With its pyramids, ruins, jungles, volcanoes and thriving Mayan culture, Guatemala is where the story of Central America comes vividly to life. Exploring this fascinating corner of the Americas is easy, but getting from A to B may take longer than you think.
With an average income of less than US$400 a month, owning a car is out of reach for most Guatemalans, so the vast majority of locals rely on public transport to get around. Because of this, buses are almost always busy, but it also means there's almost always a bus going where you want to go.
Travelers will be pleased to hear that Guatemala’s public transport system is extensive and inexpensive, but it isn't always particularly efficient. It will get you to your destination, but be prepared for long travel days, bumpy roads and some discomfort.
Your map may show a short distance, but with poorly-maintained, winding roads, slow-moving traffic and frequent road closures, it almost always takes longer to get there than you think. Still, there are options for explorers of all budgets, and in such a colorful country, the journey is all part of the experience.
Here are our tips for getting around in Guatemala.
Buses are the cheap and easy way to get around in Guatemala
Currently, there are no passenger services on Guatemala's limited rail network, so the main form of mass transportation is the humble bus. Buses in Guatemala come in two classes: comfortable first-class Pullman buses and second-class “chicken buses” – revamped US school buses that go almost everywhere.
First-class buses – also known as 'express buses' – ply busy routes between major destinations, with regular services from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Flores (for Tikal) and Panajachel (for Lago de Atitlán). Buses also connect major cities to some beach destinations and international border crossings to Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Belize.
Not all bus lines are created equal, however. Some buses have toilets, but others don’t. Some have a TV screen up front playing music videos or action movies dubbed into Spanish, while others will let you enjoy the scenery or have a snooze in peace and quiet. First-class buses are about double the price of second-class buses, but they’re also much faster, safer and more comfortable.
Known locally as camionetas, chicken buses are more frequent than Pullman buses, and they cover pretty much every city, town and village in Guatemala. These retired US school buses have been given a new life and a bold new look, with bright primary colors and a riot of chrome trimmings. You won’t see many chickens on the buses these days, but they transport just about anything else.
Buses stop frequently to pick up and drop off passengers, and shopkeepers in smaller towns often use chicken buses to transport goods, meaning there isn't much space in the aisles. They’re slow going, but they’re one of the best ways to meet locals.
Knowing some basic Spanish is helpful if you’re traveling by chicken bus. Stops along the way aren’t clearly marked, but if you let the driver where you want to go, they’ll tell you when you’ve reached your destination. With basic Spanish, you can also ask fellow passengers about the correct fare, so you don’t end up paying twice as much as everyone else.
Chicken buses are better used for short trips than for long, all-day journeys. They’re cramped and uncomfortable, especially if you’re tall (they were made for American school kids, after all). Large backpacks will be put on the roof, so it’s best to travel with a small daypack, rather than exposing your belongings to the weather (and prying hands).
Opportunistic theft is common on these buses, so be alert and keep an eye on your valuables. If someone starts a conversation with you and inches closer, put your hand over your bag’s zipper. While most interactions are genuine, robbers sometimes strike up a conversation to distract you so they can relieve you of your wallet, phone or camera.
Guatemala's microbuses offer a bit more comfort for a higher fare
In some areas of Guatemala, you’ll find minibuses – known locally as microbuses – which follow paved roads between major towns, or run on local routes in larger cities. These small buses are more expensive than the chicken buses, but they're also more comfortable. You'll get more legroom and they normally have working shock absorbers, so the ride is not nearly as bumpy as on a rickety chicken bus. Some even have air-conditioning, which is always welcome in this sweltering tropical climate, particularly for routes in the lowlands. As with chicken buses, large pieces of luggage will go on the roof, but there's less risk of theft.
Tourist shuttles offer faster transfers, but less atmosphere
Using small vans or minibuses, tourist shuttles operate between all the major tourist destinations in Guatemala. Services also running across border to destinations such as San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico, Playa El Tunco in El Salvador and Copán Ruínas in Honduras.
Shuttles are usually double the price of the chicken bus. You'll travel in a bit of a tourist bubble, but because of the comfort, the convenience – many shuttles will drop you off at your hotel or hostel – and the chance to share information with fellow travelers, they’re a great option for longer journeys.
You can book shuttle seats at any local travel agency, but the shuttle may actually depart from a different location. For example, if you book a shuttle from San Pedro La Laguna on Lago de Atitlán to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico, you'll first need to catch an early boat to Panajachel, where the shuttle journey begins (check with the travel agency to confirm if the price of the ticket includes your boat fare).
Driving in Guatemala brings the freedom to go wherever you want
If you like the freedom of traveling according to your own schedule, driving is always an option. You only need an international driver’s license to drive in Guatemala if you’re from a country with a non-Roman alphabet; other travelers can use a valid driver’s license from their home country for the first 30 days.
Car rental is easy to arrange at airports and in major cities and other tourist hotspots, providing you're at least 25 years old. Always check the insurance conditions – you may not be covered for loss or theft so always park somewhere secure. Gasoline is more expensive in Guatemala than it is in the United States but cheaper than in Canada, Australia and Europe.
You can bring your own car into the country, but it involves quite a bit of bureaucracy. An alternative is to rent a private car with a driver. This is easy to arrange via travel agencies in most tourist destinations in the country, and it takes the stress out of driving on unfamiliar roads.
Be aware that driving in Guatemala requires nerves of steel: reckless drivers are common, and while the main roads are generally in good condition, visibility can drop massively at night or in rainy or foggy conditions. Smaller towns have narrow streets, and it can be difficult to find safe parking. Driving at night is never a good idea: in addition to low visibility and the possibility of animals wandering onto the road, intoxicated drivers and armed robberies are a real risk.
