- the new administration (2012) brought in the army to improve security in the city. The Army ran "sting operations" on city buses and broke up gangs who were extorting protection money from bus drivers. On my last visit (FEB 2013) their was no army presence but numerous police in downtown/commercial zones. SEE UPDATE AT BOTTOM
Pullman buses that run across Guatemala including those with cross border destinations are reasonably secure.
Reports of robberies on the "chicken" buses (former American school buses) including murders of the drivers are not being reported as frequently- Many buses stopped running but on my last visit operations seemed normal- crowded and belching smoke as usual.
Since June and the start of October (2013) 48 bus drivers were killed- 33 in urban areas and 15 "intra-city". Also, 17 assistants (fare collectors/baggage handlers) were murdered. I will admit that this does not support my contention that public safety on transport is improving- ALWAYS USE PULLMAN BUSES WHEN AVAILABLE or TOURIST VANS!!!
It's the TRANSMETRO consisting of articulated buses painted florescent lime green that operate in reserved lanes. This brand new system (constantly expanding) is safe and patrolled by police and attendants and kept spotlessly clean. It is just the beginning of a much larger system that will take a decade to complete.
A popular main line operates from the Centro Civico southwesterly along Avenida Bolivar to El Trebol (a California style highway clover leaf intersection) and then down Avenida Batres. Serves Zonas 1, 4, 9, and 13. FARE = ONE QUETZAL
Hop on the Centro CIvico bus if you want to try it out.
There are many areas in the Highlands of Alta Verapaz and north of Huehuetenango with hazardous narrow roads. Although vans are becoming popular, used school buses from the US are still used. Seats have little leg room and it can get very uncomfortable on the knees for those with long legs. AVOID sitting in the last seat of the bus and expecially AVOID sitting over the rear wheelwell. Backpacks and luggage are lashed down on top of the bus- DON'T WORRY. The ticket taker knows it is yours. In bad weather covers are pulled over the luggage. Tips are not given by the locals but it doesn't hurt to give the guy a couple Quetzales for stowing your bag. You can bring your smaller bags inside the bus which have overhead racks. DON'T BE SURPRISED to see 6 or more people sitting across one row of seats with one person sitting awkwardly suspended over the aisleway. It's always fascinating to see how the ticket taker squeezes his way through the packed passengers to collect fares. He may not have change- you'll have to wait for it if you don't have small bills.
Before boarding a bus give the tires a look-see and check for overloading (especially on mountain routes). You want to be alert for unscrupulous operators who cut corners on maintenance. In all liklihood you will be very far off the beaten tourist track to find a bus that is too worn and old to operate safely.
Chicken buses now operate from "EL TREBOL" a major roadway interchange in Zona 8 (take Avenida Bolivar from downtown or better yet the new METRO SERVICE One Quetzal FARE articulated Green Bus)
See my Guatemala page for comments about crime and transportation.
The principle skill required is knowing when and how to pass. Passing other vehicles is a skill you will have to learn very quickly. Passing is an essential skill - it is not optional- you will be expected to pass slow moving vehicles in front of you- particularly in the mountains where cargo trucks grind forward at glacial velocity. In the coastal areas the sugar harvest fills the roads with barely moving trucks. Leave the driving to the van drivers if at all possible.
Bus and truck drivers do not pass on curves. But other drivers do. A car passing you on a curve expects that you will leave enough space for him to pull into if necessary.
An oncoming car (headed towards you in your lane) will flash his lights if he needs more room. Flashing headlights tells oncoming vehicles to slow down to give the oncoming vehicle room to pull back in.
The driver of a slow moving vehicle in front of you will sometimes signal you with an arm wave that it is clear ahead to pass- but it could mean something else or nothing at all-
Turn signals are not used.
And yes, lots of drivers use their car as a mobile phone booth.
