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Making a trip to “the city”

Two options for your trip to the city.

Two options for your trip to the city.

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For those who live here, you have probably learned the common term is Guatemala, not “the city” but that is confusing for newcomers. In any case, this article is about travel options between Panajachel to Guatemala City.

It covers the three most common options: private car, public bus and shuttle. Some people may consider a TukTuk, a motorcycle or just sticking your thumb out. They are all bad ideas with the TukTuk probably being the worst. If you try any of the three, write about it. We like adventure stories.

Jump in the car

For many, the only option that will make sense is to drive in your private car. If you are a family or even two people, this may be the best option. There are, however, some considerations worth mentioning.

While a non-issue if you live in Guatemala City and are talking about a trip to the lake, knowing Guatemala City is going to be an issue if you are heading the other way. It’s a big city. If you don’t know your way around, it can be frustrating or even dangerous. And if your Spanish is less than perfect, seeking directions/help can be difficult.

In addition, you may end up where having a car is a disadvantage. For example, if this is a shopping trip with focus on the shops along Aveneda 6, you need to put your car somewhere which is going to cost money and may be less convenient than arriving in a shuttle or even a bus.

Finally, of course, is the cost but if you have a car you are already aware of the costs.


Take a shuttle

One of the many shuttle vans that travels to/from Pana.

One of the many shuttle vans that travels to/from Pana.

There are regular shuttles between Pana and Guatemala City. Or, more accurately, between Pana and Guatemala City with a side-trip to Antigua included. Whether you see visiting Antigua as a plus or a minus, it does mean more travel time. The actual time will depend on your connections in Antigua but four hours is about the minimum.

The convenience you gain is supposed to be getting picked up wherever you are and delivered to the destination you want. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to always be the case. Here are two examples.

My wife took a shuttle from Pana to Guatemala City. Her destination was the terminal for the Transportes del Sol bus to Nicaragua. This was her first trip heading that way. She had come (with me) to Guatemala on del Sol but this was her first solo trip and only her second time in Guatemala City. The driver argued with her about where she wanted to end up (it said Crown Plaza on her shuttle ticket and she said Crown Plaza but he disagreed) and tried to get her to get off at some other hotel. It wasn’t malicious, just incompetence. Ultimately she got to the right place but it was through the help of others, not the shuttle driver. Frustrating for her but probably worse for a non-native Spanish speaker.

On my last trip from Guatemala City to Pana I had a big, heavy bag and decided to take a shuttle rather than a bus. I was picked up at my hotel in Guatemala City and taken to Antigua where I waited for the shuttle to Pana. Once we got to Pana the driver took all of us to one place near the lake/near where boats to the other towns leave. That was it, one stop even though we had been told door to door.

For me it was a non-issue as I lived down a narrow callejon and had planned to take a TukTuk to my apartment but there were people on the shuttle who had never been to Panajachel before and had little in the was of Spanish skills. Fortunately, there were helpers and TukTuks there who could sort out the needs but it was not how it should have been.

I have heard a few people say “the shuttle is safer than the bus”. I don’t have any statistics but if I was a highway bandit, I would pick the shuttle as a target because, on average, you would find more money/valuables. In any case, you don’t seem to hear about bandits on that route these days.

Note that both the shuttle shown in the first photo and the second photo are currently in use. If you are lucky you will get the second. The first is very underpowered so expect a slow trip on the uphill parts.

The actual cost of the shuttle is also an interesting variable. I have paid from $20 to $30 for a one-way trip. Almost always $20 from Pana to Guate and almost always $30 from Guate to Pana. At $20 to Guate, the price is reasonable if you will end up needing a taxi on the Guate end if you took the bus.

Take the bus

Pana to Guate bus just off Calle Principal.

Pana to Guate bus just off Calle Principal.

There are direct buses between Pana to Guatemala City plus other options including changing buses in Los Encuentros. I believe the buses leave five times a day starting before dawn and the last one leaving mid-afternoon. While some people say “they stop everywhere” they still take less time for the trip than a shuttle which stops in Antigua. They are reliable, relatively comfortable and, well, a cultural experience.

In Pana, they leave from near where Calle Santander intersects Calle Principal. I say near because there are some options. Worst case, if you are nowhere near where the bus passes, a Q5 TukTuk ride will get you to the right place. The bigger problem is on the Guatemala City end. If your destination is on the west site of town along Calzada Roosevelt, you just need to pick your stop. The end of the line is usually near the Trebol TransMetro station so a short walk and Q1 can get you to most anywhere in the city. Otherwise, you will probably need a taxi. There is no shortage of taxis but that can add from Q25 up to Q100 to your trip. The bus fare itself is Q30.

Return trips can be equally complicated. For example, only the first Guate to Pana bus leaves from the terminal in Zona 1. You pretty much need to catch the others along the Pan Americana/Calzada Roosevelt.

What’s right for you?

A better way to put that is “what’s right for this trip?” I don’t have a car and, even if I did, it is unlikely I would choose the car option. But, I do regularly pick between bus and shuttle.

If I have heavy luggage, the shuttle option is my typical choice. It’s not that you cannot have big, heavy luggage on the bus — they put it on the roof — but it just means you need to move it more times.

Who you will encounter may also be a consideration. You are more likely to encounter people from the US and Europe on the shuttles. On the bus you will encounter mostly locals. In general, I find the people on the bus more interesting because it gives me a change to learn more about Guatemala and to practice my Spanish.

In any case, it’s up to you. Think about the options and pick what’s right for you.

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