Central America Transportation

As with a lot of less developed parts of the world, solid, reliable information about transportation for Central America was not always so easy to find online. My trusty Lonely Planet Central America guidebook helped with some legs, and other travel blogs helped as well. But there were several pieces we couldn’t find ahead of time, so we knew we’d have to figure it out on the ground.

Our exact Central America route looked like this: Belize City airport -> Caye Caulker, Belize -> Flores (Tikal), Guatemala -> Rio Dulce, Guatemala -> Copan Ruinas, Honduras -> San Salvador, El Salvador -> Panajachel (Lake Atitlan), Guatemala -> Antigua, Guatemala -> Guatemala City airport

Here’s how we got from one place to the next. We did not take chicken buses because 1) they would’ve taken much longer, 2) we’re not bare-bones budget travelers, and 3) we’re too old for that sh*t.

Central America transportation
One of the lesser pimped out chicken buses we saw in Central America

Belize airport to Caye Caulker

At the start of our trip, we landed in Belize and took a taxi from the airport to the water taxi terminal. It’s a standard rate of BZ$50, which is about US$25. Tell the taxi which island you’re going to, and they’ll take you to the right water taxi terminal.

Our water taxi was with a company called Ocean Ferry for BZ$58 (US$29) round trip for two people, but there are a few other companies. The prices seem to be similar enough, but if you want a specific company, tell your taxi driver so he can get you to the right place.

Once we arrived in Caye Caulker, several “taxi” drivers (really they’re golf carts) approached us, but the island is small and we knew from looking at a map that our hotel was only a few blocks away, so we walked. We never took a golf cart taxi, so I don’t know how much they cost.

Central America transportation
The Blue Hole Reef in Belize

Caye Caulker to Flores, Guatemala (Tikal)

Since we already had round trip water taxi tickets, we just had to get on the boat. We already knew there was a 10am bus to Flores, so we got a water taxi at 8:30am. At the water taxi terminal, there were two counters selling snacks and sodas, and they also sold bus tickets to Flores and Tikal. They told us the times but said we should just buy the tickets on the day we were going. Our tickets to Flores cost BZ$100 (US$50) for the two of us. It’s a little extra if you’re going to one of the hotels that’s actually at Tikal.

The shuttle took us to the border where we had to get out and go through Belize exit procedures. This included paying a BZ$37.50 (US$18.75) exit fee per person. After answering questions from the border agent who was fascinated by my Antarctica stamp while the guy next to him stamped out five other people, we finally got stamped out. Then we walked through a pedestrian walkway next to where the cars were driving through and went into a building on the left to get stamped into Guatemala. There is no fee to enter Guatemala.

Central America transportation
One of many temples at Tikal

I read on other blogs that some travelers were approached by men claiming to be border officials and asking for entry fees. I didn’t see this at all, but if this happens to you, just ignore them. Even if the guy behind the counter asks you for an entry fee, remind him that there isn’t a fee to enter Guatemala and/or ask to see official documentation. Again, there is NO fee to enter Guatemala.

Once we got stamped in, we found our shuttle waiting for us, hopped back on, and continued the journey to Flores. They stopped just before getting to Flores, and a guy got on the shuttle, which always makes me think a scam, or at least an annoying sales pitch, is on the way.

What ended up happening was he explained that a lot of the ATMs in Flores are often out of order, and since it was Sunday, there wouldn’t be any open banks. (I’m not even sure there are banks on the island. You’d have to go back across the bridge.) We were stopped across the street from a grocery store with an ATM, and he suggested we get cash there. Even that ATM only worked for half our group, so they took us to another one a few blocks away. And yes, he tried to get us to book tours. But I’m glad he stopped for the ATM because the ones on Flores really were pretty bad most times we tried.

Central America transportation
view from our hotel in Flores, Guatemala

Flores, Guatemala to Rio Dulce, Guatemala

From Flores, we really wanted to get to Copan Ruinas, Honduras, but all of my research and inquiries indicated that the distance was just too far for one day. One agent emailed me saying it could be done, but only in a private transfer for several hundred dollars. No thanks. So we split the journey with a night in Rio Dulce.

There are several travel agencies in Flores who will book you tours as well as bus tickets to other destinations, so we picked one and got tickets on what was supposed to be an 8am bus but turned out to be an 8:30am bus. The bus company was FDN. Our tickets cost GTQ300 (US$39) for the two of us and included a pick-up from our hotel to bring us to the bus terminal in Santa Elena. If we got a tuk-tuk ourselves for about GTQ10 (US$1.30) we could’ve bought the tickets at the bus terminal for GTQ100 (US$13) per person.

The bus was a VIP bus. I think basically this means it was built sometime in the last few decades and has super powered air conditioning. This was one of those buses where I wish I had my winter coat and a cold-weather sleeping bag. Other than that, it wasn’t a bad ride though. The trip took about 4 or 4 1/2 hours and dropped us at the Letigua bus terminal in Rio Dulce.