Prensa Libre, Guatemala's most important daily newspaper, displays a link to download PDF maps of each of Guatemala's provinces. Each map is 10.5 by 12.5 inches (and about 3 megabytes) and is an accurate update of the highway and river systems with information useful for deciding what to see and do. If you download these to a penlike portable USB drive (aka flash drive) before you leave on your trip you'll be able to use any computer with a USB port to display your maps.
The electronic maps show some roads and settlements that don't make it onto the tourist maps- Check them out if you are interested in exploring remote areas. Territory bordering MEXICO is best avoided.
The maps you get free from INGUAT's are new also. They've corrected many of the inaccuracies found in the older editions.
COPY AND PASTE THIS LINK INTO YOUR BROWSER: http://servicios.prensalibre.com/pl/especial/mapas/
GANGS ARE TARGETING CITY BUSES. RIDING CITY BUSES IS NOT ADVISED.
Use of the 83 is not necessary (I recommend taxis) but is an alternative way to get from the airport (Zona 13) to downtown (Zona 1) through (Zonas 9, 10).
Bus 83 will get you to/from the airport (Zona 13), the museums and zoo (Zona 10), government offices (Zona 4) and the central business district and National Palace (Zona 1). NOTE: The 2nd class bus terminal in Zona 4 is closed. It has moved to "El Trebol" a major cloverleaf interchange in Zona 8. A cab or the TransMetro (see below) will take you there. Of course, the tourist vans that leave from many hotels and travel agencies are your best bet for getting to Antigua, Panajachel, Copan, etc etc
Not all 83 buses follow the same route. Look for a sign saying "Aeropuerto" or "Aurora" in the window and confirm with the driver.
Bus fare is nominal and exact fare is not necessary. You can board at the front of the bus or the side door. NOTE:
Make sure your valuables are secure (and not tucked into a back pocket!!!). If you are standing you will be very busy holding on to rails and seat bars to keep your balance and if the bus is crowded.... (note however, that pickpockets are far less skilled than those in Mexico City and many European cities). Be on guard against distractions causing you to NOT PAY ATTENTION.
NOTE Getting on buses to see where they go is not always a good idea. Some neighborhoods "colonias" are unsafe because of gangs. You may also get to the end of the line and find the bus isn't leaving for half an hour or more. If you want to explore- hire a cab.
Water taxis are the best way to get around and in some cases the only means to visit some of the villages on Atitlan as hiking between villages is not recommended due to petty crime/muggings. Don't feel like a sell out here as the boats are often the primary means of transport for the locals.
Boats like shared vans cost a buck or two depending on where you are going and leave when they have 12 people or every 30 min depending on the dest.
Atitlan is not a small lake and at times can get choppy so be prepared to get wet if you sit up front at times (the skippers will often throw you a plastic sheet to cover with so you don't get wet and the mid part of the boat has vinyl covers that can be pulled down to keep the inside of the boat dry.
From San Pedro to Panajachel it is about a 40 min ride non stop. Others act like stop trains and make multiple so check prior to boarding if you are in a rush.
Tuk Tuks are here. as they are in the rest of the world there is no shortage here. Although riding around in one in the village of San Pedro I thought I was going to have to jump out and push it up one of the roads as these tend to be better suited for flat metropolitan areas.
The one positive note is that they have been banned from the historic center of Antigua ; )
GUA (La Aurora) is Guatemala's main international airport located in District 13 of Guatemala City. From Europe it is served N/S from Madrid on Iberia and from the US on American, Delta and United(Continental), and Spirit...American probably has the most flights but both Delta and Taca serve LAX which is roughly a 4 hour flight. Copa serves Panama City, Managua and connects to points further south. There are a handful of other airlines serving the city...check the skeds for more info. The airport is modern with jet-ways so you don't get wet getting off the plane when it is raining.
