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Shuttles

For most of the major destinations, tourist shuttles or a private car and driver are your best means for getting around. There are a couple of major tourist shuttle services in Guatemala, and almost every hotel tour desk and local tour agency can book you a ride to just about any major tourist destination in the country either on a regularly scheduled shuttle or with a private car and driver.

The main tourist shuttle company is Atitrans (tel. 502/7832-3371 24-hr. reservation number; www.atitrans.com) which offers both regularly scheduled departures to most of the major tourist destinations in the country, as well as private cars or vans with drivers. Or you can contact Clark Tours (tel. 502/2412-4848; www.clarktours.com.gt), Maya Vacations (tel. 502/2426-1400; www.mayavacations.com), or Via Venture (tel. 502/7832-2509; www.viaventure.com).

Shuttle rates from Guatemala City or Antigua to or from other major destinations run between Q90 and Q375 ($12-$50/£6-£25) depending upon the destination. A private car or van with driver should cost between Q600 and Q1,500 ($80-$200/£40-£100) per day, depending on the size and style of the vehicle and how many passengers are traveling.

By Bus

This is by far the most economical way to get around Guatemala. Buses are inexpensive and go nearly everywhere in the country. There are two types: Local buses are the cheapest and slowest; they stop frequently and are generally very dilapidated. They also tend to be overcrowded, and you are much more likely to be the victim of a robbery on one of these. These buses are commonly referred to as "chicken buses" because the rural residents who depend on these buses often have chickens and other livestock as luggage. For all but the most adventurous types, I recommend you avoid these buses.

Express or deluxe buses run between Guatemala City and most beach towns and major cities; these tend to be newer units and much more comfortable. They also tend to be direct buses, thus much quicker. Most have working bathrooms, and some have televisions equipped with DVD players showing late-run movies.

By Car

In general, I don't recommend renting a car in Guatemala. The roads are often dangerous. Guatemalan drivers, particularly bus and truck drivers, have apparently no concern for human life, their own or anybody else's. A brutal Darwinian survival of the fittest reigns on Guatemala's roads. Passing on blind curves seems to be the national sport. Pedestrians, horses, dogs, and other obstacles seem to appear out of nowhere.

I highly recommend you avoid driving at night at all costs. While rare, there have been armed robberies of tourists and Guatemalans along the highways and back roads of Guatemala, particularly at night. Moreover, the inherent dangers of oncoming traffic and unseen obstacles are heightened at night.

Never leave anything of value in a car. Always try to park in a secure parking lot. If that's not possible, try to find a spot where some local kid or industrious worker will guard your car for a tip.

These caveats aren't meant to entirely scare you off from driving in Guatemala. Thousands of tourists rent cars here every year, and the large majority of them encounter no problems. Renting a car is a good option for independent exploring, and it does provide a lot more freedom and save a lot of time over bus travel. Just keep your wits about you.

Note: It's sometimes cheaper to reserve a car in your home country rather than book when you arrive in Guatemala. If you know you'll be renting a car, it's always wise to reserve it well in advance for the high season because the rental fleet still can't match demand.

Among the agencies operating in Guatemala are Avis (tel. 800/331-1212 in the U.S. or 502/2239-3249 in Guatemala; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/527-0700 in the U.S. or 502/2232-7744 in Guatemala; www.budgetguatemala.com.gt), Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131 in the U.S. or 502/2470-3737 in Guatemala; www.hertz.com), National (tel. 800/227-7368 in the U.S. or 502/2362-3000 in Guatemala; www.natcar.com), and Thrifty (tel. 800/367-2277 in the U.S. or 502/2379-8747 in Guatemala; www.thrifty.com). Tabarini (tel. 502/2331-9814; www.tabarini.com) is a good Guatemalan company with offices in Guatemala City, Antigua, and Tikal.

Rates run between Q263 and Q750 ($35-$100/£18-£50) per day, including unlimited mileage and full insurance.

Car Rental Tips -- Although it's preferable to use the coverage provided by your home auto-insurance policy or credit card, check carefully to see if the coverage really holds in Guatemala. Many policies exclude 4WD vehicles and off-road driving -- some of Guatemala can, in fact, be considered off-road. It's possible at some car-rental agencies to waive the insurance charges, but you'll have to pay all damages before leaving the country if you're in an accident. If you do take the insurance, you can expect a deductible of between $750 and $1,500. At some agencies, you can buy additional insurance to lower the deductible. To rent a car in Guatemala, you must be at least 21 years old and have a valid driver's license and a major credit card in your name. You can also rent cars in Antigua, Quetzaltenango, Panajachel, and in Santa Elena and Flores, near Tikal.

Gasoline -- Gasoline, or gasolina in Spanish, is sold as normal and premium; both are unleaded. Premium is just higher octane. Diesel is available at almost every gas station as well. Most rental cars run on premium, but always ask your rental agent what type of gas your car takes. Gas stations are widely available along the highways, and in all major cities, towns, and tourist destinations. When going off to remote places, try to leave with a full tank of gas because gas stations can be harder to find. At press time, premium cost Q35 ($4.65/£2.35) per gallon.

Road Conditions -- Most of the major highways in Guatemala are in pretty good shape. However, once you venture off the major highways, the situation deteriorates quickly and dramatically.

Again, the major highways and tourist destinations are generally well marked. Once you get off the beaten path, though, things change, and you may not encounter any signs or indications as you pass intersection after intersection.

Renter's Insurance -- Even if you already hold your own car-insurance policy at home, coverage doesn't always extend abroad. Be sure to find out whether you'll be covered in Guatemala, whether your policy extends to all persons who will be driving the rental car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract.

Most major credit cards provide some degree of coverage as well -- provided that they were used to pay for the rental. Again, terms vary widely, so be sure to call your credit card company directly before you rent. Usually, if you are uninsured or are driving abroad, your credit card provides primary coverage as long as you decline the rental agency's insurance. This means that the credit card will cover damage or theft of a rental car for the full cost of the vehicle. If you already have insurance, your credit card will provide secondary coverage, which basically covers your deductible. Credit cards will not cover liability or the cost of injury to an outside party and/or damage to an outside party's vehicle. If you don't hold an insurance policy, you might seriously want to consider purchasing additional liability insurance from your rental company. Be sure to check the terms, however. Some rental agencies cover liability only if the renter is not at fault; even then, the rental company's obligation varies from state to state.

The basic insurance coverage offered by most car-rental companies, known as the Loss/Damage Waiver (LDW) or Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), can cost as much as $20 (£10) per day. It usually covers the full value of the vehicle, with no deductible if an outside party causes an accident or other damage to the rental car. Liability coverage varies according to the company policy. If you're at fault in an accident, however, you will be covered for the full replacement value of the car, but not for liability. Most rental companies require a police report to process any claims you file, but your private insurer will not be notified of the accident.

Before driving off with a rental car, be sure that you inspect the exterior and point out to the rental company representative every tiny scratch, dent, tear, or any other damage. It's a common practice with many Guatemalan car-rental companies to claim that you owe payment for minor dings and dents that the company finds when you return the car. Also, if you get into an accident, be sure that the rental company doesn't try to bill you for a higher amount than the deductible on your rental contract.

Maps -- Car-rental agencies and the INGUAT information centers at the airport and in downtown Guatemala City have adequate road maps. The most detailed map available is produced by International Travel Maps (www.itmb.com), which was updated in 2005 and is available online from the website listed.

Driving Rules -- A current foreign driver's license is valid for the length of your 90-day tourist visa. Seat belts are required for the driver and front-seat passengers.

Official driving rules are often ignored. Drivers seldom use turn signals or obey posted speed limits. Transit police are a rarity, but they will bust you for speeding, so keep to the speed limit (usually 60-90kmph/37-56 mph) if you don't want to get pulled over. Never pay money directly to a police officer who stops you for any traffic violation. Speeding tickets can be charged to your credit card for up to a year after you leave the country if they are not paid before departure.

Breakdowns -- Be warned that emergency services, both vehicular and medical, are extremely limited once you leave Guatemala City, Antigua, or any of the major tourist destinations, and their availability is directly related to the remoteness of your location at the time of breakdown.

If you're involved in a breakdown or accident, you should contact Guatemala's roadside assistance force (PROVIAL; tel. 502/2422-7878), which patrols most of the major highways in the country. Alternately, you can call the police at tel. 110. Finally, you can also call tel. 1500, and they should be able to provide an English-speaking operator and redirect your call to the appropriate agency.

If the police do show up, you've got a fifty-fifty chance of finding them helpful or downright antagonistic. Many officers are unsympathetic to the problems of what they perceive to be rich tourists running around in fancy cars with lots of expensive toys and trinkets. Many are looking for an easy bribe. Success and happy endings run about equal with horror stories.

If you don't speak Spanish, expect added difficulty in any emergency or stressful situation. Don't expect that rural (or urban) police officers, hospital personnel, service-station personnel, or mechanics will speak English.

If your car breaks down and you're unable to get well off the road, check to see whether there are reflecting triangles in the trunk. If there are, place them as a warning for approaching traffic, arranged in a wedge that starts at the shoulder about 30m (98 ft.) back and nudges gradually toward your car. If your car has no triangles, try to create a similar warning marker using a pile of leaves or branches. Finally, there have been some reports of folks being robbed by seemingly friendly good Samaritans who stop to give assistance. To add insult to injury, there have even been reports of organized gangs who puncture tires of rental cars at rest stops or busy intersections, only to follow them, offer assistance, and make off with belongings and valuables.

By Plane

Guatemala still doesn't have a very extensive network of commuter airlines. The only major destination regularly serviced by commuter traffic is Tikal. TACA Regional Airline (tel. 502/2470-8222; www.taca.com) and TAG Airlines (tel. 502/2380-9401; www.tag.com.gt) both have daily service to Tikal.

Charter aircraft can sometimes be hired to travel to some of the more outlying destinations like Quetzaltenango and Puerto Barrios. If you have a big enough group, or big enough budget, and want to charter a plane, contact Aero Ruta Maya (tel. 502/2360-4917) or TAG Airlines (tel. 502/2380-9401; www.tag.com.gt).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.