Road Trip: Guatemala City to Lake Atitlán, Part 1

Public transportation in Guatemala.


Over the July 4th weekend, I traveled to Guatemala for a week, to do mission work for my church. This involved taking a bus from the capital (and the airport), Guatemala City, up into the mountains around Lake Atitlán, where many of the poorer Guatemalans of Mayan heritage live.

Lake Atitlán, surrounded by dormant volcanoes and ringed with small, largely poor towns.


For a car nerd, there was an extra and appealing dimension to going to a new country, which was to observe and record a different culture from an automotive standpoint. As things turned out, the car experiences, per se, were not so interesting. But public transportation, trucks, and the roadside environments were fascinating, to say nothing of the high level of visible road maintenance and the interesting cooperative driving techniques used by the drivers on the narrow and sometimes very crowded roads.

The cars themselves were largely a mix of later model and slightly older model Japanese and Korean small cars, leavened with a small mix of just about everything else, including full-size SUVs, and the occasional Audi, BMW, or Mercedes. A smattering of Lexus and unusual (to me) cars such as Peugeot and Renault SUV/CUVs were observed.

Guatemala has a complex and often tragic history, right up until a few years ago. A civil war that began with a U.S.-backed coup in 1954 (to protect the international banana monopoly and to fight the communists) led to ever greater fighting, suffering, and widespread death, until the war was officially concluded in late 1996. Casual automotive observations on my part saw little in the way of passenger cars that had been built before the mid-1990s. Only a mid-1970s Toyota Corolla daily driver was spotted, along with a carefully restored first-gen MR2 caravanning with a pristine first-gen Toyota 4×4 Pickup on a late Saturday morning, most likely returning from a parking lot car show in Guatemala City, rushing home to beat the afternoon rains.

Like most of Central and Latin America, Guatemala is a relatively poor place by our standards. For most of the people, car ownership is a luxury of sorts, but transportation is a necessity for most. So the transportation network has developed around some very basic car ownership choices and a variety of public transportation options. One thing the transportation options must do is both be appropriate to the specific intended uses, and also be versatile to accommodate various needs. Does the driver typically travel around town, or cross country? Is the driver usually traveling solo? Is there extra baggage or cargo to be carried?

A JAC brand light truck, carrying locally made furniture. This style of truck is very popular in Guatemala.


The Japanese and Korean small cars and CUVs are popular. The late model Toyota RAV-4 and Honda CRV are quite common (aren’t they so, just about everywhere?). Toyota also completely dominates the light truck market here, with the Toyota Hi-Lux pickup and the Tacoma. One does see a fair number of Mitsubishi sedans and small pickups, along with the Nissans as well. I saw a couple of Ford Rangers. A popular light truck is the very light-duty cabover truck with drop-down low bed sides. Kia and JAC (a Chinese vehicle manufacturer) dominate this market.

An older Kia brand light truck, shuttling consumer goods on a weekend morning.


In fact, many trucks are open-topped, and employ various structures and hooks by which to tie down cargo and carry it. This is true all the way up to the largest trucks typically seen on the roads there, which would be mid-size to us, though many trucks do have hard-sided and roofed cargo enclosures. The soft-covered trucks are typically equipped with fitted or occasionally makeshift tarps. One important feature is the “peak” created for the cargo cover, typically longitudinally along the center line of the vehicle, front to back. This keeps the high amount of rain from puddling on any flat surfaces of the cargo covers. Some of the support structures are permanent, but others are fully or partially removable, to accommodate loads of various dimensions.

A medium-duty truck incorporating the popular open-air cargo bed, framed and tarped, with the characteristic peaked center, which keeps the typical and sometimes torrential afternoon rains from puddling up.


The light-duty pickup trucks typically have one of two added structures. The minimal and “dressier” version incorporates tubular rails mounted along the top of each bedside, morphing into a combination roll bar and protection for the rear cab window from shifting loads. These structures are often chromed, and typically have some ornate elements welded into the area protecting the back window. Small cargo or tarps can be easily tied onto the rails and the structure for stability and safety (how often have many of us cursed the minimal tie-down capabilities in our pickups, and found them located in a few arbitrary positions?). People riding in the truck beds also have something to hold onto, though they typically need to sit down in the truck bed to properly hang on.

A Nissan pickup wearing the “siderails-with-rollbar-and-rear-window-protection” structure that is popular in the region. A tarp, covering some small cargo, is conveniently tied to the side rails. The driver, caught in stop-and-go highway traffic, is buying ice cream cones from a roadside vendor.


