Taking local transportation from Antigua, Guatemala to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan is a whole different world compared to the user-friendly tourist shuttle bus. Howbeit, I was determined to get there the same way the Guatemalan people do.
I did not allow myself the shuttle option. That way there would be no time to adhere to and no alarm time to set. I would just wake up, organize, and go.
I set out from my cutely cramped and thinly-walled locally owned posada at about 7.50 a.m. The walk through colonial, UNESCO Antigua along Calle 3 to the makeshift bus terminal took about 15 minutes. With big and small backpack in tow, the power walk was excellent exercise.
After coming to the end of Calle 3 and walking partly through the mercado central, and asking around if I was going the right way, I found the spot. There was a bus. The first person who saw me said:
That is short for Chimaltenango, the first transport hub where I would need to change colectivos or old US school buses that have been refurbished impressively into top condition.
After sitting on the bus for about 10 minutes, it became half full and we were off. I had my big and small backpacks on the seat with me, only four seats back. The bus stopped along the way to pick up anyone who waved it down. This is standard practice.
There is a driver and a conductor. Once the bus is full, the money is collected. I handed the maestro a 20 Quetzales bill or $2.58 and didn’t get any change back. After, I asked about the price and he said:
“10 for you and 10 for your backpack.” in Spanish.
That was fair and I let him know that I agreed. At the time, I didn’t think my backpack would fit on the rack above, but I would end up trying it on the third bus ride of the journey, and it fit fine.
In hindsight, the bag may have fit on the rack up top, but it did not seem like it at the time. That would have saved 10 Quetzales or $1.29.
The bus ride from Antigua to Chimaltenango went fast and smoothly, maybe 45 minutes. The conductor let me know we were there. It was a great challenge to walk with two backpacks through four rows on a very narrow aisle. There were three to a seat on either side. Each person with an aisle seat took up space in the already scant aisle. I hadn’t made it past the four packed rows when the bus started off again. Moving through with a big backpack and a small one was awkward and grueling. The conductor said:
“No problemo, la proxima parada es la misma.”
The bus stopped for me less than a minute later. The man leaned down the aisle and grabbed the bigger bag, so I could get through the four rows and make it off.
There was a man standing outside of his small business. I asked him if the bus to Los Encuentros would come by. He assured me that it would. Then I asked him about a bathroom. He pointed inside a hotel. They were kind enough to let me use their humble facilities.
After using a tiny bathroom and going back to the spot where the previous bus had dropped me, another bus showed up moments later.
The conductor on the second bus leg grabbed my big red backpack, motioned me on to the bus behind him and led me to the back, where there was a seat available. The back doors were opened. Because the racks above were full, he handed the pack to another man who took it to the top of the bus and strapped it down. Shortly thereafter, the second bus of the journey was bound for the transportation crossroads of Los Encuentros.
There are no seat belts on refurbished US school buses (colectivos) in Guatemala.
Through green mountains, the bus zoomed, whizzed, and turned, up, down, and around the southern Guatemalan highlands on a perfectly paved road, seemingly never slowing down.
Everyone was holding on to the bars in front of them, some crashing into the person next to them. This went on intermittently for a solid hour at least.
That bus ride from Chimaltenango to Los Encuentros wasn’t bumpy, but because of the super sharp turns the driver made without slowing down, it was one of the roughest rides of my life. This is not an exaggeration.
The driver was a pro. If race car driving is a sport, then the operator and probably most of the chauffeurs of the busses on this route are athletes, who earn their money, and are underpaid for the timely person-schlepping endeavors they achieve every day.
I was charged 30 Quetzales or $3.87 for this harrowing ride that was just under two hours.
As we pulled into the next hub city, close to two hours later, the driver’s counterpart yelled:
I was two seats from the back. The person on the seat behind me opened the back door. We jumped out. My mochila was on the roof. It didn’t seem as if anyone was going up there and most people were not disembarking.
From the back of the bus, outside, with very narrow space between my bus and another bus next to it, I yelled to the conductor getting out at the front.
“¡Mi mochila esta arriba!”
Another man then hustled up. It was the only backpack up there.
My red mochila came flying down from the roof and hit the ground, as I was in no position to catch it. The conductor yelled:
“¡Disculpa!” or ‘Sorry’
I did not mind that the bag came swooping down and crashing on the pavement. I was just happy to have retrieved it, so I retorted:
“¡No problemo. Gracias!”
I was the only foreigner on all of the four buses I would ride this past Friday morning.
Most foreign travelers in Guatemala go with the much smoother tourist shuttle when it is available, and for good reason.
At the transport center of Los Encuentros, I found another bathroom which cost 2 Quetzales or $.26. After that I bought a bag of freshly cut-up papaya for 5 Quetzales or $.65. The soothing tropical-fruit freshness hit the spot.
I didn’t have to walk more than a few steps before someone showed me where the bus to Sololá was. I got on. The Kakchicquel speaking driver and conductor let me keep my big backpack in the front with them. I sat just two seats back and had an eye on the red mound; even though it was totally safe. I was charged five Quetzales for the half-hour ride.
After another delightful fresh fruit break in Solalá, I was on the last, super-short leg of the journey, which also cost 5 Quetzales. In no more than 15 minutes, I was dropped off in Panajachel.
I instantly walked into one of the random hotels in my immediate radius. I thought it to be close enough to what I was looking for, and checked in. Upon putting my bags down in the room, I noticed the time was 12:15 p.m. The journey from doorstep to doorstep was just over four hours.
|Antigua||Chimaltenango||20 Quetzales ($2.58)|
|Chimaltenango||Los Encuentros||30 Quetzales ($3.87)|
|Los Encuentros||Sololá||5 Quetzales ($0.65)|
|Sololá||Panajachel||5 Quetzales ($0.65)|
|TOTAL||60 Quetzales ($7.76)|
I saw a sign that listed a shuttle ride directly from Antigua to Panajachel for $20. I assume that I would have been able to talk them down to $18 as I typically drift with the mentality: ‘Everything is negotiable’. And it often is. Especially if you are genuinely ready to walk away.
The semi-rough journey cost 60 Quetzales or $7.76. So I saved about $10 by roughing it with locals instead of taking what is probably a much easier and often more practical direct shuttle bus filled with foreign travelers crammed together.
Was it worth taking colectivos, aka the chicken busses or more accurately the impeccably reconstructed US school buses? Of course it was. I got to see how Guatemalans travel and how the transportation pulse functions. What a wonderful way to spend a morning in complete newness. And I saved a few bucks, although I imagined that I would have saved more.
Is the tourist shuttle more practical? It probably is for the vast majority of foreign travelers. They pick you up at your accommodation in one city and drop you at your place of lodging in the new town. I utilized this service from the airport in Guatemala City to Antigua. It was perfect.
For many vagabonds, the private shuttle is better; because on local busses there is often close to zero English spoken, and there are sometimes not direct routes. In addition, it can be awkward to carry too much luggage on the colectivos.
All in all, taking the tourist shuttle bus on common routes is considerably easier, more comfortable and more practical for most drifters.
Have you taken local transportation in Central America? Would you recommend it?
Here are 121 photos from UNESCO Antigua, Guatemala.