Customs and Immigration is surprisingly quick. Public transport options are a bit on the limited side. Share vans and taxi tend to be the primary methods of getting two from the airport. There is an ATM on the arrivals level of the airport along with an exchange....most Guatemalans in the city and in Antigua will take USD. A shared van to Antigua will cost approx 10 USD. If you can avoid it try and change money outside of the airport or at the bank in the airport parking structure for better exchange rates. There is a 20Q security fee you have to pay when leaving the airport and must be paid prior to entering the gate area. When you buy your ticket ask if the 30 USD departure tax is also included..if not be prepared to pay prior to leaving. For international flights plan to be at the airport at least 2 hours prior to departure. I had a 07:30 departure so had to catch a 4 am van from Antigua to make the flight.
Flores is the other airport in Guatemala with service to Cancun, Guatemala city and a few other locations
Aéreo Ruta Maya offers jungle flying tours. Linking the Mayan world with harter flights from Guatemala City, Tikal & Copán.
Copán is being served exclusively from the private runway "La Estanzuela" located 4 km from the archeological site.
There are (at present) no direct flights from the UK to Guatemala, so you’ll need to change planes somewhere. Most people choose, as we did, to travel via the US. This has the advantage of plenty of choice, and relatively reasonable prices, but the disadvantage of the lengthy customs and immigration procedures at US airports, which you are obliged to go through even if you have no intention of setting foot on US soil. Our flights allowed about two hours for this process, but on the way out (travelling via Dallas/Fort Worth) we barely made our connecting flight, and on the way home (returning from Belize City via Miami), we missed it, owing to a slightly delayed arrival in Miami. We ended up catching the following flight, three hours later, and felt that on reflection we would rather have been booked on that from the start.
That apart, the journeys were incident-free. We used British Airways for our transatlantic flights and their partner American Airlines for the flights between the US and Central America. The BA service was good, with reasonable in-flight meals, a good choice of films and entertainment to pass the time, and friendly cabin crew. But we were less impressed with American Airlines. Staff were off-hand (one to the point of rudeness), and gave conflicting information about immigration requirements. And while we’re quite used these days to having to pay for food on shorter flights, it would have been good to be able to choose between more than just potato chips or cookies for lunch.
The outward flight from London Heathrow to Dallas/Fort Worth was around ten hours, and rather dull, despite a good film to watch and some exciting glimpses of Greenland and the frozen wastes of northern Canada. But however long and dull such journeys may be, that’s a lot better than an eventful flight! And you know that at the end of the holiday you will remember the delights of your destination and forget the time that it took you to get there. For while most destinations are unique, most long-haul flights are, thankfully, monotonously alike.
Eventually we reached our destination, Guatemala City’s Aurora International Airport, which we found to be modern, quiet and easy to navigate. There we were met by a representative of the local agents, STP, for the transfer to our first hotel in Antigua, 45 minutes away. We were to find that STP’s staff were all as friendly and efficient as this first driver, and they definitely helped to make our visit to Guatemala even more of a pleasure. See my General tip for more about STP – I can’t recommend them too highly.
Chicken buses are old U.S. school buses that are privately owned. A family will usually own several. When a bus arrives, it gets modified in a special shop—it is painted in 5-10 bright colors, more seats are added, hand straps go along the center aisle, and it gets roof racks and a rear ladder. They also put in a more powerful engine.
When the bus is ready, they hire drivers. The drivers have to be good (they are tested) but also fast. Fast is more important. The owner expects to make a certain amount per day, and the excess over that is the driver’s wage so he has an incentive to speed. (All the roads have big speed bumps to slow them down.) The driver hires (and pays) the doorman. He is the guy that stands in the open doorway calling out their destination and drumming up trade.
The bus will often have 100+ people in it, along with their packages, chickens, etc. Sometimes they might have a pig or some furniture. If the items are too big to bring into the bus, the doorman loads them on the top rack. He may still be on the roof tying things down when the bus starts down the road, so he climbs down the ladder and squeezes in through the back emergency door. Then he weaves his way through the packed-in passengers to collect fares. Sometimes the bus is so full that passengers hang out of it.
