How to Travel (Like A Local) in Guatemala

By Jennifer Miller on August 16th, 2016
BootsnAll
I’m a long way from having been to all of them (or even half of them) but so far, Guatemala is my favorite country. Why? Great question. It’s not like the food is that great. The infrastructure is pretty much crap. It’s not the most peaceful place in the world (ranked 117th of 163, by the Global Peace Index 2016 the USA is at 103, for perspective). And it’s not that easy to get around.
“…there’s something about the people, the place, and the languages, that sing to my soul.”
But there’s something about the people, the place, and the languages, that sing to my soul. My theory is that I’m drawn to Guatemala because I was gestated there. My bones and body are literally made from the water and minerals of the highlands. I’m drawn back like a salmon.

Guatemala is one of those places that hits you like a wet sock in the face if you fly in and try to hit the ground running. It’s much nicer to drive the length of Mexico and ease into her a little bit. But if you can’t manage that, and you’re coming in hard, then overland travel is your next big hurdle.

” If you want to see more than the obvious tourist highlights you’re going to have to get down and dirty and travel like the locals.”
There simply aren’t flights around the country to speak of (to Tikal and back is really about it). If you want to see more than the obvious tourist highlights you’re going to have to get down and dirty and travel like the locals.

Wondering what that looks like? I’ll break it down for you, from the easiest to the most challenging modes of transportation. Read all the way to the end for some logistical and packing tips to make it all easier.

Planning a gap year in Central America?

Hire a Driver


Getting around in Antiga Guatemala
For those of you who are experienced travelers, or the romantic sort that turn your nose up at the idea of hiring a driver, let me give you a few good reasons to reconsider.

Sometimes it’s cheaper


Adding up the individual fares for a collectivo, there reaches a point where having the van to yourself actually becomes cheaper. When we fly into Guatemala City on the short end of a six-month stay, with six people in our family, and a big bag each, it’s a lovely thing to have our friend Jairo standing there with his bus, knowing we’re actually saving money over wrangling the collectivo drivers who circle like vultures at the airport.

Sometimes it’s safer


When I’ve got a 15-year-old boy flying in, alone, after dark to one of the dodgier cities in the region, it’s nice to know that Don Julio will be there with a smile, no matter the hour. Sometimes not having to wrangle a ride in a second language, and a different culture, at a less than optimal hour is worth it.

You can go where you want


If you’re getting off the beaten path a bit, it’s possible that the collectivo doesn’t go where you want to go, and if you’re not quite up for a flete yet, then hiring a driver is a great option. They’ll take you anywhere, for a price.

You don’t just get a driver


Also, when you hire a driver, you get a guide, and a Spanish teacher, and someone to mind your stuff while you explore for a minute. You also make a friend and get a window into local life in that place.

I have long-term relationships with our two regular drivers in Guatemala. I know their families, and they know mine. One of them took a week-long road trip into Honduras with us, and we had a blast.

To give you an idea of the price, our driver in Panajachel charges $100USD for a round trip from Lago de Atitlan to Guatemala City (the airport, or wherever you need to go. Our driver in Antigua charges $50 USD for a round trip between the airport and Antigua. I’m quite sure it could be done cheaper, but that price includes the decent tip we always give.

Collectivo


A collectivo is a mini-bus that seats between nine and fifteen passengers. If you’re reserving one that’s designated for tourists, through your hotel, or a walk-up travel agency, then you can expect to have a seat to yourself. If you are wrangling one by the side of the road, or from a collectivo depot (usually near the main market in each town, or near the chicken bus stop) then you might find them overstuffed, as the prime directive for the driver is to assemble as many fares as possible.

Be prepared for your luggage to be tied on top. Be sure you’ve taken everything valuable or susceptible to impact or water damage out of your bag in advance and carry that in a small daypack on your lap.

These are probably the safest way for tourists to travel, short of hiring a driver. That doesn’t mean you should blithely put your life in someone else’s hands, always take responsibility for your own safety and the security of your own stuff. Always. At home, abroad, everywhere.

“…always take responsibility for your own safety and the security of your own stuff. Always. At home, abroad, everywhere.”
Any walk-up travel agency in any one-horse town will be able to get you a seat on a collectivo. Often, just walking around the tourist district they’ll solicit you, asking where you want to go. The collectivos run between all of the major tourist centers everywhere in the country. Likely, if it’s in your guidebook, there’s a collectivo that goes there. Your hotel or hostel is also likely to have connections and be able to arrange a ticket for you.

To give you an idea of pricing, this past winter it was an average of 80Q (about 12 USD) for a seat on a collectivo between Antigua and Lago de Atitlan.

Bus


There are bus lines that run to the major places in Guatemala. These are large tourist buses like you would see anywhere else, with luggage stored in a locked compartment below and Pullman style seats. There may, or may not, be terrible music or blaring Guatemalan movies playing.

There are several ways to procure tickets, through local travel agencies (walk up) or through a connection at your hotel. I would recommend going directly to the bus station and sorting it out directly. You’ll get a better price (no middle man), and you’ll be very sure you’re getting the bus you think you’re getting.

These buses are an easy way to travel. If you’re headed to Tikal and don’t want to pony up for the more costly flight over and back, there is an overnight bus that leaves from Antigua, or Guatemala City and has you in Tikal in time to tour the ruins in the morning. You can take the bus straight back that evening, thus rolling your lodging and transportation costs into one and “saving” some money. That said, it’s a 12-hour bus ride, you’ll miss all of the good stuff traveling in the dark, and overnight busing is not my favorite sport. I’d recommend either taking the flight if you’re in a hurry or traveling more slowly, overland, taking several days to get there, enjoy the ruins and get back.

These big buses also run up into Mexico, and down into the countries further south, as far as Panama (expect to change buses). I don’t have updated pricing on these, and as there are several lines and multiple routes, it’s best to check it out on the ground.


Tuk Tuk

tuk-tuk taxi in Guatemala
These are those little three wheeled contraptions that feel like they’re powered by a lawn mower engine. They belch black smoke, wheeze up any sort of hill, and are loads of fun to ride in. Don’t ask pesky safety questions, just get in, shut up, and hang on.

Tuk tuks are the way to get around in just about every town in Guatemala, no matter how small. Expect a two-tiered pricing system. Yours will be the more expensive price. When negotiating with these guys, never take the offered price. Always offer a third, or half, and work your way to a middle ground. With a smile. And don’t forget to tip, it’s good manners.

“Don’t be afraid of these little death traps. They’re loads of fun and you almost never die.”
Don’t be afraid of these little death traps. They’re loads of fun and you almost never die. They are the best way to get from wherever your bigger mode of transport dropped you to your hotel or the place you’re visiting. They’re a great way to spend your money very directly into the local economy.

Expect to pay 3-5Q for a short local ride in Antigua or Panajachel, but remember that what you pay is highly variable. Get good at mental currency conversion!

Taxi


A word about taxis in Guatemala City: Only take yellow ones. Taking cabs can be dodgy business in any major city. Expect the same kind of rodeo here. The yellow cabs are a more reliable company and you’re less likely to get ripped off. If there is a meter, ask them to use it. Never get into a cab without having negotiated the fare first. It’s always best to know where you are going (or be using your Google Maps on your phone) to be sure you aren’t getting taken for two rides, if you know what I mean.

Personally, I never take cabs in Guatemala. They are too much hassle and I’d rather take a cheaper tuk-tuk, or hire a driver, but that’s just me.

Chicken Bus


chicken bus and motor bike in Antiga, Guatemala
This is, hands down, my favorite way to travel in the world. I have never been able to understand why most of the guide books and travel sites warn against them. Okay, yes I can, actually.  They warn against them because they are somewhat dangerous, they are notoriously stressful to navigate if your Spanish isn’t very good, and it’s not an unusual thing to be ripped off, or have your bag slit in transit. Also, you’re likely to be the only non-Guatemalan on the bus.

