You’ll be pleased to know that when it comes time to pack up and head to your next destination in Guatemala, you will have quite a few options from which to choose. The caveat: choosing one which is safest and most guaranteed to get you there is the hard part. You may or may not have heard of “chicken buses,” and if you haven’t, you’re in luck – we’ll cover those beasts, and more.
Guatemala By Bus
Buses are probably the most popular method locals (and often travelers) use to get around the country, but not all buses are created equal. Let’s break it down a bit:
Used specifically for travel on major routes connecting larger towns with Guatemala City, these large coaches can be compared to a Greyhound bus in US terms, but are pretty much the closest you will get to luxury public travel in Guatemala. It is possible to purchase tickets in advance, and most buses will charge by the hour of transport – they will be more expensive, but remember that you’re paying for air conditioning, space, comfort, and maybe even the possibility of an on-board bathroom. Typically, Pullmans will depart from the main office of the bus company, or perhaps the main bus terminal of a town if one exists. Look for the buses and bus companies labeled “Pullman,” “Primera Clase,” or “Especial.”
The Infamous “Chicken Buses”
It’s the closest you will get to a literal carnival ride while on the road. The backstory: old school buses from the US, after a certain period of time in use, are auctioned off and towed down to Central America for a new life. They are refitted (with more powerful engines, new seats, luggage racks, etc) and then decked out in psychedelic paint jobs and chrome trim. Fully formed into their new identity, they set off on a new existence of carting locals from place to place and terrifying foreigners with the drivers’ death-defying driving practices.
These crazy caravans are ubiquitous throughout the country as being the most common way to travel between towns, and sometimes inner-city. The name Chicken Bus also comes from the common sight of chickens and other fowl sharing the cabin for the ride, but they are more often than not crammed with humans from top to bottom, with many people sitting or standing in the aisles for the entirety of the ride. There is essentially no such thing as a maximum capacity. Typically you will see the bus operated by two people – the driver, who always operates the vehicle like some kind of high speed chase, and the helper (ayudante) who collects money, throws around luggage, and calls out the next stop.
As far as getting on and off, you can essentially be picked up anywhere along the bus route – by holding your arm out horizontally, you signal to the bus driver you’d like a pick up. For drop offs, you’ll need to listen hard for that call out, and it is best to ask the ayudante before you pay up where the bus is going and if it is going where you need to be. Travelers pay by the hour, and be sure to ask locals about the average prices in your area, or you risk being ripped off (knowing a bit of Spanish will help you here, too).
The thing about chicken buses is this – there is a mixed bag of opinions out there from people who hold firm that these are an excellent way to both get around and experience a taste of real, authentic Guatemalan culture. And there are those who point to the news headlines of buses which crash or produce fatalities due to extremely reckless driving, not to mention their sheer unpredictability and fact of being unregulated. Both are true – if you choose to use a chicken bus, you are taking a certain amount of risk for your safety. Weigh your options, and if you have doubts, pay a bit extra for a mainstream choice, such as a Pullman or private transfer.
Alternatives: Pick Up Trucks and Microbuses
For some shorter routes, chicken buses are not available. In this case, you will see minibuses (or microbuses) replacing them. These are as they are described, smaller buses, but packed just as tightly as their large and colorful counterparts.
However, if you find yourself far off the beaten tourist path, there will come a point where buses of any sort are no longer available. The option then is local drivers with pickup trucks (picop), which you can simply flag down, climb in the back, and hang on for the ride. Because they are providing the same service as a regular bus, they are treated the same, and charge approximately the same rate.
Warning on Night Travel: It is not recommended for anyone to travel after dark. You are vulnerable to thieves, muggers, and bandits who wander the roadways at night.
Guatemala by Car
Some travelers will enjoy the freedom which can come via making your own way through the country by car, not risking the craziness of the chicken bus drivers, and only being beholden to your own schedule. But you’ll want to take a few considerations into account before you get behind the wheel.
As long as you have a valid driver’s license, you should be able to drive in Guatemala for the first 30 days of your stay. But refer to your relevant department of foreign affairs to check the requirements for your home country. Bringing your own car to the country is a nightmare of bureaucracy, so you would do better to rent a car while you’re in Guatemala.
Renting a car per day in Guatemala is relatively inexpensive, but be sure to purchase the most complete insurance plan possible, and read the fine print of what the plan and your contract entails. Also, choose a 4 wheel drive vehicle where possible to be prepared for Guatemala’s often bumpy and unkempt roads.
The risks involved in the rental option are typically driving at night (which is recommended to NOT do), but also keep in mind that banditry can happen anywhere. In addition, Guatemalan drivers have a reputation for driving in insane and terrifying ways (overtaking people on blind curves, not using turn signals, etc). Avoid driving during high traffic times, and again, not at night.
Taxis in Guatemala
Taxis are certainly an option, though outside of Guatemala City you will not find metered taxis, so be sure that if there is a meter, it is running, or set a price with the driver before you get in the vehicle. Many drivers are willing also to negotiate a price to take tourists on excursions to nearby towns, if this is something that interests you.
As far as getting that taxi, it is best not to hail one off of the street, as there is always the possibility that it will be an illegal/unauthorized taxi. Always call a taxi dispatch ahead of time – if you are unsure of what company to call, the tourist assistance agency PROATUR can offer help and can be reached by dialing 1500.
Alternative: Private Car Transfer
If you are not interested in engaging with public transportation, there are various shuttle services which can take you from hotel to hotel, allowing you to evade the hassle of buses altogether. Many of these are public shuttles, which can be arranged through your travel agency if you happen to be using one.
Many travelers alternatively prefer the security, comfort, and luxury of a private car transfer, in which they are able to choose what time specifically to be picked up, and they can be taken directly between their accommodations by a professional, local driver, minimizing the stress of getting from A to B. Some companies, such as Daytrip, even have an option built into the service for sightseeing, so that you can choose popular locations along the route to stop, have lunch, take photos, and do as you please. You can visit their homepage at the link above to view possible routes within Guatemala.