Public transportation within towns and cities outside of Guatemala City is chiefly provided by newish, crowded minibuses. They're useful to travelers mainly in the more spread-out cities such as Quetzaltenango and Huehuetenango. Guatemala City has its own forms of bus services – the old red buses that are not recommended for safety reasons and the newer fleets of TransMetro and TransUrbano buses.
Taxis are fairly plentiful in most significant towns. A 10-minute ride can cost about Q60, which is relatively expensive – expect to hear plenty of woeful tales from taxi drivers about the price of gasoline. Except for some taxis in Guatemala City, they don't use meters: you must agree upon the fare before you set off – best before you get in, in fact.
If you feel reluctant to take on the Guatemalan roads, an interesting alternative to car hire can be to hire a taxi driver for an extended time. This often works out only slightly more expensive than renting and gives you all the freedom and comfort without the stress of having to drive.
If you've spent any time in Asia, you'll be very familiar with the tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled minitaxi nominally seating three passengers and a driver, but obviously capable of carrying twice that amount.
Named for the noise their little lawnmower engines make, tuk-tuks are best for short hops around town – expect to pay somewhere around Q5 per person. Hail them the way you would a normal taxi.
Shuttle minibuses run by travel agencies provide comfortable and quick transport along the main routes plied by tourists. You'll find these heavily advertised wherever they are offered. With a few notable exceptions, they're much more expensive than buses (anywhere between five and 15 times as expensive), but more convenient – they usually offer a door-to-door service, with scheduled meal and bathroom breaks. The most popular shuttle routes include Guatemala City airport–Antigua, Antigua–Panajachel, Panajachel–Chichicastenango and Lanquín–Antigua.
Buses go almost everywhere in Guatemala, and the 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 Q10 (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 (but don't count on them working), televisions and even food service.
Pullman routes always originate or end in Guatemala City.
In general, more buses leave in the morning (some leave as early as 2am) than the afternoon. Bus traffic drops off precipitously after about 4pm; night buses are rare and not generally recommended. An exception are the overnight buses from Guatemala City to Flores, which have been relatively drama-free for some years now.
Distances in Guatemala are not huge and, apart from the aforementioned Guate–Flores run, 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 Q60 to Q100.
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 with the same cram-'em-all-in principle and can be even more uncomfortable because they have less leg room. Where neither buses nor minibuses roam, picop (pick-up) 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 chicken 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.
While bus travel at night in Guatemala is rarely a good idea for anybody, it is strongly advised that solo female travelers not catch buses – Pullman or 'chicken' – at night time, the exception being the overnight buses traveling between Guatemala City and Flores. The incident reports regarding those services are so rare that you would almost be inclined to call them 'safe.'
Basically, what you want to avoid is being the last person on the bus when it arrives, if it's going to arrive at night.
If you rode the bus to school 10 years ago or more in the US, you might just end up meeting an old friend in Guatemala, resurrected and given new life as a 'chicken bus.' Love 'em or hate 'em, chicken buses (camionetas or parrillas to Guatemalans) are a fact of life in traveling around Guatemala. A lot of times there is no alternative.
As you can probably tell by the signs that sometimes remain in these buses ('anyone breaking the rules will lose their bus riding privileges'), these buses really did once carry school kids. In the US, once school buses reach the ripe old age of 10 years or do 150,000 miles, they're auctioned off. This is just the first step in the long process that results in the buses hitting the Guatemalan road. They then get towed through the States and Mexico, taken to a workshop here where they are refitted (bigger engine, six-speed gearbox, roof rack, destination board, luggage rack, longer seats) and fancied up with a paint job, CD player and chrome detailing.
Drivers then add their individual touches – anything from religious paraphernalia to stuffed toys and Christmas lights dangling around the dashboard area. Some chicken buses now sport DVD players so you can watch loud, annoying movies just like on a real bus.
Thus, the chicken bus is ready to roll, and roll they do. The average bus works 14 hours a day, seven days a week – more miles in one day than it covered in a week back on the school run.
If you've got a choice of buses to go with, looks are important – chances are that if the paint is fresh and the chrome gleaming, the owner also has the cash to spend on new brakes and regular maintenance. And, with a conservative estimate of an average of one chicken-bus accident per week in Guatemala, this is something you may want to keep in mind.
Hitchhiking in the strict sense of the word is generally not practiced in Guatemala because it is not safe. However, where the bus service is sporadic or nonexistent, pick-up trucks and other vehicles may 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 you were traveling on 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.
Any other form of hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.