“When I meet another traveler on a chicken bus, I know it’s not her first rodeo.”
But… they’re still my favorite way to travel. Perhaps because chicken buses are not what all of the other tourists are taking. When I meet another traveler on a chicken bus, I know it’s not her first rodeo. It’s the best way to really see a country, stopping in one horse towns. It’s the best way to strike up conversations with locals. It’s definitely the best deal on longer haul trips between cities. And it always results in a story.
Tips for riding a chicken bus:

ASK the destination before you get on the bus. Do not allow them to take your gear until you are very sure you know where it’s going. It will be loud, they’ll be in your face, it will feel high pressure and like there’s a big rush. There is not. Another bus will be along shortly. Don’t be pressured.

Check out the driver. Make sure he’s old enough to be able to drive and is sober, at the very least.

Be prepared for your gear to go on top. Pay attention to your gear at stops, to make sure it stays on the bus with you. The stops happen fast and it’s not unusual for the wrong bags to be tossed to the wrong people.

Carry your valuables on your body. Preferably inside your clothes, and don’t take them out. This is not the time for you to be taking pictures with your expensive iPhone through the bus windows.

Don’t ask the cost of the fare. There are no tickets, you just get on and sit down, a guy will come to collect the fare. Pay attention to what’s going on as the man passes through the bus collecting money. Pay what everyone else is paying. If it’s wrong, he’ll tell you. Only one time have I ever had a chicken bus salesman try to raise the price for me. If you look like you know what you’re doing, they’ll assume you know what you’re doing.

To give you an idea of the cost difference, a collectivo between Antigua and Panajachel costs about $12 USD. The same trip by chicken bus happens faster and costs just under $4 USD. You’ll change buses three times, at: Chimaltenango, Los Encuentros, and Solola. (in reverse going the other way). Don’t be afraid of chicken buses, they’re a great way to travel.

Flete


From the windows of your chicken bus you’ll see pickup trucks with tall welded iron frames in their backs filled with people. This is a flete (flay-tay), and really the only way to “level up” from chicken busing in terms of local travel, getting to off-the-beaten-path places and discomfort per mile.

To catch a flete, either flag one down, or visit the “depot” which is really just a designated parking area, usually near the market or main square in any little town. Always ask the price before you get in and be prepared to haggle. When you’re ready to get out (if it’s not an organized stop in a town) pound on the roof of the cab and they’ll pull over. You’ll pay a portion of the agreed upon point to point fare and you’ll be on your own.

Fletes are the best way to get to really off the trail places that even chicken buses don’t go. They’re also great for short jaunts between towns.

No, it’s not hitchhiking. Yes, they’re somewhat dangerous.

Boats on Lago de Atitlan

Boats on Lake Aitlan
Virtually everyone who goes to Guatemala ends up on Lago de Atitlan eventually, and it’s not hard to understand why, once you’ve been there. Consistently named in the top ten most beautiful lakes in the world, it still takes my breath away, every time I arrive.

The way to get around is on the lanchas, a system of water taxis that connect the towns around the lake. I wanted to include a few words on these boats because I’ve listened, quietly, to a lot of funny conversations (and some not so funny ones) on these boats over the years, in English and in Spanish, and sometimes in Mayan, which I do not understand, but not everything actually needs translation, if you know what I mean.

There’s a public dock in every town. There’s no hard and fast “schedule” for these boats, they do run regularly, every half an hour or so at most, frequency is often dependent on traffic. They stop running at dusk. Private boats can be hired after that, but you’ll pay a premium.

Morning rides will usually be calm and lovely. Afternoon rides may beat you to death. Plan accordingly.

Pricing is three-tiered


Mayans are paying one price, and you’re never going to get it, so don’t bother.

Long-term expats are paying another price. Unless you’re there at least six months and become a known entity to the drivers, you won’t get this price either.

Regular tourist price is you, and it’s still inexpensive, so stop complaining.