The more elaborate and capable pickup truck cargo structure is rather ubiquitous as one leaves the city and heads up into the mountains. It features high sides of either (usually) aluminum or (occasionally) wooden stakes, along with a fixed tubular metal structure that protects the rear window area, and also offers an arched frame by which to hold in people or cargo. Some of the structures feature elaborate and ornate welded steel elements in place of the stakes along the sides. These structures are higher than the top of the truck cab, so quite a bit of cargo can be carried. Alternatively, people can, and do, ride in the back standing up, where the top rails of the frame fall easily to hand. Rated capacity? Well, this sort of structure can allow one to just fill up the truck until it can’t fit any more cargo or people into it. If it can still move under its own power, it will no doubt be tasked to do so.

A rear view of a Toyota pickup, mounted with the stake sides, rear window protection, and characteristic arched peak. A tarp, thrown over this structure to protect cargo, will sport a peaked roof to shed rain.


This small pickup, a Nissan, sports a minimal and utilitarian cargo bed superstructure. It appears to be carrying a big load to market.


One exception to the lack of heavy-duty trucks is the use of tanker trucks for fuel. The mountainous terrain, the common shifting of the earth and earthquakes, and the general lack of pipelines and infrastructure, all mean that fuel must be moved almost exclusively by truck. The trucks themselves were usually either a one-piece cab and tank on a frame, or instead used the semi-truck tractor and trailer arrangement. I always saw one trailer, but never two trailers, attached to a tractor. Because of the need to go up (and down) long stretches of inclines, the trailer or rig weight needs to be kept a bit lower than it otherwise would need to be. The trucks were a mix of newer and older, but were generally of reasonable appearance, and rarely carried logos or polished tanks. A few were dead ringers for the old truck from the “Duel” movie. Each fuel truck was emblazoned with huge letters reading “inflamable” on the sides and the rear. They were everywhere on the highways, and parked alongside the roads.

Speaking of which, everything is wood and fossil fuels in Guatemala. I saw no wind or solar installations, and certainly no EVs or charging stations. Nary a Tesla was seen in the Guatemalan car fleet. There were some hybrids (such as the occasional Prius), but no plug-ins. Wood stoves are universal among the poor. In the mountains, the power often goes out, and portable generators are pulled out for small businesses and public offices.

Let’s take a look at the “large” end of cross-country transportation. The dominant vehicles, by sheer size and number, are typically the converted American school buses, elaborately decorated and adapted to local needs. Think of a cross between a Philippine “Jeepney” and a Japanese “dekotora” truck, and you start to get close. They are almost always of the “conventional” (not cab-over-engine) configuration, and they are usually powered by a diesel engine. Big racks are built on top of the roofs, and the rear emergency exit doors are often used for entry and exit at the bus stops. As well as elaborate paintwork and ornate metal details, the buses typically incorporate a variety of multi-colored lights. Many of the newer buses in the fleet appear purpose-built, rather than old school bus conversions. The buses, often called “chicken buses”, give off quite the light show at night.

Public transportation, wearing the characteristic flashy paint job and trim, a bit of a light show, and the overhead cargo rack. This one appears to have a heavy load out back, as it sits hard on the rear axle as it rolls downhill.


From the rear, the ladders to the overhead cargo rack can be seen, as well as the rear door for dropping off and occasionally picking up passengers.


At the other end of public transportation are the three-wheeled “tuc-tuc”s. In Guatemala, they are usually Bajaj Toritos, and predominately red with black trim (but not always). Many of the tuc-tucs have themed decorations. They are actually marvels of space efficiency, with the capability to quickly navigate small spaces and crowded roads.

A “tuc-tuc” navigating the highway. With a top speed of about 25 mph on a flat road, these had better stay over to the side. I doubt the rear wing and brightly painted wheels are helping matters much.


The ultimate personal transportation is the small motorbike. Beyond the typical Japanese brands (Suzuki, Yamaha, and Honda), one saw local brands such as Specter and Freedom. Most riders wear helmets, but not close to all of them do so. They tend to scoot in packs and dive-bomb traffic either between the lanes or along the edges of the road. Given how tightly and irregularly packed the roads can get, there is a lot of dodging and weaving going on. One of the marvels of the motorcycle contingent was the frequent female passenger sitting sidesaddle (feet and legs to the left, always). It was not universal, but it was quite common, especially by women wearing the traditional Guatemalan clothes and skirts.

Trucks, buses, cars, and motorbikes. Everyone is on the same road, but it all works out. Given that crowded road, speeds are typically quite slow, so it is easier to make it all work.


A small Bajaj Qute on the highway. Basically a four-wheel version of the three-wheel “tuc-tuc”. These make a Smart car look large and substantial.


There was one other very small car running about, and that was the Bajaj Qute. They run about $2,000 (U.S. Dollars) new. Some were being used as taxis, like the tuc-tucs, and others were privately owned.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we set off for the mountains in our bus, and we catalogue some sights along the way.