Chicken buses are the main mode of transportation for many people. They don’t cross borders, so if you are going to another country you have to transfer to a different one.
I took the first minibus in the morning leaving Copán for the border. It left at 6.00 and was 20 lempiras (July 2009). At the border the customs went quick as I was the only passenger from the minibus who needed to get my passport stamped. On the Guatemalan side the bus going to Chiquimula waited for me. For that bus I paid 25 quetzales.
In Chiquimula the company Maria Elena has got buses to Flores/Santa Elena at 6, 10 and 15. At their office I bought a ticket for 100 quetzales for the 10 o’clock bus and then went out to find something to eat. At one of the eateries at the market I bought a plate with meat, rice and beans and a pepsi to drink. It was served with tortillas and it was 19 quetzales.
After a few hours drive towards Santa Elena/Flores the bus broke down. Someone were sent out to buy new screws, but the only ones they could get hold of were too long, so the men then tried to shorten them with the help of a stone and a pair of tongs. I don’t know if they succeeded, because after waiting for more than half an hour another, bigger bus heading for Santa Elena stopped. It was from another company, but I didn’t mind paying more as long as I arrived before dark. On this bus I paid 40 quetzales. There were another two hours until we reached Santa Elena. As we entered Santa Elena the passengers going to Flores had to change for a shuttle bus (it didn’t cost any extra). It took us to our hotels, and at the same time they tried to get us to sign up for a tour to Tikal the next day.
To go from Santa Ana to Copán Ruínas in Honduras the quickest way is to go through Guatemala and if you are using public transportation it will include changes between several buses.
In the morning I went to the corner of Avenida F Moraga Sur and 13a Calle Pte in Santa Ana and there I waited 10 minutes for the next bus to Metapán. The ticket was 0.90 dollars (July 2009) and it took almost 1.5 hours because after half an hour a tyre exploded. We continued for another 15 minutes with an unbearable loud sound coming from the tyre. Then the bus company luckily had sent out another bus to meet us. When we reached the bus terminal in Metapán a bus was just leaving for the border. That bus was 0.55 dollars and took half an hour.
I walked over the border and got my passports stamped. On the Guatemalan side I was told to wait by the road. There were no one else waiting, but only lots of lorries. After some time waiting a bus to Chiquimula arrived though. It was 15 quetzales and took 2 hours. In Chiquimula the bus stopped at the market and I asked for the direction of the buses to El Florido. On the next bus the man told me it was 30 quetzales to El Florido. I didn’t believe it as I had just paid 15 quetzales for a longer ride. The man then changed his mind to 25 quetzales, which I still thought was too much, but he said that was the correct price. It turned out the bus was only going half way to El Florido and I had to change bus after 50 minutes). Money were handed over to a guy (not on the bus). I asked on the new bus for the price and they said they charged 16 quetzales, not 25. (Coming back from Honduras I was charged 25 quetzales again so I don’t know if that was the correct price or a price tourists are charged).
On the border to Honduras I had expected there to be some militaries as all borders had been closed a few days earlier because of the political situation in Honduras. There were no militaries at the border, there was not even anyone at the immigration office, so I had to ask for someone to come. The departure tax from Guatemala was 25 lempiras and for entering Honduras I paid 3 dollars(June 2009). When I was ready a minibus was leaving for Copán. It was 20 lempiras and it took about 20 minutes. In Copán the minibus stops near Parque Central and when I arrived it was afternoon.
You've just got to try Guatemala's chicken buses at least once. They are incredibly cheap and present a rare opportunity to share an everyday experience with ordinary Guatemalans. The seats are small and four people usually squeeze onto a seat that should really only take two. I think three hours is about the maximum journey time anyone should spend on one. Any longer than that, and the level of discomfort will begin to sour the experience.
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