Taxis and rideshares are handy for local hops
Metered taxis are common in Guatemala City, Antigua and Quetzaltenango, but in smaller towns and around Lago de Atitlán, they’re almost non-existent. Whether there's a meter or not, you may need to negotiate a fare before starting your journey.
Is there Uber in Guatemala? Yes, but only in Guatemala City and Antigua. It’s a good option for exploring these cities – it’s safe, the price is fixed and if you don’t speak Spanish, you can leave everything to the app.
Tuk-tuks provide a taxi service in smaller towns
More commonly known as tuk-tuks, mototaxis are found in just about every town in Guatemala, although they’re much less common in Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango. Within towns, these small vehicles are probably the most useful form of public transport because they’re cheap and quick.
In some areas, tuk-tuks travel to nearby towns and villages. Alternatively, they may travel to the outskirts of town, where you must transfer to another tuk-tuk to get to the next town. Be sure to check how to recognize the officially licensed tuk-tuks in each town you visit; regulations differ from one destination to the next.
To flag down a tuk-tuk, simply put out your hand and make an up-and-down waving motion, as if you’re patting an imaginary child on the head. In practice, if you stand by the side of the road, you may find that tuk-tuks stop and ask if you need a ride.
Pickup trucks ferry passengers in some rural areas
Tuk-tuks have largely replaced pickup trucks – or picop, as locals call them – as the preferred method of cheap local transportation. However, you’ll still find pickup trucks functioning like local buses in less touristy and more rural areas, not least because they’re better suited to navigating rough dirt roads. Because they have open tops, they’re best for sunny days, and you'll need to hang on for dear life. Tell the driver where you want to get off or, if you know the stop, simply bang on the side of the truck to let the driver know you are ready to get out.
Boats run down jungle rivers to the coast
A few places in Guatemala are only accessible (or more easily accessible) by boat, including Livingston on the Caribbean coast and Jaibalito on the shores of Lago de Atitlán. Where they are available, boats are often the preferred mode of transport because they’re quicker than going by road. Traveling from Panajachel to San Pedro La Laguna on the opposite shore of Lago de Atitlán takes about half an hour by lancha (public motorboat), compared to two hours by road.
While few locals wear them, it’s best to make use of the life jackets provided when you get onto a boat. Lanchas can – and sometimes do – capsize, especially on windy days. Sitting up front in the prow is great for feeling the wind in your hair, but you will get doused with lake or river water. You’ll find the ride less bumpy and drier if you sit near the back.
If your travel day includes a boat ride, allow plenty of time for the journey. Lanchas rarely operate on a set schedule and only leave when the boat is full; this can take just a few minutes early in the morning, or an hour or so later in the day.
Bicycles and motorcycles are an option for the brave
Cycling around Guatemala is not for the faint of heart, but it is possible, The scenery is stunning, but you’ll be dealing with either sweltering weather in low-lying areas or ridiculously steep climbs in the highlands. And bike paths? What bike paths? Still, you can rent bikes (including mountain bikes) in most tourist centers and it's easy enough to cycle around in town or follow the tracks that wind around Lago de Atitlán and Antiqua.
Motorbikes are becoming increasingly common in Guatemala, and in many towns, it’s not at all unusual to see a whole family with children riding on one bike, without a helmet in sight. To cover longer distances between towns, you definitely need a helmet. For both motorcycling and cycling, it’s recommended that you avoid the busy main roads, where speeding trucks and buses are a real danger. Motorcycles are available for rent in Antigua and around Lago de Atitlán.
Air travel is useful for avoiding long road journeys
Guatemala is only about the size of Tennessee and smaller than England, so traveling by plane domestically isn’t common, but it is a useful option for avoiding the long bus ride to Flores and Tikal, or for traveling on from Flores to Belize.
TAG Airlines offers scheduled flights between Guatemala City and Flores or Puerto Barrios while Mexican airline Aeromar offers flights between Guatemala City and Flores. Tropic Air runs from Flores to Belize City.
If you have a decent budget, you can charter a flight to other destinations around the country with ARM Aviacion, which operates out of La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City.
Accessible travel in Guatemala
Guatemala isn’t the easiest of destinations for travelers with mobility requirements. While Guatemala has a law that guarantees the rights of disabled people, and makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, in practice little is done to enforce the rules.
Wheelchair-accessible accommodation is scarce, and wheelchair-accessible transport is near non-existent. Still, you’ll find that most Guatemalans are happy to make a plan to accommodate you, even if it means having to pick you up in your wheelchair to get you onto the bus. Traveling with a car and driver is usually the easiest option.
For more information on accessible travel, check out Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel Resources page.
Why the chicken bus is my favorite way to travel in Guatemala
For all their flaws, I love traveling by chicken bus, even though they’re cramped, uncomfortable and not the safest way to get around. It helps that they're dirt cheap, but that’s not the only reason I’d recommend taking a chicken bus at least once while you’re in Guatemala.
Most local people get around by chicken bus, so these colorful vehicles offer an authentic taste of Guatemalan life: grandmothers in traditional clothing visiting family in the next village, students going back to university in the big city, city workers traveling back to rural homes for the weekend, mothers with young children on shopping trips. Even nuns and gangsters use la camioneta.
And bus rides are never boring. Whenever buses reach a town or an important transfer point, vendors climb aboard selling everything from Guatemalan corn chips and tropical fruit to homemade chiles rellenos guatemaltecos – stuffed sweet peppers, Guatemalan-style.
In need of a ballpoint pen, or some knock-off super glue, or some herbal concoction that may or may not work for intestinal parasites and arthritis? Someone will soon come by selling these essentials, and a few hundred yards later they all get off again to wait for the next bus. Keep some coins and small bills handy so you don’t have to dig deep into your bag for money – you'll inevitably buy something you didn’t know you needed.
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