Road Trip: Rural Mountainous Guatemala – Part 3

Tuc-tucs are a major part of the public transportation system in the mountain towns around Lake Atitlán.


Once we got to the mountains for real, both the landscape and the mix of vehicles abruptly changed. In general, the towns were smaller, more widely spaced, and appeared much poorer than the cities and towns “down the mountains”. The proportion of traffic made up of pickup trucks and other light trucks grew much larger, and the tuc-tucs and Qutes also became a significant portion of traffic. Many of the cars on or along the road were older and more run down.

How about another bus photo? This one is showing the often-seen cloud of diesel smoke, from either an older engine specification and/or engine wear. The driver’s assistant is hanging out the right side door, watching for traffic in blind spots and looking for passengers along the side of the road. Is that a potential passenger up ahead? Let’s signal to him and see if he responds.


After leaving the gas station/mini-mart rest stop roughly halfway along our journey, the roads got steeper and narrower, the traffic thinned out, and the prevailing weather turned from sunny in the morning, to cloudy and rainy in the afternoon, as it typically does there on summer days.

The roads are edged with deep concrete-lined gullies, with which to slough off the sometimes torrential rain. Nearer the big cities and on the larger highways, the gullies are set back from the edge of the road. In the mountains, the deep gullies are situated right alongside the lane of traffic, making for very dangerous conditions if one is inattentive to his driving, or slides off the road in the rain. These gullies also often inhibit off-street parking, especially along the roads between the small towns. Drivers parking their cars or trucks will often simply park them on the right-hand portion of the traffic lane. They can’t do it on both sides of a two-lane road at the same time, as attention must be paid to make sure to leave at least a single lane for through-traffic. From that point, it is a matter of coordination between drivers arriving from opposing directions. Because of the fundamentally cooperative attitudes generally, it seemed to extend to driving, and it always worked out. Little toots of the horn were made for “coming through”, “after you”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. Many little toots of horns from different directions. The drivers had their little horn conversations, more quickly than I could properly decipher them.

Note the gullies along the edge of the road. Also the blind corner, wet pavement on a well-maintained road surface, and the unexpected street vendor on the road, likely making his or her way home in the rain.


A rural traffic jam. There was some sort of service at a church, so the people simply parked partially in the traffic lane. Traffic from opposite directions makes do.


In the rural areas, the speeds are often quite slow, as the roads are steep, the turns are often sharp and blind, the pavement is typically damp or wet, and cars will occasionally be parked in the road lane in unexpected places. In the numerous small towns and hamlets lining the through-roads, the buildings are often situated very close to the edge of the road. The pedestrians, including often unescorted small children, and the dogs (there were so many dogs wandering freely and loose), help keep speeds down, out of a sense of driver prudence. Fortunately, the children and dogs seemed to have a lot of street-sense, and were constantly careful, from what I saw. The big converted school buses and fuel tanker trucks also use these small, tight rural roads, so things are often very jammed up.

Road conditions are crowded in the small towns. Toyotas and tuc-tucs line the curb, blocking things up a bit.


Speeds are kept down on the narrow, wet country roads. A Toyota pickup and another HiAce bus, common in the area.


A couple of interesting things (to me, anyway), peculiar to mostly the “up the mountain” vehicles, were (1) the elaborate decorations covering many of the cars, Qutes, and tuc-tucs, along with (2) the frequent mounting of all sorts of variously colored lights of different sorts on the vehicles. Automotive lighting codes, what are those? Given the frequent clouds and rain, along with the blind corners and narrow roads, one could well understand the desire to light up one’s small car or Qute, to alert other drivers of your presence. But, in my opinion, there was also a sense of visual exuberance going on. Guatemalans love broad mixes of bright colors. Why not do your car up that way as well, including with lights? As to the decorations generally, the small cars and tuc-tucs were often loaded up with glitz. I saw a “No Fear” themed tuc-tuc, a Herbie #53 theme combined with Monster drinks on another, and a third one sporting a “Chicago Bulls” motif. The “Chicago Bulls” tuc-tuc was everywhere; the driver was obviously a busy guy. Along with the themes and logos was a propensity to have sayings printed out on the vehicle, typically related to God. “I have God with me”, “Son of God”, “With God I have no worries”, and so on. These decorations and sayings were sometimes seen in the city, but they were everywhere in the rural mountains and small towns.

This Bajaj Qute is making sure he is visible in the rain. Note also the logos and doo-dads all over the car.


