Antigua, Guatemala to Panajachel on Local Refurbished School Bus Transport

Taking local transportation from Antigua, Guatemala to Panajachel on Lake Atitlán 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 didn’t 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 7:50 a.m. The walk through architectually pleasant, UNESCO Antigua on Calle 3 to the makeshift bus terminal took 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 I saw said:


Chimal is how they colloquially say Chimaltenango, the first transport hub where I would need to change colectivos (old US school buses), that have been refurbished impressively into top condition.

After sitting on the bus for 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 ($2.58) and didn’t get any change back. After, I asked about the price and he said in Spanish:

10 for you and 10 for your backpack.

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 didn’t seem like it at the time. That would have saved 10 Quetzales or $1.29.

My ancient, refurbished red backpack sits above on a Guatemalen bus.
Squeezing your luggage above is the best option on Guatemalan public transportation.

The bus ride from Antigua to Chimaltenango went fast and smoothly. It took 45 minutes. The conductor let me know we were there. It was a great challenge to walk with two backpacks past four rows in the narrow aisle. There were three to a seat on either side. Each person with an aisle seat took up space in the already scant passage way.

I hadn’t made it past 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 it would. Then I asked him about a bathroom. He pointed inside a hotel, where they were kind enough to let me use their humble facilities.

TRAVEL INTEGRITY TIP: When changing transportation, make it a priority to find a bathroom and try to go, even if the bathroom isn’t nice. On the following bus ride there would be no stopping. Being forced to contract your bowels or urinary tract is uncomfortable, painful, and can cause serious health problems.

The Adventure

After using a tiny bathroom and going back to the spot where the previous bus had dropped me, another one showed up moments later.

¿Los Encuentros?


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.

People and baggage on a bus bound for Los Encuentros from Chimaltenango, Guatemala.
My view from the back of the bus from Chimaltenango to 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 held on to the bars in front of them, often crashing into the person next to them. This went on intermittently for a solid hour.

The 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, the operators on this route are athletes. They honestly earn their money, and are probably underpaid for the timely person-schlepping endeavors they achieve every work day.

I was charged 30 Quetzales ($3.87) for a harrowing ride lasting just under two hours.

As we pulled into the next hub city, the driver’s counterpart yelled:

¡Los Encuentros!

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, while most passengers weren’t disembarking.

From the back of the bus, outside, with narrow space between that 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.

As I was in no position to catch it, my red backpack came flying down from the roof and hit the ground. The conductor yelled:

¡Disculpa! (Sorry)

I didn’t mind that the bag came swooping down and crashing on the pavement as I was just happy to have retrieved it. So I retorted:

¡No problemo. Gracias!

At the busy transportation hub of Los Encuentros in the Guatemalan Highlands.
The man on top of the bus, who unstrapped, and then threw my backpack down, Los Encuentros, Guatemala.

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 and direct 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 ($.26). Then I bought a bag of freshly cut-up papaya for 5 Quetzales ($.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 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 ($.65). In a mere 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.

TRAVEL INTEGRITY TIP: Wherever you may be traveling to, it is always best to leave first thing in the morning. I prefer to turn up somewhere as early as possible, during daylight. Depending on traffic and other variables, you cannot be sure of your journey time, no matter what anyone tells you. This is especially true when drifting through mountainous terrain in developing countries.
AntiguaChimaltenango20 Quetzales ($2.58)
ChimaltenangoLos Encuentros30 Quetzales ($3.87)
Los EncuentrosSololá5 Quetzales ($0.65)
SololáPanajachel5 Quetzales ($0.65)
TOTAL60 Quetzales ($7.76)
Cost Breakdown: Local colectivo bus journeys From Antigua, Guatemala to Panajachel on August 19, 2022

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 haggle them down to $18 as I typically drift with the mentality:

Everything is negotiable.

And it often is. Especially when you’re genuinely ready to walk away.

The semi-rough journey cost 60 Quetzales ($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 (Old 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 buses they speak only Spanish, and there are often no 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 wanderers.

Have you used local transportation in Central America? Would you recommend it?

Here is the complete set ofphotos from UNESCO Antigua, Guatemala.

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