At the time of writing the only scheduled internal flights were between Guatemala City and Flores, a route operated daily by Avianca (www.avianca.com) and TAG (www.tag.com.gt).
Guatemala's mountainous terrain and occasionally terrifying road conditions make for hard going when it comes to intercity pedaling. That said, if you have your wits about you, cycling is a great way to get around smaller towns – Antigua, Quetzaltenango and San Pedro La Laguna are among the towns where you can rent reasonable mountain bikes (you don't want skinny wheels here) by the hour, day, week or longer. There are bike shops in almost every town where you can buy a new bike starting from around Q800.
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 – both great trips. In Lago de Atitlán fast fiberglass lanchas (motorized boats) zip across the waters between villages – by far the best way to get around.
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 USA and Canada. Many travelers know these vehicles as chicken buses, after the live cargo accompanying many passengers. They are frequent, crowded and cheap. Expect to pay around Q10 to Q15 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.' The space they refer to may be no more than a sliver of air between dozens 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), TVs 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.
Distances in Guatemala are not huge and, apart from the Guatemala City–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 (pickup) 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. Aside from the increased risks of road accidents at night, you strongly want to avoid being the last person on the bus when it arrives, if it's going to arrive at night.
A Chicken Bus is Hatched
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. They get towed through the States and Mexico, taken to a workshop here where they are refitted (bigger engine, six-speed gearbox, destination board, luggage racks, longer seats) and fancied up with a paint job, sound system and chrome detailing.
Drivers then add their individual touches – anything from religious paraphernalia to 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 can be important – if the paint is fresh and the chrome gleaming, the owner is hopefully also spending on new brakes and regular maintenance. That said, many chicken-bus drivers treat the roads like a winner-takes-all rally track, and with regular accidents it's also worth noting that many Guatemalans also dub them busas de la muerte, or death buses. It can be fun catching one, but you don't nesessarily want to make a habit of it.
Car & Motorcycle
You can drive in Guatemala with your home-country driver's license or with an International Driving Permit (IDP). 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. Do not pay any attention to turn signals – they are rarely used and even more rarely used to indicate a turn in the direction they would seem to be. Hazard lights generally mean that the driver is about to do something foolish and/or illegal.
A vehicle coming uphill always has the right of way. Túmulos 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.
Navigating colonial-era street plans, which often control traffic with devilish one-way systems, can be a nightmare.
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.
If someone's car breaks down on the highway (particularly on curvy mountain roads), they'll warn other drivers by putting shrubs or small branches on the road for a few hundred meters beforehand. Annoyingly, they rarely pick them up afterwards but if you're driving and you see these, it's best to be cautious and slow down.
While car hire is certainly possible, if you're sticking to the main sights, logistically it is rarely a good idea – Antigua is best seen on foot, the villages around Lago de Atitlán are best visited by boat, and the distance from either of those to Tikal makes it a much better idea to catch a bus or fly. That said, for freedom and comfort, nothing beats having your own wheels.
There are car-hire places in all the major tourist cities. 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. Even if your hotel does not have parking, they will know of a secure garage somewhere nearby. Red-painted kerbs mean no parking.
Motorcycles are available for rent in Antigua and around Lago de Atitlán. Bringing safety gear is highly recommended.
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, pickup 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 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.
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 (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. Uber is available in Guatemala City and Antigua.
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 to Q10 per person. Hail them the way you would a normal taxi.
Heavily advertised shuttle minibuses run by travel agencies provide comfortable and quick transport along all the main routes plied by tourists. They're much more expensive than buses but a lot more convenient – they usually offer a door-to-door service from your hotel, with scheduled meal and bathroom breaks. The most popular shuttle routes include Guatemala City airport–Antigua, Antigua–Panajachel, Panajachel–Chichicastenango and Lanquín–Antigua.
Note that you'll sometimes be asked to swap vehicles halfway through a journey so individual shuttles can quickly return to their city of origin. It's a way of keeping costs down, but a bit of a surprise the first time the driver leaves you at a gas station waiting for your onward connection.