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Public transportation in Central America is surprisingly effective: you can get to just about anywhere, pick your own schedule due to frequent departures, and even an all day journey will likely cost you less than $10.
That said, it’s not always a pleasant or convenient experience. In six weeks of travel, I’ve had a handful of less-than-perfect public transportation experiences in Guatemala and Mexico. Here’s a sampling of just what may happen during your journey…
Flat Tire from Guatemala City -> Chichicastenango
On my very first day in Guatemala, I had the ambitious plan of finding my way to the correct bus station in Guatemala City to grab a chicken bus to Chichicastenango, about three hours away. I was stressed about having change for the bus instead of the big bills ATMs typically dispense, stressed about whether or not my bag would get snatched at the bus station, and stressed about making it to Chichi before dark, especially because I didn’t have a hotel reservation.
All went well until the last hour or so of the journey, when the bus got a flat tire. Stupidly assuming the problem would be fixed quickly (after all, they had a spare on top of the bus), I waited on the side of the road with a handful of other passengers instead of simply flagging down another bus to complete my journey. For some reason, they didn’t use the spare and we had to wait for another car to bring us a new tire while I watched local kids playing soccer practically on the highway, delaying my arrival until well after dark.
Off-Road Driving from San Miguel Dueñas -> Antigua
There’s a macadamia farm outside of Antigua known for its macadamia pancakes with blueberry syrup, so when my mom came to visit, we decided to take a short jaunt out of town by chicken bus. The journey there was quite uneventful and not even that crowded, making it a simple introduction to public transport in Guatemala.
On the way back was an entirely different story. A semi-truck had somehow ended up perpendicular and blocking all but one shoulder of the road, backing up traffic for a mile in either direction. This wasn’t great for us, as we had very important spa treatments to attend to back in Antigua, but luckily (I think?) our bus driver had plans on getting us back on time. Before we knew it, we were driving in the wrong lane, passing a hundred vehicles until we were blocked by the truck,when we drove off-road and completely around the obstacle…yes, in a chicken bus.
Running Out of Gas from Livingston -> Rio Dulce
The town of Livingston on the Atlantic Coast of Guatemala is accessible only by boat and unless you charter your own transportation, schedules are quite limited. I found myself on an afternoon boat ride, already impatient that I had to wait hours longer than I wanted for the next boat out.
The ride down the river is a gorgeous one, so all worries were forgotten as soon as I was on the water. I truly was enjoying the ride until we abruptly ran out of gas without a set of oars to fall back on. At this point, there’s really nothing you can do except sit in the blistering heat and wait for someone to come rescue you, which is exactly what I did.
Tourist Shuttle from Rio Dulce -> Semuc Champey
For the most part, I’ve chosen public transportation rather than tourist shuttles because I think they’re just as fast and usually 75% cheaper. However, the route from Rio Dulce to Semuc Champey via chicken bus and colectivo is estimated to take 9 hours and the tourist shuttle half as long. In this case, I was willing to shell out the extra money.
The ride was scenic, comfortable, and with the exception of a few hitchhikers we helped out along the route, we didn’t stop too often. However, there was one stop that was a brand new one for me: our driver needed a bathroom break, complete with his handy roll of toilet paper and a newspaper. He disappeared into the woods for a solid 25 minutes, giving all of us a little something to chuckle about.
Stalled Engine from Coban -> Laguna Lachua
Heading off-the-beaten tourist path is always an adventure, but this one in particular had me a bit worried. Colectivos are 15-passenger vans that travel on set routes, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. I always expect frequent stops on colectivos, and drivers won’t change that money-making scheme for any reason.
Thus, on my colectivo out of Coban, I wasn’t surprised when the van stopped to let off passengers. I was surprised, however, when the engine stalled so badly that the driver had to fiddle with something under the hood after every stop so the van would restart. My journey ended up being significantly longer than I expected because of this, but I was on the last colectivo of the day and really didn’t want to spend the night in a no-name village so I persevered, and yes, made it to my destination.
A Gym Workout from Laguna Lachua -> Coban
Clearly this route was a poor one for me because when I wanted to return to Coban the next day to catch another bus onward, I had more issues. The first colectivo that came by was jam packed: a 15-passenger van that already had 23 people inside and another 4 on the roof (I kid you not). But…I didn’t want to wait an hour for the next one, especially since I knew there was a chance the next one would be just as packed.
I squeezed in, somehow finding room (note: there’s always room in Guatemala), but I was in an incredibly awkward position without a seat and not able to stand. Imagine doing a catcher’s squat or a wall sit for a three-hour bus ride and then you’ll get the idea of how I felt when I got off the bus. My legs were sore for days afterward, but I’ve got stronger muscles because of it!
Standing Room Only from Las Vegas -> Xela
Buses are crowded all the time, that’s not new at all. However, this particular bus was by far the most crowded one I’ve been on. In the United States, a bus with 9 rows seating 2 people on each side of the aisle would yield a total capacity of 36, perhaps a few more if they’re children. However, this bus maxed out for the afternoon at 78 passengers. Not only was I standing for the 2:20 journey, but I had a rather small footprint to stick to!
BONUS: Stuck in First Gear from Chiapas de Corzo -> San Cristobal de las Casas
I thought that public transportation would be a lot more comfortable in Mexico, and to be fair, it was. Colectivos don’t squeeze in crowds, vehicles have air conditioning, and paved roads are the rule instead of the exception. However, Mexico still wasn’t perfect…
Coming back from a day trip to Canon del Sumidero, my van couldn’t shift out of first gear, which is particularly a problem on mountain roads. I had half a thought to get out and climb into a different colectivo, but I stuck it out at a slow and steady speed to avoid waiting in the pouring rain.
All in all, I actually have found it pretty simple to travel throughout Central America on public transportation, despite these hiccups. If you’re willing to forego a bit of comfort, by all means — give it a try!
What public transportation hiccups have you encountered in your travels?
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Want more real-life looks at traveling through Guatemala? Yup, I’ve got them!