Central America transportation
Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Rio Dulce, Guatemala to Copan Ruinas, Honduras

The next day we went back to Letigua and bought bus tickets for GTQ190 (US$25) for the two of us to El Florido, which is the Guatemala side of the border. The bus does not go all the way to Copan. The temperature on this bus was more reasonable and included a 10 minute bathroom and snack stop.

Andy and I went through Guatemala exit procedures along with three other travelers, and the guy behind the counter took all five of our passports at once, we thought to speed things up. When he was done, he held onto them and told us we needed to pay a GTQ10 (US$1.30) exit fee per person. I know there is NO exit fee for Guatemala, but I had never been asked to pay a bribe before.

I was in front of the window, so I told the others in our group what he said. Everyone was in agreement, there’s no exit fee, we’re not paying that. So I told him (in Spanish) that there is no fee to exit the country. He tried again, and I repeated myself. Luckily at that point he gave up and handed over our passports. I’m usually a bit of a pushover, so I’m proud of myself for standing my ground.

Then we walked over to the Honduras side to enter. Supposedly there is an agreement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua that gives a 90 day tourist visa good for all four countries, similar to the Schengen Zone in Europe. But Honduras doesn’t seem to pay attention to it anymore, which means they stamp you in and out independently, but the clock keeps ticking for the other three countries. It also means Honduras charges an entry fee of US$3 per person, which you can pay in Honduran lempira or Guatemala quetzales. We paid GTQ30 per person, which means we didn’t get the best exchange rate, but we didn’t have exact change in US dollars.

At this point, we still needed transport from the border to Copan. This is a popular route, so we were able to get on a shuttle van for HNL40 (US$1.75) for the two of us. It was packed so full that even a local getting on after us hesitated before attempting to squeeze into the remaining space in the back row. But it was only a 20 minute ride.

The total journey from Rio Dulce to Copan was somewhere between 8 and 9 hours.

Central America transportation
Some of the ruins in Copan, Honduras

Copan Ruinas, Honduras to San Salvador, El Salvador

This was another tricky leg of our trip. When I searched online, I kept finding routes to El Tunco, a popular beach town on the El Salvador coast, but we weren’t going there. I also found routes that involved switching buses four or five times to get to San Salvador, and it sounded painful. So basically we just assumed we’d figure it out from Copan.

We ended up going to a hostel (which also has a travel desk) called Via Via, and they arranged a direct shuttle for us. We paid HNL1760 (US$78) for the two of us. Normally the shuttle goes to El Tunco, and you pay a little extra to go to San Salvador since the route to El Tunco bypasses the capital. I definitely recommend going in there early because there aren’t always people going that way. There was a guy in our van going to El Tunco who waited a few days for more people (Andy and I, plus one other couple) who wanted to go to El Salvador.

The other strange part about this journey was the actual route. Honduras and El Salvador share a border, so you’d think we’d just go that way. But since Copan is quite a ways from a big highway and it’s located only 20 minutes from the Guatemala border, we actually crossed back into Guatemala and then into El Salvador.

Getting stamped out of Honduras was just as easy as getting stamped in. Oddly enough it was the same exact line handling people entering and exiting. No one cared that there were at least 20 people waiting in line, there was just one agent behind the desk. Afterwards we got stamped into Guatemala, no attempted bribery this time, and then continued through the southern edge of the country for a few hours.

Getting stamped out of Guatemala was simple, and they handed us a little receipt, one for both me and Andy, that we handed over to the official at the El Salvador side. We didn’t even have to get out of the van at that point. I assume this easier border crossing had to do with the visa agreement between the countries.

Then we officially entered El Salvador and immediately noticed how much nicer the roads were. We even stopped at a gas station to use the bathrooms, and they were actually clean! Who has ever heard of clean gas station bathrooms?!

Central America transportation
One of several volcanoes we saw in El Salvador

San Salvador, El Salvador to Panajachel, Guatemala (Lake Atitlan)

Perhaps the wonkiest of all our transport days, we simply could not find a direct way to get from San Salvador to Lake Atitlan. Our online research showed direct routes from El Tunco to Antigua, but that wasn’t really helpful. We even Skype texted with a travel company in Guatemala who told us there wasn’t a direct route.

So we set off for a day of winging it and hoping for the best. We knew there was a bus from San Salvador to Guatemala City. We found plenty of bus options online from there to Antigua, plus the fact that getting a private taxi was around the same price, and shuttles from Antigua to Panajachel, so as long as we could make the right times, it would all work.

San Salvador to Guatemala City

We got a super early taxi to a Sheraton Hotel in the Zona Rosa district that served as a bus station for Pullman Tour. We bought our tickets for US$70 (El Salvador uses the US dollar) for the two of us.