There is a fourth price… which I refer to as the “newbie tax.” If you’re foolish enough to ask, up front, what the price is for a boat ride, you’ll be told, and taken for a ride (not a boat ride, in case you were wondering). I’ve heard people be told that the price is 80Q when it’s 20. I’ve heard one traveler confidently tell another that the price is 30Q when it’s actually 15. As with chicken buses, pay attention to what other people are paying, or, ask someone who looks like a long-term expat what the price should be. Don’t ask the driver.

“If you’re foolish enough to ask, up front, what the price is for a boat ride, you’ll be told, and taken for a ride (not a boat ride, in case you were wondering).”
At the time of this writing, the correct tourist fare to pay on the major routes is as follows:

Panajachel to San Marcos: 20Q (10 to Santa Cruz, 15 to Jaibalito)
San Marcos to San Pedro: 10Q

Will your RTW Trip include Guatemala?

Renting a Car

I have rented cars on five continents, and this, my friends, is the greatest rodeo of them all. Why? Because renting a car in Central America (from a reputable agency… and we don’t want to be renting from less than reputable agencies, now do we?) involves a full $1000 USD hold on your credit card. They hold this against loss or damage of the car, which, apparently, is a significant enough risk that they stiff you with that up front. Be warned. This isn’t a one agency thing, this is an across the industry thing. Plan for it.

Driving in Guatemala is rather more analog than digital, which means that road rules, while they exist, are flexibly interpreted. If you don’t have experience driving in less than first world conditions, this is probably not the country to get your feet wet in. Also, be prepared to drive a manual transmission vehicle (stick) as automatics are harder to rent.

We drove our own van through the country a few years ago and got so turned around in the City that we had to hire a cab driver to lead us out of town. Yes, really. Adventures abound. Subsequently, we’ve rented cars in and around Antigua and Guatemala City and we no longer get lost… as often.

If you get into an accident expect people to want to negotiate on the spot, pay each other off and avoid getting the authorities involved. Rental cars are theft magnets so make sure you have secure off-the-street parking at night. And understand that this is not the cheapest, easiest or smartest way to travel in Guatemala. There are, however, reasons to do it, occasionally. May the force be with you.

Tips for Traveling Overland in Guatemala

If you’re traveling overland in Guatemala the biggest favor you can do yourself is to pack light. Carry-on only is best. Moving your gear, slinging it on and off the tops of buses and vans, and wrangling big bags in the back of small tuk-tuks isn’t going to be your favorite part. Less is more, I promise.

Pay attention, and ask around. Ask people who look like they live there, not the guy with a loud mouth in your hostel who knows everything except the fact that he’s paid too much for every single thing.

Don’t take the first offer.

Negotiate hard, with a smile.

Tip generously.

If you’re hiring a driver, make sure you come to an agreement on price in advance. If you’re hiring him for a road trip, expect to pay hotel and food as well as parking costs for the driver. Treat him like a friend, not an employee and it’s very likely he’ll open some doors for you that aren’t on the car.

Be brave and travel locally. Getting yourself into the situation where you’re the only non-Guatemalan in sight is a sign that you’re getting off of the beaten path and you’re beginning to really travel instead of just tour in a place. Remember that the world is a wonderful place, people are, overwhelmingly, good and kind, and you almost never die!

” Remember that the world is a wonderful place, people are, overwhelmingly, good and kind, and you almost never die!”
Learn some Spanish, it’s your ticket off of the tourist bus and into the real world. If you can learn some Mayan, it will take you places you never thought you’d go.

Guatemala is a beautiful country, my favorite, in fact. I wish I could take you there myself, help you negotiate the crazy that is “Washington and Jefferson,” as we affectionately call the spaghetti bowl mess of a chicken bus exchange in Chimaltenango. I’d love to ride across the lake in the early morning and name the volcanoes that frame it for you. I’d love to laugh as you try not to fall out of the back of a careening tuk tuk for the first time. Do me a favor, and tweet me a picture when you go. It’ll make my whole day.

Learn more about overland travel and destinations in Central America below:

Photo Credits: Shutterstock.com, Milosz Maslanka /Shutterstock.com, Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock.com, Joseph Mortimer /Shutterstock.com,Shutterstock.com /Shutterstock.com, Philip Mowbray.