This Qute is also highly decorated. This photo is from one of the myriads of small roadside agricultural towns in the mountains. These particular buildings are likely owned by some of the more prosperous area citizens, possibly with family connections abroad that send back money over time, as is done there.


Parking is a bit of a haphazard affair. One parks where one can eke out a spot. So too, with the boats on the lake, which tend to get tied up or pulled ashore wherever it is convenient. The boats on the lake appear to carry mostly people and very light cargo. Most of the cargo gets to places across the winding network of roads, by truck.

Just park your boats wherever, it’s all good. San Antonio Palopa.


We established a “home base” in the lakeside town of Panajachel (“pah-nah-hah-shell”). Fleets of tuc-tucs puttered through the streets, day and night, serving as local taxis.

Panajachel. A bit of a tourist town, quiet by day and lively at night.


Panajachel, following a Bajaj Torito tuc-tuc into town. The worker to the left is stringing a new electrical cable into the morass of overhead lines, in the rain. His own cable may not be electrically live, but what about the lines it is draped over? The other end of his cable is lying in the gutter full of water…


The tuc-tucs, usually used as local town taxis, are Bajaj (“bajay”) Toritos (“little bulls”), manufactured in India. They typically can seat three in the back, while the driver sits in the center up front, driving the vehicle with a handlebar arrangement. The sides are open, but they can be enclosed with fitted canvas and clear plastic doors and panels. The engine is located between the rear wheels, and putters along like a lawn tractor. Going up the hills with passengers on board can be an ordeal. A driver told me the frames and bodies can last forever, but the engines have a typical life of two to four years. The older versions have no doubt gone through multiple engines in their lifetimes. While electric versions of the three-wheelers have been offered in parts of the world, the Guatemalan locals use fossil fuel powered tuc-tucs. While the tuc-tucs were once used mostly nationwide for local travel, they now are limited to primarily the mountain towns. Travel between towns typically employs buses, HiAces, or Toyota pickup trucks.

Guatemalan tuc-tucs are typically painted red, and mountain vehicles often carry little sayings posted on the windshield or body.


The driver sits in the center of the tuc-tuc, operating it via a handlebar assembly.


The view from the driver’s seat. The brake hydraulics are mounted on the kickboard.


Three can fit in the back seat if they are willing to be cozy. The engine is mounted under the rear seat.


Speaking of the pickups, many of them have a peculiar roof rack structure with a regional twist. As mentioned in an earlier road trip post, the trucks can be opened or closed up with tarps or fitted canvas panels, and typically carry either people or cargo (and occasionally both). The racks have some regional ornate style and are occasionally decorated with bright colors as well.

The rural Guatemalan pickup truck rack. A wooden beam can be fitted front to rear, and a tarp can be draped over the top to protect cargo or passengers.


The fancier rigs carry ornate worked metal side panels. The structures are tall enough for full-height people to stand up in the truck bed and easily hold on.


The sides can also have solid beams mounted, which are often painted in bright colors. This one has the wooden top beam in place, ready for a tarp.


Revisiting the brightly painted and highly decorated intercity “chicken” buses, they are modified by “bus reconstructors”. The more “factory-made” reconstructions are typically done in large indoor facilities in Guatemala City. The more quaint or “home-built” examples are often reconstructed in small, sometimes outdoor, workshops dotting Ciudad Vieja (“old city”), located about an hour away from Guatemala City. The purchase or manufacture of the front clips and dedicated pieces are not discussed online, that I can find, so it likely is that someone, somewhere has a little parts and panel production facility going on. One modification that is typically made to the conventional school buses, as part of the reconstruction, is the removal of a few feet of bus length, just ahead of the rear panel. The rear panel and bumper are removed, a few feet of roof, side panels, and the floor is cut out, the rear frame rails are shortened, and then the rear panel and bumper are carefully reinstalled. So when one looks at these buses from the side or the rear quarter angles, they do look a bit “short”, once one is aware of what they do to them. Asking around, the consensus is that on the tight roads and sharp turns, the bus companies want to minimize the “swing” of the long overhang of the rear of the bus into opposing lanes or perhaps into a hillside, here and there.

Once one takes note of it, the reconstructed school buses do look slightly short, behind the rear wheels.


Thus ends my road trip to Guatemala. On the way home, at the airport in Guatemala City, I found that all sorts of old airplanes had been pushed to the side of the main runway. Perhaps they can be used for spare parts, but more likely it is because that is what they do with them when they are no longer airworthy or being flown. Among them were some interesting old planes.

The Guatemalan Air Force C-47 (military variant of the DC-3), was abandoned along the main runway at La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City.