The bus, which left at 6:15am, was easily the nicest bus I’ve ever been on. The seats were super comfy leather recliners. The bathroom was clean (or so Andy tells me…I didn’t actually use it) and an employee who was almost like a flight attendant brought us free breakfast, juice, snacks, and other drinks throughout the journey. The temperature was perfect, and they had blankets in case someone did get cold. I would deduct points for the horrible Transformers movie playing on the TVs (seriously Marky Mark, what were you thinking?) but Andy seemed to enjoy it, so I’ll let it slide.

At the Guatemala border, we stayed on the bus and an El Salvador agent came on checked everyone’s passports. Then a bus employee got on and collected passports from several of us, I assume those of us not holding local passports, and then everyone got off the bus and into a van that took us across the border to the Guatemala side.

Meanwhile, the bus employees unloaded our luggage from the bus and onto a truck, which also came across the border, and then they loaded the luggage into another identical bus, which we all boarded. I watched the luggage being unloaded and reloaded because I was paranoid, but it all went smoothly. Our passports were returned, and we were on our way.

Guatemala City to Antigua

The journey ended at a Holiday Inn in a surprisingly swanky part of Guatemala City. From San Salvador to Guatemala City, total trip time was around 6 hours, including about 45 minutes at the border. From there we negotiated with a taxi driver to have him take us to Antigua for GTQ250 (US$33). Much better than having to find a bus station in a not-so-nice part of town.

During our one hour ride to Antigua, we passed a Casa de Waffle, complete with yellow blocks on the sign, and I wished I could’ve gone back to take a picture of it. If you’ve ever driven through the southeastern US, you’ll understand how hilarious this was to us.

Antigua to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan

In Antigua, we walked into a travel agency near the main square that booked us on a 4pm shuttle to Panajachel for GTQ190 (US$25) for the two of us. With a couple of hours to kill, we found lunch and wandered around the center of town. It was enough to let us know we’d really like Antigua. The shuttle from Antigua to Panajachel took a bit less than 3 hours, including a stop at a gas station.

We ended the day without any major stress about our transportation. The stress would come once we arrived at our horrible hotel.

Central America transportation
Lake Atitlan

Panajachel, Guatemala to Antigua, Guatemala

Considering we had already done this route the opposite way and it’s an incredibly popular route, we had no issues getting back to Antigua. There were several times to choose from, so we got a 9:30am shuttle and arrived in Antigua around noon. The cost was again GTQ190 (US$25).

Antigua, Guatemala to the Guatemala Airport

We debated about staying in Antigua on our last night vs getting a hotel near the airport in Guatemala City. Our flight left at 9am, so we had to be there at 7am, so on the surface it seemed like a better choice to stay in Guatemala City. But the city doesn’t have a good reputation, and getting a hotel in that swanky area we saw the week before would be really expensive. It’s pretty typical for people to go straight from Antigua, so finally that’s what we decided to do.

Our hotel arranged a transfer to the airport for GTQ320 ($42). There are group shuttles that cost a little less, but you have to be able to go at specific times and we weren’t willing to take the 4am. Despite the normal drive time of one hour, they insisted we needed at least two hours at that time of day because of rush hour. We left the hotel a few minutes before 5am and sat in traffic almost the entire way. It took 2 hours and 20 minutes to get to the airport.

Central America transportation
Antigua, Guatemala

If I could do it again…

Hindsight is always 20/20, right? Even though everything worked out fine, I would definitely plan this trip differently if I were to do it again. We didn’t decide to go to El Salvador until after we booked our flights, which is why our return flight was from Guatemala City. But it probably would’ve been easier to travel in a different order and fly home from San Salvador. Here’s the route I’d do instead:

Caye Caulker, Belize -> Flores, Guatemala -> Antigua, Guatemala -> Panajachel, Guatemala -> Copan Ruinas, Honduras -> San Salvador, El Salvador

The stop in Rio Dulce was really only out of necessity, and it didn’t look like an exciting place. There were plenty of travel agencies offering connections between Flores and Antigua, as well as connections between Antigua and Copan. I have no idea if we could reverse our San Salvador to Panajachel day, but it seems reasonable that we could if we left early enough.

Another thing I’d consider is flying between Tikal/Flores and Guatemala City. Andy hates to fly, so we avoid it whenever possible, but if you don’t have an issue getting on a plane, this would save you time and hassle.

I’d also consider breaking up the long journey between Flores and Antigua with a day or two in Chemuc Chempey, which is supposed to have some gorgeous waterfalls. We didn’t have time to include it on our trip, but we met other travelers who said it was really pretty.

Transportation is usually an adventure all on its own, and transportation in Central America was no exception!

You might also enjoy:

Central America Transportation: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador
Transportation in Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador