A taxi from the airport to Santa Elena or Flores costs US$2. Tuk tuks will take you anywhere between or within Flores and Santa Elena for US$0.80. La Villa del Chef rents mountain bikes for US$6 for up to four hours and US$8 for four to 12 hours.
The Caribbean town of Lívingston is only reachable by boat, across the Bahía de Amatique from Puerto Barrios or down the Río Dulce from the town of Río Dulce – great trips both. In Lago de Atitlán fast fiberglass launches zip across the waters between villages.
Hitchhiking in the strict sense of the word is not practiced in Guatemala because it is not safe. However, where the bus service is sporadic or nonexistent, pickup trucks and other vehicles serve as public transport. If you stand beside the road with your arm out, someone will stop. You are expected to pay the driver as if it were a bus and the fare will be similar. This is a safe and reliable system used by locals and travelers, and the only inconvenience you’re likely to encounter is full to overflowing vehicles – get used to it.
Buses go almost everywhere in Guatemala. Guatemala’s buses will leave you with some of your most vivid memories of the country. Most of them are ancient school buses from the US and Canada. It is not unusual for a local family of five to squeeze into seats that were originally designed for two child-sized bottoms. Many travelers know these vehicles as chicken buses, after the live cargo accompanying many passengers. They are frequent, crowded and cheap. Expect to pay US$1 (or less!) for an hour of travel.
Chicken buses will stop anywhere, for anyone. Helpers will yell ‘hay lugares!’ (eye loo-gar-ays), which literally means ‘there are places.’ Never mind that the space they refer to may be no more than a sliver of air between hundreds of locals mashed against one another. These same helpers will also yell their bus’s destination in voices of varying hilarity and cadence; just listen for the song of your town. Tall travelers will be especially challenged on these buses. To catch a chicken bus, simply stand beside the road with your arm out parallel to the ground.
Some routes, especially between big cities, are served by more comfortable buses with the luxury of one seat per person. The best buses are labeled pullman, especial or primera clase. Occasionally, these may have bathrooms, televisions and even food service.
In general, more buses leave in the morning (some leave as early as 3am) than the afternoon. Bus traffic drops off precipitously after about 4pm; night buses are rare and not generally recommended. An exception is Línea Dorada’s overnight de lujo from Guatemala City to Flores, which has not experienced (to our knowledge) any trouble of note in several years (we hope we’re not tempting fate here).
Distances in Guatemala are not huge and you won’t often ride for more than four hours at a time. On a typical four-hour bus trip you’ll cover 175km to 200km for US$5 to US$6.
For a few of the better services you can buy tickets in advance, and this is generally worth doing as it ensures that you get a place.
On some shorter routes minibuses, usually called microbuses, are replacing chicken buses. These are operated on the same cram-’em-all-in principles and can be even more uncomfortable because they have less leg room. Where neither buses nor minibuses roam, pickup (picop) trucks serve as de facto buses; you hail them and pay for them as if they were the genuine article.
At least a couple of times a month, a bus plunges over a cliff or rounds a blind bend into a head-on collision. Newspapers are full of gory details and diagrams of the latest wreck, which doesn’t foster affectionate feelings toward Guatemalan public transportation. Equally if not more often, buses are held up by armed robbers and the passengers are relieved of their money and valuables. If this happens to you, do not try to resist or get away. You could end up losing more than your valuables.
Public transportation within towns and cities and to nearby villages is chiefly provided by aged, polluting, crowded and loud buses. They’re useful to travelers chiefly in the more spread-out cities such as Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango and Huehuetenango. Quetzaltenango has a lovely fleet of quiet, smooth, comfortable, modern minibuses.
You can drive in Guatemala with your home-country driver’s license or with an International Driving Permit (IDP). Gasoline (petrol) and diesel are widely available. Motor parts may be hard to find, especially for modern vehicles with sophisticated electronics and emissions-control systems. Old Toyota pickups are ubiquitous, though, so parts and mechanics will be more widely available.
Guatemalan driving etiquette will probably be very different from what you’re used to back home: passing on blind curves, ceding the right of way to vehicles coming uphill on narrow passes and deafening honking for no apparent reason are just the start. Expect few road signs and no indication from other drivers of what they are about to do. A vehicle coming uphill always has the right of way. Tumulos are speed bumps that are generously (sometimes oddly) placed throughout the country, usually on the main drag through a town. Use of seat belts is obligatory, but generally not practiced.
In Guatemala driving at night is a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which are armed bandits, drunk drivers and decreased visibility.
Every driver involved in an accident that results in injury or death is taken into custody until a judge determines responsibility.
You can rent cars in Guatemala City, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Cobán and Flores. A four-door, five-seat, five-gear vehicle with air-con such as a Mitsubishi Lancer will normally cost around US$50 a day including insurance and unlimited kilometers. The smallest cars start at around US$40 a day. Discounts may apply if you rent for three days or more.
To rent a car or motorcycle you need to show your passport, driver’s license and a major credit card. Usually, the person renting the vehicle must be 25 years or older. Insurance policies accompanying rental cars may not protect you from loss or theft, in which case you could be liable for hundreds or even thousands of dollars in damages. Be careful where you park, especially in Guatemala City and at night.
At the time of writing the only scheduled internal flights were between Guatemala City and Flores, a route operated daily by TACA with one-way/return fares costing around US$130/200.