Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen
One private taxi, four chicken buses, two tuk tuks, a boat, and an adventure to remember. This is how we got from Guatemala City to San Pablo La Laguna – a small Mayan village on Lake Atitlan.
The information we saw on how to take local buses from the city to the lake is sparse. There are a few blog posts and tips on travel sites, but we found that information to be vague and sometimes downright wrong.
The most popular budget method we found in online searches was a bus company called ‘Rebuli.’ We never found the company’s office. Maybe this is because there is no real bus station for the so-called chicken buses. We saw buses on Calle 21 and Calle 41 – in different zones of Guatemala City – lined up on the road. With no station, it was confusing. And, I will admit, it was somewhat intimidating given the U.S. State Department’s travel warning for Guatemala City, which includes an alert about robberies on chicken buses.
So, we looked at taking a private car from our rental in the city to Antigua, before transferring to chicken buses for the second leg of the trip to the lake.
Reason one to take a private car at least some of the way to Lake Atitlan – our perceived safety. Reason two was traffic and travel patterns were unusual because of the Semana Santa holiday. Reason three was because we were not starting at the airport – where most tourist shuttles are based. And reason four: who wants to take a tourist shuttle?
The driver in our private car (arranged by our Airbnb host) was pleasant and kind and seemed to be happy to have the job. The cost for two people was $35. (Note – Uber does exist in Guatemala City, but I don’t have a SIM card at the moment and cannot always rely on Wifi. Plus – Uber isn’t on my good side lately…)
Once in Antigua, which looks like an awesome place, we looked at our options to travel the rest of the way. While we were briefly there, we saw the smoking Volcan de Agua.
There is no “bus station” in Antigua, either. There is an area near the center of town where chicken buses line up. If you ask for the buses to Panajachel, you will easily find this area. (The above picture shows the bus area to the extreme left, behind that wall. You can just make out the top of an old yellow school bus.) Panajachel (Pana-ha’-chel), or Pana as the locals call it, is the main town on Lake Atitlan where we needed a ferry to our lake rental.
In Antigua’s bus area, find the bus going to where you want to be, get on, and pay the conductor once the bus is moving. In our case, there was no direct bus to Pana leaving anytime soon so we ended up getting on a bus headed for a small town en route to Pana, where we could transfer to a different bus. We did the transfer thing four times and rode four different chicken buses.
At one of the transfer stops, the bus pulled away with our big bags still on the top! For a moment I thought that would be the end of our bags – but it all worked out okay. We ran alongside the bus and my husband banged on its side. The conductor hopped off right before the bus – still moving – turned a corner. Once that turn was complete, the bus stopped, the conductor climbed up a back ladder, unhooked our bags and passed them down.
The first bus was $1.42 USD for two people. The second bus was a much longer ride and it cost $5.71 USD for two people. The third bus was also was $1.42 USD, and the fourth and last bus was $.85 for two people. (All prices in this post assume an exchange rate of seven quetzales per dollar.)
Once we were finally in Pana, we needed a tuk tuk to the public dock because we are carrying several bags. The first tuk tuk cost about $3.57 USD. (A tuk tuk is a vehicle used in many countries. It’s essentially a covered three-wheeled motor scooter.)
We still are carrying large, heavy bags because we have things like pillows and an automatic coffee machine. But, as much as I’ve harped on Tedly that we should ‘lighten the load, I am so glad to have the coffee machine because our new rental only has a french press.
At the dock, we paid $7.14 USD for two people on the public boat to go from Pana (as the locals call it) to the San Marcos dock. You can hire a private boat to take you, but I don’t know how much those are. As soon as I was approached with offers, I politely declined. When on a public boat, you may have to wait a few extra minutes for the boat to fill up with people.
Our rental is not in San Marcos – a tourist mecca for marketed with yoga retreats and holistic week getaways. But we got off the boat at the San Marcos dock at the advice of our new Airbnb host because the path from that dock to the road is less of an incline (again, the bags play a role in our travel decisions).
Once we left the ferry boat, a couple of local boys grabbed our bags and offered to help carry them up to the road for a small fee. We agreed – we feel it’s important to support the locals when we can. (Work out the fee before the job.)
Our rental up the road from the village of San Marcos is a 20 minute walk on a road with some craters. Bags in tow, we took a second tuk tuk for about $3.57 USD.
The total cost to get from Guatemala City to Pana and on to San Marcos at Lake Atitlan cost roughly $60 for two people. It also took us nearly eight hours with a private car, four chicken buses, two tuk tuks and a boat.
Of course there are easier, and shorter, ways to make this journey. I’ve seen shuttle prices and private driver prices ranging from $35 all the way up to $90, and even higher! We did it as cheaply and safely as possible, given our street smarts, starting point and the holiday. Plus: we had a fun adventure to boot! Tourist shuttles, schmorist shuttles.
Now we can totally relax. Our place is just outside a Maya village named San Pablo. I haven’t seen any other tourists in the village yet. We had a lovely time at the market today and bought veggies and fruit to last a few days, plus a few other staples.
There is no supermarket here. Not even close to one. No Walmarts, no Burger Kings, no McDonalds (Guatemala City has all of those, and then some).
Our bungalow is sweet. The view is incredible! I am grateful we’ll be here for a month.